Inspiration vs. Imitation: How to Copy as an Artist
Have you ever copied another artist’s artwork? Do you feel bad because you find it difficult to draw without copying another artist’s work? Many new artists think about copying in one of two ways:
Copying is a shameful act—something to be hidden.
Copying is an unethical act—something to be avoided.
But you guys, there’s nothing wrong with copying, as long as you follow some best practices. And in fact there are many reasons you should copy. Almost every artist’s journey begins with imitating other artists. Over time, the experience leads them to explore and discover their own style and voice.
There are four basic intentions that lead people to copy other artists. Let’s take a look!
Copy to Imitate + Learn
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it’s the sincerest form of learning.” –George Bernard Shaw, playwright
It is extremely common for people new to drawing to copy other pieces of art. It’s one of those things everyone does, but no one talks about, so everyone thinks they’re the only one. I did it myself for years and I’m willing to bet you did too!
I spent a huge portion of my childhood copying page after page of Pokemon and Sailor Moon. I was trying to copy every shape, line, and color as closely to the original as I could—I was literally copying them. Not tracing, which teaches you nothing, but copying, which can teach you a great deal.
I copied because I wanted to learn how the animators drew all these characters I loved. I wanted to learn how to draw from a mechanical point of view: how do I move my pencil on the page to get my lines to look like those? It was only by copying again and again, over and over, that I was able to train my hand to move in a way I could command.
My Copy to Learn phase primarily happened in the 90’s, before social media or blogging exploded, so these drawings were stuffed inside a three-ring binder and mostly kept to myself. Now, in the era of the internet and social media, things are a bit more sticky with what to do with these drawings. See the end of this essay for best practices in sharing copied art.
Copy to Steal + Combine
“If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands.” –Jack Kirby, comic book artist
But drawing isn’t just mechanical movements across a page. There are other deeper things going on when we draw. Attempting to draw accurate copies of other artworks is great for teaching us the rules and principles of art. But at some point, to make your own original art, you have to choose which rules you want to follow and which you want to chuck out the window.
After a while, I became bored of copying Pokemon and thought it would be cool to make up my own Pokemon creatures. And that’s when my intention of copying shifted to the next stage. As I started drawing my own Pokemon creatures, I was still copying in many ways, but my intention was no longer to imitate and learn. My new intention was to steal and combine.
I lifted pieces of different Pokemon—eyes from Jigglypuff, legs from Bulbasaur, tail from my pet cat, Elvis—and mashed them up together to create a brand new Pokemon—my own Pokemon. Little did I know, I was on my way to making my first pieces of art.
“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” –Jean-Luc Godard, film director
If you copy something line for line, aiming for an exact replica, you haven’t made art. You’ve just made a copy of someone else’s art. But if you take little bits and pieces from many different sources and alter and combine them in new ways, you’ve now created something new and original—you’ve created art.
Copying with the intention to steal begins with a spark of inspiration. I loved and was inspired by the artistic elements of Pokemon, and my intention was to create something new from that inspiration. That’s what art is: taking an idea, combining it with other ideas in your head, and making a new idea.
It’s impossible to not be influenced by the things around us—it’s the very essence of creativity. Everything we create is a mashup of everything we’ve seen, heard, felt, and experienced. All these things together, from Pokemon to Sailor Moon to my pet cat, make up my artistic influences. And new influences are constantly absorbed into us becoming part of our ever-evolving artistic voice.
If I had never seen Pokemon, I would draw today in a completely different way. If I had never read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemna, I never would have been inspired to create We Are Fungi. These influences, inspirations, and the act of copying to steal and combine are essential parts of the creative process. Ideas create ideas. Art creates art.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” –Jim Jarmusch, film director + screenwriter
Copy to Honor + Play
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” –Salvador Dali, painter
We artists often feel pressure to sit down and draw something completely original every time they draw. But making original art takes a certain mindset, inspiration, and energy level, and let’s be honest: sometimes it’s just not there. So if we’re aiming to draw consistently (which you are, aren’t you?), we need a way to draw when we don’t have any idea of what the heck to draw.
One of my favorite methods of drawing when I’m low on creativity is to copy some of my influences. My intention here is to honor something I love and lift the pressure of drawing something new—basically, to play on the page.
It’s a bit different than copying to learn, where I’m aiming for imitation and a direct copy. And it’s a bit different than copying to steal and combine, where I’m aiming to take bits and pieces from multiple different sources, combining them into something new. Copying to play is more light-hearted. There’s only one source of influence, but my artistic style is injected in the drawing as well.
