Outside the Lines
There’s Nothing Wrong—and a Lot That’s Right—About Copying Other Artists
We are taught that copying other people’s art is bad and that self-expression is great. Good advice for great artists. For the rest of us, not so much.
I like to copy.
Saying that, I feel like I’ve confessed to a crime—maybe not a violent crime, like murder, but worse than shoplifting for sure.
When it comes to art, we are taught from the cradle that copying is wrong. Instead, we are told to be ourselves and to make our art a unique expression of our individuality, at least as long as we have a pencil in our hands. Self-expression is the ultimate goal, we learn, even when we are small—my daughter, when she was five, delivered the first of her harsh judgments on her little brother: He smells funny and he copies.
Of course, there are situations in which copying is most wrong. You don’t copy something and pass it off as your own. You shouldn’t copy something and then pretend it’s the original. That’s forgery.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m concerned only with the simple act of taking a photograph or painting or some other visual image and trying as explicitly as possible to reproduce it in your own hand for your own pleasure.
Because I grew up hearing schoolteachers and other cultural arbiters (OK, just schoolteachers, since they were the cultural arbiters when I was growing up) preach that only originality mattered when it came to drawing, it took me until well into adulthood to learn how wrong they were.
I stumbled onto this realization by accident. For years, I went around with a point-and-shoot camera, trying to take decent photographs. More often than not, I failed. But some of the photographs that came back from the developer had promise—or at least a hint that if someone who knew what they were doing had taken the picture, it might have been good.
So I got out a paint box and copied from the photographs, trying to see if I couldn’t improve them—to at least make them look like what I’d been aiming at when I snapped the photograph, or, failing that, just to see what would happen, learning along the way what Gary Winogrand meant when he said that he photographed his subjects to see what they looked like photographed. (Note to self: paint a Winogrand to see…)
My motives, I suppose, were all over the place, but I kept at it. And it never seemed wrong, since I was copying myself and not even my strictest teachers had ever told me that was wrong.
About the same time—about 20 years ago—I realized that on my income I was never going to be able to afford the kind of art or photography that I’d hang on my walls. This was made clear after I became enchanted with the work of a children’s book illustrator and made a few inquiries about buying original paintings from his books. It turned out that Steven Spielberg—and other marquee names—had beaten me to it. I might as well have been trying to buy Diebenkorns or Rauschenbergs.
Again, out came the paint box and I set to work copying. The result wasn’t anywhere near as good as what lay before me in the book I was copying from, but it was good enough to tack on my wall.
Before long, everything was fodder: illustrations, other paintings, photographs, other people’s photographs: I found an album of snapshots my father had taken during World War II when he was stationed in North Africa and Italy. The surprise for me was discovering how good they were—my father had never expressed the slightest interest in taking photographs, but he certainly had an eye. These pictures did not need my help. All the same, I set to work and copied half a dozen of them. It was my way of going partners with my dad, of getting closer to someone who had always been a mystery to me. After he died, I kept reworking his photos into paintings as a weird way of keeping him alive, or maybe just honoring his memory, the way a law firm leaves the founders’ names on the letterhead after they’re gone.
Then I moved up to Old Masters, or at least old, long-dead artists. For reasons more sentimental than esthetic, I copied a middling Hudson River School painting of the 19th century landscape near the town where I live. Then, just to see what would happen, I tried a Vermeer. The result certainly wasn’t Vermeer, but it was fun trying.
More than fun, it was an education. If you assiduously try to copy something, you can’t help learn about what you’re replicating. I understood more about Vermeer by painting my own Vermeer—about his use of light and sense of color and proportion—than I had ever learned by simply staring at his paintings.
Then it hit me (yes, I’m a slow learner): this was how I’d learned to draw in the first place. When I was little kid, I didn’t learn much from all those teachers urging me to express myself—frankly, I don’t think I, or most people for that matter, have much to express, certainly not when they’re six.
I learned to draw and paint on my own and I did it by copying. I started with Mickey Mouse, and I kept at it until my Mickey looked like the one in the cartoons and the comic books. Along the way, I got an education in shading, depth, perspective, and all the other basics of drawing. The real takeaway, though, was that not just anyone can be a great artist, but anyone can learn to draw. You just need a pencil and paper and a lot of time.
Copying, like rote memorization, is no longer in fashion. For centuries, student artists copied plaster casts and worked up variations on images of the Holy Family. The job then was as much craft as art. Then came Romanticism and the cult of self, which needed to be expressed. Then Modernism blew the doors open with its insistence on constant change that now permeates—and rules—every corner of the creative world (Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new!” might as well have an “Or else!” tacked on). And that’s fine if you are a true artist. Alas, most of us aren’t, so when our puny efforts at creativity fall short, we feel like failures and quit before we’re out of grade school. Ever thereafter, we regard art as some mysterious, gated territory where we cannot go. Somehow I don’t think that’s what our teachers intended.
I was lucky. Safe at home with my comic books and those matchbook covers with the images of German shepherds and Civil War generals under the headline “Draw Me!”, I just kept on doodling, never worrying about having anything to say (my contemporary equivalent would be, I’m guessing, a budding graffiti artist). I was content to copy, and in copying I soaked up valuable lessons—about hard work, about art, and about my own limitations. Indeed, while it’s good to know what you can do, it may be even more valuable to learn what you can’t do. It gives you a much better understanding of why Rembrandt is Rembrandt, and why Walt Disney had a lot more money than you ever will.
I learned this early, and it was nasty medicine at the time. It happened when, having become smugly satisfied with my rendering of Mickey Mouse, I turned to Donald Duck. To put the best possible face on things, I’ll just say that it was at this point that my respect for Disney artists truly soared. To this day … well, Vermeer is merely tough to imitate. Donald Duck is a real bitch.