The first thing you need to know before we get into this discussion is the following: You can't copyright a style. It's true! Copyright protects an artist's expression of an idea, but not the ideas themselves, the technique, or procedure in making that style. Keep that in mind as I have a story later.
You can be inspired by Van Gogh, and paint in a similar fashion to Van Gogh, using the same canvas and brushes and paints. So long as you are not claiming to BE Van Gogh or recreating his paintings and passing them off as your own, you are in the legal clear. What takes precedent more than the copying is whether or not you are attempting to “mislead” people. Plenty of artists produce works that are heavily inspired by a famous artist- you've likely seen those fan artist renderings of popular characters from one franchise drawn in the style of a completely separate well-known artist, such as Bill Watterson or Tim Burton. These works are considered “transformative”, they change just enough in the translation to be considered different from the source. Nobody sees a rendering “in the style of” and assumes it is the artist unless the artist is presenting the piece personally. Generic stylistic elements as well as distinct ones are not protected– as mentioned before, it is possible to come up with similar design elements independently of any prior knowledge of another work. But let's be clear, there is so much more to an artist's work than style, IE, how it looks. Intentions, execution of the ideas, composition, and many other factors go into how one expresses their art or work. The Magnificent Seven, A Bug's Life, and many others play on the same concept of Akira Kurasowa's “Seven Samurai”. There is almost a beat-for-beat retelling of “Yojimbo” in “A Fistful of Dollars”. Yet it is rare to find even a credit offered to the famed work of Kurasowa at the end of any of these movies.
Let's bring it back to that story I promised after talking about how you can't copyright methods of creating art. (Unless you're that jerk Anish Kapoor, hogging all the Vanta black!) A fan of (what I assumed to have been) a popular artist once asked a common question which I'll paraphrase: “What brush settings do you use in your graphic's program for your inking? ” Well, the artist responded by chewing out the fan, accusing them of attempting to “steal” their art style, and posted a graphic of their settings all blurred out and the artist's caricature flipping them off. It was absurd, and a lot of folks pointed out it was patently ridiculous to assume that knowing what setting they toggled on the default program brush (or what brush tip they downloaded or bought, which would make their claim of preserving the original purity of their line art even more laughable!) would magically endow the artist with the ability to draw in this person's super special original style. I mean, I've seen people nearly work magic with a brush pen, my clumsy attempts have only produced disappointment and frayed brush tips. The same tool will not produce the same results.
Bringing this back around to style for a bit, look at how for example, the way Charles Shulz (Peanuts) generally drew kids is pretty unique to his hallmark style and differentiates it from how Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) drew them. Even if you could say both styles consisted of “Rounded features, large heads, oval feet and short legs, dot eyes aside from extreme takes–” they have a completely different feel and describing the physical similarities makes them seem much closer to each other than when you actually look at them and see how the artists actually render them. (Peanuts was one of Watterson's influences, I'll note!)
How do you react to finding a comic that looks like yours, and you know for a fact they are borrowing elements of your “style”? Not just elements that you also borrowed from a more famous work, but something that specifically says “your style”? Well, I can't tell you how to act, but the way I see it, you really ought to feel proud of your accomplishments if you find an artist who wants to draw just like you do. It really shouldn't be taken as an insult or an attempted takeover with a bootleg version of your works, because that's far from it.
They are picking up your style in their art because you are indirectly teaching them how to draw! (Your mistakes and all, what a delight!) They have found something worthwhile in your approach and wish to not just replicate it, but introduce more of it to the world. They are paying close and careful attention to how you use composition, how you draw the anatomy, what ways you color. What artist couldn't love a fan who cares so much about what you're doing? I've also never (personally) seen any artist that borrows heavily from a webcomic peer attempt to pass themselves off as the artist they are influenced by. Most times they are a little shy about approaching an artist that they may have put on a too-high pedestal and might even avoid posting their comic on the same website. On rare occasions however, I have seen artists who were objectively more skilled in their medium being influenced heavily by artists with a more simple approach to their still very unique style. It's not about perfectly rendered art, after all, but a sort of personality the art captures which inspires these artists to try their hand at it. Fun styles are like fun games, people see it and they want in! Though, I can imagine for some of the artists who have this happen to them, it might be frustrating to see a “better artist” do their style exactly the way they envisioned but couldn't accomplish! Then again, sometimes something of the personality is lost to all technical skill and quality of a different artist. See the majority of “draw this screencap from animation in your style” exercises for a good example of what I'm talking about, many artists just can't replicate the same expression and mood the original was conveying despite it being more detailed.
I love to look through all the newbies on webcomic hosts that have good preview images (oh, DD, I await the day this is us!) and compare the comics I see in a casual skim with what I know to be popular on each. They have a tendency to stand out when the style is particularly unique, and I'm pretty good at spotting the ones that take a lot of cues from the top dogs. Often times they have a comment that amounts to “You read ___ too, eh?” and either gushing praise for said work, or a flustered apology/confirmation from the author. There's no need to apologize, I say! Some may try and accuse an artist of attempting to capitalize on the popularity of said influential comic, and yes sometimes that may be the case– but that's not a crime, is it? This isn't a big company snatching up your ideas and having the audacity to DMCA you later, this is an artist that looked at your work and said “Hey, there's something neat going on here and I want to be a part of it too!” And I'm pretty sure, most of us have felt that way about that which once inspired us, too. Because like with anything, unless this artist is dedicated to following you close at heel for all you do in your own improvement, their style is going to eventually deviate from yours at some point anyway as they absorb other influences into their work. You can't stop people from being influenced, especially when you take into account how much of it can even be subconscious. And having an influenced artist out there can be a good way to increase your exposure if you can find a way to leverage it in a positive manner.
As an artist, I do recognize the desire to maintain a distinctive, signature style to your work and the frustration that may follow when more than a few artists decide to adapt it, even though I personally don't feel all that protective of my own style. But I HAVE seen some artists who were downright overprotective, who posted “call-outs” or ranted angrily about unnamed malefactors in their author's notes. Some even posted passive-aggressive journal warnings on DeviantArt, trying to nip the “problem” in the bud by telling their followers they better not dare copy their style or else, additionally asking them to identify and alert them of any suspects. Don't be that artist! It's fine to feel a little strange about when someone gets a little TOO influenced to the point that they seem poised to steal your identity, but that's getting away from “influence” and closer to a case of “misleading public”. Artists who are on the other end, don't be afraid to wear your influence on your sleeve, but if you're borrowing a LOT from a single source, it may be good practice to mention that artist as one of your major influences. After all, we all like to hear we've had a positive influence on someone. That is a big part of what being a member of an art community is all about.
Amelius at 10:14AM, Dec. 30, 2018
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