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Reflections now and then

Copying as opposed to Inspired creation

Exerpts from a thread I responded to at an internet forum

The originator of this thread wished to discuss the merits and demerits of copying a work of art as against inspired creation. My response was as follows...

Thank you for bringing a pertinent topic to the forum table. While not directly commenting on the differences between outright copying and taking inspiration from / referencing something as you have succintly put it, allow me to express my views on the not-so-subtle differences between "referencing and painting from memory" - something I wrote on very recently in another webpage. Here goes.. "...Brings to my mind the value of drawing from memory as opposed to using a reference. For people like me, who are always hungry for authentic details, it is often difficult to trust memory. Yet trust I must, because a reference, after my choice, posture and time is not readily available. Sometimes, its practically impossible - consider the crucified figure in "Nun." In such circumstances, I must allow the brain to create a composite of the various reference studies or simple observations(of people and things) made over a lifetime. That is drawing from memory. I will not make a value judgement on which is more difficult, or creditable, and which is less. Let me simply state that real-life studies are often practically impossible, and memory studies, even if they allow a much greater degree of compositional freedom, often lack authenticity as regards detail. In the end, it all depends on where your priorities lie, and what kind of work you are aiming to do." I hope this somewhat contributes to the relevance of the topic.


I have tried to find a way out of the egotistic inertia associated with copying. Such vanity usually has at its root an insecurity regarding ones own originality, and powers of creation. Once that part is settled copying becomes easier. But at the very begining I must understand the need to copy. It is not enough to state that there are numerous examples of copies of great masters by equally reputed painters. That is not enough justification, since copying on the strength of that arguement is itself an act of mimicry. It is equally shallow to state that one is copying Leonardo so as to make a better Monalisa, or with the aim that something better, and different will evolve out of that enterprise. It is like pretending to make a better clone out of the original. An act of outright forgery is far more sincere. At least the forger copies the original painter's signature without a sense of hypocrisy. So one must set that kind of intention aside at the very begining.

So why must one copy past masters? To learn? Certainly a valid arguement. We learn from every experience, bitter or better. But I have another reason for wanting to copy. I have learned, by happy experience, often accidental in nature, that a beautiful work of art only partially reveals its beauty to the superficial observer. It is one thing to watch a couple dance a tango, quite another thing to step on to the dancefloor yourself. It is one thing to watch a close-up of naked flesh on 70 mm film, quite another to actually "smell" the warmth of human skin. Gauguin held a casual interest for me till I tried to reproduce his paintings in "pencil". He is famous for his colors, yet underneath all that riot lies a serene solidity of drawing which mesmerized me. When I see a Schiele, I understand that its predominantly about structure, brute swagger, in-your-face honesty. Yet when I drew him, the child inside Egon - soft, shaken, vulnerable, hence rebellious, and angular with defensive barbs, revealed itself to me. No amount of superficial viewing, or theorizing, other than active participation in the process of re-creation could have made this possible. This is my "excuse"(even though I really do not need to make one!) for wanting to copy. As regards overcoming the egotistical inertia associated with copying - let us face it, it indeed IS difficult. The fear, that our sense of originality could be clouded is often genuine, even though the reasons aren't.

The only thing original about us is the way our genes are recombined - once during gametogenesis, and again during conception. The raw materials of our creative endeavours are the same, whether we paint like a Rembrandt or a Rothko. Just the recipe is unique. And as long as we hold on to our own recipies, and pretend not to "create" out of others', we are in the clear. Some of my tested solutions -

  • Clearly write down the name of the original painter, and the title in one corner of every copy or study or whatever, so that someone less knowledgeable, upon viewing "your" Renoir nude, never has an opportunity to exclaim - "Wow, what a woman! Please introduce me to your model."
  • And this is really uselful, and by happy chance different things, if not better, often emerge out of this, something akin to what your friend said. Try to render the work in a medium quite different from the one in which it was originally created. Like "draw" an exquisitely oil-painted Ingres drapery with a thick charcoal, without ever using thumb-smudge in order to blend. Funny, and sometimes even new things emerge out of such practices!

Endword - I have personally found the study of Gauguin with charcoal pencils highly enjoyable. Click the thumbnail below to see an enlarged example - in this case a study of "Tehemana" or more famously "Manao Tupapao" in charcoal pencils.

Click to Enlarge

On prejudices against copying, and more...

