Ah, "Cheating". As a digital artist, this is a subject I get to interact with fairly regularly. "It's not real art 'cause you *cheated*" Or, "Using <x technique> is cheating!"
Well, before we can talk about it, we have to define what it is, and what it is not. First off, cheating has nothing to do with "legal." For example, using your photo in a painting is legal, using someone else's may not be...but either way, the technique is the same, so it has nothing to do with cheating.
For me, cheating is when you don't put enough of yourself into a work. If I was a documentary filmmaker, and I strapped a camera to a subject for a day, then took that footage and didn't edit it before I called it a "finished doc", then I'd be cheating. My hand wouldn't have touched the work enough to call mine. It might be art, but it wouldn't be my art. If I edited it, then that would be fine, my storytelling would take hold. If I strapped the camera to myself for a day, that wouldn't be cheating, because my actions would be in the final.
Let me try to apply this to painting - Tracing someone else's work and passing it off as yours is cheating (it's also illegal, I LOVE it when those two things intersect.) Tracing your own photograph is fine. Using reference is fine, blindly following it because it's easier than thinking is cheating. You'll note that this has nothing to do with specific techniques. Traditional oil painters can cheat just as much as digital artists...it's just easier to see with digital. But just like they can say, "every stroke has my hand in it" - every time I cut a photo texture and place it into an image, I do it in a way that no one else will. Cheating comes from intent, not from methodology.
When you are making work, what makes it worthwhile is when you interject your own point of view. Artists do that in different ways...and it is always easier to avoid thinking in favor of blind copying....that's cheating. You're cheating yourself of a growth experience, and you're cheating your audience out of seeing something new. There's a lot of cheating in the entertainment industry right now. People think they need to paint like a certain artist to get a job, so they cheat. Art directors tell you to literally cut and paste from other artists they like - and that's cheating. (Sometimes, you gotta ask yourself about ethics vs paychecks, but that's a different blog post.)
Your teacher probably told you that when you cheat, you're mostly hurting yourself. That is true in art as well as on math tests. You're losing an opportunity to express yourself and to add to the volume of great works - instead you're just trying for easy success.
The other thing about cheating is that it's FINE TO CHEAT TO LEARN. You "cheat" in math class when you look at the multiplication tables to learn them. You "cheat" as an artist to learn how to paint by doing master copies. It's when you don't own up to it that it becomes a bad thing. Don't put master copies into your portfolio. Don't claim them as your own, just do them to improve.
At the end of the day, if you showed me something cool that no one has seen before, you passed the test, and you didn't cheat. If you're getting praised for something that came from someone else - you're cheating. If the thing they like about your digital image is the cool airplane cockpit you lifted from a photo on the net - you're cheating....but if that cockpit is simply a wonderful element into something that is uniquely you? You're doing it right.
Thanks for reading, please share if you enjoyed it :)