Blog / 2011 / Learning from Copying

November 13, 2011

We learn by copying.

Babies learn to speak by making noises to imitate the people who surround them. Then, slowly but surely, they begin to understand meaning and form words, all by observing and reproducing what’s going on around them.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night 1889

The same is true of learning to make art.

copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night by a high schooler
Gwenn Seemel
My Starry Night
1995
acrylic on panel
18 x 22 inches

When I was fourteen years old, I copied Van Gogh’s famous painting, but the learning didn’t stop there. Even today, I regularly quote from other artists’ work, stealing whatever I need to develop my own work.

shark drawing
Gwenn Seemel
Shark
2011
marker on paper
6 x 8 inches

Recently, I posted this drawing online along with a video of the process of creating this drawing.

shark drawing by a kid, copy of Gwenn Seemel’s art
James’ version of Gwenn’s drawing

A few months later James sent me his version of the drawing and asked me for pointers on his work.

Marc Chagall I and the Village remake with an astronaut
Gwenn Seemel
I and Cosmonaut Neil Armstrong (Russian-American, Alex)
2008
acrylic on canvas
42 x 42 inches

Back in 2008, I painted a portrait of a Russian-American man for Apple Pie.

painterly portrait
detail image of I and Cosmonaut Neil Armstrong (Russian-American, Alex)

This detail image came to the attention of Jade.

painting by a kid, copy of Gwenn Seemel’s art
Jade’s version of Gwenn’s painting

She presented me with her version of my painting and asked for my advice.

Both Jade and James are fifteen. They’re trying to figure out what all is involved in being an artist, and I am happy to help. In part, I am willing to answer questions because being accessible in this way is important to me, but, in Jade’s and James’ cases, there was something more at work too. They were asking me for a favor, but not before first offering me an amazing gift: an opportunity to learn about my work.

Because that’s just it. Seeing my own work copied is not only a delight, it’s also extremely valuable to me as an artist. It allows me to see how my work is perceived by someone else. I get to see what jumps out at people about my art—what it is that defines my work according to someone else. And when the piece isn’t simply copied but is remixed as in the image in this post, I get to learn about the meaning of my work too.

I guess what I mean to say is that we learn by copying other people but also from copying—from other people copying us. James and Jade gave me a lesson in exchange for a lesson, and that’s pretty cool of them.


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