Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Inspiration, Imitation and Copying : Trends and the Evolution of a Personal Style.

This post will be part 1 of 2 parts

Part 1.....
Metal clay as a material has limitless possibilities for design and innovation, its only limitation seems to be its expense. I’ve seen so many gorgeous examples of work here on the internet that inspire me and that often leads to a flight of design ideas and new possibilities.  Why don’t those come to fruition?  I’m afraid to be accused of “copying”.  How can I use this wealth of inspiration I see here on the internet to develop a style that is truly my own.

I suspect I'm approaching the topic as an art historian might.

Early 20th century artists and craftspeople have shared skills and worked in smaller groups, guilds and geographical locations and, as such, they could train/imitate/copy and still keep one another accountable. Forgery was frowned upon and could get someone booted out of their "school", guild, or even lose their apprenticeship.

A totally ruined career unless you were:
a :) talented enough to get a bunch of others to defect with you or
b :) could afford to move to another country and set up shop.
Mass commercial enterprise and the "net" have totally changed the rules of the art and craft world.

Everything is fair game and people are trying to "copyright" age old processes and designs in order to make their mark.

A whole industry has evolved to share information and I contend that it leads to a kind of stagnancy when we come to developing our own creative processes and style. Pictures, published materials and experts running workshops set the trends. Seeing the beautiful work is inspiring and can give rise to new and innovative designs and material use. More often, I think, we flock like sheep to copy the latest trend.

I’m guilty!!!

I’ve wondered whether jumping on these trendy bandwagons might be really inhibiting my own evolution of a personal style.

Most alarming is the trend for big off shore manufacturers to "steal” and use imagery, usually that of a craftsperson who makes each item by hand, only then to reproduce inferior quality items to sell huge volumes of these items. That`s new. It makes us all throw up our hands and mutter, ”Why even bother?”  if someone’s just going to rip it off.

Is it wrong to copy or imitate?.... and how is it fair that someone can take “your” idea and execute it, promote it and sometimes become much more successful than you were?

These quotes about imitation are cliché but they underline the fact that this issue has been around for a long time:

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.”
― George Bernard Shaw

“Parrots mimic their owners. Their owners consider that a sign of intelligence.”
― Marty Rubin

Our inspirations are the sum of our parts, our physical and genetic makeup, where we live and where we have traveled; how we view the world and its beauty, its underbelly and all the wonderful natural idiosyncrasies. Originality is the stock and trade of most artists.  Some artistic visions are truly revolutionary, many are original but few exist without studying or at least having been exposed to other artists’ work.  It’s a pretty difficult pill to swallow when you’ve worked really hard to evolve a particular design and technique, perfect it and then see that same design mass produced or replicated.  With the advent of internet selling the problem becomes exponential. So many artists scrambling to have their work rank high on the almighty Google search criterion.

Ideas and trends evolve via inspiration, imitation, and sometimes outright copying. I think in the fashion industry it is somewhat expected.  There are thousands of books, CD’s, tutorials, and
industry publications.  Being published and selling one’s methods is often a big or bigger money generator than selling one’s creations.  We should not be surprised when people copy our work when the environment that surrounds us has a business model that promotes and encourages this.  Trends are highlighted, hot selling items and people are “featured”, magazines encourage DIY and expect artists to publish their process.

Historically, artists considered imitation to be a sign of respect.  I suspect many of those who teach and publish books subscribe to this view of imitation.  I think learning is really important.  One of the people I most admire is my grandmother, known for her fabulous recipes and baking; her motto was, “I’ll tell you the basics, and how hot the oven has to be but the rest you have to figure out on your own”.
She was an inspiration. No tutorials, just her voice in my memory and her handwriting in the margins of cookbooks I inherited.  I’ll never make cakes that look or taste the same as hers did, but she inspired me to learn.

Here are a few web based perspectives on this issue:

I’m hoping this is enough info for us to have a bit of a discussion and entertain any comments on the subject then move to the next part in this series that will focus on where we can “find” inspiration and innovative creative processes.


Visit Kathy on etsy at MostlySilver and MostlyStoneware


  1. This is an awesome post on a vey relevant topic. I, too, worry about looking as if I have copied others. Sometimes I am horrified to see how much my work resembles someone else's, even if I had never seen their work before. They don't know that and very well could think I copied them,

  2. Great post Kathy! I have heard, and believe it is true that, in a world of millions of people, that the likelihood of more than 1 person having the same "completely original idea" is not only possible but almost definite. That being said, there are unfortunately people who do not want to put the effort into their own work of art.
    Very thoughtful, thanks Kathy!

  3. What a great article Kathy! It's so important to remind people that someone's work, however inspiring, is their work. Blatant copying will never be okay, but being inspired by subject matter and creating something that is truly your own work is how we artists often work. Someone recently said they stopped looking at other's work and have turned to nature for inspiration. That is probably the purist form of inspiration and necessitates true creativity.

  4. As you know Kathy, this pinches right in the behind. Very relevant and beautifully written. See what worries me, is not so much the idiots who have no imagination whatsoever who grab an idea and copy. That I can kinda live with, I feel vastly superior lol. The ones that do worry me are the foreign sites that steak pictures/designs and even text. As some know this happened to very many sellers on Etsy last year. As the site is not US based but based in another country, hosted in yet another country there seems little that can be done. The worry? well the worry is, that, and this is very timely, with many being very wary of resellers, how easy would it be to do a search for an item, find it in your shop for $50 and then also see exactly the same listing (as it was just lifted warts and all from etsy) from the other place for $5! Who is to say the searcher would;t then doubt the authenticity of the original maker? Maybe they just bought them en masse from this large supplier and they also have used the description as well. That's my issue, that people might not even know who stole from who!
    Yes everyone is influenced by what they see, and yes I am sure we all add those touches in everything we do, but as some have said above, with the extensive quantity of images available because of the internet, one starts to wonder whether anything is actually original any more. I am sure it is, but the doubts do creep in.

  5. Sue I know how close this issue is to your heart, and the other part of your anatomy that you reference.

    I hate that "pirates" raid the ideas and hard work of artisans. Re-sellers need to be exposed for what they are, and also "outed" for stealing. The time will come.

    In the interim, we will need to work to make sure we can provide that unique combination of original ,inspired, and handcrafted.

  6. Fascinating.

    A lot of my own work starts by trying to reproduce a piece I love, but couldn't possibly afford. Of course, I have no idea how the artist made the original work - often they're not even working with metal clay. So I muddle around. In the process of trying to make something similar, I learn a lot. Often it leads me to discovering techniques I'm not seeing anyone else do. Ditto trying to follow tutorials - something always goes wrong and end with an entirely different technique and look. So, not knowing what the hell I'm doing, apparently, is the key.