November 9, 2009

Tribute to Mary Travers 1936-2009

8 Art Lessons from Peter, Paul and Mary

Portrait of Mary Travers, 3-color pencil on toned paper
Memorial portrait of Mary Travers. Susan K Donley, 2009. Colored pencil on toned paper. ©2009 Susan K Donley

The real grief I felt when I learned that Mary Travers had died on September 16 caught me by surprise. A few days later, I confessed to a couple of friends that I felt silly still feeling a strong sense of loss about someone I never knew. “How can you say you never knew Mary when you’ve been listening to her music for 45 years? Of course, you knew her — you just never met her!” my friend replied. Of course! If an artist reveals a piece of herself with every piece or performance, which I believe, I did get to know the gifted artist Mary Travers bit by bit with every song she sang.

Since getting “permission” to grieve, I’ve been pondering this peculiar relationship with a friend I never met and her trio-mates in Peter, Paul and Mary. In honor of today’s official memorial service honoring Mary Travers in New York, I offer memories of my PPM history and some of the insights I’ve gained in the last month as I’ve indulged in watching vintage PPM performances and interviews on YouTube. It’s my personal tribute to a group that has influenced me more than I realized.

Fan for forty-five years

I’m old enough to remember PPM’s earliest hits playing on the AM radio we listened to getting ready for school in the morning. I reached the age of wanting my own transistor radio, buying records, and other rites of passage into 1960s adolescence in 1964 when Beatlemania hit. That’s when I got my first album “Meet the Beatles”, soon after I added Herman’s Hermits.

The following year, in seventh grade, I got a guitar for Christmas! A few lessons at the Y and I was ready to join some of the neighbor girls to sing together just for the fun of it (though of course we planned to start a group if we got good enough!). What should we sing? Somebody had the chords for “Well, Well, Well” and “Oh Sinner Man”. They pulled out their parents’ Peter, Paul and Mary albums and we listened, sang along, then sang them ourselves with a couple of guitars and a tambourine. OK, so we didn’t sound JUST like PPM, but we thought we sounded pretty good! And who cares? We were having fun and we were making music ourselves, not just listening to it.

I got the big PPM songbook and practiced that guitar like crazy. I couldn’t read music, so I borrowed the albums from my friends to learn the songs. I bought my first PPM album “A Song Will Rise” and learned to sing harmony. Thankfully, Mary was an alto, just like me — I could never sing along with Joan Baez!

By the time “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” came out, I was a bona fide fan of PPM, as well as many of the folk rockers of the time: Mamas and Papas, Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Donovan, et al. I went to my first PPM concert in about 1968 and was blown away that all that music could come from three people, two guitars, and a bass (our little group didn’t do nearly so well with five voices, three guitars!)! And they invited us all to sing along with them. I was hooked — for life, as it turns out! I’ve seen them live about five times since then, and never ceased to be amazed at the energy of the performance, how much they enjoyed what they were doing, and the obvious affection they had for each other.

Contrary to the concerns of the folk music purists who looked askance at PPM’s styling of traditional music for the “pop market”, I became a life-long fan of folk and roots music, delving deeper into the traditions that inspired the songs I sang along with. My iPod spans 300 years of American music!

My other career as an arts and museum educator often dealt with folklife and traditional arts in the classroom. Several years ago, I finished a huge, multi-year curriculum project called Voices Across Time: American History through Music for the Center for American Music. Somehow, I don’t think this would have happened if I had stuck with Herman’s Hermits!

8 art lessons from a trio of musicians

In the last few weeks, I’ve come to see parallels between the beliefs behind my own professional art (now visual art, not music, to everyone’s relief) and Peter, Paul and Mary’s work and philosophies over an incredible 50-year career. I pulled together eight lessons anyone in the arts can stand to learn from Peter, Paul and Mary:

1. Art is for everyone, not just the elite

The arts do not belong in an arts ghetto of professional artists, critics, and collectors. Art can and should be accessible to everyone! That doesn’t mean everyone must like the same kind of art, in fact, it means just the opposite: If art is for everyone, than it must be as diverse as possible. It is indefensible to say something isn’t art because it deals with a certain subject matter (say pet portraits or “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog”) or medium (say colored pencil or electric guitar).

Mary once remarked that she wasn’t worried that folk music isn’t on the radio much anymore, because it is alive and well around campfires. Personally, I don’t worry much about gallery representation: I’d rather have my art hanging in someone’s living room.

