Friday, September 10, 2010

Admiration, Imitation, and Self-Invention

I love to discover a new artist that really inspires me. I happen upon other artists in all sorts of ways: browsing the children’s library, the scholastic catalog, or somewhere online. When I find one I really like, I scour the Internet for their website, and anything else I can dig up. I love to flip through their online portfolios and drink in all I can of their work. It’s usually really great color and lighting that catches my attention first, and of course there’s that ever elusive and sought-after element: style. Yes, style. Some folks have it, others, well…

After absorbing all I can about my latest art-crush, I usually enter a phase where I daydream of painting just like them. I try to think in terms of ideas that would be appropriate for their style. I think about what medium I would use. Am I familiar with it? How do they achieve “the look”? Can I replicate it? Sometimes I actually go through with the experiment. The usual result is disappointing. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m not an expert at someone else’s expertise. The other reason: it’s just mine. That moment of discovery is lost. I never have that turn-the-page reveal experience, that “love-at-first-sight”. I’ve lived with this painting. I’ve seen its bed-head hair and smelled its morning breath. And no, it doesn’t throw its socks in the hamper, either.

So then I go through the sour grapes phase, where I tell myself, I don’t want to be a copycat anyway. That artist can paint like that artist. I’m going to paint like ME! But what is “like me”? Then comes the identity crisis. Who am I as an artist? What is “my” style?

All my teachers told us not to worry about developing a “style”. Style, they said, is something that just happens as you develop, as you continue to do what you love. A big part of that development actually does involve trying to imitate work that we admire. My husband is a Musical Thater Actor. He started off by simply singing along with Colm Wilkinson, Michael Crawford, and Anthony Warlow. Sometimes I hear their influence in his voice, especially when he sings songs they have sung, but there is also something all his own, and the more he sings, the more it is his own. We are the product of what we surround ourselves with. Soak up all you can of things that inspire you. Live with that “sense of wonder” Rachel Carson talks about. Every once in a while, do a study from something you love and try to replicate it. It will all become a part of your collective style and enhance the richness of who you are as an artist.


  1. Which is why I think there's nothing wrong in learning from the masters. I learned to paint by reproducing; like you, it never measured up, but it exposed me to many different styles and helped me figure out where I was most comfortable. Same in writing, though it was more the reading that influenced me.

  2. And Rachel Carson has loads of style! I love the idea here - that you can absorb and learn from others to discover yourself! :)

  3. Awesome post, Rachel! I would like to think of my writing style as the sum of me plus all the books I've ever loved.

    And I love your remarks about bed hair and morning breath. I have that problem with my stories, too. I remember them when they were ugly ducklings. That's why it is so good to find fresh, enthusiastic test-readers, especially ones that call you up weeks later saying, "I just couldn't stop thinking about your book!"

  4. Anyone who's creative is the sum of those they admired - and more.

  5. Rachel, great post! I love your observation on how style happens as you develop. I've had a great time and a lot of 'aha' moments, taking classes from artists I admire. Each one has little (or big) tricks and techniques that they've mastered. As I learn and incorporate them into my own arwork, it tickles me pink, even though it's not 'my own style'. And thank heavens for technology where so much can be shared so easily. Thanks for sharing!


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