Plagiarism, Copying, and Artistic Inspiration (Episode 118)

This week marks the triumphant return of Andrew McCormick. After spending some time catching up, Andrew and Tim take on the topic of plagiarism. The discussion evolves to include where students find inspiration (7:15), how to help kids develop original ideas (9:45), and how you can approach copying if it helps kids be more confident as artists (14:45). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art Of Education. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Alright, ladies and gentlemen, today we are going to dispatch with the formalities and the regular introduction, because I am proud to announce the grand return of Mr. Andrew McCormick. Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: Hey, I’m doing good, man. It’s good to be back. It’s good to be chatting with you and talking to people on the podcast.

Tim: Yeah. I’m excited people have been clamoring for your dramatic return and you’re finally here, so I’m excited. Let me think, though, the last time we really had a good chat was walking the streets of downtown Seattle, at NAEA, getting rained on in the middle of the night. That was kind of a good time. But how have you been since then?

Andrew: Good. You mean the 36 hours that I was in Seattle for? It was such a dump that I did.  I was supposed to be there for like three days and then my school district was like, “Actually, you can’t go to that.” And I’m like, “Well, okay.” So, I figured it out that I flew in, I think, was it late on a Friday and then flew early Sunday morning, it was just whizzbang thing. But it was a lot of fun. It was nice catching up with people. But, man, ever since then, I’ve just been kind of grinding at the high school and at the middle school. I teach at both buildings. There’s been a lot of actually good things happening.

This is kind of a weird situation. I don’t know if I told you about this, but it’s the beginning of the school year, I was supposed to teach a brand-new class that the high school had never offered before called digital photography. We were given this grant to buy all these cameras. Like $9,000 worth of cameras and a printer and all this stuff. In July, before the school year started, like, hey, congratulations, you won this giant grant. And then it was April and I was like, “Hey, where’s that money that we were supposed to have?”

I’ve been teaching three quarters of the school year a digital photography class with no supplies. So, it’s just a semester long class of, composition and iOS. Here’s how to use your iPhone, here’s how to use your Android phone, and that’s kind of limiting. Finally, I pressed the right buttons and pulled the right levers and people who really make things go in the district found out that we never got that money it’s like oh, here’s your money. And so, I was able to buy all the cameras and it’s like, hey, this is what classes supposed to be like. It’s really great. We’re learning about aperture and ISO and shutter speed, and how they’re related. I was like, “Yeah, see, he isn’t this like … This is a real class now, now that we are not using just smartphones.” that’s been the highlight, I think, yeah.

Tim: Yeah. You have at least a real last month of class.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, it’s been good, man. The quality of our photos has gone way up, and kids are starting to understand things like depth of field. Those are really tough things to teach when all you have is a smartphone. There’s just not as many things that you can do it.

Tim: Yeah. When everybody’s working on their phones. Yeah, for sure.

Andrew: Yeah. There are some apps that you can buy that, okay, I want to do show slow shutter speed. So, I can do light painting, which is a cool project. But a lot of those apps, if they’re free, they’re garbage. Or, you just can’t expect every kid to go by a two-dollar or a three-dollar app for a little project you’re doing.

Tim: Exactly.

Andrew: It was nice that those came right in the nick of time, but I would have loved to have had him at the beginning of the school year.

Tim: Oh, yeah, for sure. For sure. Let me ask you, though, are you looking forward to summer? How much school do you have left here before. You’re done?

Andrew: Well, man, I am. I don’t know exactly when this podcast is going to air because we tape it a little earlier. But I think we go for a very long time. We don’t get out until June 6th, is the students’ last day in June 7th, we have a teacher workday. So, as I’m recording this with you, we still have, like a solid three weeks. I was telling you kind of off air, man, a lot of my high school kids were done in April. It’s been tricky to kind of keep them motivated and keep them working. But yeah, I’m excited. It’ll be good. I’m going to stay busy with a bunch of stuff. But it’s always nice to get a break.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. That’s cool. I kind of hesitate to tell you this, but we’re probably going to air this soon. When it does air, my kids will be out of school the next day. So, I’m sorry to break that up.

Andrew: That’s the other thing as both a teacher and a parent. It’s like, man, my own kids are at home are like they’re getting itchy for spring too, to just be like, “I want to sleep in. I just want to play video games.” Because it’s hard to get your kids to go to bed at like 8:30 when it’s still … It’s lie down, and it’s like everyone wants to go have fun. But it’s like, “No, you have school tomorrow. You got to go to bed at a reasonable hour.”