2. Artists aren’t in competition with each other

Peter, Paul and Mary boosted the careers of Bob Dylan, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro and other young songwriters by bringing their songs onto the pop charts. In a 1968 interview, Mary took on a reporter who kept asking her if the Mamas and Papas, Byrds, and other folk rockers were eroding PPM’s audience: “[paraphrased] I don’t pay any attention to the numbers — that’s our manager’s job. My job is to create art. I’m not in competition with anyone.”

I’ve often wondered why non-artists think artists are in competition. I’m friends with several other portrait artists, including those doing pets. Our styles are so different that we appeal to different people. The more diversity in art or music, the more appealing to a wider audience, expanding the market for all art. A rising tide lifts all boats!

3. Do what you love with people you love — others will go along for the joyride

Peter, Paul and Mary’s sheer joy of singing with each other was infectious.

Most groups I’ve seen perform face the audience. PPM usually face each other, but ironically, the audience feels included rather than excluded. As Mary tells it in one interview, – her contribution to the trio included “an ability to connect with them emotionally and focus our attention on having a musical conversation. I believe that if we can have that conversation, then the audience will feel included.” And indeed, they do!

4. The arts aren’t spectator sports

Attending a PPM concert was very different from most. Don’t expect to sit back and wait to be sung to. From the very first song, you will be enlisted to sing, clap, and stomp along. Unfortunately, most everywhere else, public singing has given way to private, passive iPod listening via earbuds.

One of the worst side effects of the communication technologies of the 20th century is the polarizing of stars and public, artists and audiences. People have come to think of the arts as something to consume, not something to create. In the 19th century, if you wanted music, you created it yourself with family and friends. You made your own quilts, painted your own china.

As an art educator, my mission was to roll back the notion that you needed talent to make art. Really, you only need an idea to express visually and some basic practice using line, shape, color and the other visual tools. Everyone should feel as comfortable sketching out an idea as they do tapping out an email. That almost no one does is a great failing of arts education, in my opinion.

5. Beautiful art doesn’t require fancy tools

PPM were the real deal, real musicians who didn’t need fancy recording studios to make their full sound. In fact, they were better in person when they could feed off the enthusiasm of the audience who could see all this music came from just three voices, two guitars, and a bass. A prime example is video from around 1968, where Peter, Paul and Mary perform “If I Had my Way” — just three voices and one guitar.

Likewise, my favorite medium is plain old graphite on paper. Without the distraction of color, I can better focus attention on my subject’s expression and recreate textures that make seem touchable. All with the humble pencil.

6. Honing your craft matters

Of course, the simpler the means, the more skill and work required to make it work! PPM notoriously argued hours over each song’s arrangement and rehearsed it to perfection before performing it publicly.

Likewise, many more hours go into a drawing than most people can imagine wielding a pencil. But only practice can make artists comfortable enough to relax and perform their best. No amount of inborn talent can bloom without hours of training and rehearsal.

7. Shrug off the critics, stay true to your vision: Art can make a difference

If any of the dismissive purists of any persuasion doubts PPM’s impact, consider that top hits of 1962 included “Johnny Angel” and “Louie, Louie”. Then imagine “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” hitting the airwaves! In that context, I doubt if the harmonies sounded saccharin or the lyrics simplistically sing-along (criticisms of PPM I’ve read recently from writers who should know better than to judge art forms outside of their context).

PPM’s carefully constructed arrangements drove their songs’ messages home while you sang along with the radio. What role did “sing-along” play in winning popular support for civil rights in the 1960s? When you sing along with Mary’s passionate delivery of the lines “It’s the hammer of JUSTICE! It’s the bell of FREE-EE-DOM! It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land!” how can you fail to grasp the importance of justice, freedom, and love for everyone? I know I did! We sang it every single week at the Young Life group I attended (where I eventually played guitar and lead the singing). Their songs’ singability made them much more effective agents of change than music meant just for listening.

8. Your life and your art are of one piece

The most important lesson of all: Art grows out of your values. Live your message if you want it to be heard. Witness the passion of these singer-activists as they sing their pro-hope, anti-Apartheid song “No Easy Walk to Freedom” at a rally in 1986:

If you would like to explore further the messages-through-song of this exceptional trio, treat yourself and explore performances throughout their career captured on video over nearly 50 years. Sadly, we’ll never see and hear them together again in person, but we can relive the experience here.

Good-bye, Mary

You will be sorely missed, but you’ve surely given enough for one life and then some. Be at peace.

December 10, 2008

“Stand by Me” sung together around the world

I have always been in awe of the power of the arts to unite and to heal. I’ve experienced it both as an artist-producer and an audience member/consumer. We can turn to visual arts, music and dance to express our feelings and ideas when words alone fail us.

