The Pros and Cons of Imitating Others

The Pros and Cons of Imitating Others

“The best imitation in the world is not half as good as a poor original.” - Luise Rainer, actress

This month’s discussion relates to an experience I had recently.  I was looking at the work of an illustrator whom I admire tremendously, and I thought, “I want to try and draw in their style!”

I spent time looking at their work and trying to imitate their brush strokes, line weight, and the way they applied color. My results were pretty terrible. The problem was that I was trying to force my natural hand-eye movements to behave like someone else’s, with no true familiarity with the way that person attacks their work, moves their tools based on impulse or control, or how they think during the creative process.

In other words, I was abandoning my own naturally developed technique and trying to mimic someone else’s and it just didn’t work. It was like trying to take a train on a familiar route right off the tracks and putting it on a whole new set of tracks to get to the same destination. That just doesn’t work and will only derail the train, which is what it did to me. It derailed my normal process, my style, and even my confidence when I saw the results.

Still, my tenacity kicked in and I spent the next few days studying that other illustrator’s work, learning the brush strokes and the little details that I hadn’t paid attention to, before. After a week or so, I finally nailed it. I looked at my results and while I could still see remnants of my own work in the drawing, it was as close as I could get to recreating someone else’s work. For me, this was a fun exercise to see if I could simply draw like the artist I admired so much. For better or worse, I could. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried this, though, it was a long time since the last time.

Back when I was a kid in school, I used to copy and imitate my favorite artists from Mad Magazine, Peanuts and Snoopy, and I loved tracing photographs, all which helped me to learn how to control my tools, learn perspective, and to see how things like value and color range worked.  It was an invaluable way to learn and help develop my naturally emerging skills, and it’s an excellent method that I still recommend, today.

And while it’s acceptable to imitate another person’s work so we can learn from it, it’s not acceptable to imitate another person’s work, adopt their entire style, and claim it as our own, with no recognition to the person who created that style – it’s known as stealing or plagiarizing, and is not well received in any field.

Still, it happens all the time. A few years ago, I went into a small, hole-in-the wall diner and was shocked to find the work of famous caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld hanging on the walls. My friends all had rock n’ roll posters on their walls growing up, but I also had a huge poster of the musical, The Man of La Mancha on my wall, with a gorgeous illustration of the cast done by Hirschfeld, who had a big influence on my young drawing career and you might be able to see traces of his work in my own, if you look closely.

So, to see his work in a greasy spoon diner, I was taken aback. As I inspected the drawings, I realized there was something off about them. They were very close, but they didn’t have that unique Hirschfeld “flare” which is what I love about his work. I asked the owner of the restaurant about the drawings who told me they were done by his younger brother. It made perfect sense and I could then see the subtle differences.

I was impressed with how good the drawings were, but there was a question mark in my head about an artist who’s style looks nearly identical to another artist. Ironically, it happens on social media, all the time. One popular artist on YouTube draws in a style that is almost identical to the work of Pendleton Ward – creator of the Adventure Time cartoons. When I first came across their channel, I thought they were paying homage to Adventure Time, but I quickly realized that everything the artist drew was done in Pendleton Ward’s style. However, there was no mention of him, his work, or the cartoon that made him famous. Also, this YouTuber was apparently getting commission work using this style.

So, how does someone justify their style, and even their career, by creating work that looks exactly like someone else’s? Well, when the popular rock band Owl City released their song “Fireflies,” critics jumped all over it saying it sounded exactly like another band, The Postal Service. I admit, I thought the same thing when I first heard the song. Yet, the song topped the charts and propelled Owl City into fame and between selling music and merchandise, made them wealthy – all arguably based on a sound created by someone else.

For all kinds of artists, from singers, writers, photographers, and fashion designers, it’s not uncommon to come up with similar ideas – after all, there are only so many ways to play a D chord or use the color red in a painting. Years ago, George Harrison of The Beatles claimed he didn’t intentionally steal the song “My Sweet Lord,” but a judge thought differently. The court decided that Harrison plagiarized the song, “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons and after years of debate, he was charged and had to pay an enormous fine.

More recently, pop star, Ed Sheeran is in court for allegedly plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” in his hit song, “Thinking Out Loud.” And in 2015, fine artist Luc Tuymans was sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars for a painting he did based on a photograph, taken by another arist and used without permission.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery – until someone copies your work and starts making money from it. Then, it becomes a lawsuit. It’s a fine line between directly copying someone else’s work and using someone else’s work to learn from or as a reference for a totally unique and unrelated work.

