Limits and Creativity
Practically the first advice anyone embarking on a creative journey hears is that they must work to develop their own style, as the goal of artistic endeavor is original expression. Almost no one follows that up with the advice that to become original, you must first copy, copy, copy. Those who do talk about copying often talk about mastering technical skills, which is necessary, but is far from the whole story about the importance of copying to become your own artist.
Here I’m not talking about professional art instruction, but only addressing what is commonly said about “the meaning and purpose of art.” A lot of rather intimidating emphasis is placed on originality, and not a lot said about what being original means, or how we grow into our own unique style. It might even be simpler to say what being original does not mean. It doesn’t mean you live in isolation, dreaming up an art form no one has ever seen before. Or that until you do, you must hide your artwork because it’s “derivative”—that is, you copied. Art by its very nature is derived from something, very often what the artist has seen produced by others. Originality comes from the way the artist blends various approaches to creating artwork so we get a new view of something old.
And that is really why copying other artists is so important to creating your own style. Yes, you learn the technical skills you need. But by pushing yourself to copy styles by other artists and genres, you can begin to understand how the techniques work to express the ideas. When you use the basic elements of a style to find a way to express your own subjects, you learn to appreciate the nuances of artistic forms of expression. Often it’s at little bit of something different about a style that makes it interesting. Note the ink outline and very little shading used to flatten the figures in Mary Cassatt’s painting, making it less a portrait of an actual mother and child, and more about motherhood everywhere. It’s still Mary Cassatt’s subject and composition, but now she’s using a new technique to see how it might express her vision of the world.
What to study?
For my convenience when looking for what to study to be a better scrap artist, I’ve come to think in terms of four main genres: Heavily laden, romantic, and clustered; minimalist, often very painterly, even abstract; traditional papercraft, with pattern upon pattern and geometric arrangements like an old quilt; and fantasy, from storybook imagery to still life. Scrap artists also often participate in the world of art journaling, textured and blended photo art, and photo manipulated art (filtered and/or digitally painted). I think of these as the overarching categories of style to study and emulate. I look at the work of others to find those elements that are the earmarks of that style—like looking at the Impressionists, the Cubists, or the Expressionists, in an attempt to get at the essence of each, and to spot what makes each style distinctive no matter if it’s a landscape, a portrait, or a still life.
That doesn’t mean I’d be trying to become an Impressionist or an Expressionist if I were a painter. Nor does it mean that artists within these genres don’t vary significantly, and aren’t worth studying on their own. What it does mean is I’m going to take the most notable characteristics of a style and make it work with many different subjects, solve different problems, even if, and perhaps especially if, it’s a style I don’t feel comfortable or confident trying to recreate.
What does this have to do with developing your own style, you ask? By working within stylistic limitations—abstract, clustered, patterned, etc.— you focus on learning how to use key stylistic and symbolic elements to create an image with virtually any subject. If you don’t limit yourself when starting out, you’re in danger of floundering about, using techniques only the way others have used them without understanding how they work. You might never become confident enough to stop copying someone else. On the other hand, if you limit yourself to just the one style you’re initially most comfortable with, you won’t push the boundaries of your creativity at all. You’ll be a Johnny One Note, stuck in a rut, and all those other clichés about being too timid. Even with only two different styles thoroughly mastered, you can begin to see the possibilities that come from blending them together in different relationships to each other, and that is the way to find a form of expression unique to you.
The better we understand the styles others have developed before us, the more we have to draw upon as we interpret our own understanding of our subjects and express our own relationship to our world. We all want to express our personality in our art, and the thoughts and feelings that give our lives their meaning. But going straight for that original expression is like charting a course across the ocean when the world we know is flat and the ocean drops off somewhere. It’s better if we just learn to sail the ship first and grow from there. Once we know enough about what we’re trying to do, we’ll know enough to have our own ideas about how to accomplish that.
“God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” —Picasso.