This incredibly moving video, passed along on Twitter, is a prime example of a simple idea expressed in a timeless song, sung together by street musicians literally around the world.

The classic gospel-song-turned-pop-standard “Stand by Me” by musicians literally singing for change in their dedication to their art:

November 8, 2008

Tagged: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Me

Yesterday I got tagged twice by two new Twitter artist friends, Lisa Stewart and Tara Reed, to tell you seven things you never knew about me (for the sake of my readers, I’m choosing not to interpret two tags in one day as a mandate to right 14 things you never knew about me! ;-) By the end of this post, I have to figure out seven other people to tag — I hope I have that many friends who blog…

Here we go, in roughly chronological order, Seven Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Me:

  1. I first learned the healing power of art when I did my first memorial portrait in fifth grade — of President Kennedy shortly after his assassination. Our teacher wisely realized that we needed to do our own grieving and devoted a bulletin board to our class memorial to him. The artists of the class drew portraits, others wrote or decorated. I still remember laboring proudly on that portrait to get everything just right. It was a pretty good likeness, so I kept practicing, which I’m still doing.

    By junior high I was already a “professional” portrait artist, selling a set of four portraits of the Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Nolan, and Mike Nesmith, for those of you too young to remember or too mature to care) to my classmates for $2!

  2. My first art job out of college was washing you-know-what out of raw sheep fleeces, which really made my parents wonder about that hard-earned education! I later advanced to being a weaver (one of a dozen) producing of artist-designed woven pillows to be sold in department stores all over the country (that summer the song “Dreamweaver” came out, appropriately). We had our own anthrax scare in 1976, which shut us down while all the wool yarn from Pakistan (literally tons of it) was trucked off to be sterilized.

    The project was a brainchild of Elizabeth Raphael, who envisioned The Sociable Workshop as a sort of craft WPA for the 1970s. Its parent organization, The Society for Art in Crafts, where I continued to work as Education Director until 1985, was in the fore-front of the Modern Craft Movement in the 1970s. It continues its work today as the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh.

  3. In 1989, the Pennsylvania Art Education Association (PAEA) honored me as Pennsylvania Art Educator of the Year for Museum Education for my work developing curriculum to help teacher integrate historic architecture and local history primary sources into their regular curricula. < soapbox >I advocated (and still do!) taking museum education strategies of learning from primary sources out of the museum and into school communities. Neighborhoods are open for investigation all year-round, not just at the annual museum field trip. When students trained to look for primary sources as clues do make the museum pilgrimage, they are primed and totally engaged. No snake line tours of bored kids!< /soapbox >

  4. 9D69150E-44A5-4E51-A515-D48BDE72AC0E.jpg In 1991 I wrote a viewers guide and teachers guide for the official White House Video Tour, titled “Within These Walls: A Visit to the White House.” Yes, THAT White House! What a thrill to go there several times to tour and lunch with the White House Curator! The White House Historical Association (WHHA) hired public television station/producer WQED Pittsburgh to produce the film and they hired me because of my historical preservation experience. The WHHA showed and sold the film in the White House Visitors Center. Later we did a sequel called “Upon These Grounds: Exploring the White House Gardens.”

    My career took an unexpected turn when the same WQED hired me full-time and suddenly I was a multimedia educator and producer instead of an art and museum educator. There I was, an artist-feeling-like-imposter writing materials for national productions in science and math, as well as my more comfortable zones of arts education and local history. I was there in the front-row when the interactive multimedia hit full-force, helping to produce its first (and only!) CD-ROM called, Next Step Mars. No, it never hit the big-time, but I went on to produce a CD-ROM for National Geographic called GeoBee.

  5. My iPod’s playlist spans over 300 years!. I’ve always had eclectic musical tastes: Glenn Miller, Andrews Sisters, Mass Gospel Choirs, Stephen Foster, and roots music of all kinds, as well as the music I grew up with, the folk rock of the 1960s and 1970s. But when I worked on
    Voices Across Time: American History Through Music, a great curriculum supplement using songs as primary sources for studying American history, my playlist expanded to three centuries! Be forewarned if I ever put my iPod on shuffle when you are around! ;-)

  6. I’m grateful to be an 11-year survivor of endometrial (uterine) cancer! After finding absolutely no resources for women with gynecologic cancers (the cancers that hit below the belt) compared to breast cancer, in 2000 I teamed up with nine other women I met on an early cancer listserv to create, an all-volunteer web-based support community for women with gynecologic cancers, that is still going strong.