Last year, during Inktober, a young artist posted their solutions to the daily prompts on Facebook. Normally, their work wasn’t anything to rave about, but these drawings were exceptionally good. Good enough to prompt another artist to dig a little deeper. It turned out that the artist was tracing photos that were not their own. The young artist was embarrassed and removed all evidence of their work from Inktober. I felt bad and reached out to the young artist. They told me, “I had no idea I wasn’t allowed to use photos off the internet. Had I known that, i wouldn’t have used them at all!” I advised the young artist not to worry and many of us have done the same thing. That they should look at it as a valuable life lesson and carry forward.

So, why is it so popular for people to imitate other creative artists and claim the style as their own, without providing credit, reference, or recognition to the original artist? Well, here are some PROs and CONs as to why I think this occurs and the affects that may come with imitating others.

1. It’s Easier than Creating Something Original

From my own experience, I know how long it takes to come up with original ideas. Whether writing a song, creating a logo, or even coming up with content for a YouTube channel. It isn’t something that you pull out of a hat – it takes hours of exhaustive testing and research, compiling information, and putting it all together, to execute a finished piece. For someone who imitates, it’s far easier to simply look at that finished piece and simply mimic it and call it their own.

The PRO in doing so is that there’s no exhaustive effort needed to just take something done by someone else.

There’s no research, testing, or development involved… just a final execution. They get all the rewards of being a creative genius, without actually doing anything to merit such accolades. It’s like winning a trophy without showing up for the race.

The CON in this, of course, is being caught and held accountable, let alone the embarrassment of being found out. But, there’s also being asked to reproduce the work or to create another version of it, without having any knowledge of how it was done. Without the experience of coming up with the initial idea, there’s no way to know how long it will take, which can can be important to know before getting into it.

2. Bypassing the Creative Process

There’s a deep, rich process of learning and experimentation for those who create original work. Learning the fine, intricate details of their craft, through trial and error and experimentation, that one simply cannot imitate.

The PRO in bypassing the creative process is to have a finished, ready-to-go piece of work without having to deal with any of the trial and error or experimentation. The imitator can simply get in the car and arrive at the destination without to waste their time on a long, drawn-out journey.

The CON is that when the imitator is called-upon to explain their process or provide directions or instructions they can’t produce. The critical thinking that goes into the creative process was bypassed – skipped right over – and all the details and moments of frustration or success don’t exist and can’t be fabricated. This can also show up in their work, if they rushed too quickly, missed important steps, or produced poor quality work because shortcuts were taken.

3. It’s a Money Saver

By seeing how other’s create, an imitator is made aware of exactly what it will take to complete a project.

What tools to use, materials, and the timeframe required to complete it.

The PRO is that an imitator can save both money and time, by purchasing only the tools needed and spending less time developing the project. After all, it’s already been done – they’re just imitating what already exists.

The imitator can work more quickly, efficiently, and often produce higher quality results, when done right.

The CON is that without the experience to back it up, certain unexpected situations might come up that the imitator didn’t plan for. Certain tools or materials might be needed or accidents or spills can affect the timing.

If shortcuts are taken, it will also impact the quality of the project, as well.

4. Fewer Problems, Flaws, or Hangups

I often use reference photos, sound files, and templates when working on a project. I know how much time it takes to go out and get those photos, create or locate those sound files, and develop the templates I need.

It takes a huge amount of time and often, I’ll run into problems, mistakes, or hangups that can be frustrating, yet must be overcome. A camera battery that dies on a photo shoot, a hard drive that crashes, or even a service bureau can make mistakes in the final hour. For me, I know what to expect because I’ve been through it a thousand times and can plan for those things to happen.

The PRO for an imitator is that the hard work has already been done; they know which photos to use, sounds to get, and templates to make. It’s all been laid out in what someone else has created for them to use as a reference. They can create a similar-looking project in less time and with fewer problems or hassles, because they could get right to the solution.

The CON, however, is that when an imitator does encounter problems, they often don’t know how to get around them. They expect a quick fix that isn’t always available. I saw this happen with a designer who used a layout created by another designer. All the style sheets were set up, but they didn’t know how to use them.

So, when they tried to change the copy of the text in the project, it all went loopy and they had no idea how to fix it. That’s when an imitator has to put their tail between their legs, admit they’re shortcoming, and ask for help – or, risk failing and losing the project, altogether.

