Copying as an act of self discovery

Sam Chivers - Winter Lookout

One of the apps I’ve rediscovered during the lockdown is Pinterest.

The unending scrolling of beautiful images offered a means of escape from life (as I knew it). With every flick of the scroll wheel, my mind would be filled with ideas of how I’d like my home to be, what new craft projects I can come up with, and also the number of tutorials that are on there is staggering.

Don’t even get me started on those quick, bite-sized video/GIF tutorials – they’re a time suck, but I can’t seem to look away.

There’s so, so many of these inspiring little nuggets, and so little time. I only have 2 hands after all. Plus, let’s face it, I need to dedicate some time to maintaining my sanity during this seemingly never-ending pandemic too, by doing absolutely nothing on some days.

Naturally, my students are also avid fans of Pinterest – when it’s time to draw and sketch out their ideas, they turn to the website for hits of inspiration to get them through the assignment at hand. When it’s time to present their work in progress however, it’s very easy to see who they’ve been copying, even though the sometimes they would omit the names of the artists from which they took creative liberties with.

To be honest, I have more problems with them not crediting the artists, rather than copying their style.

Copying as a way of learning

I suppose I should start with a caveat: when I say copying the works of others, I meant respectfully re-create for personal learning purposes, and not to profit, or benefit from in any way, shape and form – that’s clearly plagiarism, and I do not support that at all!

Learning is not one straight path, but a meandering road – one that leads you down rabbit holes and dead ends, where you sometimes have to backtrack quite a bit before following another path. Maybe you might even have to start all the way back from square one.

Copying is one of the best ways of learning. Apart from just trying on different stylistic choices, there’s a whole lot of other things you should also look into to; things such as stories, ideas, concepts, process.

Learning from another artist, and trying to emulate them is like getting a map without instructions, and figuring how to get from point A to point B. Some artists record their progress for all to see and it’s wonderful – you get clues that reveal just a bit more on how you can get there. But in most cases, you’re left to complete and reveal the mysteries of it all by yourself.

And therein, lies the magic.

Because you see, the act of copying is a great motivator in itself; a curiosity that culminates in movement. One that makes you strive to be better, to be as good as the artist that you admire. It’s a self-taught journey and process in which you figure out the things that work, and those that don’t. The process itself is valuable: it arms you with creativity, grit and perseverance.

However, for most people, this process comes to an end once they’ve managed to copy the styles of their favourite artists adequately. Having unlocked this achievement, they stop. And while this may have been the main goal of the exercise from the very beginning, there’s another step that would elevate their work even further: pressing onward, despite not knowing where they’ll end up.

Once you’re able to recreate a particular piece, the next question becomes how to make it uniquely yours. (I use the term uniquely yours loosely here, because no work of art is truly original, not even the work of the artist from whom you’re copying). Every work that you’ve seen is a remix, a rehash, of something that already exists. Once you’ve finished copying someone else’s work for the sake of learning, I recommend that you do a bit of remixing of your own.

How can you change it?
What can you mix up, tear apart, or add to it that would make it yours?
What would happen if you break it altogether?
What if you tried something new?
What if you played around with it?
What if you let go of the end result, and instead, focus on how you feel while you’re doing all of the above?
What if perfection was not the goal, but experimentation?

What you’ll find at the end of that, is something new, but also something different.

Perhaps you’ll even discover clues about yourself.

What have you learned from copying others?

[Illustration: Sam Chivers, Winter’s Lookout]

What if you had the very same tools as the artists you admire?

I might be exaggerating a little, but for a lot of people that works digitally, that’s exactly what happened when Kyle Webster’s brushes were made available for free for Adobe Creative Cloud users (the membership itself isn’t free though!) His brushes are loved the world over by artists and illustrators around the world like Christoph Niemann, Sophie Diao, Mark Conlan and Samantha Kallis.

What if the tools that these artists use were now in your hands? What would you do with them? What would you hope you could create with it?

Would you try your hardest to emulate the artists who’ve chosen certain brushes as their favourite? Or would you think of using their works as inspiration for your own practice, studying their strokes to see if you could recreate them? Or would you set out to just have fun with them to see where it takes you?