  7. 84C03BEC-3FF7-438C-9B41-C48AFA74E274.jpgI’m the author of a fourth grade social studies textbook titled Pennsylvania Our Home for Gibbs Smith Publishers (whose textbook site is down or I’d link), my last major curriculum writing project before returning to my artistic routes, which brings us back full-circle to the topic of this blog…

OK, so now I’m going to tag seven artists who I follow on Twitter (who haven’t yet been tagged to my knowledge), who I’d like to know better:

Ball’s in your court, Twitter friends! Follow me on Twitter.

October 27, 2008

Artist avatars: The 50-pixel self-portrait

Lisa Stewart, a Net-savvy artist and designer has posted an excellent blog entry “Brand YOU: Your Avatar (Part 2)” on the art of the avatar, how important these tiny self-portraits are to online branding for artists, and how to improve artist avatars. Check out part 1 also!

Prompted by Lisa’s call for examples of creative avatars, I combed my Flickr contacts for some that I thought expressed their owner’s art and make you want to click through to their photostream:

944A2F16-538A-44E8-8F3F-D9197EC40C20.jpg 2C4CEBB9-ADDC-4BBD-9F0B-CD5F2CF78F2F.jpg 01D50560-DAF4-49AB-A5F3-FCB575A7CBF9.jpg 8B0DE435-5EE6-48CE-8AE8-5C41206DEF69.jpg C2761314-9ACE-4FC4-9E87-C92AEB42B09D.jpg

donley_sq_icon.jpgMy avatar is a simple reduction of a normal-sized (8×8 inches) graphite self-portrait I did a couple of years ago from a candid photo. After reading Lisa’s excellent blog post about taking, choosing, and creating a creative avatar, I’m going to be re-thinking mine. All that detail doesn’t reduce well and I’ve been told the pose isn’t the most flattering to me (heck, I liked it because it didn’t look “fat”! ;-) Another project for January, after the holiday rush!

August 5, 2008

Concentration or Automation: What do you think about when you draw?

Close-up of easel showing graphite drawing and scratchboard

A visitor to my booth last weekend asked a very interesting question: “When you draw, do you have to concentrate, or it is automatic for you?” I answered her then, but have continued to think about it since: Meta-thinking about thinking while drawing, I guess!

My answer to my visitor’s question:I concentrate, thinking harder at critical points, like sketching in all the features; not as hard during more repetitive tasks, like texturing and shading. But its not verbal thinking: “Now its time to draw the eyes: first draw a circle for the pupil, then the iris, now the eyelid…”

Rather, I think visually, following a line with my eyes while my hand tracks the same line on paper. I look for the shape of “empty space” between parts of a face. I compare the lightness and darkness of colors to match them with my shading pencil strokes. None of this happens with words, which often get in the way.

My thoughts since then:I easily get totally absorbed in doing art, to the point of not being aware someone is talking to me. Or that several hours has passed.When demonstrating drawing in front of a class, invariably my voice trails off partway through. It’s nearly impossible to maintain verbal communication while focusing [ahem] intently on producing art. Betty Edwards noted this phenomenon 25 years ago in her classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I’ve had entire classes of elementary kids go totally silent 15 minutes into a art lesson while working intently on their art. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “noisy artroom” philosophy, for the very reason that it’s impossible to focus, but never found it necessary to enforce silence if students were motivated and engaged.

Yet I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts while working on my art, just as I enjoy listening when I drive. But when it comes time to do something tricky, like parallel parking or driving through an unfamiliar city, I turn off the audio, so I can concentrate.

Similarly, if I’m several hours into a drawing and things are going well as I repetitively build up texture and shading, I can listen in on a conversation and even mumble a few words. But for a full-fledged conversation, I have to stop — I can’t pay close attention to someone talking and drawing at the same time. No wonder — what’s the most important thing we do to show someone we’re listening? Make eye contact! Can’t do that while drawing!What do you think about when drawing? Any chance of doing art on autopilot?

July 31, 2008

Tweaking my art booth at the Oakmont Street Sale

View of Susan Donley booth exterior at Oakmont Street Fair

Last Saturday, I pitched my tent in the middle of Allegheny River Boulevard for my third outdoor art sales booth. The event was the Oakmont (PA) Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Street Sale.

I live a whole seven blocks away, so some of the typical pressures of setting up a booth sale were minimal: If I forgot something, I could run back home and get it. If my Subaru couldn’t hold all my stuff, I could ferry back and forth to schlepp it all “downstreet,” as we say in Pittsburgh.

