Good Theft vs. Bad Theft

At some point, you'll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing. – Austin Kleon in Steal Like An Artist

Austin Kleon, from Steal Like An Artist

Deep Thought Thursday

When do you stop imitating your art heroes?

How do you know when to stop imitating and start emulating?

How can we teach students the difference between imitating and emulating?

Many thanks to Karen Scharer for sharing her copy of Mr. Kleon's book with me. It's a fast read and I recommend that all artists read it.

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29 thoughts on “Good Theft vs. Bad Theft”

  1. I just read an out take from the book in American Craft. I really enjoyed what Austin Kleon was saying. Austin said, ” The best of advice is not to write (paint) what you know, it’s to write (paint) what you like.” Very freeing statement.

  2. I’m still a student of art. I’ve sold a few things here and there but I haven’t taken classes since high school. The process of creating more art and doing studies has caused me to get closer to finding my own voice. I will be going to school because I need a basic foundation in materials that I lack right now. For me, I’m at a point where I can see things in my mind but do not have the ability to draw them yet and there is no where to copy from & why would I want to? One of the things I love about art is how unique each piece can be. For me, I hope I always continue to strive to learn and progress as an artist, I would never just want to imitate. Thanks for the post!

  3. The difference I perceive between imitating and emulating is that one requires very little effort while the other is a journey inside oneself. Regardless of their level of talent or skill, students have to desire to make that journey. And many of them are perfectly content with imitation, not understanding the hard work that’s involved in stylistic maturation and skills growth.

    1. Well said, Kimberly! I agree – trying what others have done helps us discover our own creative voice. Creating only what others create, stiffles our own creative voice.

    2. Kate Klingensmith

      That’s a really good point. Learning from and essentially imitating others are ways to build a tool box. But eventually one needs to use those tools to find one’s unique voice. Otherwise they will essentially just be tools. When I was in metals this was particularly pronounced. A workshop to learn, say, to use a hydraulic press for forming vessels heavily resulted in folks having work that was very similar to the instructors. It becomes all about technique, not ideas.

  4. Mary Mulvihill

    It’s like learning a foreign language. You learn the vocabulary and the grammar and practice speaking. You think in your native language and translate. One day, you realize you are thinking directly in the new language without translating. It’s like that with painting. You see through other artist’s eyes. Then one day, you see through your own.

    1. Mary Mulvihill

      Thank you, Beth and Kimberly.
      There are two issues under discussion. The first is about crediting and copyright. It’s simple etiquette – be fair and polite. Don’t copy without permission. Don’t take credit for someone else’s work. Don’t deprive the creator of the benefit and profit from his creation.
      The second issue is about creativity. Many beginning artists believe art is copying, from reference or from nature itself. A good teacher will include lots of discussion about the creative process and the role of the artist to interpret. The thrill of truly creating is the antidote to imitation. The painting is in the artist, not the reference.

    2. They aren’t separate issues. The remixing that Kleon and you all advocate is just as illegal as ripping another artist off under current copyright law since the law prohibits derivative works.
      If you care about creativity, you have to care about copyright. They’re so linked! To learn more about how copyright law is damaging to creativity, I would recommend the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto or Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture.

    3. Mary Mulvihill

      When I am involved in the creative process, copyright concerns are not involved. I know very clearly when an idea is mine and when it is not; when I am copying and when I am not. We are are all influenced by what we have seen and by our culture. Being human is about connection. Our very being is an accumulation of our memories and experiences.
      This morning I was looking at a wildlife artist. I noticed that while he painted animals, his primary concern was abstract design – much like Andrew Wyeth. I noticed that he tended to crop objects at the edges of his paintings in a seemingly random way – much like a camera cuts things off. I thought about how the camera influenced the Impressionist’s composition, especially Degas. I thought about how the wildlife artist’s use of texture reminded me of Japanese brush painting. All of these thoughts might influence the way I think about my next painting. I’m derivative because I’m alive. But, I don’t copy. The wildlife artist didn’t copy. If someone copies the painting I create, though, they’ve infringed on my copyright and we’ll have a discussion about it. It’s kind of like pornography. I can’t precisely define it, but I know copying when I see it. I’m not worried about any damage to creativity caused by protecting the artist. The human mind in infinitely creative. An artist isn’t limited by copyright. All he has to do is get to work and create.
      Free culture? All of my thoughts this morning were free and didn’t infringe on anyone’s copyright. When keeping a roof over my head and food on the table are free, maybe we can talk about free culture. For now, I’m like any other working stiff. I want to be paid for my labor.

    4. The free culture movement does not push the idea that artists should work for free. Far from it, the movement is working to help artists find new models for making a living.
      This is one such model, if you’re curious. Also, it’s probably a lot like what you already do, except that it involves acknowledging on a deeper level how indebted all artist are to the cultural commons.