It’s all good, really.

While having special brushes in Photoshop does a lot to help elevate one’s digital work (or at least make things easier), I realised that traditionally, we’ve been using the tools that have been in existence for a long time as well. Tools that were used by Picasso, Monet, Mondrian: the humble pencil or charcoal. A paintbrush, and a variety of mediums that are in existence until today – oil paints, gouache, watercolour, pastel. Artists who play with sculptures, collages and paper, among the many, many different ways of expression, whether it’s in 2D or 3D.

It might be helpful to remember that the tool(s) that you have in your hand, whether it’s traditional, or digital; is merely an extension yourself. A complex culmination of things that no one else has: your history, personality, hopes, fears, ideas and concepts; along with your emotions, thoughts and passions.

And while we may be wielding the same tool, we’re all very different, and that is what makes art-making so beautiful.

Image: Menina IV: Paintbrush Portraits by Rebecca Szeto – based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) (source)

Katie Vaz: My Life in Plants

I love plants.

They exist as personal metaphors for me; and as well, gardening is a hobby of mine, after studying and dealing with a fair bit of them during my university days as a landscape architect. Suffice to say, when it comes to plants, I do have a soft spot for them.

So when Katie Vaz sent me an email to let me know about the release of her new book, My Life in Plants, I was curious. I wanted to learn more about Katie’s process and journey, and requested an email interview, to which she’s obliged! Read on to find out more about Katie and how a personal project that she started in 2017, came full circle and became her fourth book.

Hi Katie! Could you tell us a bit more about your background, and how you got into illustration?

I’ve loved drawing for fun since I was a little kid. I decided to study graphic design in college because it seemed like a decent field to get into where I could still be creative. I got a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.

I was planning on moving to New York City to get a job afterward, but my dad passed away a month before I graduated and it threw all of my plans out the window. My world had flipped upside down and I no longer felt grounded with any sort of plan. I decided to apply to a graduate design school in Germany and the reason for that big change was a combination of wanting to: escape my current reality, make up for never studying abroad during undergrad, and partly follow a boyfriend who was moving to France for school at the time.

My dad had always instilled in me the idea to prioritize traveling and to see new parts of the world whenever possible. It just felt like the right thing to do at that time. I spent two years in Germany and it was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to travel around Europe easily and cheaply, I was also exposed to so many different cultures and experiences while immersed in my international design program. It was there that I learned more about illustration and hand-lettering from a fellow student and fell in love with it.

After graduating, I moved back home to live with my family in the states again. I was in my mid-twenties at that point and smack dab in the middle of the “quarter-life crisis” and had no idea what I was supposed to do next. The original plan was to move to someplace like New York City to get a design job because all throughout design school it was sort of drilled into you that you could only be successful if you lived and worked in big cities like that. In my heart, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I stayed at home with my family for a little bit to figure out something else closer to home.

I opened an Etsy shop a couple of months later as a way to practice illustration and hand-lettering for fun on greeting cards. They started selling pretty quickly and I realized I really enjoyed that kind of work. That led to getting some freelance illustration projects from art directors who had seen my work on Etsy.

Each project was like a stepping stone to getting another project. I kept thinking that when that was over, I’d have to go find a traditional design job, but it just kept going. I did pick up some random freelance graphic design work on the side which helped provide some stability (and I still do some of that on the side to this day for the same reason), but I’ve never loved it as much as I love illustration work. One of my freelance illustration projects eventually led to a literary agent seeing that work randomly at a gift shop in New York City. She reached out to see if I had any interest in creating books and of course I did, though I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to do any until much, much later. We’ve been working together ever since and my fourth book was just published this September.

From sketches…
… to the final layout

The first book that she helped me pitch was an adult coloring book called Don’t Worry, Eat Cake that came out in 2016 and it was inspired by my experience of going through a quarter-life crisis and feeling lost, like I was getting left behind while everyone else around me was moving forward and knew exactly what they were supposed to do in life.