Someday, this may get to be routine, rather than exhausting, but it sure isn’t yet! Undoubtedly, that is partly due to being middle-aged and out-of-shape! ;-) But admittedly, it is also due to my constant experimenting with my goal and, consequently, my booth design. Am I trying to sell low-cost goodies featuring my art, a la sidewalk sale? Am I promoting my pet portraits and my Cafepress merchandise? Or should I promote myself as a portrait artist, who happens to enjoy portraying pets, as well as people?After trying to do all of the above in one crowded 10×10-foot square — with marginal success — this time I tried marketing myself as “Susan Donley, Portrait Artist” to focus on the art.

Instead of actively selling merchandise, I exhibited a sampling of my best portraits, demonstrated (graphite and scratchboard, visible on my easel on the right in the first photo above), and collected names for my mailing list. Plus, I “outted” myself as a portraitist of people.


Thanks to my Artbiz group, my family, Alyson B. Stanfield’s blog post on marketing art under your own name, and my local business coaches for the good ideas! Now we wait to see the results.

June 1, 2008

Art Thieves in the Digital Age, Part 4: Vigilance without Paranoia

Part 4 of an article written for Ann Kullberg’s From My Perspective colored pencil e-zine on my experiences with online theft of my drawings — and what I did about it. The full article is posted here in four parts:

  1. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
  2. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
  3. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned
  4. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Still Learning – Vigilance without Paranoia

Part 4: Still Learning: Vigilance without Paranoia

All three of the art theft cases I became aware of were brought to my attention by other alert souls, so I don’t have any surveillance secrets to share. Search engines are of little help, since they only pick up text and digital thieves obviously don’t post your name! Image searches on the subject portrayed may do better, but be prepared for a deluge of results when you search for something like “golden retriever” in Google Image Search (my search returned 779,000 images). There’s also a good chance that stolen images won’t show up unless our art thieves have bothered learning search engine optimization.

Between creating and marketing my art, I’m busy enough without spending hours tracking down thieves. Affordable digital tools to help us strike the balance between vigilance and paranoia would be nice. Digital watermarking services like Digimarc are a bit steep for my budget at the moment, but hold promise.

A few common technological solutions artists and photographers have tried are trivially easy to circumvent by anyone who knows how to take a screenshot. Right-click disablers (scripts that prevent users from right-clicking (control-click, Mac) on an image to access the “Save image as…” command) and embedding images in Flash-based animations and sideshows come to mind. If you know of other technology solutions to discourage Internet art theft, please speak up in the comments section on my blog.

Alarming, Late-Breaking News

I had hoped to end this article on a positive note, with advice my mentor, a gallery director pioneering the sale of fine crafts as art, gave artists whose work had been pirated by unscrupulous manufacturers 30 years ago: “An artist’s best defense is creativity – you can’t afford to fight them, so stay ahead of them with new designs and excellent craftsmanship.”

Unfortunately, since March 2008, when I accepted Ann Kullberg’s invitation to write this article for her online colored pencil magazine From My Perspective, alarming legislation has reached both houses of the U.S. Congress that could radically change copyright protections for artists. The so-called “Orphaned Works” amendments to current copyright law would allow free use of images whose copyright can’t be traced with “reasonable effort.” To keep from being “orphaned”, each image’s copyright would have to be registered, now an optional protective “upgrade” of the automatic copyright that exists from the moment a work is created.

This is ominous legislation for artists, authors, musicians, and all other crafters of creative original works. For up-to-date information and an excellent way to quickly send personalized email protests to your congressional representatives, I urge you to visit the Illustrators’ Partnership’s excellent website.

Let’s keep talking: What lessons have you learned?

With the legislative tide turning against artists and our fellow creative professionals, it is more important than ever to learn how to protect ourselves against those whose idea of “appreciating” art is to steal it.

I plan on posting strategies for tracking down, as well as “taking down,” art theft on my blog, so stop by occasionally if you are interested in this issue. Better yet…

Let’s continue this conversation publicly for the benefit of all artists. If you have learned lessons or developed strategies for protecting your artwork from online theft, please join me in this discussion below in the comments on my blog.

Previous installments of this article:

  1. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
  2. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
  3. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned

©2008 Susan K. Donley. All Rights Reserved.

May 31, 2008

Art Thieves in the Digital Age, Part 3: Lessons Learned

Part 3 of an article written for Ann Kullberg’s From My Perspective colored pencil e-zine on my experiences with online theft of my drawings — and what I did about it. The full article is posted here in four parts:

  1. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
  2. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
  3. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned
  4. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Still Learning – Vigilance without Paranoia

Part 3: Lessons Learned

Unfortunately, I suspect these three instances are just the tip of the infringement iceberg, since they came to my attention without my even looking. But they were enough to get me started looking for ways to protect myself and pass on to other artists. However, I must admit that there is no way to fully protect ourselves, short of not putting our work on the Internet at all, which isn’t much of an answer if you need to promote your work (and who doesn’t?).

