Sunday, October 18, 2009

"That painting looks just like a photograph"

The feedback says "Beautiful. Looks just like a photograph." That's because it IS a photograph.

This fraud technique, often referred to as "water painting" or "computer art," isn't new to eBay, but lately it's becoming far too commonplace. More and more of this fraudulent art is popping up as scam artists have discovered a way to literally print money. This fraud has become a particular problem in the area of ACEOs, small format art that can be produced and shipped inexpensively.

So how is it done? There are several ways of digitally altering a photograph using software like Adobe Photoshop, but the most prevalent technique seems to be the watering down of inkjet prints. The "artist" downloads a photo from the Internet, prints it on watercolor paper, wets it down, and smears the printer ink around with a brush. Often, a few details (like whiskers on an animal) are added with some white acrylic paint so that there are visible brush strokes. Colored pencils are also used in the same manner. An acrylic medium or varnish will also leave brush strokes and help to further the illusion of a painting. The video below beautifully illustrates how the process is done.

To the trained eye, the fraud is obvious, but sadly, many art collectors do not recognize that their purchase is not an original painting, and believe that the "artist" has mastered photo realism. There are several sellers on eBay right now who are PowerSellers, with Top Rated Seller badges being displayed on their auction pages. This is only making the situation worse. Why would a buyer question the item when eBay says the seller is "Top Rated?" (The flaws with eBay's Top Rated Seller badge is a rant unto itself, so I'll leave it at that for now).

Red Flags:

- This type of art has a very distinct look to it. It may be photo-realistic, but is washed out, grainy, blurred, and devoid of detail. Colors are watery and drab, lacking the color pigment that would be seen with actual watercolor paint.

- The seller is listing in volume, perhaps 10-15 items a day. A true watercolor ACEO would take hours, if not days to complete. A fraudulent piece of art can be created in less than 10 minutes.

- Images may be stretched or distorted. This happens when the fraudster manipulates the photo in order to make it fit into ACEO size.

- The artist has no bio, and displays no work-in-progress photos. If you DO see WIP photos, they are usually not representative of the style of art that is actually being sold (in other words, you can also steal and/or manipulate WIP photos).

Think you bought a fake?

If you believe you have purchased a fake, scan it at high resolution or view it under magnification. If the work was generated from a computer printer, you will see a dot pattern, usually in magenta. The image to the right is a 1200 dpi scan representing a small section of a fraudulent watercolor. The magenta dots are clearly visible.

As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words. This video speaks volumes. Enjoy (or not).


  1. Nice informative post Kathy. Thanks!

  2. WOW! VERY informative! I knew it was/is being done. But, hopefully others who don't know will see this!


  3. Thank you again and again Kathy. I can not begin to tell how furious all the art fraud on eBay makes me! In fact, I pulled all my originals off eBay and will never sell the there again. Ick! >:(

  4. Thanks for posting this Kathy. The art fraud on eBay is ridiculous and eBay doesn't care. The key is to educate buyers and this post sure helps.

    Unfortunately, the fraudulent sellers may get shut down temporarily, but they just pop up again, like a bad penny! And it's not just on eBay, some of the fraudulent sellers that were (or still are) there are finding their way to Bonanzle and other sites also.

  5. Thanks for this informative article! It shocks me, because I do actual realism. I've been known to spend 22 hours on one colored pencil ACEO and I'm used to getting comments like "It looks like a photo" when I do realism.

    But that's just wrong.

    If it was their photo and they altered it and said so, then fine, nothing wrong with altered photos as a medium. But this is an ugly type of robbery -- and one that makes real photorealists look bad.