Making art out of a glass wall

Most people would say that copying is wrong. They would acknowledge it as plagiarism or even intellectual property theft. Yet successful things are usually copied. This could be visual art or books or products or fashion or almost anything. Less creative people copy the work of more creative ones.

I’m not going into the plagiarism issues except to say that reproducing someone else’s art as your own without attribution or acknowledgment is always wrong. Give credit to the originator.

Copy to learn

We generally start out copying artists we admire. This helps us to perfect our craft and analyze how they created the work. We can study their composition and lighting and equipment choices and editing to see the decisions a good artist made. It is educational and can be enlightening. When you are learning something new I recommend copying examples you admire at first.

Don’t stay here. It should be a learning experience that you quickly move on from.

Studying and even copying other artists helps you build your mental catalog of scenes, ideas, tips, how-to tricks, possibilities, and aesthetics. They are all parts of the wonderfully complex experience of developing your own style. Your style will contain elements of other artist’s styles, but only pieces. Not a direct copy.

Don’t copy, steal

Picasso famously said “good artists copy, great artists steal“. Steve Jobs also quoted this frequently. It is believed Picasso meant that a good artist will only copy what someone else did but a great artists will adopt (steal) the parts that resonate with him and incorporate it in his own art.

This gets at the myth of creativity that deludes many people. The reality is that there is little true creativity in the world. Anything we create builds on things we have seen other people do. Accept that. Use it to your advantage by being more open about stealing bits from others. How you modify it or combine it with other ideas is what makes it your own.

I struggle with cynicism, but the idea that there is little true creativity is comforting. It takes off the pressure to feel like I have to come up with something so “out there” that nothing like it has ever been seen in the world. I can’t do that regularly. I don’t think many can.

However, I can be quite happy with an occasional “wow”. If I can surprise and sometimes delight myself and my viewers, that is enough. That is creativity.

Who do you want to be?

Don’t waste time trying to be someone else. When we copy, we are just being a pale shadow of them. It is not really us. What audience are you trying to win praise from? The only praise that really counts is our own.

Is this egotistical? Maybe. But at some level all artists are egotistical, because we feel we have something worth sharing with the world. I believe that if you don’t love what you are doing you will not persist in trying to share it. Being an artist is hard enough. If you don’t really believe in what you are doing, then why do it?

I love the story Cole Thompson shares about the hurtful critique he got that changed his life. Please forgive me for copying it here, but it is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard:

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

How about you (or me)? Who are we trying to be the world’s best imitator of?

Much more satisfying to be yourself

I’ve been there and I am thankful that I have grown beyond it. I am completely my own person now. I look at other artists work with admiration, and with an eye to steal the ideas that resonate with me. But I am not interested in copying them. It would give me no pleasure.

I will not be satisfied in being an imitation of someone else. I will proudly present my own art. My own point of view. Whether or not it is accepted and regarded by others I can take comfort in knowing this is me. This is my vision. It is who I am.

So if you are copying other artists, fine. Learn from it and never present it as your creation. But move on and get to the place where you can take all those bits you have stolen from others, process them and your ideas through your own mind and spirit, and bring out something new, because it is you. You will be much happier with the result.