Lesson 1: Don’t expect the service providers to police their sites

For a few weeks, I kept monitoring Zazzle to be sure the same members didn’t repost my drawings after “the coast was clear.” Though these art thieves stopped using my drawings, they are still active Zazzle members, feathering their nests with artwork obviously done by a number of different artists, from the wide variety of styles represented. Since no credits are given, I sincerely doubt those artists either know or gave permission for the use of their work, any more than I did. Zazzle clearly doesn’t exercise their declared option to oust members found to be infringing. We artists are on our own.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was passed in 1998 to update copyright protections, fair use, and liabilities to the new realities of digital publishing, tries to protect both free speech and the rights of copyright holders. Service providers like ISPs, blog hosts, Flickr, or Zazzle aren’t liable for copyright infringement by their users, however they must disable or delete (“take down”) any content they host when they are notified of an infringement occurring on their service.

The DMCA puts the burden of proof on the copyright holder to prove ownership — otherwise, the wonderful free-flow of information we know as the Internet would be hopelessly bogged down with intellectual property clearances. Even when alerted to serial copyright infringers (like the Flickr and Zazzle users who infringed others’ work, as well as mine), service providers apparently only take down the images someone has proven to them are infringed. In fact, the DMCA’s protection of free speech provides a reverse incentive for service providers to be pro-active, since their members can dispute a take-down notice not backed up with proof of infringement.

I’ve come to appreciate services like, which posts clear intellectual property guidelines prominently on their image upload page and requires checking a box certifying that you are the copyright holder before uploading every image. They also publish an extensive Content Usage Policy, which is worth reading by anyone wanting to do the right thing by fellow creative artists (for example, those of us who use reference photographs or collage elements). Some providers bury such language in general terms of service, only show it once when the member initially signs up, or obscure it behind a link in the page footer.

Lesson 2: Know how to send a “Take-Down Notice”

The good news about the DMCA is that it provides clear recourse for digital theft, the “Take-Down Notice,” also known as a “Cease and Desist Order” by lawyers. If you find that your work is being used on the Internet without your permission, of course, you can approach the copyright infringer yourself to ask them to take it down. But if they don’t, you have no way to make them do it. On the other hand, their ISP or other service provider does have that “take down” ability and under the DMCA they must, if you provide proof that the infringed work is yours.

Look for a link to “Copyright Policy” or “Intellectual Property Policy” on the service provider’s web site, most likely in the footer of every page. It will give clear instructions (usually taken straight from the text of the DMCA) for sending a take-down notice, including what information to provide and to whom to send it.

The proof I provided was a link to the original web page displaying the drawing in question with its various copyright notices and a link to my separate copyright page (see below). You must also provide a link to the infringing material on their site.And don’t forget to take a screenshot, print out the web page, or save it as a PDF for your own records (on the Mac, you can “Save as PDF…” from the “Print” dialog box). Record the date and original URL of the page, since it may disappear shortly after you make your complaint.

Lesson 3: Be able to prove your work is yours

By law (at least for now!) any work is automatically copyrighted to its creator the moment it is completed, but you should take steps to prove to someone else that you own your work:

  • Sign your physical work with a copyright notice. Though not technically required for copyright protection, as I learned from the t-shirt printer, it helps honest people get in touch with you. I sign “Susan K. Donley ©2008” and make a point of making it legible.
  • Keep good records for each work of art you create, when it was created, who it was sold to and copies of any commission or sales agreements that state that you retain copyright ownership.
  • Use the dated copyright notice under each image on your web site or blog.
  • Register your copyright for ultimate protection. Registration with US Copyright Office is necessary proof in courts if you ever need to sue. I confess that this is so daunting and expensive with a large body of work that I’ve yet to do it, but I definitely plan to.
  • Consider watermarking larger images on the web with your copyright notice and domain name. This is controversial in the online art world – some say it is defacing your artwork with a distraction that screams to site visitors “I don’t trust you!” and can be easily removed in an image editor. These folks’ remedy is to limit web images to low-resolution images that aren’t suitable for printing. Unfortunately, my experience shows that the quality of low-resolution images is not a deterrent to thieves willing to put up with a little blur for the sake of freebies.

