Trying to emulate other artists can spoil your painting journey


The Portal” _ oil painting on canvas _ 2004 _ sold

by Robert Conway

Once I have my finished my layout for my next painting its a done deal, i’m sticking with the plan. I am going to try my best to not only recreate that image into a painting, but make it better. If you have already started your painting and say go to a museum and get inspired with the way a certain artist renders clouds for example, maybe this is something you might want to experiment with down the road, but not with the project you are currently working on.

The post modern notion that everything has been done already can be a blight on your creativity. In this culture of continuously recycled ideas, I refuse to adhere to this notion, vehemently. As someone who grew up at the during the tail end of this country’s golden age, where there seemed to an abundance fresh ideas and this thing called ‘optimism’, it pains me to see how America has panned out. Even the stupid people are saying the movies are stupid. This focus group mentality that permeates our society is the enemy of individual expression and all that is special and fun and spontaneous. I am tired of everything being a remake, so as a rule, I never study anyone else’s art when I’m developing an oil painting, never want to emulate anyone else. All those great artists of the past, the Florentines, the Venetians, close the book on those guys, that is all so intimidating it will make your head spin right off your shoulders. This is a journey you will be walking alone, so why follow someone else’s path, when you can make your own? You really don’t want anyone describing your paintings to someone else as “Oh yeah his work is a lot like Miro’s, but with day-glow” or “Her stuff is kind of Gauguin-esque”. Anytime you get that suffix ‘esque” describing your work, its like the Scarlet Letter.

Reasons why you should not to emulate other artists:

1) They did it first and better, it’s a battle you will never win
2) Make up your own rules and you won’t have to answer to anyone.

I learned to let go of a lot of these ‘tricks’ in my technique, that I used to obsess over, that would always lead me to the same brick wall, where I would end up eventually destroying the piece. Getting hung up on technique can lead you away from the emotional quality of your work, and it is this quality that separates you from everyone else in this land of remakes. One thing that you should understand is the fact that there is always going to be people out there with better technical skills than you, why fuss over it? Some of these photo realists out there have unbelievable skills, that should be marveled over, but as far as an emotional impact they can be a lot of the time quite sterile, and where is the fun in that?

I used to cling to my detailing trick, because I knew going into one of those ‘critiques’ in college, I always had the detail going on my side and no matter how much a professor ripped into one of my works, I would get a star for detail. Well, I was on my way to taking my first painting classes the next semester with some of the same professors, I mean it was intimidating knowing that I was going to be learning this serious craft from these judgmental people who only saw things their way and no one elses. Don’t get me wrong, these were good teachers and I did learn quiet a bit from them, but everything changed when I went to the faculty art show at the college and saw what those guys painted, I was really taken back at how bad their work was. I mean one professor’s work was all blatant rip-offs of Mark Rothko’s, even the titles of the paintings were not his. And there was this other professor’s paintings that were exaggerated, cartoon-like pictures of himself in his underwear with his tongue hanging out, chasing young under dressed women around this room. I mean this guy gets paid to teach young girls all day! red flag! I’m sure the tuition-paying parents might have been a little concerned about this good time charlie. The third professor’s paintings were so all so boring they were hard to look at, he would paint a wall, a plant, a window, a wall socket, some wall molding all very flat and shockingly uninteresting. I overheard him talking about one of his works, “Aren’t you interested to know that the wall socket is exactly 8 inches from the houseplant and the wall moulding is only 4 inches from the same plant? . . . .” maybe if I was at Home Depot this would have some relevancy to me, but at that moment I was deciding on what to change my major to.

Anyway, what I am saying here is that people can lead you astray sometimes, and you will pick up on this more and more as you get older. Especially in the art world where everything is so subjective, its all up in the air really. there is no way to ‘measure’ it, or have statistics printed out about it, it deals with individual tastes. So nobody is really right and nobody is really wrong, and in this type of environment a lot of ‘experts’ can thrive. I am not saying bad people necessarily, but people who may not have your best interests at heart, every one has their own agenda now, don’t they?

