Good artist copy, great artists steal.
This is an oft-quoted saying, perhaps originally coined by Pablo Picasso but it’s hard to say since I’m willing to bet he stole it. But it’s not just a humorous saying, what Picasso was getting at is deadly serious. (In this post I’m going to talk a lot about art specifically but these principles can be applied broadly to any field where you create something, baking, software engineering, or laying bricks).
Within each of us, I think there is an inherent drive to create something new, to do things that no one has done before, or to take something that exists and twist it into something that did not exist before and is arguably better. This is not only the basis for creative expression but all progression generally. So, naturally, when seeking to exercise whatever creative instincts we have been gifted with we generally want to create something new, original and wholly our own. Today, I’d like to make a slight argument against this; this week take a work you admire and copy it 100%.
Seriously, lift someone else’s art, music or design this week. I’m not saying you should sell it, distribute it, or claim it as your own, that’s highly unethical. But I am saying that you should copy someone else’s work for your own personal education. You can burn if afterwards if you wish because the value of this exercise is in the creation process, not the final product.
I think it would be difficult to become a great artist in a vacuum, there is just too much to discover without help, I’m confident that any living artist would not be remotely as good as they are without generations of influences behind them. But studying the masters of art will only get you so far. From an artistic perspective, there is no substitute for putting pencil to paper and copying someone you admire. You will learn things that you could not have otherwise known from even the motion of your hand as you sketch.
Your results won’t be of much value to the world, selling them or passing them off as your own would be plagiarism. Even your most of your friends will look at your masterpiece and say, “Hey cool, but I like Turner’s better”. But that’s not the point. You’re not making this for the world. If you’re serious about your craft and you actually want to progress rather than remain stagnant it’s worth putting in a few hours a month to copy a work you like and in the process you may even teach yourself (without an expensive online class) some of the very techniques that the master originally used in creating the work.
Copying something will help you to familiarise yourself with the conventions of a genre. For example, I’ve long been fascinated by the advertising of the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the beautiful Grand Prix posters created by French illustrator Robert Falcucci. As much as I love this style, I couldn’t possibly create an ad like this, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Largely, because I just don’t know the conventions of the era. These designers, illustrators, and printers were constrained by numerous factors, from the medium they used, to the cost of the commission; even what society considered to be an “acceptable ad” was a constraint. I have no idea about any of those things but by attempting to recreate my favourite ads from the time I have learned to see the world a little bit more like those who were originally creating these beautiful ads. By so doing I have in a small way become like those designers and am now slightly more capable something original in that same style.
So if you admire something but it boggles your mind, spend some time this week copying it. You won’t realise it at first but next time you sit down to create an original work you may well have, inadvertently, “stolen” a little of a great artist’s technique.
Below is my attempt at Robert Falcucci’s masterpiece as viewed by an iPhone.
The original Falcucci poster was taken from Benjamin’s Flickr account and is under Creative Commons Licence.