According to the dictionary, plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” We can all agree that plagiarism is a very bad idea; even if you don’t get caught, you’re asking for seriously bad karma-cooties. Don’t do it!
Copying though, well that’s a very different thing. And ironically, it used to be a core part of all artistic training.
Centuries ago, in order to learn to be an artist you had to enter into a long period of focused apprenticeship. Usually that training was a formal agreement between master and student; other times it was training thanks to proximity, as with one of my heroes, Artemisia Gentileschi.
At various points in history, though, this servile attention to “follow-the-leader” was thrown off, and very exciting artwork resulted. The Impressionists come to mind immediately.
Those revolutionary artists had one thing in common: audacity.
But what about the rest of us?
As an art major in school, I wanted to learn techniques, to become intimately familiar with the materials. Unfortunately at the time it seemed that skill wasn’t being taught, only style. Thus, every person who took the painting class at my college ended up creating very abstract work that looked oddly like the professor’s work. I didn’t see the point.
Now decades later, thanks to wonderful online and in-person mentors, I know my favorite art materials fairly well. I enjoy trying to “copy” someone else’s work in order to really study it. Honestly, twenty minutes of hands-on trying to copy a watercolor will teach me more than hours of simply looking at it.
That’s why a few years back I created a sketchbook called, “Inspired by Facebook.”
I belong to several Facebook watercolor groups, so I browsed through them until I found an image I liked. I took a screen shot of the image (this one is by the wonderful Suhita Shirodkar) and I printed out a small thumbnail of it. Then I attempted to capture the freedom and spontaneity of her line work and watercolor marks on the right-hand page. Wow did I learn a lot about what I didn’t know!
Then on the left-hand page, I wrote the following:
Although it looks good enough, mine is much more “worked” than the original.
-Many more brush strokes than needed.
-The sky dried much paler than I expected, had to do a second coat.
– Bolder ink lines to begin with would have made it a stronger design. I’m tempted to “touch up,” but then the lesson would be lost.
– Still love my Ron Ranson 7-color palette plus 2 (burnt sienna and cerulean.)”
Soon after I started using Facebook groups for inspiration, I came across a wonderful class by Andy Walker on Udemy called “Watercolor Fast and Loose.” In it he introduces you to seven core principles in painting, and uses the works of famous watercolorists to shows you a step-by-step way to “copy” their watercolors. It was so liberating! I copied work I would never have taken on had I been left to my own tastes. I highly recommend this very affordable course, here’s the link.
(I don’t receive any gratuities for recommending this, I just love his encouraging teaching style.)
There’s a reason I’m writing this now: I’ve hit a dry patch creativity-wise. I think I ran the well a bit dry in writing and publishing my book last year, and now it feels like, “I got nothing.”
But wait! That’s not true! I do have something; I have The Watercolor Itch. I still desperately want to play in the multi-colored water, I’m just utterly uninspired as to subject matter. (It’s been miles below freezing outdoors lately, that might be part of it. Plein air is out!)
Solution: Take another class with Andy. I’m in the middle of his “Paint Landscapes in Watercolor- Part 2” and I’m having a blast. While I’m painting, I get to pretend I’m sitting in the beautiful sun by a lake across from a lovely cottage in England. Seriously, what more could you want?
So there you have it. Don’t be afraid of using your sketchbook as a place to “copy” other people’s drawings and watercolors. Look around Facebook, search by “watercolor” or “sketching.”
Aside: Did you know that in the vast world of art imposters, you’ll rarely see a watercolor forgery? It’s true, it’s because the water itself plays such a huge, uncontrollable role in the tempo, the spontaneity, and all the unexpected “happy accidents” that are the hallmark of great watercolors.
So never fear: “copy” away, keep it all in your watercolor-paper sketchbook, and you’ll be free to practice your skills to your heart’s delight!