The Battle of Anghiari, an unfinished work by Leonardo Da Vinci, was destroyed or painted over in the mid-16th century, yet is widely known. How? Because a huge number of artists made drawings from it, and some – notably Peter Paul Rubens – used these copies as research for original works of their own.
In the past, with access to works by great artists hard to come by, anyone with aspirations to improve as an artist would copy works to the best of their ability. Professionals and beginners alike spent hours working to improve their own technique by emulating the masters and were inspired to make use of scenes, details and ideas they had never come across before. Writers did the same – Shakespeare was a theatrical magpie, borrowing plots, characters and bits of comic business from all kinds of sources and revamping them to create his own works.
With the widespread controversy over piracy, some young artists are confused about the best way to use the work of masters they admire without infringing their rights. Here are a few suggestions – but first, one golden rule:
Never, ever copy someone else’s work for distribution or sale. That’s illegal, and unjust, not to mention a betrayal of your own unique talent.
WAYS TO USE THE WORK OF OTHERS TO IMPROVE YOUR OWN:
1) Copy great technique: if you love the way an artist does faces, or shading, or develops a character, copy the work over and over again until your hand and brain learn how to reproduce the technique. It’s all about muscle memory: once your hand and brain learn how to imitate a style, you can draw your own originals in the same style. Then you can adapt that style to your own use.
2) Copy great layouts and designs: look very closely at a piece that you really love. Take time to work out how the elements mesh together, what dominates, what supports. See how colour, density, line and shade are used. Compare it with pieces you don’t love so much and decide what’s missing from them. Now do something completely different, but using the same layout or framework.
3) Mix and match styles and approaches: if you love one artist’s or writer’s great way of defining characters, another’s incredible backgrounds, a third’s superb pacing, borrow all of those elements and put them together in your own work. It may be a challenge to get them to mesh together, but it will be wonderful practice. You can cross media and genres too – use elements of gameplay, graphic design, comedy or advertising out of context, and your work could gain a new energy.
4) Be adventurous and have fun: try things you don’t think will work together, like an overwrought set of vampire character relationships in a hard-edged cyberpunk world. Do your giant robots in cotton-candy colours with soft fluffy edges and romantic backgrounds. Create political satires as if they were stories by the Brothers Grimm set in the Wild West circa 1870. Play.
5) Keep notebooks and look through them often: all those ideas and sketches, that woman you saw on a train, the clipping about concept cars, the exhibition flyer, the haiku written in the park, will all come in useful someday.
It’s perfectly OK to copy to your heart’s content. As long as you keep your own ideas and goals in mind, your work will only benefit from imitating the creators who inspire you.
Just don’t pretend that their work is yours. The best tribute you can pay for all the pleasure your creative heroes give you is to become the artist you were meant to be – someone others will want to copy.