The Art of Being Derivative
Image: Wesley Clark, Derivative Women Series, #2, 1998 - after Rodin
‘Steal Like an Artist’… the title of Austin Kleon’s fabulous little book says it all.
As part of the current exhibition ‘Naked…Act II’ Wesley Clark’s series of derivative nudes are a case in point. Wesley has created a series inspired by some great artists of the past; Picasso, Rodin, Modigliano to name a few. These are not copies, they are the integration of Wesley’s style with the inspiration of the voices of the past, echoes whispering visibly through the images.
'They' say nothing is original...
As an artist I collect ideas, images, inspiration, techniques. Like a curious cook in the kitchen I start mixing ingredients, adding a touch of this, a pinch of that, and suddenly something interesting arises from the process.
Kleon encourages us to embrace influence instead of running away from it.
To copy a work exactly can be a useful exercise to learn how an artist worked, to learn new ways of handling materials, to learn to really look at the objects we are trying to duplicate. There’s a reason the great museums of the world are often home to art students sitting in front of the work of artists who have gone before us. Copy work can be an instructive learning technique, often the artist you are copying is able to teach you something in the process.
“The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an
apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in
their work.” Kleon
Many artists I know, including myself, have taken a long period of time to find ‘their voice’. For me, the process started with stealing, copying, combining, guessing, regurgitating and suddenly one day there was something in front of me that I could call my own.
I can name many of my inspirations, some are still very visible in my work. Kleon talks about the difference between practise and plagiarism. “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.” Some of my all time favourite artists are William Kentridge, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sherin Neshat, Pat Martin Bates and Attila Richard Lukacs.
Copy from many and be prepared for the moment something arises that is new. At some point the combination of voices of the past, interpreted through your own unique voice, combine and suddenly there it is in front of you! And perhaps later someone else will find it interesting enough to want to copy it, to steal it, to be inspired by it.
I was recently reading John Cleese’s book, ‘Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide’. Curiosity and play are fundamental to the creative process. Begin with something, choose a place to start, perhaps riffing off someone else (especially if you don’t know where to start) and let things unfold randomly, unexpectedly.
I recently made a little painting with some acrylic texture mediums that I had been given as samples somewhere along the road. I found them when I was moving the studio, forgotten simply because I had never worked with them. I began to play. There was no one to tell me the right or wrong way to use these. I just squeezed them out on the canvas, moved them around, added colour, and soon saw a landscape emerging. I exaggerated the elements that led me to thinking about landscape. Pure playful exploration, nothing like my usual paintings. That experience is now tucked away somewhere in the filing system of my brain. One day when I am looking for an answer to a question, I will remember.
Image: Kristina Campbell, Lagoon, 2020
When I look back over my development as an artist, I can see the moments where suddenly something dramatically shifted the course of my work. Sometimes, I can recognize the source of the shift, more often than not the source of the deviation is unconscious to me. Cleese talks about the findings in a study by psychologist Donald MacKinnon which discovered that the most creative of architects were also those who procrastinated the most. How does procrastination help creativity? Simply that the longer it takes to complete a creative project, the greater the number of possibilities of seeing, thinking of or hearing something that can be beneficially added to the solution.
Damian John, a talented BC artist, posted on his blog, ‘Chasing the Cariboo Woman’ https://caribouwoman.com/blog/2020/7/21/cm5t4rwge0f1njj1us9inswakxxzj5 musings about the differences between creative inspiration and cultural appropriation. As an artist I want to be as clear as I can about the difference between being inspired by other artists or being part of dominant culture thinking I am entitled to help myself to other cultures symbols, arts and products. I was left thinking of Paul Gaugin and his Tahiti paintings. Many African artists are vocally reclaiming their cultures contribution to Primitivist art and rejecting its legacy of harmful, uninformed cultural interpretation.
“People tell me my work looks like Picasso, but they have it wrong. It is Picasso who
looks like me, like Africa.” Ugandan artist Francis Nnaggenda
Aware of the cultural appropriation of the Primitivist artists, I had never considered Van Gogh in this category, yet as I went looking for more information I found this fascinating article:
As I look at Van Gogh’s work I can absolutely see that he began with direct copying, and this led to ‘experimenting with aspects…including the use of bright, flat colours, and strong diagonals, close-up and bird’s-eye views, unconventional cropping, the omission of the horizon, and the isolation of prominent objects…in the foreground.” Google the image of Van Gogh’s ‘Woman Rocking the Cradle’ and you will see the influence.
For me, the question is about respect, acknowledgment and lack of a power differential. My cultural inspirations are mostly ancient Greece and the Vikings, heritage that runs through my veins. Viking artists were greatly influenced by the Celtic geometric weaving they saw as they were invading, and likewise the Celts were influenced by the Scandinavian artists as they were assimilated, incorporating Viking elements into the artform that originated in the Neolithic period.
While the Vikings initially copied the Celtic knotwork, evident in the Borre style, over the next couple of hundred years they transformed the knotwork into something their own, Urnes style. Jonas Lau Markussen has written and published ‘The Anatomy of Viking Art’, an excellent guide to the evolution of and particularities of the various Viking styles. Markussen published his book under a Creative Commons license, "a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law." https://creativecommons.org/licenses/
Writing this post, I am aware that it was originally Damian John’s blog post which invited further thought, exploration and learning, followed by some self reflection about my own art practise, the value I place on the creative work of others and my belief that we are better together; supporting, teaching, encouraging and inspiring one another.
Steal like an artist! as Austin Kleon says, remembering to give credit where credit is due.