    On the other side are the watermarkers, often stock-image photographers, who screen a huge watermark onto the middle of an image to make it unusable. I’m in-between. I disagree that a watermark serves no purpose, since it is the only way I know to make sure my notice survives when my images appear out of context in Google or Yahoo’s image search, which my search engine logs tell me is my web site’s biggest referrer. So, I use a smaller, but unmistakable, watermark along the bottom of a 500×500 pixel image (I don’t bother on most thumbnails, like those I used in this article). I suspect it only deters honest people, since it is easily removed, but it is a compromise I can live with.

Lesson 4: Post prominent contact information and a copyright policy

Help the honest people and Good Samaritans find you! If I had had my phone number buried on my web site’s “Contact us” page, instead of prominently displaying it on every page, I doubt I would have heard from the printer in Quebec.

Link from every page to your copyright notice where you explain in plain langage what people may and may not do with the images of your artwork on your web site. My Flickr Good Samaritan took the time to look up this page on my site and referred the infringer to it, making clear that she was in the wrong. I also referred and to my copyright policy page, as well the relevant originating pages in my Take-Down notices.

The next installment of this article is:

©2008 Susan K. Donley. All Rights Reserved.

May 30, 2008

Art Thieves in the Digital Age, Part 2: My Experience Being Robbed

Part 2 of an article written for Ann Kullberg’s From My Perspective colored pencil e-zine on my experiences with online theft of my drawings — and what I did about it. The full article is posted here in four parts:

  1. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
  2. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
  3. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned
  4. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Still Learning – Vigilance without Paranoia

Part 2: My Tip of the Iceberg

Apparently my pet portraits have become a tempting magnet for image searchers – who can resist puppies and kitties, right? Not a week goes by when I don’t get one or more requests to use my work for all kinds of purposes: charitable, commercial, and downright silly. These honest folks at least ask first. For inappropriate uses I simply say “no.” Others usually disappear when I explain that there is a licensing fee to use my art.

From the volume of honest folks who ask permission, I suspected many more just appropriate the images without asking and, of course, without my knowledge. Unfortunately, my suspicions were well-founded. This is my story of how I found out about at least three instances of infringement and what I did about them. Hopefully, some of my lessons learned will help other artists.

Digital Vandalism Reported by the “Neighborhood Watch”

Persian Cat graphite drawing by Susan Donley, 2006Infringed and alterned Persian Cat drawing original by Susan Donley, 2006The first infringement I became aware of appeared on the photo-sharing site, where I share my drawings with other artists and animal lovers. One day, I received an email from another Flickrite, whom I’d never met before, telling me that someone had taken my “Persian Cat” drawing from my website, altered it, and posted it on Flickr with her signature. She never bothered to remove my signature, apparently assuming that altering and publishing was OK. I hadn’t even posted this drawing on Flickr, but this kind whistle-blower noticed my signature and realized she had seen it on other drawings I’d posted. She went to my regular website, found the original there and emailed me.

This screen shot of the infringer’s page shows the garish color alterations she made and then had the nerve to sign! You can read what I wrote to her in the comments on this page to prove that the work was mine, explain why it was infringing, and demanding that she take it down.Meanwhile, I looked up Flickr/Yahoo’s “Copyright/IP Policy,” easily accessible from the bottom of each Yahoo-hosted page (Yahoo owns Flickr).

It gives very clear directions for reporting infringements and their policy to remove any infringed image under the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I wrote the appropriate email to Yahoo’s Copyright Agent and within hours the vandalized “Persian Cat” had disappeared. I have no way of knowing if the infringer read my comment and removed it on her own or if Yahoo deleted it. Either way, no one contacted me except for Yahoo’s automatic “We’ve received your email…” message. OK, don’t expect an apology, I guess!

The infringer hasn’t stopped altering and reposting other people’s images, but she has learned at least to post a notice that her images are alterations of others’ work.

An Offline Infringement

Golden Retriever graphite drawing by Susan Donley, 2006Another Good Samaritan brought the next incident to my attention last December. The phone rang while I sat at my drawing table, furiously working on last-minute Christmas commissions. I almost didn’t answer it so I could keep working, but I was intrigued that the caller ID displayed “Quebec.” On the line was the owner of a business that prints custom t-shirts (I was told he does most of the official work for the World Wrestling Federation!). He explained that a customer had walked in with an ink-jet print of my Golden Retriever drawing from him to transfer to a t-shirt.

Luckily, this is a copyright-savvy businessman who pays licensing fees to the WWF, so he was suspicious. This time the infringer had erased my watermark, but neglected to erase my signature. The printer googled my name and “golden retriever” and up popped the infringed image, my drawing! That’s when he picked up the phone and called me to ask if I had given his customer permission to use the image. I assured him that I had not and thanked him profusely for taking such pains to get in touch with me.

