Steal it from your own bad self.
But first, this is a colored pencil piece I did a number of years ago. I was still working for nonprofits, and it was something I did on the side, as I’ve always done. A friend asked me if I would paint a portrait of her granddaughter’s rabbit. At the time I was doing a lot of colored pencil work. The lessons and books I accessed were largely about realism, nothing abstract. If I resume colored pencil work in the future, it will not be as straight-up realistic as this. It will be loosie goosey. Hey. That sounds kind of fun. Maybe you’ll see it soon!
It’s kind of crazy how much I worried about developing my personal artistic style when I first started selling my art full time in late 2020. Before I really jumped into it I painted what I felt like painting. I painted this style and that style, and used this medium and that medium. Furniture refinishing, handbag making, felting. Whatever I was in the mood to do and make, I did.
What I didn’t see during that “anything goes” time, was that I was building the creative foundation for my style that would be birthed when I decided to go for it for real for the rest of my life. Through wool dyeing and rug hooking I learned so much about color, and color combinations, and texture. Through colored pencil work I learned a ton about shapes and rendering and values. Through watercolor I learned about letting the medium do what it could only do if I gave it freedom. I made mistakes that taught me amazing things that I still use in my work.
Check out the words of Alfred Hitchcock from the photo below.
During my explorations from childhood until now, I had a good amount of instruction. I was lucky to be from the generation that had art and music instruction in school. It wasn’t optional. It was awesome. Much of what I learned in 3rd grade I was taught again in college. I didn’t need to learn the same stuff again in college, but as is often the case with formal education, I had to share classrooms with people who decided to be artists in college but who never had a bit of training previously. So I had to cover a lot of old territory, and I hated it.
When I got most advanced instructors that expanded on what I knew and whose assignments required including certain elements but leaving us to figure out the rest on our own, that’s when college art education became powerful. I did not finish that degree due to being a train wreck from the perspective of the college, but I learned a lot from an instructor named Mr. Anderson. It was Harding College, which is now a University. It was a Church of Christ College. I was divorcing Christianity at the time, and it wasn’t a good fit, but I did get some good art instruction there. I also started smoking pot which almost got me expelled, but that’s a somewhat different story for a different day. I quit that school before the feces fought the fan.
Check this out:
The Surrealist Venus hangs in my dining room today, in desperate need of new framing, but check this out. I did this when I was about 19 years old. It incorporated the realism I so enjoyed (and enjoy) doing, but it also included abstract components, a clock, varied patterns, textures, and fabric. The face lain at the bottom front was based on a life cast in the studio, but I made it look more like me. The bottle’s label bore the year in which the painting was created, and my initials as they were then, KAS.
Looking back at old artworks is powerful stuff. I remember doing this drawing. I remember getting a rush from adding all the weird elements. And I remember getting an A on it. And now I’m hungry to do some stuff with the colorful oils I use now, but bringing in some of those surreal and textural elements back. That’s what Hitchcock was referring to when he said, “Self-plagiarism is style.”
To be honest, much of the weirdness of this painting was part of the assignment. I don’t remember a whole lot about what the instructor said, except that we needed to merge certain textures into others, and I think we were supposed to include numbers. We had a morgue (a morgue is a sad name for a closet full of props for artists to use to set up artworks and glean ideas from) and we set up a collection of them, but we weren’t required to use them in the positions they landed in. We could use any of them that worked for us.
Then we were set free to use what we learned within an instructional framework. The first thing I did was steal from the instructor. It’s not technically stealing. This instructor was paid to teach us junk, so we took it and ran. It would be a problem if what I had learned was to paint what the instructor had already painted, because I think we might not have learned what we needed to know to expand on the concept with our own voices. The expansion is the important part. Taking a good foundation and building on it is rich. There’s a place for copying, but it’s not the pinnacle of creativity. It’s not really creativity at all. It’s the academic stuff. A lot of painting instructors for adults teach how to paint exactly what they already painted. You see it advertised online all the time. Bah. I’m not in favor. Some instructors even trace the student’s photo onto a canvas they are then basically instructed to paint by number. What a waste! It’s so much better to instruct, and then back off.
Honestly, this concept is very new to me. It was mentioned on the Creative Pep Talk podcast with Andy J. Pizza which I just started listening to yesterday and chugged a few hours of it. The podcast is very much a psychological approach to creativity, which is right up my alley. Check it out.
Think about this concept in your own life, in your own interests, work, and hobbies. What have you done in the past that you loved that you could do again, but with twists that you’ve learned since you did it, or tweaks that you want to experiment with. You will have a successful element already in the work, but you’ll get the excitement of the new elements. That sounds so absolutely cool.
Let me know what you come up with.
Onward and Upward!