Imitation is bad!… in the immediate

This post over at CBR had an interesting take on some of the Art vs. Language issues that I discuss, so I felt I should link to it. One of its main arguments is the common thread of “don’t imitate other people’s styles,” i.e. be an individual.

The anti-imitation viewpoint (what I call related to the “Art” perspective) is wrapped up in two ideas: 1) that people should be “individuals” in their drawing style — different from other people. 2) That drawing is an imitation of life (Iconicity), and that a person’s style is simply their own manner of siphoning those visuals into graphic form.

Both of these run against the “Language” perspective which pushes communal signs that are conventionally shared amongst a culture, learned through imitation. In Language, it isn’t so much a matter of using novel structures (words, drawing styles) but of using those structures to say something interesting and novel.

What I thought was interesting about this post in particular is well expressed in this paragraph (italics from the original):

Don’t imitate John Cassaday, find out who John’s inspirations were, whose work he learned from, and imitate them. Because even if you can imitate John’s work, or Jim’s, or Frank’s, etc., the best you can achieve through imitation is a mimicry of style, and to be known as an imitator. Style, good or bad, is really the only thing that’s going to separate you from the pack, and it’s not something you can add into your work. Not really. Style is where your personality surfaces in your work, and true style is accidental.

The underlying “Art” sentiments should be obvious here, but what’s interesting is the belief that it’s okay to copy somewhat, just not of the “generation” right before yours. It didn’t just say “don’t copy other people,” instead it argued for people to copy the artists who the-artists-you-like copied!

While I understand the argument, and can sympathize at least somewhat with the sentiment in terms of creative endeavors (i.e. the type expressed in the Dylan quote at that articles start), what really makes copying one generation’s drawing styles different than any other? Why is there this assumption that there is a degradation that occurs from one generation to the next, and that somehow there is a more “pure” root that aught to be copied from?

If anything, this lesson in history should show that everyone is influenced by other people and that you can probably trace those influences so far you’ll lose track of who the actual people were. So, why not embrace the imitative styles since its what we’re mentally inclined to do in the first place?

I love the Language equivalent of this: “Don’t learn to speak English from your parents and peers! You should learn from Middle English… Those guys really knew how to speak back then!”


  • The problem here is that there are two (no, three) different scales of measurement being used.

    As an illustrator, it’s bad practice to copy another artist’s method, or style. This is because, with each generation of copy, the new artist deviates further from the reality of which the art should be based on. For example, if you’re strictly talking about the figure, the artist should be taking life art classes and drawing anyone and everyone around them. Artist’s like Art Adams got good at drawing one type of face, and stuck with it to tell their stories. But there are millions of faces to draw from.

    Illustrators shouldn’t be compared to musicians at all. The similarities end with long hours of practice. But where an illustration is a reflection of an object (programmers speak: by value), music is the object (programmer speak: by reference). Music can evolve and continue to be original. In that, you’re absolutely right.

    The other scale of mesurement applies to “story-telling with sequential art.” This applies closer to the rules of language than illustration by itself (or music). Because, the objective is to tell a story. The images only need to succeed in telling that story. They don’t need to be anotomically correct, etc. For people who only concern themselves with this objective, they will really never understand the scrutiny that an illustrator recieves. A story-teller would be satisfied with clip art, cut-n-paste, or even Liefeld’s art.

    The different fields of scrutiny conflict one-another. The other day you wrote a very interesting comment on why Liefeld was graphically fluent. This is true, while at the same he’s a very poor illustrator. (You had me thinking a lot about this.) This justifies why he does well for himself in comics.

  • Glad to hear I’ve given you some food for thought! I agree that comparing music to drawing is perhaps a poor analogy in a case like this.

    I should point out that once again though, your assumption of it being “bad practice” to copy another style reverts back to the “iconicity” argument: that things should imitate “real life,” and not other drawers.

    Certainly, this might be a perspective taken more strongly by McCloud’s Classicists, but I don’t think it’s absent from his other categories as well. (Nice bringing that in here).

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