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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 October 2005, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Can anyone teach themselves to paint?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

The Singing Butler (left) and the illustrators' guide
The Singing Butler (left) and the illustrators' guide
Millionaire artist Jack Vettriano made no secret of being self-taught, but now the world knows his paintings have a startling resemblance to images in an artists' reference book. How much can a DIY artist really learn? Now's your chance to have a go yourself.

In a climate accustomed to scandal, hype and claims of dressed-up amateurism, the latest "outrage" is unlikely to register more than a blip on the art world's Richter scale.

Jack Vettriano, who is one of Britain's wealthiest and most popular painters, has been accused of taking inspiration from an off-the-shelf art reference book.

Included in the controversy is Vettriano's signature work, The Singing Butler, which sold for 750,000 at auction last year.

The figures in the painting, copies of which have come to adorn thousands of greetings cards and domestic mantle pieces, bear a remarkable resemblance to those depicted in a 16.99 book - the Illustrator's Figure Reference Manual.

1. Don't panic
2. Learn to handle a pencil - your basic tool
3. Get acquainted with watercolours
4. Learn to use a brush, and what marks it can make
5. Learn to mix colours - you only need three: red, blue and yellow
6. Have a play with the brushes and paint
7. Learn to measure with a pencil, like it's a ruler
8. Learn the basics of perspective
The painter's agent, Tom Hewlett, did not even attempt a denial.

It was "unsurprising", he said, that in Vettriano's early painting years when "he had neither time nor the money at his disposal to work with real models, that he should use a teaching manual such as this."

But while the claim is unlikely to deter the Scottish painter's legions of fans, who include Robbie Williams and Sir Alex Ferguson, it may fuel critics' dislike of his work.

Vettriano, 53, has always been something of an outsider in the art establishment, his slightly cloying style being at odds with the edginess of contemporary art, but also falling short of more classical standards.

As a self-taught artist, this latest development will probably lead some in the art world to deduce that Vettriano, a former coal-worker, has shunned the artistic coalface - a.k.a. art school - in favour of DIY manuals.

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While the professional art world is dominated by those who have been schooled in the disciplines of their subject, the self-taught have had a knack of punching above their weight.

Henri Rousseau, Jasper Johns, LS Lowry, Vincent Van Gogh - their works can be viewed in some of the world's finest art galleries, but all were self-taught, or mostly so.

Rousseau, whose jungle paintings will form the core of a major exhibition at London's Tate Modern gallery next month, endured years of derision from the late 19th Century Paris art establishment.

His exhibition will replace one by the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, another exponent of the DIY art school.

Have a go

Today, there is a thriving industry in teach-yourself-to-paint books, assisted by a clutch of TV shows with similar objectives.

[H]e had neither time nor the money at his disposal to work with real models
Tom Hewlett on Vettriano (right)
Alwyn Crawshaw has written 28 books on learning to paint and says some of his "students" have gone on to make a living out of art.

Books, he says, are a good way to teach the mechanics of painting. But if a "student" doesn't want to be straight-jacketed they have to "apply their own originality and creativity to the tools they have learnt".

But for Linda Birch, herself an author of several DIY art books, nothing beats just sitting and observing a practised painter (even if it's just for a few sessions at the start). For generations, this is how great artists kicked off their careers.

"It's like watching your mother cook," she says. "Because painting is hands-on, you need to see someone else doing it, to get a feel for the consistency of the paint."

She disapproves of the practice of painting people from photos instead of real life models and "wouldn't feel happy" at the thought of another artist copying her work for commercial ends.

For art critic and historian John A Walker, there's nothing amateur about working from photos. Jack Vettriano is merely following in the line of other esteemed, and well schooled, artists.

"What he was doing in borrowing an image is no different to professional artists who use photos for source materials. Some artists would probably be ashamed to admit it. Francis Bacon didn't want people to know he'd used photos.

"They don't want to admit that they are dependent on someone else's creativity, they want the full credit for the work."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

For budding artists wanting to skip the arty-farty establishment straight jacket, it might be an idea to get clued up on modern copyright movements. You might not run into "scandals" or legal problems if you were to create artworks based on photos or other existing media held under a Creative Commons license. This allows a copyright holder to stipulate how a work can be used. A list of licensed online resources (including photos) can be found here.
Ale Fernandez, Bristol, UK

The fact that Vettriano copied is not a surprise at all. The real issue with him is that he cannot draw. He has no idea of the human figure or of perspective. He is, and always will be an amateur painter because of this.
L Fullarton, Scotland

Throughout history artists have been using source material such as photographs, sketches and other artists' work. It really doesn't matter. The result is excellent and far superior to the source material. Look at the use of light on the woman's back and leg, not to mention her graceful posture, which is totally lacking from the original illustration.
Phil Doyle, Switzerland

For me, Vettriano's wistful, evocative paintings are far more 'art' than all the rubbish the art school graduates insist on ramming down our throats. Art should inspire emotion and feeling, not a sense of general boredom, so for me, Vettriano succeeds, where the graduates fail.
Michelle, England

I often tire of hearing people say that they "draw like children". Not surprising, as most people do not persist in serious drawing after their childhood years, or even during school. I suggest you look at Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. The ability to draw and paint realistically and accurately is available to all.
Nick Anderson, Scotland

Many creative people are inspired by things they see or hear around them. The problem with the art establishment is they are afraid of good commercial art that satisfies a market niche - and there can be no doubt Vettriano has found a very commercial niche for his paintings.
Mike Faulds, Scotland

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