Then he asked me if I was interested in licensing my work, as he often gets requests for certain breeds of pets on shirts. He usually uses royalty-free clip art, but liked my work better. I explained that I was interested in licensing my work eventually, but needed to do more research so … he finished my sentence “we both make money.” “Exactly,” I replied, “Since I need to make a living and don’t want my work to become just more clip art available anywhere.” We agreed to stay in touch and I thanked him again.


Yellow Labrador Retriever graphite drawing by Susan Donley, 2006Zazzle products with infinged labrador retriever drawing, original by Susan Donley, 2006In March, my mother read a USAToday article about, a print-on-demand competitor to, where I have a shop featuring my pet portraits. Always on the look-out for ways to keep me out of the poorhouse (er, I mean, promote my artwork), my mom surfed over to Zazzle to see if they offered any advantages. Scoping out the competition, she put the names of a few popular dog breeds into their search box. Ouch – up popped products featuring my drawing! My mom emailed me immediately and, like only an offended mother can, set out with a vengeance to find out if other images had been stolen by systematically searching for every breed that I had posted on my site. Unfortunately, she discovered that several Zazzle members had helped themselves to my art!

This time, I was really angry! The previous two infringements could be construed as “fair use” by people not familiar with copyright law. But this was different: At Zazzle, people set up stores with merchandise whose main selling point was my work! They fully intended to profit from their enterprise without sharing the proceeds with me. It was outright theft! To add insult to injury, these thieves accepted rave comments left about the “cute pictures” as if they had done them!Rikko, German Shepherd graphite drawing by Susan Donley, 2007Zazzle page with infringed drawing of german shepherd, original by Susan Donley, 2007

This time, I knew what to look for and found Zazzle’s instructions for sending a “Take-Down Notice.” I angrily fired off the appropriate message to make them delete the work (preferably kick out the offending member) and reminded them than any profits from sales of the work rightly belonged to me (by the terms of the DMCA, not just common decency). I received the expected “we-aren’t-responsible, but we are deleting the product” canned email response from Zazzle. The products were deleted without apology, much less remuneration.

Then I suddenly remembered that, in my anger, I neglected to take screenshots of the offending Zazzle pages. After a moment of panic, I remembered that Google caches web pages, so I googled “zazzle [breed name] [zazzle-member-name]” and was able to track down cached pages for every one of the infringed images. Whew! That was a close call, because screenshots or print-outs are critical for proving infringement!

The next installment of this article is:

©2008 Susan K. Donley. All Rights Reserved.

May 29, 2008

It’s Dangerous Out There: Art Thieves in the Digital Age

Part 1 of an article written for Ann Kullberg’s From My Perspective colored pencil e-zine on my experiences with online theft of my drawings — and what I did about it. The full article is posted here in four parts:

  1. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
  2. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
  3. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned
  4. Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Still Learning – Vigilance without Paranoia

Part 1: The Changing Face of the Art Thief

Twenty years ago, the words “art thief” brought to mind a stealthy figure dressed in black, breaking into museums, art galleries, or pricey houses to silently slit a canvas out of its frame and sneak away with the rolled masterpiece tucked under arm. That’s the Hollywood version anyway! Plenty of artists working in that era can also tell horror stories about their designs showing up in catalogs as cheap overseas knock-offs. This kind of theft never had the drama to make it to the screen, but was far more harmful in stealing the livelihood of working artists. Still, design thieves had to at least do a little work to track down suitable designs in galleries or paper publications.

Boy, have things changed for dishonest manufacturers now that finding good art is just a Google image search away! But that’s not the worst of the temptations the digital world offers. Now that nearly everyone has unprecedented access to art images, technology has made it possible for everyone to be a manufacturer, as well! Do a search, find an image, print it out on t-shirts, and give them to all my friends! Just erase that unsightly copyright notice in Photoshop (a job that would have required a darkroom and sophisticated airbrush skills 20 years ago).

In short, technology has given just about anyone — the honest and the dishonest — unprecedented access to art and the means to reproduce and publish it. The result is a host of art thieves operating in the open with no need to sneak around and dress in black! The honest thieves don’t know they are doing anything wrong. They believe anything on the Internet is “free” and don’t realize they are breaking the law by stealing someone’s artwork (AKA “infringing copyright”) in their projects. The dishonest thieves know better, but steal anyway, taking advantage of all the digital “safe-cracking” and “fencing” tools they can find.

Feeling paranoid? Me, too – and for good reason, as it turns out! In Part 2, I will tell about three times that I know of that my artwork was stolen from my website.

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