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Is There Cheating in Art? How to Be a Real Artist

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Read Time: 34 min
This post is part of a series called Learn How to Draw.
How to Draw Horns
How to Draw a Cow

Is tracing cheating? Is it OK to use a photo reference for your drawing? Is it good if you use some digital tricks to create the final artwork faster? Beginner artists often get tormented by these thoughts, being stuck between what's easy and what's fair. After all, nobody wants to spend hours on creating something, just to hear it's not "real" art because they cheated!

One thing's for sure—the people who feel competent to judge art vastly outnumber the artists themselves. After all, you don't need to be a cook to judge a meal! But judgment is just an opinion, and so many people, so many opinions. One person may call your art good, the other may call it horrible. So how can you tell if you're doing it right? How can you tell if you're cheating or not? 

There's only one way—you need to judge it yourself. And in this article I'll tell you how.

What Is Cheating, and Why Is It So Bad?

This may sound like an absurd question. We all know what cheating is! But let's take a closer look at the definition as described by Wikipedia:

Cheating is the receiving of a reward for ability or finding an easy way out of an unpleasant situation by dishonest means. It is generally used for the breaking of rules to gain unfair advantage in a competitive situation.

According to this definition, there are a few elements necessary to talk about cheating: reward/advantage, dishonest means/breaking of rules, competitive situation (as you can't be dishonest towards... nobody). For example, a poker player is cheating if they win by breaking the rules, gaining an unfair advantage over those who obeyed them. Let's look at these elements one by one to better understand the meaning of cheating.


A beautiful artwork can get its creator a lot of positive attention and admiration. Getting praise from an amazed audience can be seen as a reward, if this is what the artist was striving for. We are a social species, and it's important what others think of us—we are wired to feel pleasure when we get appreciated. This pleasure is what drives many of us towards success, regardless of how we define it. Jealousy and admiration from others are clear indicators that what we have achieved is valuable.

why do we create artwhy do we create artwhy do we create art

But there's also another potential reward in art: money. Artworks can have a financial value—you can sell what you've already created, and you can be hired to create something new. Obviously, some artworks are worth more than others. If you want to make a living from your art, your goal is to create art that's worth as much as possible. If you can do it faster than others, it's advantageous as well—customers often are willing to pay a little more if you can work well and quickly.

Competitive Situation

Where there's value, there's competition. An artwork is only good if there are other, worse artworks to compare it to. Admiration would be worth nothing if everybody could get it for anything. In the art industry, this is even more obvious—the customer can only hire as many people as they need, and they will pick the best they can afford, ignoring the others.

are you good enough to draware you good enough to draware you good enough to draw
It's not only up to you how good you are.

The only way to make art outside of any competition is to create it for yourself only, without any expectations of an external reward. If you didn't value the opinions of others, you wouldn't publish your art, as there would be nothing to gain by it. Once there is some kind of value that you can get from others, the competition appears.

Dishonest Means/Breaking of Rules

There's one thing about dishonesty that makes it prevail despite all the laws: it's profitable. When a group of people work together, they all profit from it. If one of them cheats, however, that person can gain a much higher profit at the expense of the rest. It pays off to play by the rules; it pays more to be the only one breaking them.

why we cheatwhy we cheatwhy we cheat

In some situations, breaking the rules is quite clear. If a poker player uses some forbidden tricks to win, they undermine the whole concept of the game—the game of skill and luck. There's a clear rule about winning: the winner should be the one who has the greatest skill and/or luck. When you cheat, you don't become the winner defined by the rules. But you get the reward nonetheless! 

Unfair play makes us angry for two reasons. If we're the players, we feel cheated because we are doing our best, where "best" is limited by the rules, while a cheater is limited by nothing at all. We can't do better than them, no matter how hard we try! You can't outrun a runner that simply hid right behind the finishing line. All our efforts are in vain when someone cheats.

The second reason comes from being the reward giver. Your appreciation is valuable. You don't go around giving it to everything and everyone, just to the chosen ones! If you accidentally assigned a high value to something that's not valuable, it would undermine the value of your admiration. That's why when you admire something for a reason, and this reason turns out to be unfounded, you feel cheated. Admiration turns into contempt in a second, even though the actual object hasn't changed at all.