My second book is called Make Yourself Cozy, which is an illustrated guide to practicing self-care, which was inspired by a winter trip to Norway where I experienced hygge firsthand as well as my experience of living with anxiety and how I’ve used self-care to manage it.

My third book is called The Escape Manual for Introverts, and it’s a humorous, illustrated book about how to get out of social situations as an introvert. I feel like I’m a classic, textbook introvert, so it was quite easy to pull from real-life experience on that one! My fourth book that just came out is called My Life in Plants, which is an illustrated memoir that tells the story of my life through 39 plants and flowers that have been an audience to the various chapters of my life.

Today, I work primarily as an illustrator and author. Creating books is the thing I love the most, but I do enjoy taking on commissioned illustration work and continuing to run my Etsy shop where I still sell illustrated and hand-lettered paper goods.

Katie’s studio

You mentioned that this book had its roots in another personal project that you started in 2017. Could you tell us a bit more about that and where the idea of writing a memoir came from? What was the reason you decided to embark on the project?

Back in 2017, I was working on this fun little personal project called “Plants I’ve Killed,” where I documented all the green things I couldn’t keep alive. It was just for fun and meant to be a way for me to practice illustration and entertain myself (because I thought it was really funny how easily plants died while on my watch). Around that same time, I was starting to illustrate people for fun, and did a few sweet, but more serious, illustrations that looked like there were stories behind them.

My literary agent and I were talking about new book ideas around that time, and after seeing those she encouraged me to consider creating a more personal book with writing in it to accompany my illustrations, maybe even a memoir. I brainstormed a bunch of possible themes, but kept circling back to plants. I kept thinking about how so many of them were an “audience” to particular experiences in my life—some were plants I killed accidentally myself, while other plant memories involved things from my family’s garden or just simply the nature I noticed around me.

They were all a mix of experiences, some heavy and serious like the plants from my dad’s funeral, or the fern that died while I was depressed after my cat, Spanky, died. Then there were also things that were much lighter and funnier, like the succulent I bought that looked like a plump butt, or the Venus flytrap my sister and I fed flies to when we were kids. Plants remind me of home and where I come from—they’re also intertwined with my best and worst memories. They’ve just simply been in every sort of significant or memorable moment in my life. It really felt like a natural theme to talk about, and with the encouragement of my literary agent, the idea to create a memoir around the various plants in my life was born.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through.

I embarked on the journey of creating a memoir to share my experience in the hopes that someone else might relate to and find comfort in my stories. I’ve always had this feeling of not being “normal,” like there is a memo that everyone else has gotten about how to do something in life, and I just always somehow miss it. I also often have felt like I’m not experiencing or feeling things the way I’m “supposed to,” like every experience is somehow not as good as someone else’s. But getting older, learning how to be more forgiving and patient with myself, and going to therapy, all of those things have taught me that this is a pretty normal thing to feel in the end and I’m not at all alone in it. This has made me want to be more open and honest about what I’m feeling because I know there are others out there who are still struggling with that.

I know that I would have liked to hear more honest and transparent experiences about life when I was younger. Growing as an illustrator, I’ve noticed how the themes in my work have become more and more personal—I love drawing things that show what my human experience is like. To have the opportunity to create something that is put out into the world for others, I thought it would be important to use that chance to create something that might normalize that “not feeling normal” sensation. By talking so openly about my experiences with growing up, dealing with death and grief, and forging my own path in life, I wanted to show that it’s okay to do things your own way.

You wrote the book, and also illustrated it. Did you encounter any challenges in merging the two in your book?

I really enjoyed getting to write and illustrate the book myself, but there was one issue I encountered. Because I love illustrating scenes and details, and also because it’s about my own life, I often tried to squeeze too much into some of the artwork and got stuck on illustrating a room or landscape exactly how it was from memory. I had to pull back and leave in only the details that were important to the story. I also had to make sure that the featured plant didn’t get lost in the “clutter” since that really was the star of the show! I think I got attached to certain bits of the artwork, so it was hard to let some of it go, but I know it was for the best because I’m extremely happy with how the final product turned out.

How long did you take to come out with the entire book? How and what has the process been like for you?