  5. I’ve studied with fabulous teachers who pull out a photo and make everyone paint it the way they do. At the end of the class you are the teacher. Not a great idea. But you do learn so much technique that way when you’re starting out. I was shocked once to go to one of my student’s openings and to see essentially my work hanging there. Impressive, and not exactly me, but so much like my work. Of course that didn’t last. So perhaps we all need that stage, and then we become integrated and all of it mashes together into our own expression. Each branch, each tree, each song, each movie, each friend, each face, mixes into what we make.
    XO Barbara

  6. Imitation is much maligned these days, even though it’s so important to the way culture progresses and changes. Without copying, culture isn’t propagated, and, without that spreading of culture, it can never evolve.
    Imitation doesn’t need to be everyone’s ultimate goal, but I do wish we’d all stop hating on it so!

    1. Gwenn, I think imitation is only frowned upon when it is presented as one’s own original work, which is what’s happening more and more frequently. I regularly see blatant copies of other artists’ work – without any attribution – at guild meetings, in exhibitions and on blogs/websites. I understand the importance of learning what others are doing and trying it on for size – I do it myself and encourage my students to do the same. But we have a responsibility to give credit where credit is due, to not misrepresent ideas that are not our own, and to work at nurturing our own unique views. Derivative works belong in our studios, and when they are shared, properly identified with attribution.

    2. On the contrary, I think lots of artists malign imitation without even realizing they’re doing it because imitation is stymied every time an artist claims copyright on their work. And most artists slap a “c” symbol on their work without thinking twice about what it actually means.
      Copyright interrupts the way that culture propagates and evolves. And it does so without actually helping most artists to make a living!

    3. I’m going to argue that point. While there is no doubt that current copyright laws are not artist-friendly/effective in many cases, the idea that an artist owns their intellectual property is a valid one. I did not work my tail end off for 40+ years so that others could use tracings of my paintings to teach workshops under their own name or use my artwork to advertise their product. My friends did not create their artwork to see blatant reproductions in Architectural Digest as part of another artists portfolio nor did they do so for copyists to win awards and press with copies of their work.
      I have no problem with someone who wishes to study another artists work as a means of learning and personal growth (see “Good Theft, above), but when they present derivative work as their own (without attribution or even any sort of personal interpretation) and try to benefit from it, that is where the line gets crossed. This would be the “Bad Theft” as referred to in the chart.

    4. After further thought, I don’t take issue with the idea that we evolve by seeing what others before us have done. But growth or moving forward – that cultural propagation that you refer to – only happens when we process what others have done and re-present it as something unique to our moment in time. Those who simply regurgitate are shortchanging themselves – we have our gift of creativity so as to make something entirely new of it for our community/tribe to enjoy, not so that we can simply echo what we’ve already heard, but so that we can add our own voice in song to the choir.

    5. But pure imitation needs to happen so that the culture can be spread. That imitation can come in the form of credited use of images of the work or non-credited, but it is a necessary part of a healthy cultural ecosystem. What’s more, we all do it all the time as we surround ourselves with the culture we love, as we make our nest of culture!
      I’m not saying that artists should put up with it if someone is copying them. I’m saying they should find new ways (ways that don’t involve copyright) to call out the copycats. Because making imitation and to some degree emulation (in the form of derivative works) against the law is bad news for culture.

    6. Alyson Stanfield

      Gwenn: You say “I’m saying they should find new ways (ways that don’t involve copyright) to call out the copycats.”
      Do you have any thoughts on what this might look like?

    7. The best way is to hit the copycat where it really hurts: in their social currency. Speak out about the imitation; publicize it. Make sure everyone knows that your work is so good that it’s worth copying!
      If you do this well, like Stevie Koerner of tru.che did last year when Urban Outfitters used a design similar to hers, you might even make a bundle off of being copied!

  7. Meltemi, my alter-ego, simply decided that in retirement to return to art after a 35 year gap.
    The art evolved by painting something, anything then writing a critique including the good and the bad and learning from this to make the next painting better than its predecessor.
    Why paint like anyone else? You are a unique person, not a clone…
    Just get out there and paint…oh and share it with the world…it’s so easy today.

  8. AnnaMaria Windisch-Hunt

    Learning from masters and attempting to recreate their work is invaluable while a student. As a galleries I’ve seen so many recreations of famous works. Would I want to promote or show that, absolutely not. It’s been done.

  9. Alyson Stanfield

    Thanks to everyone for this lively conversation! I put up Deep Thought Thursdays to hear your thoughts rather than my own. I appreciate your sharing them here and debating in such a civilized manner.

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