The Rules of Art

Now you know what makes cheating in art so bad. If there's a reward to be gained in a competitive situation, the ones that get it by dishonest means deserve our condemnation. But one thing is still left unresolved—what are "dishonest means" when it comes to creating art? What are the rules of art that are supposedly broken by a cheater?

When it comes to competitive games, there are regulations that define the rules. A runner is supposed to run through the whole route, a chess player is supposed to move the pawns in a specially described way, a swimmer is supposed to swim to the finishing line through the pool, not to walk around it. 

But art doesn't have such regulations! Nobody created art along with its rules. Usually, some rules can be derived from a definition, but in the case of art it's not possible either. Art doesn't really have a definition! As I explained in my article Defining and Valuing Art, the most objective definition would be: something made for no other purpose than making it. And even this mostly applies to fine art—other types of art may have other definitions and therefore other rules.

Does your artwork have to be pretty? Does it have to be quick? Should it tell a story? Is it supposed to be impossible to create for most people? Is it supposed to present a concept? Is it supposed to be funny and clever? Should it be original? Should it show your creative vision? Should it be painted with oil paint? Should it be physical? Should it evoke some emotions? If so, what emotions?

This leads us to an unexpected conclusion: cheating in art doesn't have anything to do with art itself, but with the personal expectations of the "judge". It's not about the objective definition of art (which doesn't really leave any space for cheating), but about the subjective definitions of art—definitions you don't have to agree with!

how to judge arthow to judge arthow to judge art
The value of art changes along with the expectations of the judges.

It doesn't mean you can't cheat in art. It simply means that if you want to be judged according to some rules, breaking them is cheating. If you don't care about these rules—if you don't want to be a "winner" as defined by them—you can't be called a cheater. Driving a car during a marathon is not cheating—it's just not taking part in the race. Remember: what is considered cheating in one game can be allowed in another. You can't be expected to play by the rules of all possible games!

But there's one more angle we can use to look at it. Drawing/painting/sculpting are all types of creation, which has its definition, as well as "my creation". A creation is something that has been created (regardless of the author—it could be a computer or a bird!). When you say "my creation", you imply that you are the author. Here, the basic rules are clearer:

  • The lines/strokes must be created manually by your hand (manual creation).
  • The final work should be a result of your own decisions (intellectual creation).

Normally, you get credit for both the idea and the execution, unless you state otherwise. So it's important to inform your audience what part of the artwork they should judge as yours. For example, if you follow a tutorial step by step, you're the manual author, but not the intellectual one. If you tell someone how to draw something, line by line, you're the intellectual author, but not the manual one.

As you can see, there are subjective rules of art, as well as somewhat clearer rules of creation. They all may lead to this final judgment of cheating. Let's take a closer look at a few situations often considered cheating, to see what is and what isn't dishonest about them.


The easiest way to get that sweet reward of creating something pleasant to look at is to trace a photo/an artwork of someone else. You can place a sheet of paper over it and draw over the lines you can see, drawing "your own" artwork almost automatically, without making any decisions. The task can be physically fatiguing, especially if you trace on a windowpane, but it still beats taking months and years to learn to draw these lines on your own.

what is tracing in drawingwhat is tracing in drawingwhat is tracing in drawing

When It's Cheating

When you trace to get praise and admiration for drawing a pretty artwork, it's cheating. The audience doesn't really admire your part of the work (drawing the lines), but the part that wasn't created by you (the arrangement of lines resulting in something pretty). And you know it—that's why you try to hide the fact that it was traced. You wouldn't get half the praise if they knew the truth!

The wrongness of cheating is all about harm, and here the harm comes from two potential sources. One, you get undeserved admiration that someone else has worked for. They had to put a lot of effort into creating a pretty artwork; you, on the other hand, simply had to move your hand a little. Copying a poem letter by letter doesn't make you a poet; copying an artwork line by line doesn't make you an artist. You cheat your audience by pretending to have the skill of someone else... for your own profit.

why tracing is badwhy tracing is badwhy tracing is bad

Two, you harm yourself. It's not easy to become a good artist. You can spend a whole day working on a piece and get no praise for it, while half an hour spent on tracing a photo earns you a whole lot of it. But it doesn't make you a better artist—it just feels as if you were one already. And because it feels so good, it's harder to put an effort into something that doesn't pay off immediately. It's like a drug that gives you a temporary fix, keeping you from working on the actual solution.