In total, it took right around 2 years to create the book. I spent about a year and a half on the manuscript alone and that was even before it was pitched to a publisher. My agent helped tremendously with the editing process, so there were a lot of back and forth reviews of my drafts between us over that time period. I started with making a list of all the memorable plants I could think of that I would want to write about. Then, I fleshed out some memories attached to each one and wrote about the details of it and if there were any significant life moments surrounding it. I didn’t set out to write about any particular themes in the beginning (other than plants), but the themes of nostalgia, family, learning to be present, and dealing with death and grief, they started appearing naturally once I wrote more about each plant.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through. My dad passed away in 2009, and though you never truly get over things like that, I thought I had processed it well by now. It turns out that I hadn’t! My cat, Spanky, got sick and passed away in 2016, and that was a particularly difficult time for me, too.

In order to survive and get on with life, I guess I had buried a lot of emotions surrounding those incidents. Though it was painful to relive those memories, it was incredibly therapeutic to write about them. It was a big purge of emotions and in the end, it felt kind of like going to therapy! Some of the things that used to haunt me just aren’t there anymore. I certainly didn’t have to include those experiences in my book, but because they are such pivotal moments in my life, it felt important to walk the reader through them. It was also helpful to revisit some past experiences where I felt like I made mistakes in how I handled those situations, like my botched engagement to the person who is now my husband. I think I discovered a lot of patience and forgiveness for my past self once I could look back on what happened from a distance.

So, back to the timeline, about a year and a half after I started writing, we were ready to pitch it. My agent submitted the finished manuscript along with 4 sample spreads of artwork I had created. My publisher (Andrews McMeel) that I worked with on my previous three books liked it and decided to publish this one as well. They’ve been so good to me and it’s really been a dream to get to work with them on multiple books.

I signed the contract in late summer of 2019, and then the final artwork was due mid-October that same year. That was an extremely fast timeline for completing the illustrations—normally you might have 6-9 months for something like that, but we all wanted it to be released the following summer to feel relevant with the gardening season.

Once you submit the final artwork, from what I have seen at least, it takes about 7-10 months before the book will hit stores. So, if I wasn’t able to meet that deadline, we would have had to wait until sometime in the spring or summer of 2021. I made the deadline, but it was rough! Even though it was stressful at times, I really do love the process of creating books and I know myself and how I work best under pressure.

The thought of getting to see my work printed in a book someday was definitely fuel to push through those many early mornings and late nights. Each time I have finished a book project, I feel such huge relief that it’s completed, but there’s also this small feeling of wistfulness. After working so intensely on a project I loved, it’s a little disorienting once it’s over. As a creative person, I’m often overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of the ideas of things I’d like to do. Having a book project to work on sort of eases that anxiety in a way because there’s a specific list of tasks and a clear deadline over a somewhat long period of time.

How has the publishing of the book affected your business so far? Did you gain more clients and interest in your work?

Each book I’ve done definitely leads to more growth and interest in my work. Some of this starts a couple of months before the book comes out, when I start to promote the book online. My publisher landed a pretty cool pre-order collaboration with Bloomscape this summer—the incentive for readers was to pre-order the book and then get an exclusive discount off a plant from their online shop. It was really helpful in getting the book in front of a new audience because Bloomscape promoted my book to their followers and email subscribers.

I’ve also been a guest on a few podcasts this fall and that’s been another great way to expand my audience. Marketing the book to bloggers, reporters, influencers, and podcasts is really useful in networking and developing relationships with various media contacts. If you can connect authentically with some of those people, they’re often happy to help promote future projects as well. I haven’t gained any new clients yet from this book, but I’ve definitely seen a noticeable increase in interest in my work. That’s always a good thing because when it comes time to market another book in the future, there’s a bigger audience already waiting.

Katie Vaz | Etsy shop | Books (via Amazon) | More about Katie’s process

Thanks so much Katie! You can get a copy of My Life with Plants here (via Amazon).

Note: The links to the books you find here will lead you to Amazon. I earn a very small fee if you do decide to purchase any books through these links. Being an affiliate of their program does not affect my choice of books nor the reviews I post.