Three Lessons I’ve Learned So Far About Making Art

sea turtle dot painting
Yet to be named. Destined as part of a baby shower gift. Riffing on a design I found on the Interwebs.
side view of sea turtle dot painting
Carrying on to the side of the painting
Inscription on painting back
Operating in fairy godmother mode with the wish bestowing…hehehe.

Lesson One –  It’s OK to be inspired by steal from others. There is no such thing as original artwork or original anything, really.

This was a toughie, and to be truthful, still is. Years of writing papers has instilled in me a deep fear of being accused of plagiarism. Even though I know that artists are inspired by and often copy other artists’ work (especially starting out), I feel like I have to make a disclaimer every time I do this, even though I am not selling any of stuff I am painting or drawing. HEY PEOPLE, THIS PIECE IS BASED ON SOMETHING SOMEONE ELSE DREAMED UP FIRST.  So far I seem to be the only one doing this. Huh.

Here’s a quote taken from Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like An Artist” (required reading AND re-reading for moi):

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” 

– William Ralph Inge

Here’s another one, from Mr. Kleon himself:

“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

And my favourite:

“The only art I’ll ever study is the stuff I can steal from.”

 – David Bowie

Hell, if it’s good enough for Ziggy….

Lesson Two – You can get an art education from books and the internet.

You know, when I was deep in the middle of my MBA studies I came across an article that really burned me up. In it the author claimed that business school was a complete money-grubbing scam and that anyone could pick up an MBA education just by reading articles online. All the information was out there, free for the taking.

Having committed to spending 44K to get the (nicely framed, mind you) piece of parchment that is now displayed on my work office’s wall, naturally I took offence to this. And still do. Yes, the information (and much, much more) is out there. But nobody is curating it – pulling out the acknowledged, peer-reviewed, up-to-the-moment best stuff and guiding you as you take it in, process it and let it shape your own thinking.

But now I am attempting to do just that, with my artistic journey. At this point I can’t envision committing to much or anything in the manner of formal art education, so do-it-yourself it is! It helps that there are so many artists putting up how-to videos out there, and also dropping great tidbits (colour theory, brush selection, canvas prepping, composition…to name just a few) in their painting patter while showing you step-by-step how they create a particular piece. I have gleaned so much from these little nuggets, it’s worth watching just for them…even if I never intend to ever make that particular painting.

Lately I’ve been watching videos in which artists discuss their favourite books – the ones that really helped them grow in their art. One of those books I already own – Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I bought it over 20 years ago, and had started some of the exercises but then life (as it always does) got in the way. It has survived multiple book purges and moves since then and is still in almost pristine condition. For this moment, apparently. Because I am going to work through it FOR REAL this time.

And maybe the most important lesson I have learned so far on my journey is this:

Lesson Three – Every piece you create will have its “hot mess” stage. Wait a bit, then keep going.

Resist that urge to (dramatically, with loud cursing and hair pulling) rip it up or paint it out and start over. Let it sit for a bit. Leave it alone. Go watch some Bob Ross till you feel calm again. Watching Bob, you can Netflix and actually chill.

Bob Ross Meme
If all else fails, add some happy little trees to your piece

You may grow to like what you’ve done better after some away from it. Or you may figure out the fix it needs. Or you may just paint it out and start over.

At the very least you will create some detachment from it, and be able to look at it more objectively later than when you were in the passionate midst of creating. As with writing, time apart from your piece will do you both good.

Rock (and steal, and create) on,

The WB









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  • Hi Deb,
    I like your piece. I can’t figure out what you’ve done to give it the texture. Are the dots (for want of a better word) acrylic paint?
    And I love the sentiment you expressed on the backside of it. Lucky baby!
    I’m with you totally on lessons 2 and 3. I too have a pristine copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain ready to be pressed into service 🙂
    I’m a bit confused about Lesson 1. If the painting is a copy of one that was done by someone else, I think you’re absolutely right that you have to say so and not sell or display yours. And that would be true even if you change the colours a bit or make other minor changes.
    But if you do a sun and water and a sea turtle and it’s your turtle and your colours, I don’t see how it’s plagiarism, undetected or otherwise, even if the objects are in the same orientation as someone else’s.
    I like collage and read some useful stuff about it on a legal site. Even though I’m using other people’s photographs, as long as I’m doing something new with them – overlapping, cutting, combining with others – it’s considered a new work.
    By the way, I think it’s awesome that you give this issue thought and air time. Nothing makes me crazier than being in a gallery and watching someone surreptitiously take a photo of someone’s work all the while telling whoever they’re with, “I can make that for you!”

    • Hi Karen, thanks!
      Yes, those are drops of acrylic paint that give the piece it’s texture. I’m still working on the whole “it’s ok to steal if it’s art” thing too. I understand there’s nothing new under the sun and every story has already been told. But when is something blatant theft vs an homage vs inspired by vs no more threat of a lawsuit (hehehe)? I think part of the point of Kleon’s book is that we all get our ideas from others and not to sit around and do nothing while you wait to be hit by some mythical lightning stroke of originality. Just start creating!

  • I see a strong parallel between your rules for art and writing. I see value for emerging writers in copying passages of good writing. It’s good practice, but not the creation of new material. And of course a lot can be learned from books and the internet. I would say even more can be learned from writing on the internet and being forced to hone your arguments and to entertain so your readers continue to read. The homeschool boards on AOL way back in the day paved my way to a master’s degree in rhetoric. And then the “hot mess stage” reminds me of Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts,” which I have forced dozens, if not hundreds, of students to read over the years.

    I’m glad you’re continuing to make art and write.

  • The sentiment on the back of the painting is wonderful. We could all be so lucky to be given this wish at any point in our lives 🙂

    I do understand the hot mess stage. I often have to walk away from something to let it ‘percolate’. It’s one of the most valuable tools I have in my toolbox 😉

    • Thank you Joanne. I think we all feel frustration when we can’t make the idea in our head materialize on our chosen medium the way we envision it to be. I’m always surprised by how a painting or drawing can grow on me if I just walk away and cool off for a bit. I still might dislike it but at least I’ll have a plan to salvage it instead of burn it. 😄

  • I do love that little gem of a painting. The colors, the composition, the texture and the subject matter. And the way the image continues on the sides ~ and the touching message on the back.

    It is the very best way of learning in painting to copy, copy, copy. Whatever painting or artist you like, feel free to do your best to copy their work…because it is during this process of copying that we learn so much and then can move forward with new skills. Someone once told me, or I read somewhere that every time we think we are having an original idea, in all likelihood 100 other people are having the same idea. But at the end of the day the best way to improve is merely by doing…painting as much and as often as you can.

    Lovely post!


    • Thank you Peta! Your words hold a lot of weight for me. I will continue to copy as I learn, which I guess means I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life…hehehe!

  • You’ve added to the sky since your last post! I love it! The Little One is a very fortunate recipient!

    I absolutely agree about art borrowing & recycling – I hear you about the Fear of Plagiarism drummed into us. It is no wonder more of us don’t create more.

    • You are so right! It’s bad enough having that internal editor telling me that I have no talent, now I have to listen to the one telling me I am stealing someone’s else’s hard work, LOL!!!

  • I know the feeling of trying to sort out an education from things you pick up in books and online – that has basically been writing for me. I mean, I write every day for work, but legal writing is a whole different world than fiction. I hope that someday, some of that fiction is something I want to put out into the world.

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