Is Imitation Flattery?
Nothing is original!
Nobody is born with a style or a voice. As children, we learn by copying our parents, our teachers, our friends, our heroes, and our role models. As a teenager, you probably remember trying on a variety of personas, trends, and lifestyles to see what fit. I have tried being a barn rat, a blue-suited businesswoman in heels, a Brazilian "gatinha", and a “Lily Pulitzer” preppy before my current Bohemian Artsy self. In fact, we try on personas all our lives. We copy our family members, our friends, our film and TV heroes, we search online for the latest trends to copy in food, clothing, and home design and we even choose where to vacation by following the recommendations of others.
We mirror the people we surround ourselves with. If you want to know more about yourself, look at whom you admire, follow and copy. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. Pay attention to what the people around you are talking about, what they’re doing, who they are with as those are the things you are drawing to yourself. When you surround yourself with people you can learn from, those who are way more talented, smarter, more successful than you it elevates your game in every area.
If you want to be a better artist, surround yourself with artists who inspire you. Hire the best teachers you can afford. Attend workshops, join art clubs. Create a circle around you of artists who live life the way you want to live, create the work you want to own, have the kind of friends you want to call your own, the kind of success you wish were yours, too. The people in your artist circle do not need to live in your town, they do not need to know you personally, they do not even need to be alive to inspire you and elevate your work.
The newest member of my own artist circle is Bernie Fuchs. He was a famous illustrator who died in 2009. Among other things, Fuchs was commissioned for the illustration of four U.S. postage stamps released in 1998. The stamps featured folk musicians Huddie ‘Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Josh White. Fuchs also illustrated several children's picture books, including Ragtime Tumpie and Ride Like the Wind!. He also painted portraits of several U.S. Presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, as well as of athletes and celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Katharine Hepburn. In 1975, Bernie Fuchs was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for great illustrators such as Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, Norman Rockwell, and Maxfield Parrish. I admire the energy and movement he adds to his paintings and the way he creates the glare of sunlight. I don’t understand his process yet, but I know that his body of work is still here to guide and teach me.
If you can’t think of how to begin your artist circle, notice when an artwork grabs your attention and awakens your curiosity. It might be in a museum, a gallery, a store, on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, or at a street fair. Create a photo album on your phone called “Inspiration” and snap photos of art that speak to your heart. Collect art you love in an Instagram folder and a board on Pinterest. Scroll through these files when you are looking for direction and inspiration.
Once you notice a particular artist appearing frequently in your collections, begin hanging out with them. Follow their posts, watch their videos, read their books, find out everything you can about them and their work. Discover three people the artist loved and learn everything you can about them too. The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they cannot refuse you as an apprentice. They left their lesson plans in their work. Research their life story, dig into their portfolio, their transitions, growth, drama, writings, interviews, musings. Become a fan.
Even if your artist is dead, or will never write back, write a fan letter. Make something to show your appreciation. Answer a question they’ve asked, improve on their work in some way. Do this without expecting any response. Do it for yourself to clarify what it is you admire about them and what you would like to add to your own toolbox from theirs.
Allow your favored artist to mentor you as you copy one of their artworks. Copying the works of a master is a method used to teach painting since oil paint was first invented back in the 1400s. Plagiarism is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Copying is reverse-engineering; taking the work apart to see how the artist did it. There is no better way to learn.
Add the study of the life of the artist while you copy their work to get a glimpse into their mind. What did they wonder about, what questions, what obsessions held their attention throughout their career?
If you can internalize your artist’s way of looking at the world rather than merely mimicking the surface of their work you will be able to be more than a “knockoff” or imitation of them. You don’t want to just look like your hero, you want to see the world the way they do and become a part of their creative legacy.
Notice where your copies fall short of the artist’s mastery. As human beings, we are incapable of making perfect copies. What makes your copy different from theirs? That is what you should amplify and transform into your own work.
Once you have a good understanding of the artist’s thinking and working process it is time to move beyond imitation and into emulation. Emulation means being equal to or moving beyond the master. Could you create the artwork that is missing from their catalog - the one you would love to see? What did they miss? What didn’t they make? If they were still alive what would they be making today? Could you make a deliberately imperfect copy - what about a mutation? What if two of your favorite artists got together and collaborated what would they make with your input?
Austin Kleon the author of “Steal Like an Artist '' says every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas. Strangely, the more influences you add to your mix the more “unique and original” you and your art will appear. Follow your curiosity and mash-up your interests with your research. Notice your passions, your hobbies, your obsessions, and let them talk to your work. Your hobbies are things you do just for yourself. You don’t do them to make money or get famous, you do them because they make you happy. It is something that gives without taking; regenerative, and it will feed your work.
Copying many is research. When you feel like your romance with one artist is complete, move on to another artist and add them to your circle, too. All creative work builds on what came before.
Originality is simply creating something that did not exist before. You can develop your own unique and original voice by creating the artwork you would like to see and own. Create a world on your paper or canvas that you desire to enter even if you start with the work of another.
Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter your mentors. Add something to their work that only you can do! T.S. Eliot says it this way, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling of which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn”
Doing good work is incredibly hard and creating great art is a lifetime endeavor. There will always be someone more talented and more accomplished than you and those are the people you want to invite into your circle where they can mentor you in person or from a distance. Be nourished by the challenge of stretching yourself towards what you love and what feeds your creative muse. That is the process of artistic discovery.
If you ever find that you are the most talented person in the room, it’s time to mentor others and also to move into a bigger room.
This month I am celebrating one year of monthly newsletters! It has been a challenging stretch for me to crystalize my thoughts on different topics so they are meaningful to me and to you. I hope that my musings have been uplifting to you and your artistic endeavors. Let me know which essays and events resonated with you as the feedback helps to guide my future explorations. Please reach out if you are considering inviting me into your artist circle to mentor your growth. I welcome the conversation. I am excited to share everything I’ve learned with you. As your teacher, I can walk beside you and support you in the exploration of your authentic/true artistic voice. With Light and Delight,