Tim: Now I feel like we could do an entire episode on digital photography and then another one on apathy and then another one on spring break. But I actually had you on tonight, so we could talk about plagiarism. I’ll just start with the big broad open-ended question when it comes to plagiarism. How big of a problem do you think it is when it comes to the art realm?

Andrew: I do feel like I can only speak from my own experiences. I wouldn’t say the word plagiarism is as big a deal as unoriginality. Maybe we’re splitting hairs here. But when I think plagiarism, I think straight up … I wrote this paper by just copying and pasting another paper word for word, verbatim. I don’t really see students do that. I think in like 15 years, 14 years of teaching, I once had a student who was just really awful at drawing and then it was like they came in the next day and, like, “Hey, here’s my project.” I’m like, “Hmm, it doesn’t really look like your work that I’ve come to know and love, who did this?” He was like, “No, I did it.” I was like, “Buddy, look at the stuff you’ve been turned him in, and now look at this amazing drawing. Who did this?” He was like, “My older brother.’ I’m like, “Okay.”

So, that to me would be straight up plagiarism. Someone else doing this for you. I don’t think that that happens very often. The thing that I see is as a teacher, you create this cool project, an open-ended project. So many of our students here go to is like, “Well, I’m just going to do this that I found on Pinterest.” And it’s like, “Well, I don’t know that that’s plagiarism. That’s super unimaginative and uninteresting.” I think that is actually a problem. Whether you want to call that being an imaginative or if you want to call it copying or plagiarism, I do think it’s something that teachers, we have to have a strategy to deal with.

Tim: I agree with you. I don’t see it as being a huge problem. But I think we do need to talk about those things that are kind of juxtaposed next to plagiarism. Those things that are kind of walking the line. So, the question, though, is like, what do you do when a kid brings in a copied drawing or a copied painting? Something where they got their idea from Pinterest and they’re going full steam ahead, or their projects already done. I did this at home with something I found online. How do you deal with that as a teacher?

Andrew: Hopefully, when you say that they brought it in or you found it. It’s tricky. You would like to think that you’re seeing the work in progress so that there’s kind of checkpoints along the way where you can just be like, “You know what? This is not super original.”

If a kid brings in something on their own time that they’re just doing and it’s just a complete hey, here’s this cover to this Batman comic book and look at what I did, an exact replica. Okay, congratulations, you’re building your skills. If they’re doing that on their own time, whatever, I don’t care. I’ll even give them compliments. Maybe this is a little backhanded compliment or passive aggressive, but I’ll say, “Hey, that’s a really great job. I’m sure you really built your skills up and I like what you did here.” It’s not the most original thing in the world, and eventually I hope you get to that point where you can make something of this quality that is more original, that’s your own making.

When kids are doing it in class, that’s why it’s so important to float around, to be engaged to watch what kids are doing. I just straight up say, “Hey, what are you going to do to this artwork to make it unique and make it your own? Because I see you found this beautiful picture of a peacock, and now you want to paint said beautiful picture of a peacock that that artists on the internet already did. So, what are you going to do to make it original? They’ll be like, “I’m going to change the colors of it.” It’s like okay, well, that’s a good start. But what else are you going to do? I don’t want kids to think that artists don’t steal, borrow, get inspired by, but they also have to know how to play with stuff and how to make it their own. I think that’s where as a teacher you got to step in and give them some clues, give them some hints. Maybe redirect them so that they’ll make better choices when it comes to their artwork.

Tim: Yeah. Okay. So, can we dive into that a little bit? Because I do want to talk about some of those alternatives. Like you said, you have kids who are feeling good about themselves because they can copy something, and it looks halfway decent. But how do we get them past the copying stage working on their original ideas? Or, you mentioned a couple of things. But do you think it’s a strategy or an idea that we can scaffold to kind of wean kids off of copying? Or, should we just say, “Hey, that’s awesome. You’re doing that on your own time. Don’t bring it in”? How do you how do you deal with that, and what are the specific strategies you use to get kids doing more things on their own?