February 15, 2014

38 thoughts on “Trying to emulate other artists can spoil your painting journey

  1. Agree, there is way too much copying going on, everything from pop culture and comic fans, to people who are just pasting together bits and pieces of other people’s work. Don’t even get me started on appropriation artists who go too far! Not only is it denying themselves the opportunity to find out what there own art even IS, but a lot of it’s outright infringement. Copying to learn techniques is only part of how people learn. The most important part is experimentation, making those known techniques your own, coming up with new things and moving on. Conceptually, every person is unique, they need to tap into their own life experiences. There will always be new innovative art, but too many people have fallen for the lazy way out and cling to defending it with that excuse that everything’s been done. It has not and never will be all done.

    • wow, that was great Cindy, one of things I think about the way things are now and where the future is going to lead(ugh) is that it is going to become more difficult for people to tap into their life experiences because their whole life experience is going to be sitting in front of a computer. The reason I came up with the article is because when I was a kid I figured we have a limited time on earth and wouldn’t it be better time spent attempting to create something new? rather than burning time over something that has already been done, and is very most likely not going to be near as good to the original. have a great holiday Cindy

      • Thanks, yes, spending too much time looking at what other people have done could be at least part of the problem. Even looking at art shows, I have to limit myself or start to feel less need to create. When I’m alone with my own thoughts, that’s when I make art.

        • that is interesting, you have to limit yourself from being exposed from all this artwork at one time, you get lost in the whirlwind and have to be alone to recharge your creative batteries, I have never thought about that, but that makes a lot of sense, you can start loose your calling, your individuality.

  2. Thought I’d reblog this though I’m not sure about the argument put forward. I’m not sure why having teachers whose work you do not like should stop you learning the techniques of artists of the past. painted a copy of a self portrait of Andre Derain and this made me study his technique which I then applied to a self portrait of my own in his style, which is one of my favourite paintings. I don’t think trying to paint in another artist’s style means your work does not have your own input or is sterile. What do other people think?

    • thanks for the reblog John, In this particular group of professors one of them was my drawing teacher and he gave really harsh critiques and he was a bit of a bully to some in the class so I was walking into that art show thinking I was going to see the Sistine Chapel. I was just saying that this path of emulating artists did not work out for me in my particular case. have a happy holiday 🙂

  3. My artistic breakthrough came with the realization that if what I produced pleased me and gave me joy then it qualified as self-expression, which is the essence of the artistic process. Since I’m not trying to be an art star I don’t have to be concerned with whether my art is derivative, has sold for millions of dollars, or will be remembered in centuries (or maybe only decades) to come.

    • ha ha priceless. that art professor faculty show was the greatest learning experience ever, not just about painting and art, but about human nature. thanks for commenting and have a great holiday. -robert

  4. Robert, you bring up some interesting points. I love how art professors who do “shitty” work feel they can give criticism to someone else. We have critiques at our art center with an artist who teaches at the Art Institute in Chicago and does God awful stuff!! Anyway, for me, the only way to work is just do it…. look at it a few months later and decide what works and what doesn’t. Repeat again and again. Progress toward your authentic self is the goal.

  5. great post and very interesting. When my children were babies, of course I read all the books on what to do for the best and how to handle them. But one night it struck me that the combination of me as the Mother and this baby as the child had never before existed on the earth! We were a totally new deal! So why should anyone presume they knew better than me? It set me free. Of course, there are countless fundamentals that are good to know – the basics if you like, of how to actually feed the child or change its nappy or whatever. But after that, well, it should be up to you, which is quite empowering.

    I think it can be exactly the same in painting.

