Imitating—copying—is how humans learn. As we study and copy from the masters, we learn our own rhythms, our own lines, our own meters of meaning.
“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.” ~ Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
I made my way along the upward sloping, cylindrical gallery that is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. My admission ticket had quickly turned soft inside my clenched hand, sweaty with anticipation. I was looking for a specific work by artist Hilma af Klint, and I walked in long strides.
Her work, entitled Altarpiece No. 1, was the reason I had booked the flight and traveled nearly 800 miles.
When I came upon the painting, I stood transfixed. Heart racing. Eyes darting up and down, left and right, trying to take it all in. It was an 8-course meal for the soul, and I tried to inhale the magic of it into my lungs.
I let other admirers have their time with the work before I took a selfish stance in front and leaned way in. I wanted to see every molecule of the work. Every decision. Every color choice. Every stroke.
Maybe, just maybe, I could learn how her mind worked. Maybe I could take a piece of that knowledge home with me, to my own canvas and brushes.
Maybe I could mystically connect and commune with her across space and time, back to the early part of the 20th century, and be her abstract apprentice.
How We Learn
Imitating—copying—is how humans learn.
We look to our parents’ faces to give context to emotion. We hear sounds and begin imitating them to form our first words. We watch teachers move their hands across a blackboard, forming letters and numbers before we try them on our own papers. As we grow up, we mimic accents, social behavior, etiquette, religious beliefs, cultural practices, hobbies, talents, life choices, and ways of viewing the world.
Turning each within us, translating each through our own minds and souls. Eventually, we land upon our own way of being, moving, thinking, feeling, believing, and communicating…a unique mashup of others plus us.
Our life as a work of art, dotted with color from palettes from our own time and life experiences, as well as from those who came before us (whether that is one day, one year, or one century ago). Energy and practices and knowledge from souls who had messages meant just for us, laden with hints that we can decode, map, and swirl around within us to make our own brand of a novel contribution to the river of creativity.
As entrepreneurs and creators, we are wise to do a careful scrutiny of the masterful works, practices, and artistry of those we admire and wish to learn from. We can imagine their hands over ours, guiding us in muscle movement, intention for the work, and steady accumulation of skill.
As we study and copy from the masters, we learn our own rhythms, our own lines, our own meters of meaning. We can push aside the requirement to possess technical prowess during the stage of tender beginnings, enabling us to muster courage and confidence while we hone our abilities.
We Glean Inspiration from the Masters
We can glean inspiration and the lift of possibility from the masters—oxygen infused into our creative mitochondria.
When John and Michelle Phillips met future Mamas & Papas members, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, they all dropped LSD for the first time. It turned out this experience was not only one that was deeply bonding for the folk music group, it profoundly impacted their music. During this psychedelic trip, Denny made John lie down on the floor with headphones on, and listen to a Beatles album for hours and hours so he could deconstruct their sound. According to Matthew Greenwald in “The Journey of John Phillips,” “once John heard the Beatles…his life and art were never the same.”
In “Being a Copy Cat Is a Good Thing,” Courtney Jordan notes, “Desmond O’Hagan’s foray into master copying started with a love for Edgar Degas’ pastels. He wanted to deeper, richer understand how his favorite artist actually painted. That led to entire series on the subject including Desmond’s Decoding Degas Drawing Collection, perfect for lovers of the Impressionist master.”
As you’ll see in the short clip below, O’Hagan is not unlike John Phillips…only without the acid trip. He is breaking down and analyzing each line, each nuance, and each shadow in a careful attempt to deconstruct how Degas created his masterpieces.
It is important to note that copying from masters does not mean wholesale plagiarism and/or theft. We must always honor the work of others, attribute sources, and never put the work of others forward as our own. Copy with abandon in order to learn, yes, and in all things, document, attribute, and connect folks to your inspiration sources.
If the creative juices you need to develop and launch offerings for your clients are flagging or are nonexistent, or if you are at a dead end for birthing your next creative endeavor, why not take a journey into the mind and art of a master you admire? Whose work makes you a tad mad with envy or stirred up in fascination and wonder? Whose “line” do you want to copy…learn from? Whose “music” do you want injected into your subconscious so that you can learn the riffs and make those notes sing from your own hands?
Wall yourself off from other stimuli and immerse yourself in the master’s world. Breathe in deeply. Study without ceasing. Copy, copy, copy. Let the line, whether it be made in charcoal, musical notes, or poetic meter, seep into you and stain you like ink. The marks you make next will be comprised of your own fingerprints.
In the art of others, we find our own. And in turn, we discover who we truly are.