Friday, May 31, 2013

Inspiration vs. Imitation ...

Card I made for an inspiration deck exchange. Hand image: from Teesha Moore's zettiology rubber stamp collection.
There was a time when I didn't make art. Oh, I made *stuff* - cards and gifts for people, things that were useful for myself. For a period of ten years I wrote, edited and mailed a monthly newsletter to about a hundred people. The newsletter was full of whatever I was interested in at the time. Looking back now I don't know where I found the time. Or that many things to write about, actually.

Then I found art. One day I realized that I didn't just want to be looking at interesting stuff ~ I wanted to be making it. There was just one little problem: I didn't think of myself as an artist. I couldn't draw or paint (still can't, really) and didn't even know where to begin. I thought it would be smart to look art that inspired me and see if I could identify what made those pieces "beautiful" to me. Once I'd cracked that, I could start making my own "art". Easy peasy. Or not.

I could feel the creativity flowing through my heart and brain, but when it reached my hands it kind of ... sputtered and failed ... leaving me sad and frustrated, unable to translate whatever it was inside me into some kind of visual form I could share.

One day while carefully examining the work of a famous artist, I began to see all its parts ... the composition, the rich colours, the layers of deep meaning. How all the bits of it spoke to all the other bits of it and communicated something of their relationship to me. I wanted so badly to make Art like this, with a capital A, but I worried that anything I created would only be a feeble imitation of this artist's work, not an original work of my own.

Then I had a revelation.

If the artist of the piece I admired came to me and gave me a kit of his own materials, and even if he stood there telling me what to and I tried my best to imitate him, I still couldn't help but create something original. Through the subtle decisions involved in the creative process, the finished piece would be a reflection of *my* vision, not *his* vision at all. And just as my vision was different from his, it was also different from any other person in the world. Something I'd always known deep inside, but hadn't trusted.

So ... I had "vision" ...all I lacked was skill. I've been learning skills all my life ... walking, talking, reading, cooking ... all I had to do was learn new skills and trust the vision to be there. And it was, and is.

Another thing happened ... I stopped being afraid of imitating art that inspired me. I realized there are some things you can only learn by doing. I'm sure there's some magic brain chemistry going on when we explore new creative territory. It's one thing to passively enjoy a work you admire ... with your eye to follow the curve of a face in one of Leonardo's paintings, it's quite another to put a piece of chalk in your hand to try to recreate it. You have to make a million little decisions as you go along ... angle of wrist, location of mark on  paper, pressure of chalk as you move it, how curved is the curve? And you learn, learn, learn every step as you go.

Recently I was playing around with some fun new backgrounds (remember the "paper pillows" from my last post?), and I wanted to try drawing something on top. Something colourful and playful and ... oh yeah ... maybe sorta like Dan Casado's work, which I admire so much. So using his piece The Boat as a jumping off point, I played a little bit with shapes and colours I wouldn't normally use. I've learned not to bite off more than you can chew, so I selected just the two people in the boat. I ditched the moon. And the dog. I wanted to see if I could understand the posture of the person rowing and maybe capture something of their facial expressions. I wanted to get the angle of the boat in relationship to the water.

Left: Dan Casado's The Boat (reproduced with the artist's permission). Right: My own little boat.

Along the way some things worked and some things didn't. One of my people (for reasons I don't understand) needed glasses. And the other one wanted arms. And a pocket.  The water became more fluid. But the oar is good, as is the hand holding it. And I adore those freaky blue noses. Only later did I realize that my colourful squares in the background kind of mirror the colourful squares in the standing boatman's body in the original.

When I was more or less happy with what I'd done, I then did something rather cheeky. I emailed Mr. Casado (who, trust me, I do not know from Adam). He lives in the Canary Islands. Never met him. I emailed him my artwork and asked if it would be okay if I posted his excellent artwork next to my own and then write about the process of learning by doing. Inspiration, and not imitation. Not only did he answer amazingly quickly *and* say yes (I wouldn't have posted his artwork otherwise), but he also had kind things to say about my work as well. Which makes me like him, and his work, all the more. If you haven't seen his work, go there now ... I highly recommend it to get you into your paintbox, or at the very least to make you see things in new and colourful ways. 


Norma Conway said...

I'm sitting here chuckling and chuckling as I read this wonderful post. What a great story. Now you have a new art friend, to boot, from your courage to contact the artist who inspired you. AND you've introduced this artist to us all. Gosh his work is fabulous.
The reason I'm chuckling is that I often try to imitate something that I like/love, and what happens, every time, is that if I relax into the thing I'm doing, my own muse takes over and it is always a 'ride' to who knows where. I mean I am as surprised as anyone about what takes place on the page when I'm finished. So when I read that your figure needed glasses, it tickled me no end. Your own muse decided this. This happens even when I try to duplicate something I've already done. Like to try to do it better, or to make the same thing because someone asked me for it. I get not very far along duplicating (and I made the original so how hard could this be?) and sure enough, the muse steps in, and wants to play and takes sometimes quite divergent turns. I love the process. I loved hearing about yours. AND I love your art. Norma, x

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight, Norma. I know what you mean about trying to copy your own work - it always takes a little turn somewhere and you get something else. Glad you like Dan Casado's work, too - he's so brave with colour and shape! Always makes me want to be braver myself ... Penelope

Susan King said...

Fabulous post, Penelope!

Misja van Laatum said...

You're such an artist ;)