It would be great if one could tell prejudice from principles - not many people can. It is useful to take black or white postures on many things in life, but obduracy and art - I believe, are uncomfortable bed-fellows. On a different note... I am still searching for the roots of my very own artistic compulsions (i.e. why on earth do I need to paint) and may very well come a cropper, but at least it keeps me intellectually alive. It is not that the urge to paint overwhelms all other activities in my life. Far from it, the muse of 'my' art is the most delicate and the least assertive. It will wait in the shadowy recesses of my mind till all other activities have ceased. If different matters clamour for my attention simultaneously the muse of art is invariably the least competitive. At times, I may not be painting for weeks (a phase I am going through presently), but when she(the muse, who else!) does emerge upfront - images explode right 'behind' my retina, and I begin to 'see' things in their finest detail - color, form, texture, consistency, perspective. Is this the "inspiration" we have discussed? Could be, but the story doesn't end there.

I try to hold on to those images, and they do fade with time, losing their original focus. But the basic elements, and the associated emotion remain etched in memory. If, and when I ultimately decide to paint out of that temporal storehouse, I seek reference from real objects, objects which had been constituent elements in that image - like say, in the case of an image of a super gigantic mango hovering overhead, something akin to an alien spacecraft, I will walk down to the market and hunt for the most intimidating mango! So is that copying now? When I am not inside that roomful of exploding images I usually doodle aimlessly on scraps of paper (which pile up in overflowing bins) or draw cartoons. During such lazy moments I may also indulge in copying paintings or drawings which attract me, or draw from pictures of sculptures. When I feel a bit more enterprising I paint still-lives which gives me the instant gratification associated with watching well-made pop movies (this is no snobbery - I really enjoyed "Titanic"). Often such lazy 'copying' excercises result in fascinating discoveries, like I have mentioned in previous posts. In the end, it is all about what I need to do, and what makes me happy. Painting, for me is not a moral journey.

Thanking a contributor for visiting this website...

Thank you for visiting my website and appreciating my work. Like I said, in the begining I didn't care for that golden vase either (white, gold & purple), but yes - you guessed right! Someone did like it well enough. Even though I would ideally like to communicate with my innermost self through my work, it is not always possible and noise do creep in from outside, and subconsciously you tend to play a bit to the gallery.

I would not blame you if you preferred my new works over the older ones. The latter are a brooding, darker lot painted during a period of painful metamorphosis (which may not have escaped your sharp vision), but as far as being able to successfully communicate with my deepest "layers", I think on a hindsight (of course it must be on a hindsight, since I didn't purposefully set out to do that at that time) the paintings titled "Leap", "Muses" and "Mind Games" perhaps walk some distance towards that goal. Majority of the new works are painted out of fun! As regards "going back to figures", painting still lives, for me is mostly a relaxed way of getting to know the "life" and "character" residing within an otherwise inanimate object like say - a dented kettle, or an African wooden figurine. Painting live human beings would be too much of an emotional exercise right now - believe it or not! An experience akin to meeting aliens! The last 4 years of painting (after a gap of nearly 15 years - during which I pursued other interests) have possibly sensitized me (to the world around) to the extent that I haven't been able to lift the painting brush for the last month and a half (This is March 2004). If that sounds cranky - it IS! Until I can get back to the canvas, and to those figures you mentioned, I am reduced to surfing the internet - the sunny side of which is getting to meet a whole lot of great people in internet fora.

On whether a photo is a copy . Also, responding to a statement on the significance of suddenly rediscovering new elements in an otherwise old and oft-studied family photo...

"Is a photo a copy?" Do you mean -"Is photo a copy of the world it describes, or the scene/object/people etc it displays?"? I think not, of course! But if you have a set of prints of the same shot on the table, printed under similar conditions, I guess we can safely say that each print is a copy. But then, which is the original? The object, scene, person, flower etc that was photographed? Again, I think not. Those things belong to the 3D world, as perceived by our senses. Those things have real depth, one can actually walk around the person photographed. Something quite different from the 2D image obtained through technical means. So what was the original of which the prints were the copy? The choice of frame, focal length(plane of focus) and aperture(which controls the amount of light incident on the film). In other words - the photographic vision. Something unique to each individual. This is where art complements science, subjective works with the objective to create a unique visual sensation. How on earth could a photograph be a copy - the definition stops at the very basic level of aiming to take a shot! One could add to this the many dimensions and layers of interpretation inherent in a photograph, revealed to viewers of differing sensitivity and experience, the same viewer at different states of emotion and/or stages of experience, through various technical processes.

The photograph viewed 24 years ago, and the one with the "nude lady on the rock" are the same, when "thickly" considered, yet they provide completely different creational experiences. As far as I am concerned, all those copies (the prints) on the table do have an original, and it resides in the phtographer's mind. Seen from this viewpoint, I think the debate on the so called "representational" paintings being copies from nature becomes vastly complicated.

The mind simply cooks an image out of the raw materials of real life and that is what painters paint, modified by various factors like the medium, the surface, the painter's skill and perceptiveness, intellectual integrity, innovativeness, so on and so forth. To endlessly extend the arguement, there is no end to copying, and no end to inspiration. William Harnett's still-life paintings are inspired instances of copying from the visible world.


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