This is similar to the popular hashtag, #DrawThisInYourStyle on Instagram. Artists offer up a piece of their art for other artist’s to copy in their own way, changing the linework, colors, and overall style, while crediting the original artist and artwork. In this method, the artists are not copying the piece closely enough to be learning, and they’re not deviating enough from it or stealing enough from other sources for it to be combining. It’s right in between: it’s playing. It’s a fun way to draw, when you just want to draw.
I’m actually feeling low on creative energy right now (helloooo month 8 of pregnancy!), so I made this week’s #MightCouldDrawToday theme Wallace and Gromit, the British claymation series, with this intention in mind. Throughout the week, we’ll be looking at these claymation characters and drawing our own versions of them in our own styles. My intention is to share this influence I love, and give myself (and you guys!) a creative outlet that’s easy to approach in a low energy mood.
So far all these methods of copying have been good—they’re beneficial and help us grow as artists in many different ways. But what happens if we move beyond the intentions of learning, stealing and playing? Can copying be bad?
Copy to Plagiarize
“Copying opens your eyes to new possibilities, and new techniques… but trying to fob it off as your own is quite another matter.” –Louise Bunn, sculptor + painter
Let me be crystal clear: Plagiarism is wrong. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; to use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”
You may be thinking: so you’re saying copying, stealing, and playing are good, but plagiarizing is bad? What’s the difference? How do we know where the line is?
It always comes back to intention. We’ve talked about copying with the intention to learn, to create something new, and to honor and play. But sometimes, a person copies with the intention of taking advantage of another artist. Or the intention of skipping the hard work of creating their own original art and passing someone else’s art as their own. Or the intention to profit off someone else’s art.
There are so many horror stories out there of artists getting their work plagiarized. Sometimes it’s a random person on the internet passing off someone else’s work as their own. Sometimes it’s a huge corporation selling blatant copies of an artist’s work without crediting or paying them, like Tuesday Bassen and Zara in the image above.
Either way plagiarism is unethical, and no good comes from it. It’s hurtful to the plagiarized artist, directly affecting their careers and income, and it’s unhelpful to the plagiarizing person because they’re just short-changing themselves of true creativity and not creating art authentic to themselves.
Influences are meant to create inspiration, not dishonest imitations. I believe copying is an essential part of learning to draw, but you HAVE to be honest with yourself and others about what you’re doing. If you copy a piece of art and share it online, you need to credit the original influence.
If you’re confused or unsure about your intention, here’s an easy gut check when you’re considering sharing your work: Do you feel the need to hide who or what influenced your drawing? If you’re not willing to share your sources, then you’re probably not drawing with an intention of learning, creating something new, or playing, and this may be a piece of artwork you should keep to yourself. Private artworks can be a source of learning too, and we don’t have to share everything we make. Copying only becomes plagiarizing if you attempt to pass it off someone else’s work as your own.
Best Practices of Copying
I think this may be why people are scared to admit to or talk about copying. But as long as you’re honest with yourself and others, copying can be a successful part of any artist’s evolution. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when you’re copying, and especially when you’re thinking of sharing artwork spurred from copying:
Learning/Imitating + Honoring/Playing
If you copy a piece of art with the intention of learning or playing and want to share it online: credit the original source. Let people know you are copying, what you’re copying, and if not a well-known franchise like Pokemon, who you are copying. Be honest.
If you copy a piece of art with the intention of stealing and want to share it online, consider: did you steal from enough sources and alter the original ideas enough to create something new? If yes, awesome, you made some original art! Share away!
If you only had one influence, or wouldn’t want to show people your source influences because your version is too close to the original, or if you’re not sure: you should credit the original source/influence/artist.
If you copy a piece of art with the intention of claiming someone else’s art as your own or profiting off another artist’s work: DON’T.
All You Need to Know
Copying is a part of almost every artist’s evolution. Copying another artist’s work can be a wonderful way to learn, get inspired, get ideas, honor an influence you love, and create something new. All art is a mash up of ideas, and we can all influence and inspire each other, so long as we are creating and sharing from a place of honesty and transparency.
So learn away, play away, steal away, copy, copy, copy, and don’t forget to credit your influences!
I started noticing something [all my favorite artists] had in common—they all copied each other… I realized that this is what artists are supposed to do—communicate back and forth with each other over the generations, take old ideas and make them new (since it’s impossible to really “imitate” somebody without adding anything of your own), create a rich, shared cultural language that was available to everybody. Once I saw it in folk art, I saw it everywhere – in hip-hop, in street art, in dada. I became convinced that the soul of culture lay in this kind of weird, irreverent-but-reverent backs-and-forth.” –Will Sheff, singer
What do you think?
Have you copied other artist’s work? Which intention do you think you had? Do you struggle with how to incorporate copying in a helpful way? Do you aim to pay more attention to your influences to see how you can steal and combine to make more art? Or maybe you want to imitate and learn for a while to dust off your hand-eye coordination!