When I first began adding art and lettering to my journal, I had no idea what I was doing. (I still don’t but go with me here.) I remembered the professor of my college art history class telling us that, during the Renaissance, apprentices who studied under a master artist weren’t allowed to simply draw and paint whatever they wanted. Instead, aspiring artists were required to copy the existing master’s work over and over again until the copy was almost indistinguishable from the master’s.
I remember thinking, “Wow, how boring!”
As I failed one watercolor and lettering attempt after another, I reconsidered my attitude. While I sat there clueless, the “masters” that I found and followed online had already grasped perspective, scale, shadow, and countless other techniques that I so dearly desired. So I decided I would attempt what the Old World masters required and become an apprentice copycat.
Important note: Please do not misunderstand or misconstrue this post. Copying to learn is one thing. Blatantly copying someone and then profiting from it or passing the work off as your own (and this includes sharing the artwork on social media) is dishonorable and illegal. Don't do it. To misquote Gandhi, be the kind of person you wish to see in this world.
It turns out that it is easier to watercolor or sketch from an existing work of art than it is to go at it alone. (I am sure there is some great metaphor in this that should point me to a life-altering epiphany, but I have no idea what it is at the moment.)
After resigning myself to being a copycat, I actually started making art in my journal that I felt okay about. Not only that, my confidence and skills grew quickly and more steadily. I was surprised to find that I learned quickly while mimicking another’s work. And though I found it easier than trying to create a drawing or painting from “real” life, it still challenged me.
The cool thing was that, when I committed to becoming a copycat, I found that my own unique style began emerging.
Truth is, when painting or drawing, it is nearly impossible to make an exact replica of another’s work. Our art will have our hand in it and no other, so it will look uniquely ours. (But please remember, it's still not uniquely yours so tread carefully before saving any inspired artwork and especially before sharing. Learn more about honoring artist’s copyrights here.)
I was very honest about my copycatting abilities. I didn’t try to pass off the copycat item as my own. This is actually the first time I have posted any of my early copycat work online, and I won't do so again. And I was very honest with others about what I was doing. If anyone admired my art journal, I simply pointed them to the source of my inspiration. If I didn't want to save the copycat artwork in my private journal along with appropriate credit, I destroyed it.
The purpose of mimicking artwork to learn, not to benefit in any way—emotionally, socially, or financially.
I eventually realized that even when I made a sketch from my own photo, I'm still a copycat. If I went out into the wild and painted a tree that no other human has ever seen, I am still copying someone else's handiwork.
So don’t be afraid to be a copycat. Find a handful of artists that you greatly admire and try to mimic their work. And above all, make a point to be honest and kind. Please don't share your awesome copycat skills on social media, give the art away to friends, etc, etc. Of course, if you want to reach out to the artist to say 'thanks,' I think that's just fine.
And I also think you shall be pleasantly surprised and find your own unique hand blossoming in the midst of it.
The book that you see in the photos above is The Watercolorist's Essential Notebook by Gordon MacKenzie. (There is also an updated version available.) Gordon is an amazing watercolor artist and brilliant teacher who has published several informative books on watercolor.
When I first began painting and nature journaling, I checked this book out so many times from the library that I feared they might ban me from ever doing so again. I am now the proud owner of my own treasured copy and highly recommend it!
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