The idea of copying someone else’s work or ‘borrowing’ their ideas is something that has probably been instilled in us as not only wrong, but particularly despicable, since our schooldays because it is cheating!
When I first started designing greeting cards for sale, I began in my usual ‘pen and wash’ style – and then I discovered Quentin Blake! Worse still, I read that many had tried to copy Quentin Blake's style but that nobody had ever really succeeded. And here I was doing something very much like an inferior version of the great man’s style! How awful! I became terribly self-conscious as I struggled to make my little drawings ‘not like Quentin Blake’ - and that’s one of the reasons I switched to other styles.
But really I needn’t have worried so much. Unless one sets out to make careful copies, I think one’s own individual style will inevitably, always show through. As Robert Henri says:
‘Do not worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to.’
On the other hand, I think it’s equally inevitable that we will be influenced by seeing the work of other artists, usually unconsciously. I know that I pick up ideas and influences ‘by osmosis’ and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. It’s the way that ideas are developed, that trends emerge and move us forward, both individually and collectively. It’s extremely rare that anything we do is likely to be 100% new, even though we may like to think our work is totally original. Down through the ages, we’ve tended to build on what’s gone before and give it our personal ‘twist’; it's perhaps the difference between being ‘unique’ and being ‘original’.
Sometimes we see another artist’s work and think, ‘I’d like to create something like that.’ Is this copying? It could be; but more often it just a prompt to try something new, a ‘giving ourselves’ permission’ to do something bold and different now that we’ve seen that something similar works for another artist.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Picasso describes the real ‘copying’ we need to watch out for:
‘Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.’
Have you ever suspected that you were beginning to ‘copy’ yourself? Have you ever produced a painting that has been much admired, or a design that has sold well, and decided to do more of the same? I have!
I think the ‘sterility’ that Picasso is referring to is that, once we find a winning formula and stick to it, our progress grinds to a halt. We no longer explore uncharted territory but stick to the safe ground that we know.
Maybe we need to do this kind of ‘production line’ painting sometimes to earn our living but I think we know, in our heart of hearts, that we have within us a pressing need to grow and develop and that ‘copying ourselves’ is no part of that process!