Andrew: I do think copying, facsimile, looking at drawings and stuff on the internet and just copying it, that’s kind of how kids learn. So, I definitely don’t want to shame them, and I don’t want to poo poo them. I do think you have to come up with really open ended divergent projects so that they can’t just find a, oh, I’ll just do the melted crayon with the girl under the umbrella thing. It’s like well, that doesn’t really fit kind of like the theme with the constraints or the parameters of this project. I think as a teacher, you can kind of move the goalposts a little bit to prevent them from going to some of their favorite stuff on Pinterest or their anime stuff that they want to draw.

I think also being really mindful and bringing in a lot of contemporary artists, that’s just really out there. Because then what they see is like, oh, this is really fresh and original. I think you see a lot of the copying, and this is near and dear to my heart. I’m not so throwing shade this this direction. But a lot of comic book illustration is, I’m going to learn by imitation and I’m going to learn to draw it that way. But that’s a very specific sort of target audience, and it’s an artwork that is meant to be consumed and read. I just think by bringing in really fresh original artists and just having a conversation with your students about the purpose of art, whether it’s to be original and communicate or whether it’s to build skills or whether it’s to have fun.

If a kid is a senior, or let’s just say a high school kid and they’re like, “Hey, man, I know that I’m going to go to school and be premed and I just love drawing because it’s fun and relaxing.” I’m probably not going to get all worked up in arms if they’re not the most original. I’ll push them a little bit, but in the grand scheme of things, what are they in it for? You know what I mean? So, what are they getting out of it? I don’t know, it’s kind of a nuance tricky thing I think.

Tim: I was going to say that’s a lot of differentiation right there. No, but I think my best strategy probably is just to kind of translate what they’re doing, what they’re copying into something original, and kind of help them along with that. Because if they are copying something, they’re obviously interested in it. They’re invested in the idea. And so, I think it’s our job as teachers to kind of help them continue on with that. like hey, what ideas can you take from this for your next original piece? Or, what elements here would work really well in one of your own drawings? And just kind of get them to think a little more critically about what they did.

Because if you think about, when they’re drawing, when they’re copying, there’s not a lot of higher order thinking skills going on there. But if you can get them to analyze it a little bit more and get them to kind of think about what they’re doing, I think there’s a lot of value in that. That actually leads me to my next question. Do you think there is some value there in letting kids copy things in order to develop their artistic skill, their technical skill? If they’re getting better with colors, if they’re learning a little bit about composition, is it worthwhile to let them copy things in order to do that or is there a better way?

Andrew: It goes back to that idea of nuance and differentiation. I think there’s a lot to be said for students like feeling masterful and feeling proud of their work and feeling good about their work. I’m thinking about this critical age of fourth and fifth grade where kids start to kind of identify with, I’m good at art, I’m not good at art. What if we could jump in and all the fourth and fifth graders out there in the world had an amazing experience with art and felt really great about their drawing skills. Because, gosh, darn it, they looked at a Batman comic book cover and they drew that thing? Fantastic, right?

Totally not original. But now you have this kid who’s like, “I’m good at art. I want to keep doing it.” So, it’s hard for me to sit here and say, “Copying, bad,” if it leads to a kid staying invested in doing art. I don’t know, I think there’s a time and place for that stuff. I think there’s a time and place for skill building. Every everyone who’s an art teacher got a degree in art education or for the most part, right? I know there’s some states that have loopholes where teachers can do that. Everyone took foundation. So, drawing 1, drawing 2, 2D, 3D. One of the things they do and drawing 1 is they kind of tear you down and like, how you learned in high school is bad and we’re going to teach you this thing. And it’s repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition of observation.

While you might say, “Well, that’s not plagiarism because it’s drawing from observation. How could that ever be plagiarism?” It’s also not original at all. It’s like super uninteresting and uninspiring to just like, hey, today we’re going to draw boxes for the 30th time so you can really learn how to measure in perspective. I do think there’s plenty of room in an art curriculum for skill building. Man, I got some weird tangents to go on. It’s been a while since I’ve talked to a grown up. So, just hold on tight.

I’m teaching drawing right now. And I always tell my kids, “Hey, this is a Mr. Miyagi project.” They’re like, “What is that?” They don’t get the reference to Karate Kid. I’m like, “Oh, this is when Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel how to do karate, but he’s so smart that Daniel doesn’t even realize he’s learning karate.” I’m like, “I’m going to make you do this drawing project for like a week. It’s really not like art with a capital A, it’s skill building. You’re going to kind of hate it, but by the time you’re done, your ability to have a variety of line pressure and thick thin lines is going to be amazing.”