    • wow, that is inspiring Trudi, I am so glad you wrote that, that really picked me up, now I have to finish that pool painting with my son in it, I am having trouble getting the corner of his mouth right, hmm, maybe I’ll sleep on it-robert

  6. Thanks for this post. I’ve never been trained as an artist so I guess I don’t have any sort of influence around me. I did join a spiritual art group where there are lovely pieces of art and for some time I felt I ought to be doing work like this, upon which thought all my art ideas dried up! Then I got into digital art and I just create from what I call my inner vision because I can see the energy in stones, leaves, trees, landscape, they are my inspiraton. Why dish up or emulate someone else’s work when you have your own unique ideas? People might not like what I create but I don’t care, to be honest, since I’m happy doing what I’m doing. As for the idea that everything’s been done, to use a lovely olde worlde expression “Piffle, utter piffle”.

    • that is very interesting what you said Cray about your ideas drying up when you were hanging out with that group. reminds me of my day at work, everyday, :). I guess for a lot artists the fun is in just making up your own stuff and amusing yourself, and amusing yourself is everything, especially when you get older, you need all your tricks to keep your wits. I like digital work too, it is nowhere near as messy and if you screw up you can always revert back to the place where things started to go wrong. take it easy, robert

  7. The wife is the painter. I will share. I’m the wannabe writer (not here of course, here I am Mongolian white man). But it is interesting to read none-the-less. Some of the rule-breaking can apply cross discipline.

    I have no idea if it has any relevance but Lost Horizon (1937 film) was a good flick. I enjoyed it. Thanks for that.

  8. Great post Robert! As a beginner artist myself, it can be a bit overwhelming to look at everyone else’s art and very difficult not to compare my paintings and techniques. But I’m on the same wavelength as you and feel that I am content with what I am doing and although inspired by all of the wonderful artists out there, what comes out of me is totally…me….

  9. Robert, that was a great post. I agree, especially with photorealistic work. I love it but I am most often surprised to see wonderfully detailed work having well, no soul! And thank you so much for reminding to be your own artist 🙂

  10. Thought-provoking post, Robert. I have mixed feelings about your comments. I believe that to learn a new technique, it is often helpful to copy another artist. However, I believe that eventually you have to find your own voice. This can be compared to learning the scales and your favorite composers before beginning to compose your own work. It’s just a step in the progress of self-expression.
    As for your comments on the professors. Well, I see a fair amount of professors at our gallery and can only say that 90% of them produce crap. Just because something is new and different does not make it better. Parents and students should ask for their money back.
    But…just because a style or medium has been done before is no reason to discard it either. As an artist, you have to find what is right for YOU.
    Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts.

    • you are welcome Kit, I had written that piece a few years ago and reposted it, I’m not that ornery anymore. I must say I checked out your site and I am loving your work, my favorite is “Junipers at Grand Canyon” I am so glad you touched base, keep in touch, 🙂 -robert

  11. There’s an unending amount of art out there to marvel at, so the temptation to want to “paint like ___” is strong. When I try to copy a painting exactly a contradiction pops up- My efforts and approaches are exactly what the original artist didn’t do. I’m fixated on slowly and accurately transferring the tiny details while they made those same details naturally by the happenstance of where each bristle on the brush was. This leads to frustration and the thoughts “I’m putting so much work into this but it still looks different from theirs!”

    I do think there’s value in studying someone else’s work, even if just to experiment in something different from your own standard fare, but I’ve learned to relax and let myself change things so I can focus more on the enjoyment of the painting on my easel than on the painting that was on theirs. So what if it ends up different? Even if I could copy Van Gogh exactly, why would I? I’m not Van Gogh, he was. I’m me and my own artistic vision is my own.

    Of the few times I saw the works of my own professors I can’t say I remember being impressed. At least, their kind of thing wasn’t my kind of thing.

    • that is very interesting, when I was in high school I made a few attempts to copy other artist’s drawings and i ran into the same frustrations you were talking about. it was just too hard to do, it almost made me drop art altogether, now when I find something too difficult to do I just drop it and move on to something else, there are somethings that I just totally avoid now because they are just too much to comprehend, one of them would be copying another artist’s style and the other would be capturing a person’s personality in a portrait. thanks for getting in touch. -robert

  12. As someone who’s done a lot of copying over the years, I find your comments very insightful in reference to an opposite approach. I had similarly bad experiences with college professors who were big on talk and short on actual skills (I changed majors!). But I always loved various old masters, got my first love for painting by visiting the National Gallery of Art, so copying was an early part of my learning how to draw and see color and has no doubt influenced how I compose images, and so forth.

