A friend of mine who’s in the cookbook business once told me that a general standard for deciding if a recipe is “new” is that it departs from another published recipe in at least three ways. Nature manages to get diversity from a lot less. According to one often repeated rubric, we share >99% of our DNA with our nearest ancestors on the evolutionary tree. (To find out how much you’re like a banana, click here –> Do People and Bananas Really Share 50 Percent of the Same DNA? | HowStuffWorks.)

Once I created a whole series of images based on someone else’s artwork. I liked the other artist’s composition a lot, but none of the rest of the picture appealed to me. So I took the abstract composition and overlaid it with entirely new material. When I was done, I am quite certain that even the author of the artwork would not recognize his picture’s offspring. The drawing at the top of the post is one sketch from that very fecund idea.

Ideas come from somewhere, and human beings are imitative creatures. Think of children and their make believe. When we send our kids to school, they act out all the family secrets. It can be amusing. In art one of the best ways to learn — from foundation skills to complicated master skills — is to imitate the work of someone else who has already been there. Sometimes imitation can lead to sameness, but imitation also plays a huge role in innovation. It all depends upon how imitation is managed.

The drawing above is a copy after a Pierre Bonnard painting in the National Gallery of Art. Being in a different medium and having lots of other novel visual features, it looks significantly different from the original. But if you know Bonnard’s work, you can recognize the subject. The drawing below is a partial copy of a portion of a living artist’s work, and it looks so different that I feel quite sure I could show it to the other artist and he would never recognize his idea inside this drawing.

I like to steal things. I’m a regular magpie. But I also like innovation and am always trying to find ways to create challenges for myself simply because it’s fun. I don’t like to do the same thing too much. Or, actually, that’s not quite true either since I took Degas’s advice very much to heart “you must redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times.” I love drawing and redrawing the same things. But I have found that you can redo the same subject and also change it. Both things are possible.

These days I do a lot of drawing from life, and I do a lot of stealing. When I steal, I consciously ask myself “how I can change the image?” since that disguise is where I discover the thrill of the theft. Can I isolate the elements of the image that I love best from other features that are identifying? How this challenge is managed varies from project to project, but here’s a few parameters to consider.

Change the color. The above drawing is a detail from a Monet waterlily painting, but where Monet had painted blues and greens, I drew in reds and oranges. I also changed the format. The book illustration I was looking at was vertical, I drew that vertical image in a horizontal format and began unconsciously stretching things to the sides. This sort of format change doesn’t work with all subjects, of course, but it often works well with landscape features (geology being what it is).

I also changed media. What Monet did with paint has to be thought through very differently when using colored pencils. The media themselves impose various limitations and aids. So far I’ve already hit the cookbook rubric. There are many other things one can change.

You can reverse an image. Crop an image. Crop and invent around the cropped feature. You can add elements or subtract elements (as Rubens did in a famous little drawing at the National Gallery of Art). You can change media. You can change the tonality. You can change the size and scale. These are rhetorical relationships, and looking at the tropes and schemes of rhetoric you may well find other ways that you can make jazz variations of existing visual tunes.

Across time through family resemblances you find out who your visual ancestors are. (Sometimes as with real ancestors, there are surprises.) The above drawing is taken from Constable, but run through some Degas, Bonnard and Diebenkorn (and others, including of course me) along the way. You assimilate skills by emulating the skills of other artists. Regina Carter said that early in her jazz career she learned by ear to play all the major solos of Charlie Parker on her violin. And through a careful sort of stealing you recombine the visual DNA and invent entirely new imagery.

IF YOU LIKE THIS POST, PLEASE SHARE IT — OR ITS IDEAS — WITH YOUR FRIENDS. AND LEAVE A COMMENT WITH YOUR REACTION BELOW. SPREAD THE IDEA DNA.

6 thoughts on “Rule of Three

  1. I almost always work by borrowing. But I’m not as skilled as you. I love especially your colors (as always). (K)

  2. You are juggling two genres, poetry and image. But thank you for the kind words.

    We’re always borrowing something. Sometimes the use is general and one is not aware. Once borrowing becomes subliminal, things get really interesting. But the borrowing that one knows about, that one does deliberately, that can be fun to manipulate and experiment with.

  3. Oh yes, all the time. Everything I do seems to be a response to something, and writing is no exception. Reading poetry makes me write poetry. Of course by the time I revise it a few times, as you note, it has little resemblance to its source. And then I take old poems I’ve written and remake them all the time too. It’s all collage.

  4. What a really good idea. I often come across a composition I think is lovely but I don’t particularly care for the style or colour. Hmmmm food for thought…..

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