Tracing doesn't teach you much. Children can do it because it's so easy—you move your pencil along the dark parts on the paper. Yes, you need to hold your pencil properly for this and follow the rhythm, but it's a basic manual skill that you learned while learning to hand-write. You don't need to make any decisions, you don't make mistakes that would show you the areas to focus on, and you don't even need to think—the drawing just happens. 

But when you try to draw on your own, it doesn't just happen—you need to think, you need to make decisions, you make mistakes. It doesn't have anything to do with tracing except for the (expected) final result. Copying drawings makes you better at copying drawings and nothing else. It also takes away the time you could spend actually learning.

Remember: even if you take the traced line art and finish it your own way with a lot of effort, you still can't publish it as fully your own. It's like taking a car to the middle of the marathon and then running the rest yourself—you still get the unfair advantage! Always ask the original creator for their approval, and don't forget to credit them. Even if you traced your own photo, you still should inform your audience about it!

When It's Not Cheating

It may be surprising to hear, but tracing is not always cheating. As always, it's all about the rules you promise to follow. Tracing an artwork just for yourself can be a great pastime—for example, you can trace the lines to create a coloring page for yourself. In that case, nobody is harmed, and it can be a great introduction to art for children. 

Tracing is also OK when you do it for purposes other than stealing someone's thunder and/or money they deserve. For example, you can trace the lines of somebody's artwork, and then paint it your own way as a means of practice. You can't publish it without their approval, of course, but it lets you focus on the area you want to be better at and skip the part you're not interested in at the moment. Tracing photos is good for this, too.

why tracing is goodwhy tracing is goodwhy tracing is good
In this tutorial, I traced a photo to focus on practicing the value. I didn't intend to practice proportional drawing at that moment, so it would have been a waste of time to copy it manually.

If you get the approval of the owner of the artwork, you credit them and you don't hide that what you publish is a result of tracing, then publishing is fine, too. Nobody gets harmed and nobody gets cheated when you're honest like this. You may not get a lot of attention for this, but hey—you get what you deserve!

Tracing is also perfectly acceptable when you're trying to create an accurate copy of something (with the approval of the owner). For example, when you're drawing a realistic portrait from a photo, it's good to trace the outline of the facial features to establish the proportions right from the start. There's no reason to call it cheating—everyone can trace a photo, but finishing a portrait from that point takes 95% of the time, skill, and effort. You can tell an artist from an amateur in that the former knows what to do after creating traced line art.

camera obscura in artcamera obscura in artcamera obscura in art
There are reasons to believe that Vermeer used camera obscura very extensively in his work, and that other old masters used it to at least to some extent. Camera obscura is a device that lets you cast an upside-down image onto a 2D surface, basically creating a temporary photo you can paint on. Image from book De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica.

Last but not least, it's perfectly OK to trace your own work. If you create a sketch of something with a chaos of lines, you can put another sheet of paper over it to draw new, cleaner lines. This is just a technique to create a neat final artwork, and it doesn't have anything to do with cheating.

Using a Reference

Even when you have a strong conviction that you know what something looks like, you may have a hard time drawing it from memory. Sure, you can tell that the drawing looks nothing like the object you had in mind, but you can't guess what you'd need to change to make it more realistic.

It's far easier to simply look at the object, either in reality or using a photo. It's still not as easy as tracing, though—you need to convert the real thing to lines and shades, and copy the proportions you see, often resizing the object on the fly. There's a lot of space for mistakes here! However, you can spot them relatively easily by comparing your drawing to the reference.

drawing from a referencedrawing from a referencedrawing from a reference

But using a reference is not only about copying something. You can, for example, create an original dragon by consulting Google Images about the look of lizard scales and bat wings. This can let you create something realistic, even if it's not real. You can even paint a realistic portrait of an unreal person this way, for example by borrowing the facial features of various celebrities.

