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)

How to overcome the fear of trying something new

Credit: Dive by Madame Lolina

Trying something new can be scary, and sometimes, there’s nothing that anyone can say or do to make those feelings go away.

I have no magic answer that will make all those fears and insecurities go away, but only one piece of advice that has worked incredibly well for me: just jump right in.

Imagine taking your first dive into a cold, icy pool when you’re shivering from the chill morning air. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be in my warm bed, snuggled up in my blanket, instead of having to face that container of water that keeps lapping at my toes as I wince with dread. Though I love swimming, I absolutely hate that first contact between my body and the water. Every time. So I do what I normally do: tell myself that it’s going to be okay, close my eyes, dive right in, and keep on swimming until I’ve covered a whole lap without stopping. And when I emerge, it’s as though my fears had never existed in the first place, and I was in the flow of things – quite literally. If I had let my feelings about taking that first leap overpower my love for swimming, then I’d forever be on dry land.

Don’t just go back to bed.
Diving right in is also the best way to learn if this new thing is something you’ll like (even if you’re rubbish at it at first). When an idea is just in our heads, we glorify it a little. We imagine how great something is, only to be disappointed when what we churn out is not that great (which almost always happens when you’re a beginner – we all suck in the beginning, there’s no getting around it). The sooner you get over this thought of wanting to be the best at what you do right off the bat, and ignore damaging ones that tell you that if you’re not good at it then you must not be talented in it, the better. That’s just your brain craving to crawl back to bed, where it’s warm, familiar and safe.

The beautiful thing about doing, is that you also learn something new about yourself along the way. You’ll also get better at what you’re doing. But only, and only if, you like it enough to plod through the hard, difficult stuff, and wade through the feelings of inadequacy that inevitably follows an apprentice. The utter anguish of having to re-do something because if you don’t – even though no one would notice it but you – you can’t live with the thought that you could have done better.

So you do.

You unpick those stitches, and do it all over again.
You start with a new sheet of paper.
You rework that lump of clay.

You do it because your love of the unknown is stronger than the shackles that keep you in place, right where you are.

Add in a bit of time, patience, and some good old fashioned elbow grease, and you’ll soon realise that whatever you’re doing is no longer new.

It’s now a part of you.

The water may be icy cold wherever you are, but there’s no better time to dive right in.

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