(or What Distinguishes Inspiration from Copying? – For those younger than 40!)
An often-argued creative concept found in all artistic disciplines, is what distinguishes copying from inspiration? It’s a controversial and complicated issue with a lot of gray areas. For what it’s worth, I offer my take on the subject in the article that follows, hoping to give an insight on what I believe are the origins of inspiration.
Where would the art world be if Monet, who is credited as being the father of Impressionism, railed against his contemporaries (including Cézanne, Degas, Renoir) who followed in his footsteps, embracing this new way of interpreting subjects for their work?
As an artist, I don’t believe that something comes out of nothing. Everything I create is inspired by something; even when I’m not conscious of the origins of the inspiration. If I carefully consider some of my creations, I can recall something that has a hand in my designs and techniques. Perhaps the waves of the ocean, a sunset, or the pattern on a hotel curtain had a role in a creation. Only ego can drive the need to demand a work is truly and purely original.
That isn’t to say that the fine line between copying and being inspired isn’t easily crossed. As an artist who also teaches, this is a shaky area for many. Personally, do not dictate that once a student has compensated me for my knowledge and shared skill, that they are forbidden from putting the technique or design concepts into practice. That isn’t a universally accepted concept. I hear from my students, over and over again, experiences in which teachers told them they cannot use design concepts or techniques learned in their classes if incorporated in anything they teach or sell. I feel that if a student has paid to learn from me for my time and knowledge, they should be able to duplicate what I taught them for any use they deem acceptable. I do expect that they won’t take undue credit that it’s something they originated or won’t reprint or plagiarize any written material I hand out. Also, I’m careful to credit others when using techniques that I didn’t originate. If I don’t know who to credit, I am still careful to make it clear that I don’t deserve credit for concepts that I didn’t develop.
My hope is that those who copy what I teach, do so primarily as a means of mastering what they learned. Ideally, whether for fun or profit, students will go on to modify what they learned from me and modify it to bring their own voice and vision to their creations. Regardless, if I’m not ready to have others use what I develop, I shouldn’t put it out there; least of all receive compensation for teaching what I’ve come up with. A common technique used universally in the medium of polymer clay, is the “Skinner Blend.” This is the method for creating gradient blends with two or more colors of polymer clay, developed by Judith Skinner. It is one of the most widely used techniques in polymer clay. It has also been widely modified by myself, and others into more advanced polymer clay effects and techniques. As in the case of Monet, where would polymer clay be if Ms. Skinner, forbade anyone from using her blending method professionally or commercially?
I look, not only to nature, the imagination (which is feed by countless stimuli each day that accumulates over a lifetime) for ideas, but I also find inspiration in the work of others. I find it both within and outside of my chosen mediums. My goal is never to copy, but to create something that is “original” in as far as I use a shape, color scheme, or design concept I create. I don’t want my work to look like an imitation of someone else’s. I don’t think any true artist does.
Creativity is a slippery slope and ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. This concept is worth repeating if you’re an artist who has ever struggled with the feeling that your creativity has been copied. Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum! On more than one occasion I have experienced or had other artists share the phenomenon of learning that someone else was is doing the same technique or design concept that I (or they) “created.” This is disconcerting when it occurs before I have shared my designs and techniques publicly – in a show, on the Internet, for sale, publication or classes. It can be very humbling to realize that another person has simultaneously or even preceded you in discovered the same “new” technique/design concept as you have.
There is a theory called the “Hundredth Monkey Effect.” It explains that the same idea can mysteriously occur in multiple locations without a direct correlation between them two. There are several websites and even books devoted to this concept. Read it more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_monkey_effect Clinging too tightly to the ownership of an idea is a dangerous thing and can result in a great deal of personal unhappiness. Who among us doesn’t wish to be recognized for their creative innovation? Making this important to yourself as an artist, robs you of your higher purpose to create and can hold you back from personal and professional growth.
I’ve even been on the receiving end of being accused of taking credit for someone else’s concepts only to find myself having to prove that I developed, introduced or used a design/technique before the accuser. In some cases, it was clear that they didn’t copy me, but it can be uncomfortable to have to defend your work. Having been on both sides of this experience, the oddest example for me was hearing someone I had just met tell me about a friend who told her about a profound artistic experience at an adjacent tradeshow to the one she was working at. Coincidently, I happened to know the same artist personally as a friendly acquaintance. Both of us were demonstrating for the same company, at the tradeshow at the time of this occurrence.
What a shock it was to hear the story retold as it had happened, only it had happened to me! While on a break, I went to the other trade show with a friend. People stopped me to admire work I was wearing. I made it with a new technique I had developed. They though it was a completely different medium and not the one I was using to replicate the look. I went back to the booth where I was working and shared how my “faux’ technique fooled many people at the other show. I shared this story with a group of eight people.
This group included the artist who then went on to tell my story as her own. Later, I saw another artist credit her for the technique in a magazine article. If you’re wondering how I handled it, I decided to let it go. I concentrated instead on developing the technique to take in new and exciting directions. Having done otherwise might have had a crippling effect on my creative ability. My energy was best spent in moving forward in my work and not feeling the need to salve my ego over setting the story straight. This person has to live with their lie, knowing they need the credit belonging to someone else to feel accomplished.
Of course, this is different from when your design concepts are copied and sold for profit in an arena in which you compete for your livelihood. Companies like Wal-Mart and Target have found themselves on the loosing end of lawsuits where they had taken the designs of independent artists, culled from buyers attending shows and had them reproduced – en mass – without the permission of the artist.
I’ve heard it said that sites like Etsy and Pinterest are nothing more than idea factories for other artists. If I have a problem with anyone using my techniques or design concepts for themselves, then I should not be putting it out there to begin with, knowing that in all likelihood, I’ll never be credited or profit from my concepts. Success as an artist for me is acknowledging that my “original” ideas all have their beginnings in something, but for me, it’s important that something is merely and influence and not a mold for me to duplicate.
Image Credits: All images by Lisa Pavelka, copyright to the artist.
Inspiration Credit for Lisa’s art:
Image #1- Inspired by Karl Faberge
Image #2 – Inspired by Karl Faberge
Image #3 – Inspired by 1960s Optical Pop Art
Image #4- Inspired by Dichroic Glass and Ocean Waves
Image #5 – Inspired by Mardi Gras
Image #6- Inspired by William Morris
Image #7- Inspired by Periscopes
Lisa Pavelka, a Colorado native who now resides in Las Vegas. She is an award winning artist, designer and author. Although she is well versed in several mediums, she is best known for her polymer clay expertise. Having worked with the medium professionally since 1989, she has focused her creative energies in taking polymer clay in new directions; especially in the areas of mixed media applications.
As a polymer clay pioneer, Lisa has tackled everything from jewelry making and home décor to scrapbooking and altered arts to name a few. She has shown the crafting world there is almost nothing that can’t be done with polymer clay, whether it’s coming up with new techniques or covering the back of a van.
Lisa is author of three books including the award winning best seller: Polymer Clay Extravaganza (North Light Books), and DVDs—Gifts from the Heart & Hand (Page Sage) and Claying Around with Lisa Pavelka(2007).