Be Inspired Without Copying

Image: Legged Bowl by Alexander Thatcher.

As artists, we always have our antennae up, ready to be inspired. When it comes to the work of other artists though, it can be a tricky tightrope to walk. It’s all too easy to love another artist’s work so much that it unwittingly or otherwise seeps into our own. Especially since, as artists, we’re curious and always want to be developing our skills and abilities. 

Now, with the internet at our fingertips, it’s easy to discover, follow and even be taught by artists whose work we love. But, of course, that’s a two-sided coin. When inspiration abounds, often, so does copied work. It’s when we don’t move beyond that that we’re not being true to ourselves, or fair to those who inspire us.

There’s nothing wrong with copying per se. It’s a tried and tested means of learning and being apprenticed to an established artist used to be standard practice. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was an apprentice to Verrocchio.

However, there are ways to be inspired by artists whose work you love without resorting to outright copying or even heavy influence. Even when we doubt our own ability to make unique art, there is always more room to develop and transform. And in part, evolving your own work does happen naturally over time.

So, how do you go from influenced to original?

One way is to spend some time with the work that’s inspiring you and discover what exactly it is that you love so much. Is it the color palette? The way they use marks? The compositions they tend to choose? The concept behind the work? The subject matter? 

When you have greater clarity about what it is you love, you can use what you’re looking at as a starting point. As an exercise, you can privately copy an artist just to get a feel for their marks and a sense of how they pull a painting together. Generally, it feels unnatural, although you may discover that you love a certain aspect. 

From there, work to bring what you learned into your own art in a way that is true to you, rather than as a direct copy. This originality and uniqueness comes from taking whatever it is that inspires you and pushing it until you enter a new realm that’s entirely yours.

Some things will feel boring when you try them, some will spark a little something but not feel quite ‘it’. Stay alert to how your body and feelings respond to each thing you try – this is the single most useful way to discover what’s really yours.

Here are some suggestions to help ensure that all that lovely inspiration you’re taking in doesn’t simply get recycled into your own work, but becomes a tool for growth and development.

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