The Most Useful Trick To Improve Your Art

My sister-in-law has a clever piece of art. It’s made from various license plates and assembled to spell “art.” I like how the artist repurposed something long discarded to create a thing of beauty. The piece appears quite original. But if we dig a little deeper we’d find out that many artists use old license plates to create with.

I have several bird sculptures at home that were made with all kinds of familiar things. Like tape measures and croquet balls and even an old camera. The pieces are beautifully and cleverly constructed. As original looking as they are, the artist no doubt was inspired by similar work of other artists. Maybe not exactly the same, but similar.

The point is, we all steal inspiration here and there. We have our idols and favorites that we aspire to be like. I know that after watching Scott L. Christensen paint, all I wanted to do was paint like him.

Steal like an artist

Austin Kleon is a writer and artist who wrote the entertaining little book Steal Like An Artist. It’s filled with many short, inspirational chapters. Titles like “Write The Book You Want To Read” and “Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Get Started.” But one chapter that stood out for me was titled “Start Copying.”

Listen to some of Austin’s wisdom from that chapter: “Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”

Back in the day, classical art ateliers used to teach the finer points of drawing and painting by having students copy the works of masters. Today’s resurgence of ateliers are returning to this practice. Why? Because it works. Copying the artwork of others forces you to discover how the artist solved problems. Some ateliers use the “sight, size” method of precise measurement in order to help artists learn form, anatomy, proper placement, etc. Then, once artists reach a level of proficiency, they move on to more complex copying of masterpieces.

As Austin wrote in his book, “We’re talking about practice, here, not plagiarism.” He adds, “Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”

Discover where your own thing lives

My favorite advice from Austin are these choice nuggets:

“Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

“If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.”

“A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.”

So many handwriting styles

In grade school we were all taught the same cursive handwriting. I can still remember those practice books with the horizontal guide lines. Each of us would dutifully copy the letters and forms. From there we took notice of other people’s handwriting. For me, I was mesmerized by my father’s beautiful copperplate cursive. He wrote with fountain pens and I loved the even, controlled look of his “Abraham Lincoln” style.

My Aunt Cynthia had an equally pleasing handwriting style, but her letters were upright and sometimes leaned a bit backwards. Growing up, I emulated both my father’s and Aunt’s cursive styles. Eventually, my own hand emerged.

Even though we all copied basic cursive in grade school, our adult handwriting styles are uniquely our own. We copy, emulate and eventually amalgamate everything into our own style. Our own voice.

Copy it, just don’t sign it

The most useful trick to improve your art is copying. By closely studying and copying works you admire, you will accelerate your abilities and discover how rendering and color challenges were solved. The more you copy the work of top artists, the more you’ll hardwire new abilities into your creative brain. Then later on ,when confronted with a drawing or painting problem, you’ll draw upon your new found knowledge to solve the predicament.

Just remember, copying is an effective form of practice. But it’s not your own original work. So don’t sign the copy and try to pass it off as your own. It’ll be tempting because some of your copies will be spectacular. The important thing is to improve. Take Austin Kleon’s advice and “steal like an artist.” Your work will improve and you’ll grow at a faster pace.

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