When It's Cheating

Drawing from memory/imagination is admirable, because it's so difficult. Everyone who ever tried to draw a common object from memory can tell how deceptively easy it is in theory, and nearly impossible in practice. So drawing a fully shaded animal in a realistic pose, with a natural facial expression and nicely textured fur, right from imagination sounds as impressive as reaching Mount Everest. Now that's some praise you would love to hear!

But reaching the top of Mount Everest is very, very hard, and so is drawing something perfectly realistic from imagination. So the sweet reward stays unclaimed. Unless... you could say that you didn't use a reference. Nobody needs to know, right?

drawing from imaginationdrawing from imaginationdrawing from imagination

No matter what you did with the references, it's unacceptable to describe your final artwork as "created from imagination" if you used them. When you say this, your audience has a vision of you looking at the canvas only, having no other source but your own mind. And this is what makes your artwork impressive to them! But if you didn't do it this way, that admiration is undeserved. 

Why is it so bad? It takes a lot of time and effort to learn to create a realistic depiction of something from imagination. When you use references and pretend you didn't, you're taking a shortcut, just as a tracing person would. You go for praise you haven't worked for. 

And even if you didn't say anything about drawing from imagination, if your artwork is basically a visual copy of a photo, let people know. If you conceal this fact, it may be deceptive—people will judge elements that are not really yours, like composition, colors, lighting, concept... It's the photographer that deserves this admiration, not you! You only deserve the admiration for accurate copying, so don't hide it.

Speaking of the photographer, make sure you get their approval before you publish your copied artwork. They may not want it, and it's their right to refuse! No matter how much effort you put into copying, most of the artwork comes from someone else's work, so it's not yours. It's as if you copied Mona Lisa—you painted it (manual creation) and yet you didn't (intellectual creation). Painting and creating can be two different things. Make sure your audience knows which of these two your artwork represents.

When It's Not Cheating

Most of the time, it really isn't. References are a part of reality, and it's the artist's job to capture reality, so why would we make things harder for ourselves on purpose? If you want to draw a dog, go see a dog. That's not cheating, that's common sense!

If you want to create a portrait of someone real, it's necessary to use a reference for this. You can't guess what they look like, so even copying a photo is still perfectly acceptable. Even old masters used to paint their models sitting right in front of them—nobody would call it cheating!

But if you want to draw without references to be more free as an artist, first you need to use a lot of them to learn about reality. What makes a dog a dog? How would you draw it, if there was no reference to copy? You can create studies—sketches of the subject containing a visual analysis of it. You can, for example, simplify a dog's body to basic forms that are simple enough to memorize. Studies are a step towards getting independent from references, and there's nothing unfair about them.

anatomy studiesanatomy studiesanatomy studies
If you want to draw realistic, anatomically accurate creatures from imagination, first you need to study the anatomy from references.

References are great if you want to paint something complex. For example, a dragon-unicorn ridden by an elf lady in a medieval armor, carrying a sword, is a concept full of traps. Prepare a whole sheet of references that can be useful for this task, and then start drawing. It may be hard to say which elements have been used—some you can copy directly, others you may only be inspired by—but it doesn't matter. You're creating something new with your own skill, and that's what will be admired in the end, even if you didn't remember the exact texture of horse hooves.

It's also fine to draw/paint a copy of your own photo. When you're the photographer, the concept, composition, light, and colors are all yours, and you can take full credit for them—whether you present them with the photo, or with a painted copy of it. Such a painting doesn't really differ from one painted en plein air, as you are the author of the whole composition.

Basically, anything you draw with the aid of references is completely fine, as long as you don't claim you didn't use any. If you want to be completely safe, you can add: "some references were used", "drawn from a reference", but it's not necessary. The works of old masters don't have such labels, but you can be sure they used any help they could. And this doesn't make their art any less impressive!

Using Digital Art Software

Computers have replaced many traditional tools: we can use them not only for calculations, but also for writing and sending mail, reading articles and books, shopping, and even for talking to people from the other side of the world. It's no surprise that we can use them for drawing and painting, too. 