    I should add, though, that I copied the works that mattered to me and thus I was already seeing them through the prism of my own taste. Whatever I didn’t care for, I just as naturally ignored, and I have slighted some great masters over the years because for whatever reason they didn’t speak to what I desired even though I might love their paintings as a spectator.

    But clearly some artists feel very strongly about not copying, feel that they should avoid it as strongly as the emulators believe that they should emulate. So you have to do what works for you. When I was taking my kid to youth orchestra rehearsals, I was always amused by the bumper sticker on one teacher’s car that read, “Go home and practice!” And lately (even after 30 plus years) I still have to tell myself to leave the “editing” for later and just paint. Paint, paint, paint — and “think” about it later.

    Or as I’m telling myself this week, “shut up and paint!” I’ll have to see about having that made into a bumper sticker.

    Very thought-provoking post ….

    • thank you so much for your kind words, I switched majors too! how funny, I was thinking about taking painting classes but when I realized that I would be having these same professors that raked me over the coals for my drawings as painting instructors I had to get out of there. best of luck with your painting, I am working on one now that is just never ending, hopefully soon I can put that monster to bed. 🙂 robert

  13. Couldn’t agree more with what you are saying. Art is so very subjective. My artistic style vary a lot…ok, drastically depending on what medium I’m working with. I hate it when people tell me that the stuff I do isn’t as good as my fathers photo realistic stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love my fathers work and I couldn’t be more proud of it but what I do is how I like to express myself and makes ME happy. That’s why I do it. I have a camera. If I want photo realism, I will take a photo.

    • that must of been a real pain hearing that about the photo realism, a lot of people admire the skill factor while overlooking the emotional quality. I really like the art on your site it has a very free feeling, keep up the great work. I could not imagine how much time it would take to produce a photo realistic painting that must take forever. great to hear from you

  14. I so appreciate your perspective on this. For me, so much of the joy (and occasional agony) of working on a piece is the journey from idea to completion. Looking to others work for inspiration is great, but you rob yourself of the growth that comes out of the creative process when you “borrow” midway through a piece. By the way, thanks for the Like on my piece.

  15. In my opinion, North American art involves too much concerns about technique, the technical abilities, rules and all the theories, so on endlessly. It deals much less with the emotional aspect. I’ve sometimes seen technically perfectly executed works, but they were lacking any kind of emotional impact. Instead they made me think how many times artist has been masking out all the white spots in watercolor, or how hard he/she has been working around with magnifying glass and tiny brushes. I can only say about my personal experience: I tried to gain new experiences and learn new techniques after I arrived to Canada by checking out some other artists works and demos, so on. My own works became worse, less mine, less of what I used to do best. I had to simply stop checking out and subscribing to art magazines and stay away from scrolling through others works and demos. Unconsciously, this was affecting the way I’d do something. I am still looking at other artist’s creations, but I’m not studying and watching nothing. We are unique, so is our vision, perception of image and color, and it’s the best we keep it that way. This is true at least for me. I suppose one should only attend workshops and classes if they want to learn some basic stuff. Developing this stuff is a very private matter, and the least it’s influenced, the better.
    Your works are amazing, I’m always wondering how you are getting these smooth lines and spots in water and creating the impression of under-the-water, and I hope you’ll keep doing this exactly the way you are.

    • thanks, yes I think that if you are breaking out the magnifying glass that should be a red flag for sure. When I paint the water I use a lot of water in my paint to thin it out and then it is a gradual build up of thin layers, if I find any hard lines I will just rub it out with my finger. I don’t load the brush up too much like watercolor, It’s not a wash. painting water is fun

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