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.
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 committing to being a big time 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 the biggest copycat ever, 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.
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 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.
I eventually realized that even when I make a sketch from my own photo, I am still a copycat. Even 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.
"Only God creates. The rest of us just copy." Michelangelo
Yeah, I’m still the biggest copycat ever. And I love it!
So don’t be afraid to be a copycat. Find a handful of artists that you greatly admire and try to mimic their work. I think you shall be pleasantly surprised and find your own unique hand blossoming in the midst of it.
P.S. 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. 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 copy, and I highly recommend it! [Books are affiliate links - thanks!]
P.S.S. I am sure some may misunderstand this post. Copying to learn is one thing. Blatantly copying someone and then profiting from it or passing the work off as your own is dishonorable and illegal. Don't do it. To misquote Gandhi: Be the kind of person you wish to see in this world.