A computer screen can display any image, and you can create this image yourself by drawing strokes on a special graphics tablet. These real strokes are then turned into digital graphite or digital paint, with a color and thickness defined by the software. Because this digital paint is not real, it can be modified in ways that are not possible in reality—you can change its color and shape, move it somewhere else, or remove it without a trace.

autodesk sketchbook interfaceautodesk sketchbook interfaceautodesk sketchbook interface
The graphics tablet's stylus can be turned into any tool you wish.

The most popular digital painting software, Photoshop, is actually a photo-editing program. Its adjustments and filters can be used to alter the image in many ways: you can add a texture to skin without painting it, you can adjust the contrast of the whole scene, and you can even warp a painted nose to fix its shape. You can create a clipping mask to always stay within lines, and you can paint a whole forest with a single stroke of a special brush. It's like magic!

photoshop magic drawingphotoshop magic drawingphotoshop magic drawing
Warping lets you reshape an image in a way impossible in traditional art.

When It's Cheating

Because digital art seems so magical, it's often considered a lesser form of art. Traditional art, many claim, requires much skill and effort, while in digital art most of the work is done by the computer. If you're aware of this popular view, you may feel tempted to hide the origin of your art. After all, it's not always easy to tell if the artwork has been painted traditionally or digitally when it's displayed on the screen. 

So you submit it "accidentally" to the wrong category, or you outright call it traditional, to get more favorable reactions from the audience. This is nothing but cheating—you want to be judged for something you didn't do. You want people to think it was harder than it really was, so that they ignore your mistakes. And you make them admire you for the effort you didn't really take.

But you can also cheat in a different way: calling a photo-manipulation a digital painting. It is digital art—art created with digital tools—but painting has a different definition. It should be based on strokes you have made manually, step by step. If all you did was copy and paste ready-made elements, and adjust them with special tools and filters to make them look like a complete scene, then it's not painting. Don't let your audience think that this realistic dog has been painted by you, while it is actually just a photo!

When It's Not Cheating

It's true that digital art, as a medium, is quite comfortable to use, and it offers many conveniences to the artist. But there's no rule saying that creating art must be as difficult and cumbersome as possible. Using a spiky brush would make painting harder, but would it make the artwork better? Is using a comfortable tool worse, less admirable, than using an uncomfortable one?

Digital art removes many banes of artists. It lets you turn back time after you make a terrible mistake, it lets you work even in poor light, it gives you more colors than your eyes can recognize. You don't have to clean the tools, you don't have to refill your supplies, you don't have to smell the fumes of oil paint. It makes the life of an artist easier. But does it make creating art easier?

Let me be painfully honest: that popular "digital art is done by computer" view is born from ignorance. The computer paints an artwork just like it writes a book—it simply displays what the user wants it to display. It's the user who makes all the decisions. Not a single line can be drawn without the user drawing it. The computer only gives you colorful pixels, just like paint gives you colorful pigments.

traditional art vs digital arttraditional art vs digital arttraditional art vs digital art
When you paint digitally, you're both a manual (you move the stylus) and intellectual (you make the decisions) creator.

To be an artist, you need to have a lot of skills that have nothing to do with the medium. For example, a comic artist has to know all about human anatomy, dynamic poses, facial expressions, composition, perspective, light and shadow, etc. It doesn't matter whether they use a light-table or digital layers to ink a page—the skills required don't change. 

Yes, you can remove a mistake if it's done digitally. Yes, you can fill a whole area with one click. But these are details—you will not draw a comic page by clicking Undo a hundred times and filling random outlines with colors, nor will you paint a realistic painting by dragging your magical brush randomly over the canvas, warping what you have and adding a photo texture to it. It's simply not possible to be a good digital artist without being a good artist!

If an old master were offered a magical brush that changed shape as the user wished, what do you think he would do? Would he say: "No, thank you, I don't want to gain an unfair advantage over my colleagues," or rather would he be excited just thinking about all these amazing new things he could create now?

The point of art is not doing something impressively hard—it's making art. Using these amazing possibilities of digital art is not cheating—it's using whatever means possible to bring our visions to reality. Because this is all that matters. And if someone thinks that you cheated, because you painted your beautiful sunset more comfortably that it was possible a hundred years ago, then it says more about them than about your art.

art is supposed to be hardart is supposed to be hardart is supposed to be hard
"You'd impress me more if you did it the harder way, you know?"

