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.
Vary Your Mark Making
Love a certain type of line or mark another artist makes? Try using it in as many ways as you can come up with:
Use your non-dominant hand
Try a stick instead of a brush
Use a large brush and then a tiny one
Make it in various different media
Make one huge version of it or hundreds of tiny ones in a pattern or block
Limit Your Color Palette
Use Pinterest or Google images to reveal an array of work by a single artist you love. Mix a few colors that match the main colors they’re using. Keep it to three or four at first. Using a reference image if you wish, make a test painting using that palette, but in a different subject to your chosen artist. (Make sure it’s one that excites you!)
You’ll soon discover if it works the way you want it to, whether you need a greater range of values or to bring in an accent that was missing.
Find a Different Angle on the Subject Matter
Many artists don’t reinvent the wheel in every painting. They’ve found a way of repeating a subject with just enough variation to keep things interesting.
Pick a subject that feels exciting, flexible, and open to evolution, then choose a “way in.” Perhaps paint it repeatedly from a certain angle or from different angles with the same palette. This commitment to a single subject is part of what makes your work become recognizable.
Of course, you don’t always know if what you’re about to try fits all those criteria. That’s why all answers can only be found in actually painting or making the work, rather than just thinking and theorizing about it. Sometimes what looks promising turns out to be boring, and sometimes a new door opens while painting that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Get a New Perspective
Take a subject you love, or even one you’re curious about but aren’t yet well acquainted with, and draw or paint it with a limited palette for simplicity and consistency:
At quirky angles
From across the room without your glasses :)
Zooming right in
Repeated in layers
The trick is to find a perspective that intrigues you and makes you want to explore further.
It can help to have a deeper message or thought process behind it. For example, painting close-ups can be a way to explore ideas about intimacy or focus.
Repeat Your Composition
Artists will often use variations of the same composition over and over – it’s part of what makes their work recognizable.
It’s not that they’re not interested in other styles – being an artist is synonymous with being infinitely curious. It’s that they’ve found a way to dive beneath the surface and say something that feels true, with space to explore.
Looking to organize your business and cut the chaos out of your studio so you can focus more on what inspires you? Check out Artwork Archive today.
Tara Leaver is an artist, online art teacher and “creative encourager”. Tara works from her attic studio by the sea on the south coast of England, making art, blogging, and teaching online courses focused on helping others uncover and develop their own unique artistic self-expression.