Saturday, December 10, 2011

Learning by example

As an artist, sometimes it's OK to copy someone else's work.


No, seriously.

Let me explain.

Copying is part of the learning process.

All artists are, at some level, still art students. And everyone can learn something from someone.

Copying saves you repeating mistakes, or reinventing the wheel.

Anything you're struggling with, someone out there has already solved the problem.

When you're stuck on something and can't figure out why your drawings aren't working, or even if there is just something you want to improve, find examples of how it has been done well, and copy them. I wanted to improve my figure work, and the use of hatch lines to indicate dimensionality and light direction. So I copied this drawing by Jacopo Chimenti.

A few points about copying as learning: 

1. Credit your source. 
Even if it's just notes in your sketchbook and you never intend to show it to anyone else, make a note of where you found the original, in case you want to refer back to it later. But absolutely, remember that you're not making your own art, you're studying someone else's to learn how to apply a technique or solve a visual problem. Because that is where the line is between copying and plagarism, and they are not (as far as I'm concerned) the same thing.

2. Analyse and understand what it is you're copying. 
Break a good composition or narrative down to its elemental parts to figure out why it works, and how you can use that information to make your own work better. Make notes. Pay attention. Don't just be a human photocopier.

If I am a good visual storyteller (which, no false modesty, I know I am) it is because I have studied good visual storytellers. I have studied the best that I found, and and applied the principles I learned to my own work.

3. What the analysis means to you, is what it means.

I know that I have had people analyse my writing or art and interpret it in ways I never intended, or even imagined it could be interpreted. And yes, when you're analyzing someone else's artwork you might be putting words in their mouth. For the purposes of this learning experience, don't worry about whether you're "right" or "wrong" compared with the original creator's intent. Don't let that hang you up, because it's what you learned, not what they said, that you'll be bringing to your own art. You'll be using the things you learned to make your own statement, and you'll have a whole new set of tools to do it.

And that's when it moves from copying to creating.


  1. But Rachael... I wanna be a human photocopier... No fair, man...

  2. Well... I guess if you really, really want to I won't stop you.