But let's come back to general digital art. Sometimes you may see incredibly detailed concept artworks, and your admiration turns into disappointment when you learn that it's mostly photos, 3D models, and photo textures put together to look like a whole (a technique known as photobashing or matte painting). Is it cheating? No! In concept art, the concept has the highest priority. It's not about showing off artistic skills—it's about showing a concept in a visual way, as efficiently as possible. And this goal justifies all means.

Using Drawing Grids

It's very hard to draw something just by looking at it. You can draw one eye, and then have a hard time trying to put the other one just at the right distance. But since you don't want to trace, you use a trick—you draw a regular grid over your reference, dividing it into smaller areas. Then you draw the same grid on a new sheet of paper, and you simply copy the reference area by area. Since such small areas are easier for our eyes to grasp, you have a better chance of capturing the correct proportions this way.

grid drawinggrid drawinggrid drawing

When It's Cheating

Only if you outright say you don't use grids!

When It's Not Cheating

It's really not. Grids are a useful way to copy the reference truthfully, and nobody really cares if you used this method or not. What matters is the final result, a beautifully shaded portrait drawn just by you. Capturing proportions without a grid may be impressive, but it's still just a fraction of the impression made by the whole artwork. The same applies to other tools and tricks you can use to make achieving the final result faster and easier.

Using Drawing Aids

Some things can be sketched loosely, and others require a lot of precision. A straight line, for example, can be very hard to draw perfectly just by using the natural motion of your hand. Many man-made objects, like cars or buildings, have to follow the rules of perspective in the correct way, or they'll look messy and unrealistic. And perspective is all about straight lines!

There are special tools that can make such precise tasks easier. A ruler, for example, can lead our line exactly where we want it to go. French curves are a similar tool, just for drawing curves. In digital art you can use even more aids—for example, draw a whole perfect square just by clicking and dragging, or use an automatic system of perspective guides.

using perspective gridsusing perspective gridsusing perspective grids

When It's Cheating

If you're taking part in a free-hand drawing competition and yet you use a ruler or other aids, then you're cheating. 

When It's Not Cheating

Normally, we don't have to limit ourselves to only one tool. If you need a perfectly straight line, use a ruler—that's what these things were made for! Being able to draw straight lines doesn't really give you any unfair advantage. It's what you do with them that matters, and this requires skill. Drawing a city panorama in perspective is impressive as it is—whether you use a ruler/guides or not.

The ruler doesn't draw the line, you do. You decide where to put it and how to make it a part of something more complex. It's the same with perspective guides—they're useless if you don't know how perspective works. Drawing aids are like using a faster car—it will take you to your destination faster, but only if you know where to go!

Going to Art School/Learning From Others

Let's say it out loud: it's not easy to learn how to draw/paint. You can draw every day for a few hours and not progress at all. It's hard to figure out on your own what you're doing wrong. But you don't really have to! There are art schools with special programs about everything an artist must learn. You are being directed by experts, and you get motivation from competing with other students.

And even if you can't afford to go to an art school, there are still plenty of materials you can use to learn on your own. Tutorials, courses, feedback from people on various art websites—self-teaching may not be as neat and directed as formal art education, but it can still make you a great artist! 

When It's Cheating

Only if you lie about never learning from anyone. I doubt it's actually possible!

When It's Not Cheating

Because it's so hard to learn how to draw, many artists feel pride in this achievement. There are so many hours of hard work and pain behind every beautiful artwork! But then a formally educated artist comes and gets all the spotlight for their art. "It's not fair! They didn't work as hard as the rest of us, so they don't deserve to be admired like us!"

Here, more than anywhere, you can see that "unfair advantage" that is the base of cheating. A self-taught artist may feel as if all their efforts were equated with simply paying for art education. But this is actually a really unfair view. Going to an art school is not equal to getting programmed. There's still a lot of work included—it's just more directed, more focused. Art students waste less time trying to understand what they're doing wrong, because they have people around ready to help.

You can be jealous of this opportunity, but you shouldn't compare it to getting skills on a silver plate. If they create stunning art on their own, using their own skills, there's no cheating in this. Don't be petty and don't whine about them having it easy, just to bring attention to you having it so hard!

self taught vs art schoolself taught vs art schoolself taught vs art school
"Don't judge my art, judge my efforts!"

