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Should Your Creations Be “Entirely Yours”?

Should Your Creations Be “Entirely Yours”?

Eric Maisel

Dear Dr. Maisel:

I’m an art student and I like to copy the paintings of artists I respect so as to learn how they did what they did. Is there anything wrong with copying? Some of my friends think that there is. What do you think? — Ashley R., Savannah

Thanks, Ashley!

There’s certainly nothing wrong with copying—not in the context you describe. But of course the matter gets much more complicated when you proceed on to your own work. Whether you knit, paint, sculpt, cartoon or use your creative abilities in some other way, to what extent should your creative work be “entirely yours”?

This is a tricky question and there are a lot of differences between copying someone else’s work, offering an homage to another artist, being influenced by someone else’s work, appropriating someone else’s work, and producing “derivative” work. It’s a tricky question but it’s also an important question, because each of us has to figure out whether we need to be “completely unique” in what we do or whether, and to what extent, we can make use of what already exists.

Mary Holdgrafer, a Canadian fiber artist and creativity coach (one of her textiles graces a wall of ours) has been thinking a lot and writing a lot about this subject. Here are a few of her thoughts about “copying.” Mary writes:

“In the quilt world copying is encouraged through the industry that has grown up around the craft. Courses are offered and books are sold to encourage a mentality of copying. I think this is very confusing for people who are working hard to develop their skills and are relying on the quilt industry for their education.

“As an example, several years ago I judged a local show where a beautifully executed quilt was very popular with the other judges. I refused to give it an award because the maker claimed that it was original work despite the fact that it was clearly the design of a popular quilt author. This same quilt later won a national prize as an original work of art. Clearly not all judges share my view.”

Next: So When Does Copying Make Sense? →

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