One of the fastest ways to learn as an artist is to copy. When I was in high-school I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at pictures of my classmates trying to capture their image in graphite drawings, and when I started branching into illustration I leaned on the internet and copied the works of my favorite artists and illustrators just to see if I could recreate what they had made.
As my experience grew and my technical skills began to reach levels where I was able to replicate what I saw in my mind, I didn't look back. I wanted to create! I wanted to make things no one had seen before and be original! Be unique! Copying was a thing of the past. I focused more on trying to implement new techniques I read about in art books and artist blogs into my own unique pieces.
Now, that was a long time ago, and I still strive to make truly unique artwork, something that is wholly mine. However as a working artist you don't always get that luxury. Recently I worked on a painting of a saw for a friend's wife and he wanted an exact copy of a saw her grandmother had possessed that was lost in the shuffle of her passing. At first I tried to get him to let me add in my own flair (an added border), however he eventually decided that no, he really wanted it to be as close to the original as possible.
My ego scoffed, What? Is my style not good enough for them? How dare he ask me to copy another artist's work directly!? But I swallowed my pride and agreed, I mean, he was paying me and that was what he wanted. Who was I to judge?
It had been a long long time since I had copied another persons artwork almost directly but I got to it. I began deciphering what I could of the original painting from a shaky cell-phone snapshot and replicating the piece as directly as I could. Here's the piece and the snapshot (respectfully) side by side:
It turned out pretty nice and my friend and his wife were ecstatic with how it turned out. That warms my heart, but a part of me still was a bit bummed I couldn't create something unique. That is what I strive to do with my personal work, I make art for me and design (in my full time job) for other people.
Immediately after I finished this piece, I began working on the pencil work for a piece that I get to be a lot more creative with. This new piece also happens to have a lot of trees and nature and something hit me as I was working on the trees.
Without even meaning to, I had learned something in the act of copying. A learning technique I had written off years ago in my pursuit of being unique and one of a kind.
Whomever the original artist was, they had a great grasp of how the branches and leaves of a tree look and feel and by copying that I inadvertently added it to tool kit. The trees on my new piece have that more natural look, that randomness of nature that this artist had so masterfully rendered and that I had subconsciously admired and learned from in the act of copying.
I probably won't actively copy artists or images like I used to all those years ago, but I did learn a valuable lesson. Don't scoff at the work you feel is beneath you because you never know how that work might just take you to the next level.