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Should Your Creations Be “Entirely Yours”?

Should Your Creations Be “Entirely Yours”?

Eric Maisel

Copying certainly makes sense if you are studying art and want to learn from the masters. And clearly it’s not the right thing to do in situations where it amounts to plagiarism. But in between those two ends of the spectrum are many, many gray areas.

Creative people do not exist in a vacuum and there are endless opportunities to come into contact with the work of other artists. What are some of the results, both positive and negative, of all of that contact? The poet Janet Riehl offers the following five categories as a way to think about how creative people can and do respond to the work of other creators. They are:

1. By Copying
2. By Appropriating
3. By Deriving
4. By Being Influenced
5. By Creating Homages


Consider a visual artist attracted to Monet’s Water Lilies.

• He might, as part of his art apprenticeship, try to copy Monet’s painting as accurately as possible.

• He might “steal” a portion of Monet’s image and drop it directly into his own painting of a pond without attribution.

• He might develop his own style of painting water lilies in such a way that we “see” Monet in his paintings but we recognize that the artist has honorably made the imagery “his own.”

• He might develop his style and become a contemporary impressionist, such that we recognize Monet’s influences in his work but none of Monet’s imagery.

• He might, as a mature artist, tackle a stylish rendering of Monet’s Water Lilies in homage to his predecessor.

It is no ethical problem to follow a recipe from a cookbook. That sort of “copying” is appropriate. It is a very different matter to put that recipe in your own cookbook and act as if it is your own. Between those two extremes are where we live our lives as creative people, being influenced here, doing a little appropriating there, and sometimes crossing some edge and finding that our work is derivative and, as a result, lifeless.

Here are three tips for dealing with all of the existing material—all the paintings, books, movies, songs, and so on—that, for better or worse, can’t help but seep into our consciousness and into our own art.

They are straightforward and obvious tips: 1. Stay alert 2. Be honest 3. Forgive your honest mistakes.

The same tips work for the rest of life, too!


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