imitation vs inspiration, mimicry and the art of originality

imitation vs inspiration, mimicry and the art of originality

coco chanel once said, “if you want to be original, be prepared to be copied.” as austin kleon says in his book steal like an artist, “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.” the idea of originality in art is a weird one: everyone wants to be original, but no one is truly original. but…they are? in the sense that no one can portray ideas quite like you can. only you have the experiences, thoughts, feelings and unique perspective that you have. you’re the only you there is. and that plays into who you are, what your voice has to say, and the creative decisions you make when embarking on a new artistic endeavor.

while all art is technically just a borrowed idea that’s been done before, i’ve come to the conclusion that how we portray these ideas and express ourselves creatively is a unique experience true to who we are as artists and human beings, and that’s what defines our artistic style and voice.

as adam kurtz says, “find your own voice and the form that fits it best. we all get our start by imitating, but ultimately we’re meant to move on as we grow.” as we begin our creative careers we tend to imitate things we’ve seen. we find art work that speaks to us, that moves something inside us and inspires us to create. we want to make something that moves others the way this piece moved us.

think about it. as children, we learn how to act in this world by imitating and mimicking the adult figures in our lives. a lot of the learning we do as kids is straight mimicry until we eventually grow up and find ourselves. art and creativity, i’ve learned, is kind of the same thing: we will mimic our creative heroes and the work that they’ve created until we “grow up” and find our own voices.

when we’re learning how to be artists, we’re drinking in work that awakens something inside us to become inspired. it creates this little tug of creative desire on our hearts. we’re meant to follow that tug by leaning deeper into it and exploring how our own talent can intertwine with these ideas and create something brand new — something that speaks authentically to who we are as a person and as an artist.

in his book steal like an artist, austin kleon says, “we learn by copying… we’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. copying is about reverse engineering. it’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” a few pages later, he adds, “steal the thinking behind the style. you don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes. the reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. that’s what you really want — to internalize their way of looking at the world. if you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.” in her book finding your artistic voice, lisa congdon writes, “…you can’t actually find your voice without being influenced by other artists…influence is actually critical to our development and growth. it’s usually why we are inspired to make art in the first place. the key is what you do with that influence.”

these quotes hold so much truth to the art of mimicry. it’s necessary in order to grow and develop, but you have to learn from your mimicry and grow away from it so you can find yourself. austin kleon writes, “at some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. imitation is about copying. emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.” think of it like growing a flower, only the flower is your creative little self: you plant the seeds of creativity by immersing yourself in the work of your creative heroes. you water those seeds by nourishing your artistic desires: creating and imitating the work of said heroes; using your hands and heart and brain and actually making stuff. and through the nourishment, through the watering, you grow your own way and bloom into a beautiful flower, a pretty little creative soul who has their own voice, their own style, their own story to share with the world.

but what is an artistic voice, and how can we possibly find one and be original if everything has been done before, when everything is just something done again and again?

I choose to be inspired by the idea that nothing is truly original. i find it freeing, not confining. instead of trying to be original, you can just focus on being yourself. it lessens the heavy burden of trying to come up with some great, original idea and allows you to freely flow and create with the knowledge that you don’t need to be original, you just need to be yourself. 

austin kleon quote "our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. that is how we evolve." hand lettered in dark green over a beige background. from his book steal like an artist.

through experimentation and practice your unique style will start to break through and come to the surface. you’ll start to find yourself; your voice. creative growth just takes time. in steal like an artist, austin kleon states, “a wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. that is how we evolve.” and this will happen through practice. lots of it. you just need to work your creative muscle. as christoph niemann says, “you have to practice and become better. every athlete, every musician, practices every day. why should it be different for artists?” and as you continue to experiment and play throughout your creative career, immerse yourself in new inspiration and inevitably just change as a human, your style will change with you. we’re endlessly creating ourselves everyday. ☻

✷ side note ✷ a few resources to check out –
read: challenges and the creative process with christoph niemann
listen: the art of practice with christoph niemann

in the book feck perfuction by james victore, he writes: “your voice is the story you put into everything you do. it’s what sets you apart and makes you and your work memorable. it frees you from following trends or begging for ideas, asking, “what do they want?”. now your most powerful tool is asking yourself, “what do i have to say?””

while mimcry and imitation are both essential parts to our creative development, they’re just the beginning. we’re meant to use those tools and grow from them so we can find our own voices. simply mimicking work should not be the end goal. the end goal should be flourishing into your own artistic self. being inspired by someone and imitating them are entirely different beasts. remember, imitation is not the most sincere form of flattery: it’s lazy and disrespectful and maybe even illegal (hellllo copyright and intellectual property laws!). as an artist, seeing your work being copied can sort of feel like little pieces of you are being taken, especially if said work is being used for monetary gain… honestly, it just kinda sucks. but seeing someone posting their unique work that was inspired by you.. that’s an indescribable feeling. ♥︎

so with that, i’ll leave you with one more quote from austin’s book, steal like an artist

“in the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. adding something to the world that only you can add.”

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