For beginner artists, it is often mentioned that it is important to copy from the masters to gain skill and knowledge. Copying others also gives you a chance to see what subject matter or style speaks to you the most. Some say that you don’t need to study other artist’s work at all, that it may even interfere with you finding your own voice – but I think if you don’t, you risk having fewer ideas and less knowledge to draw from.
In my first painting classes at North Island College, we were asked to do our own Impressionist and Cubist paintings. (I found imitating cubism impossible – something about the idea of viewing something from all sides at once). We also practised copying small sections of paintings, imitating textures or brushstrokes of painters such as George Grosz or Cezanne. I don’t think I would have understood what these painters were doing half as well if I didn’t actually try to copy them in paint.
Many artists in history have chosen to learn from each other. As Picasso told one of his biographers, Pierre Daix, “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”
Finding your own unique style is not totally straightforward. I think what will make your work different from others is a combination of factors; such as, your personality, past experiences as well as your colour preferences or ways of making marks. It is actually a particular combination of factors that is unique and only yours – no one else can totally copy that.
Ironically, we may need to keep learning from others to find our own uniqueness. The trick is being able to eventually recognize what our particular strengths are, learn to love them and then find the courage and skill to bring them out even more.
“He was no longer quite sure whether anything he had ever thought or felt was truly his own property, or whether his thoughts were merely a common part of the world’s store of ideas which had always existed ready-made and which people only borrowed, like books from a library.”
― Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere
Images: (top) Matisse, Woman in a Purple Coat, 1937; (bottom) Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937