There's also another issue here. Some people believe that talent is all that matters in art. A magical skill that you get born with... or not. There's no way to learn it! You can simply develop your talent, for example drawing, and drawing, and drawing, waiting for your work to become better over time. Because it's supposed to happen on its own. Asking for help would be cheating!

I notice this belief mainly in young, talented artists. Up to a certain point, everything came easy to them. They could draw better than others just like that, automatically. No tutorials, no references, they were just good from the start. But then it stopped. A natural talent can only get you so far—then there comes time to start learning on your own, consciously. Drawing a study from imagination (i.e. from guessing!) is anti-learning, and there's nothing admirable about it. You're not magical. Be humble and learn like everyone else—learning is not cheating!

So What's All the Fuss About?

As you can see, most things are allowed in art, as long as you're being honest with yourself and others about the rules that matter to you. So why does cheating seem to be such a big problem? I mentioned earlier that the audience is a reward giver—they give you their admiration. But if there's a reward, there must also be rules of giving that reward. And your rules don't necessarily overlap with the rules of all members of your audience.

For example, many people believe in the rule that art is only admirable if it was difficult to create. If you admit that you took any shortcut, they will immediately take away most of the points. It doesn't matter that you spent over 20 hours painting that landscape from scratch—if you used multiple digital layers instead of one, as all traditional artists do, you may be called a cheater.

judging artjudging artjudging art
"Oh, so you used a reference? Too bad."

But as harsh as it sounds, you shouldn't really care. You can't cheat in a game you're not taking part in. After all, cheating is all about breaking an agreement. If there's no agreement, you cannot break it! People may expect many things from you, and you don't have to agree with them. It's your art, and you make the rules. Only you know what it means to win in your game!

And when you're on the other side of this issue, if you're the reward-giver, keep it in mind all the time, too. Don't be arrogant, and don't assume that everyone should agree with the rules you believe in. No matter how absurd something may seem, you don't get to decide what others should do with their art. It's not "You should do it this way or I'll despise you", it's "You should do it this way if you want to impress me". They have the right not to care about your admiration, and you shouldn't try to punish them for it with your contempt.

There are many, many reasons to admire art. We can admire a photo for the concept, theme, atmosphere, colors (or lack thereof), lighting, message, timing, originality, and it doesn't matter that the photographer didn't paint these colors themselves. It's easy to take a photo, but it takes an artist to take a good one. It should apply to drawing/painting too—the technicalities behind creating an artwork shouldn't overshadow the artwork itself.


So how can you make sure you're fair in your art? Try to answer these questions. They're not only useful for this purpose, but also to better understand what you expect from your art and to focus on one goal instead of trying to win in all possible games at once.

  • Define your reward. What do you want to get by creating this artwork? Satisfaction from finishing a piece? Joy of creation? Pride of a job well done? Better drawing skills? Understanding something? The client's money? Visualization of an idea? An oil painting? An original concept? Appreciation from some group of people?
  • Define your rules. What are you supposed to do to win? Just finish a drawing? Get positive reactions? Be happy with what you created? Achieve a better end result than the last time? Learn something new? Visualize a concept faithfully? Meet the client's requirements? Meet the group's expectations? Tell a story? Draw quickly? Use a specific medium? Draw something nobody has ever drawn before?
  • Define cheating. What would give you the reward without deserving it? Pretending it was harder than it was? Copying someone else's artwork? Using a different medium? Lying about the time spent on it? Stealing someone's idea? Pretending your goal was different after you fail to reach it? Pretending you met the group's expectations? (You'll notice that in many cases, cheating is actually not possible—mostly when there's no competition to be harmed).

Creating art is one of the greatest things a human can do. We just have this inner need to take something from our mind outside, to the material world. There's simply no way to do it wrong, but many people will hurry to let you know that indeed, you can do it wrong—if you don't meet their expectations. But their expectations are not as important as they may think!

Don't let anyone stop you from creating what you want and how you want. Your art, your rules!

If you want to read more about issues that can stop you from becoming an artist, you may enjoy these:

And if you're a beginner at drawing, you'll love these:

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