To all those starry-eyed girls and boys wishing to be illustrators please take care, beware derivative work.
As Kirby Ferguson so eloquently says in his four part series Everything is a Remix there is an inherently (inherited?) derivative nature to creativity. Even so... even though our very genes are derived from our parents, artists should be careful of copying too closely. As a naive student I painted the above watercolor of Scissor-tailed flycatcher. I used a photograph as reference since I had no photos of my own and no access to the birds. The photographer, Bill Horn, was paid a fee for the right to make a derivative work. As luck would have it the painting turn out to be one of my best... and I can't show it.
Why you ask? Why do I cringe at the thought of this image in my portfolio? Because the photo reference is the very first hit on google image search for "scissor-tail". It doesn't matter that I have the rights. If anyone sees that photo, my painting becomes scandalously derivative at best OR worse if they don't know the whole story it is plagiarism.
Below is another school project that preceded my bird. This time I used a public domain image from NOAA. Same problem, too derivative. It's just too close to the original.
So what to do? How do you make something new? Models, maquettes and imagination. What I do now is I will make a model and use my knowledge and imagination to fill in the gaps.
Above is Barry "the barotrauma rockfish" and a magpie model for a book cover illustration made out of printed paper sketches, foil tape and oil clay. The best example however is James Gurney's maquettes fabricated for his Dinotopia books. He creates entire 3D worlds to draw from. It is this level of detail and dedication that makes truly fantastic art.
Are there exceptions to the derivative rule? Sure. You might work on a piece with only one known reference or perhap your client owns the rights to an image and wants a close reproduction. However, these situations are rare. It is better to flex your artist muscles and create art that combines many elements, so that no one reference can compare to what you create.