One day, while I was sitting outside drawing, a friend of mine looked over at the picture and said “Wow, man.. That’s really good. Did you draw that off the top of your head?” He looked visibly impressed, which is something that always makes me feel good to see – despite how modest I am about my work. (I don’t think I’m really all that good of an artist, my sense of perspective and lighting are pretty… atrocious. ) “Nah,” I said. “I used a couple references.”
My friend’s impressed look faded with a confidence-crushing. “Oh.”
As far back as I can remember, even as a child there has always been a stigma on “copying.” If someone drew a picture that you thought was just a little too good, you had license to diminish the impressiveness of the picture with a confident “thats too good, you had to have copied that!” Even if it wasn’t true, all the other kids would now have this insidious seed of doubt every time they looked at your work. (Though .. to be fair, most kids actually were copying or tracing at the time. the accusation kind of ended up often being true.) But is this really such a bad thing?
Human beings have always taken what is already present and turning it into something else or refining on it. We learn from imitation and repetition, mimicking what we see if we like it and practicing it over and over until we’ve gained mastery on it. Our individual personalities, physiology, and circumstances change how we represent what we’ve learned – making our talent different and unique among thousands/millions of others with the same skill. Can you find two people that cook exactly the same way? Two basketball players that have the exact same movements, statistics, personality and style? We’ve all learned from imitating the movements passed on from someone else, but we all have our own unique twist to what we’ve learned.
A lot of people look at copying as plagiarism. Plagiary is an ugly little demon, ever-tempting people to pass off other people’s work as their own for profit or glory. Everyone likes a little glory, but to take someone else’s hard work – something that another soul brought into this world that would be one of the great things to remember them by when they leave – wave it around as your own flag of success is weak-hearted and regrettable.
Since we only live once we all have a duty to find the things that interest us, learn as best we can, and put out into the world something new that wouldn’t have been there without you. There is no shame in using references, or being inspired by the works of others. Give credit where it’s due, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not for the sake of fake glory, we’ve all got something interesting to create.