From Homage to ImitationPosted May 19 2015
Years ago at a national show, I saw a painting that I thought crossed the line from homage to imitation. It was painted on Yupo using the same design scaffold, color scheme, subject, scale of objects, and personal slant as a George James painting. It even included the checkered pattern and tea pot that George frequently depicts in his work. In my mind, the painting was too strongly influenced by James to be considered original thinking. When I think of that painting now, I still feel confident in my judgment, but it reminds me that all artists and societies create their own standards for originality.
Throughout much of human history, societies across the world expected artists to adhere to visual codes. We see these codes beautifully expressed on Egyptian tombs and Pre-Columbian artifacts. This tradition continues today in religious iconography, with its strict rules regarding color, scale and presentation.
Our current Western culture instead emphasizes originality, but to what result? I need only to recall last week's article to suggest that the result is not always positive. If originality does not emerge from an artist's own desire, the pressure to be original becomes as much a demand from society as an artistic code was in the past. If a contemporary artist can't repeat anything that's been done before, she may feel as limited as an ancient Egyptian craftsman inscribing a tomb.
I think it's helpful for artists to contemplate the extremes of originality and artistic codes and arrive at some middle ground - perhaps a set of personal boundaries. As you can imagine, I'm swept over with new ideas each time we work with an artist at Creative Catalyst. After an artist visits our studio, I find it helpful to do a review of my work. I look at four areas of personal development.
Technique: Information about how to apply paint to a specific substrate.
Content: What I choose to paint (e.g. people, flowers, landscapes, non-objective designs, dreams).
Design: The arrangement of shapes, color scheme, use of line, and any anything else related to composition.
Personal Slant: The viewpoint I bring to my art (e.g. optimistic, angry, ordered, political).
If I find that I'm trending too far in multiple areas toward one of my artistic influences, I take another look at what I'm doing. I ask myself if I'm contributing enough of me to make the work mine. If the answer is no, I certainly would not enter my paintings into a show as an expression of me.
Fortunately we are all free to arrive at our own conclusions. But falling into thoughtless reproduction of any teacher or influence's style means losing one of the best reasons to paint: creating a visual expression of how each of us experiences our world. We all experience the world in an original way, and hopefully we can each draw on our experience to provide the level of originality we feel is necessary in our work.