There was a programme on the television the other day, narrated by a man that had done time for art forgery, about the village in China (whose name escapes me) that has become a worldwide hub for reproductions and copies of famous paintings by acknowledged masters, in oils. There was no doubting the craft skills of the people that produced these copies or the quality of the finish on some of them (though the quality could be quite variable). Unfortunately, for me, the justifications given seemed hollow and the work seemed loveless, performed by soulless people that had lost all sense of pleasure, elation and feeling for the paintings they were making. Far from being aesthetes, experiencing the beauty of the painting they were making with their senses, this was anaesthetic. Not a shred of soul in evidence.
What is it about most people’s tastes that drive them to want to own such a soulless reproduction of an original? Is there really all that much difference between a digital print of one of these masterpieces and a hand-made copy painted in oils? I grant you the texture is different and the colours possibly more vivid, but is it really different to a poster? Yes, it might be decorative and colourful, but it has no life of its own. It’s just an expensive form of wallpaper. If these paintings tell a story of their own, it’s a story of skilled artisans, lacking the confidence to pursue their own imaginative outpourings, in order to earn a meagre wage as a factory production line painter. What a waste of skills.
There is a lot to be said for copying the techniques and colour choices, the brush strokes and textures, of master painters. It’s a great way to learn and to build your own technique. Once you have an arsenal of techniques, you can be more articulate on the canvas, expressing your own ideas and imaginative visions. There is little doubt that a lack of good technique can be a hindrance, though ironically those limitations can also serve as an accidental guideline and positive constraint to your art. Even the best artists know the value of a minimal palette.
Your own style doesn’t necessarily come from the acquisition of technical skills and technique. It can make you capable of painting as well as an old master, from a brush stroke and colour mixing point of view, but you can never be that artist. That position has been taken and for the truly immortal masters, won’t be vacant for all time. You can’t imagine what they imagined and put that onto the canvas, simply by learning their technique to a high degree of fidelity. Guitar players often make this same mistake, in copying their guitar heroes.
Developing your own style is tied up with self-confidence. It’s that willingness to let your inner voice express itself, however that might be, through the conduit of your painting. All the technique in the world won’t necessarily give you the confidence to conceive your own creative vision and realise it with your technique. The conception can’t be copied. It has to come from you. Nobody else can create that conception for you. Copying somebody else’s conception in no way makes it your own, or expresses that essence of your true self in a way that an original work of art can. Creating something original takes courage and often requires that the artist travel a painful journey while realising their imaginative concept. The artist must be prepared to express their vulnerability in a whole hearted way. Are the imitators of old masters, in reality, too intimidated to strive to be the new masters that will be revered in the future?
When birds are born, they spend quite a long time in the nest exercising their wings and developing the muscles and reflexes they will need when they fly. But for the longest time, they don’t fly. They develop their flying technique. However, at some moment, the time to fly comes upon them. There is a “do or die” moment (often literally) where they have to take their rehearsed motions and put them to the test. To fully fledge, they have to take the leap into the unknown and see if they really can fly. Often, their first flight will be unspectacular and clumsy, attended by predators that are only too happy to swoop upon the less able fliers, but it will be the first flight of many, which will culminate in the ability to go wherever they feel, to wheel and circle, glide and soar, content and confident in their ability to fly unaided. It’s the same with artists, I think. At some point, you have to trust in your skills acquired to date and trust in your ability to gather further skills, through actually doing what it is you have practiced and prepared to do. It’s why they call it going outside of your comfort zone. There is risk. There is peril. There is uncertainty. It’s the ultimate test. Learning to fly without actually flying is rather pointless. So is learning to paint without actually painting something original.
The argument goes that there is a demand for copies and so in fulfilling that demand you can earn a living as an artist. I think this argument is bankrupt. Pandering to the unimaginative dulls your own imagination. That’s a heavy price to pay for a small monetary advantage. If the argument goes that creating reproductions of the paintings of the old masters increases the amount of beauty in the world (and it does, to some degree), then why does the creation of original artworks create any less beauty? If the standard of beauty to which every artist is held is the perfect rendition of existing works of art, then that kind of mass production is a very funny definition of beauty, to me. It is spiritless. It is uniform. It is endlessly repetitive. It crowds out innovation and novelty. It is ultimately tedious, banal and dull. It’s an argument for a world populated only by cover bands, isn’t it?
Technical skill is nice to have, but not at the expense of never spreading your own creative wings.