But I just warned them ahead of time. Like this is one of those projects where it’s not super original and fresh and you’re not going to walk right away feeling like you did amazing art, this is a skill builder. I want to go back. We’ve been talking a lot about plagiarism in almost exclusively painting and drawing. I think that those projects lend themselves to plagiarism, because of the internet. looking at screens and then it’s like, I want to make of that. I don’t see it in sculpture and ceramics as much. I guess you could say kids get inspired by other artists they see.

One of the things in my drawing class that I’ve taken to … Two things that I’ve really liked that I think have been helpful. I talk to my kids a lot about what does it mean for artists to do research. So, we do a project where we design modern day tattoo illustrations. I tell them, “We’re going to research different tattoo styles. As an artist, artists compile other images and other styles and other artists that they like and are inspired by.” So, I talked a lot about research. But then the other thing I talk about is that when it comes to making your own art, you’re sampling or you’re synthesizing.

When I said the word sampling. I was like, “It’s kind of like hip hop. You could have an MC or producer sample a beat from this track and a hook from this track. But then they mix it all together in their own way. So, you can take a little bit of this drawing and how they do the hair, but then you can look at this drawing and how they did the hand. But then you’re going to put it together in your own thing.” I think that that really helped my kids kind of understand what I mean about synthesizing, borrowing, but not just straight up one to one theft.

Tim: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think the missing point of that is the thing we don’t think about, I guess, is that there are a ton of higher order thinking skills going on there. Because they’re evaluating what’s going to be best for me. They’re picking and choosing the best parts to synthesize and to put together kind of what they’re wanting to do, what they’re trying to do. So, I think that’s a really good strategy. So. cool.

Alright. Well, I think we’re ready to check on out of here. I think that’s a good place to leave it, a good strategy for people to think about. So, Andrew, thank you for coming on. It was awesome to have you back on, and as always, really good to talk to you.

Andrew: Good to chat with you after a while.

Tim: We’ll have to do it again soon. Thanks.

Hey, a big thanks to Andrew for coming on the show. It has been a solid few months since we’ve done a podcast together. You know what? I have missed talking to him. Or I guess if we want to get specific, I’ve maybe missed listening to him rant about all kinds of different things. But this episode came about because I was talking to some of my art teacher friends about plagiarism. One of them had a kid in their class who was taking pictures of other students work, then posting it as his own on Instagram. And now, obviously, that’s wrong. That is a clear-cut example of plagiarism. But if you’re facing a situation that’s not that drastic and it’s not that dramatic, where do we draw the line at copying?

I think that discussion is going to continue to go on, that question is going to continue to linger. I hope we are able to keep our talk interesting as we move from plagiarism to copying to how we develop skills. Because I think we’re all at a different point on that spectrum. Like Andrew as a little less restrictive than me when it comes to what we want our kids to be doing. I think that really, more than anything, that just kind of emphasizes the point that there’s not a specific solution to this issue. Everyone looks at it a little bit differently. There are teachers who would never let kids copy a photograph, and there are other teachers that are on board with that lesson as a vital way to teach skills. We’re all over the spectrum. I’m not going to judge anyone. But I would definitely encourage you to think for yourself about some of these topics and think about how you approach this topic in particular.

Now, before we go, we need to talk about your PD plans for the summer. When we do that, it makes sense to talk about graduate courses. Because so many teachers are looking for PD hours or those grad credits to move over on the pay scale. AOE courses are the perfect opportunity for you to find what you need. Andrew in fact, if you remember, took multiple courses last summer so he can move over on the pay scale at his district. I’m actually teaching two courses right now. the Studio Painting course and one on Assessment. Quick shout out to all my assessment students who listen to the podcast. AOE offers over 20 online courses in a variety of topics, and they are designed for our teachers and to help our teachers at every stage of their professional career. Every course we offer is offered every month is summer with new sections beginning on June 1, July 1 and August 1.

Alright. That will do it for this week. Thank you again to Andrew for the awesome discussion. It was good to have him back. Like I said, I hope our conversation sparked some reflection on what plagiarism and copying and inspiration looks like in your room. How you approach it and most importantly, why you are thinking that way?

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art Of Education, with Audio Engineering from Michael Crocker. Next week, we have a really cool episode coming with Sarah Gechter, a new friend of mine from Los Angeles. She is a great teacher. She’s doing some really cool things with graffiti in her classroom. It’ll be a good conversation and I hope you tune in. As always, thank you for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.