“There is no such thing as absolute originality in painting. Some relation to what has been done before always exists, though to say that an artist is ‘influenced’ by someone else need in no way detract from appreciation of [their] work. On the contrary, the influences …may bring out all the more strikingly the respects in which a painter individually excels and in themselves contribute a new element of beauty and interest…
“The delicate threads of communication with others form a new pattern. The personality of the artist loses nothing of its integrity.”
— Art historian William Gaunt, A Companion to Painting, The World of Art Library, Thames & Hudson 1967, pages 105-6.
Think of influence as an echo, something that happens in the right conditions (which we don’t control) but that doesn’t happen without our input (which we do control). Cultivate the difference between copying with the aim of reproducing the original, and copying with the aim of incorporating it into your artistic toolbox, developing it as part of your own approach, putting your personality onto it. The list of X was influenced by Y is as long as art history, but where too many go awry is that influence needs to be a springboard for development, not the endpoint.
As an example of copying and developing, look at Vincent van Gogh’s “Penitentiary” (1890) which was based on an engraving by Gustave Dor?. You’ll find reference to it in Van Gogh’s letter of 12 February 1890 — click on the artworks tab on the page, then scroll down a bit to see photos. Van Gogh copies the composition, but paints the figures in his own style. He could have copied it in pen and ink, or pencil, which would’ve replicated the etched lines, but chose paint. Ask yourself why.
2 Replies to “Monday Motivator: Originality”
I thought Vincent was always a bit mad, but not in this letter to his brother.
It contains so many still relevant truths
A lot of the things Van Gogh put into words in his letters artists still struggle with… though at times he could also be very demanding towards poor Theo, all those “thanks for the money and can I also have some more paint” requests!