As far as I can make out, there are two basic ways in which an artist’s work can become unoriginal; by repeating others and repeating oneself. It’s a tricky thing, originality, because ideas aren’t borne in vacuums and artists rarely execute one lone piece depicting an idea. Most of us grab a hodge-podge of ideas and techniques from the world around us and process them in the blender of our minds before sculpting them into whatever manifestation we choose to create of what we feel, understand and have learned. Not only that, we generally work through an idea progressively, starting, for example, with sketches or mock-ups and becoming increasingly more complex or evocative (not necessarily the same thing) until the series or progression is rounded out with one or several works that epitomise where we were heading in the first place.

Most of us started out by copying the style of those before us. Folks coming to textile art from quilting often start with the patterns that others have designed. Some artists and quilt artists scorn this step, but I’ve actually come to see it as positive. Where else are you going to learn what is or isn’t you other than by trying out other people’s styles? Where else could you learn the techniques or come to an understanding of the materials other than by using them in a controlled environment, where you know what the results will be? What could inspire you to create your own designs other than recognising the beauty in others’?

Copying, at the beginning of developing an artistic style, is almost inevitable and probably healthy. Later, the ability to understand various styles and the effects that they create can be a useful asset when attempting to execute a piece.

There’s also a tendency to think of artists who have their own styles as being stuck in that “look”. The good artists aren’t, necessarily, although they often stay there for a while if the style still conveys what they want to depict. Most are continuously developing their work and abilities. Some change media and add the strengths gleaned through oil painting, for instance, to their abilities as a photographer. A rug hooker of my acquaintance fluctuates between rug hooking, watercolour painting and photography, with the unique traits of each creating a fullness that is her ability to see and convey the world around her effectively.

So we’re mostly all constantly in motion, mentally. Part of being an artist is being a mental packrat. You see an idea and file it away under, “hmmmm” in your index. The trick comes when you use those ideas. Taking the idea of another artist and whirling it around is one thing. Making a recognisable duplicate of their work and calling it your own is quite another. I’m not going to get into copyright issues here (they’re a separate post), but basically if you’re unsure as to whether you’re too close to the line, step back a bit.

The real catch is that when you live life as a creative sponge, you actually do lose track of what you saw where and whether the image in your head came from a dream, a fleeting idea you had while running or a glimpse of an image on someone’s webpage. Honestly. You have to be a bit careful about your ideas and how you illustrate them. Which is why, most days, I don’t look at other artists’ work online – online images tend to meld too easily into the other thoughts in my head. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I do go to galleries, read magazines and occasionally books. Online images, though, are somewhat more ethereal, in a weird way. Photographs are less dangerous. Short of actually printing out a photograph or transfering it to fabric, there’s not much chance that I’ll misuse a photo. The simple step of redrawing it myself and rendering it in textiles would basically cover my behind legally. If ever I use photos, I do actually redraw them and generally change things a bit. The angle I want might be different. Certain features might be altered or eliminated. I generally only use photos for details and remembering what went where.Recently, though, in light of my pursuit of new techniques and ideas, I’ve been looking through the works of other artists. I’ve dredged up my links and am revisiting folks whose work I haven’t remarked upon for a couple of years. I’m also skimming through some of the posts on QuiltArt and visiting various blogs. It’s definitely an interesting experience, especially since I can remember when fibre artists first hit the Internet ten years ago or so. The growth is extraordinary, which can only mean good things for the multimedia development of the definition of art.

I have been noticing something interesting, though. Much of what I’m seeing is people doing things for the sake of trying techniques. Some (not all) of it actually has no message, research or purpose other than to play with burning fabric, for instance. Edginess used to come primarily from ideas, with a healthy contribution from both the techniques used for their execution and the mastery of the artist over the medium. Now, I’m getting the impression that creating something attractive and interesting to look at is dominant, rather than in some way reacting to a place or idea and working it through artistically.

I dunno, I could be way off here, but in my mind, the techniques are secondary to what you’re trying to achieve. Generally, the desired result should generate the need to use a technique, not the other way around. Those parts of art that play with technique first are generally, to my mind, the sketches or studies or experiments that preceed the execution of the actual work. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate, really. Part of the whole philosophy of when you have a hammer, everything you need to address appears to be a nail. Why not learn to use the whole contents of the tool box and then embark on a bigger project of monumental significance?

Apologies if this seems to ramble – my mind has been working double-time these days.

As for the nightmares – they’ve turned into strange dreams. Heather, last night you, Bob, John and I were trying to watch a movie on VHS, only the wrong film was in and the remote was broken. We kept seeing a porn film at high-speed, backwards and forwards. Had to unplug the tv to get rid of it….. Why are you in my dreams? More to the point, bring a better movie next time….




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Looks like you need to install Addreamblock. Believe me, I didn’t sign up for guest appearances in your dreams…

  2. Kirsten says:

    This is exactly the same sort of thing you hear happening in music. Somebody develops a new tool, and everybody jumps on board using it because it’ll give them a different sound. It doesn’t actually improve the quality of the music at all, and in many cases worsens it because it’s a cheap “out” to having to do the creative work.

    Sometimes it’s better if your tools are limited – if you can’t afford the latest & greatest gear – because it forces you to come up with more creative solutions to the same problems.

  3. Caitlin says:

    EXACTLY!! ARGH! this tendency to justify works because they show a technique – nopem, that jsut isn’t ENOUGH! Where’s the big idea that the technique is helping the artist accomplish? Huh? (Hey, I think you hit a nerve, LOL!)

    I do make technique tryout stuff – the current quilt on my wall is an example – but they’re NOT the real pieces.

    Nice to find someone else interested in saying something in their art.

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