5. Piggy-back Momentum

Years ago, sitting in a meeting, I presented my ideas for a skateboard campaign to the marketing team. My ideas were good, strong, well-thought out, and researched. Marketing liked the ideas and the presentation. 

When it was my co-workers turn to present their ideas, they took a different route. Now, I knew they didn’t have any new ideas and didn’t do any research – they were relying on my work to be approved by marketing. But, there we were, everyone waiting to hear what my co-worker’s idea were. That’s when they said, “I really like where Mark is going with this, but I’ve got some thoughts on how to take his ideas to the next level!”

The PRO here is that by usurping my ideas and piggybacking on the work that I had done, this co-worker was now presenting themselves over me. While marketing liked what I had presented, their eyes grew wider hearing the possibilities in taking things to another level. My co-worker was successful in presenting new ideas based on what I had already presented and getting the momentum going even more on the project.

The CON, though, is that this co-worker crossed the line. I knew it, my boss knew it, and marketing knew it.

We didn’t deal with it during the meeting, but we absolutely addressed it back at our offices. It created a rift of trust between my co-worker and I, and made them look desperate to everyone else. And while they may have had some good ideas, they should have collaborated with me, first, instead of showing up unprepared and making our team look bad.

6. Easy Development

Like the previous scenario, my co-worker took someone else’s ideas and simply expanded on them. That’s the PRO side for an imitator, because instead of getting their hands in the dirt and coming up with their own presentation, they simply waited to see what other people came up with and just leveraged their development. A good example is a holiday tree. You go out to several different nurseries to find the perfect tree. You compare prices, check foliage, cut it down, strap it to the car, bring it home, set it up, and put on some fun lights and decorations. Then, the imitator comes along, sees the work that’s already been done, and starts removing the decorations you put on, in favor of re-decorating with the way they think it should look, to be more festive or livelier.

The PRO is that anyone who comes along after and sees the tree, with all the accoutrements and decorations, will compliment and say what a great job they did. No one sees what went into getting the tree, all the time spent looking for it, or even getting it home and in the house. They only see the final product, and it can be frustrating to see someone else get credit for only doing the “fun part” of decorating the tree.

The CON in this situation, however, is that when someone asks, “where’d you get it,” “how much did it cost,” or “did you do this all yourself?” the imitator will be in the uncomfortable position of having to either lie, outright, or be forced to acknowledge credit to others. This scenario works the same in most any creative field, as well.

7. Better, More Attractive, and More Salable

Because an imitator can already see the final work, they become experts on how to improve it, make it more attractive, and more appealing to sell. It’s probably the biggest PRO in imitating others, because their final work often looks better in the end, because they are starting from the original artist’s END-POINT and working from there… they got bypass all the hard work. This happened to my mom when she used to make Halloween decorations for a local fair in our town. Ladies would get together and make their decorations while enjoying a social evening together. But, when she went to sell her decorations at the fair, she noticed that one of the ladies would arrive with the same decorations as hers. Except, they were even better, painted with glitter, googly eyes, feathers and fur, where my mom’s were much more simple.

I remember seeing how much it bothered my mom, but she brushed it off. She always told me the fun was in making the decorations with her friends, not selling them to just make a quick buck.

Still, one of the CONs in this is the risk of trying to recreate someone else’s work and not being able to pull it off. It can be very time consuming, and to make something that’s not better, not as attractive, and not going to sell very well can have a very negative impact.

8. Learn the Ropes

A good manager will ask an employee, “tell me how this thing works.” 

The employee will explain, “this goes here and this does that and those go over there.”

The manager then goes into a meeting with their boss.

And when their boss asks the manager, “how does that thing work?” the manager repeats, “this goes there and this does that and those go over there.”

The boss is impressed with the manager and applauds them for really knowing their stuff.

People who imitate often work the same way.

They may not know how to pull off a successful project, so they observe the way an expert does it and just mimic how the expert did it. When I was young, you had to know your stuff – there was no YouTube or Google to get immediate answers or “how to’s” to get things done. We also had to ask a lot of questions, being fully transparent to professionals when we didn’t know how to do something.

The PRO here is that someone who imitates can easily learn the ropes on how to do something, by simply watching others do it. Like the manager with the employee, once they know how to do it themselves, they have no use for an expert, anymore.

The CON, though, is that while observation – whether watching firsthand or even on YouTube – can be very helpful, putting it into practice it vital. Without putting that observation into action, the learning is limited.

So, if things don’t work or suddenly go wrong, there’s no one to turn to for help. And that’s when a project can cost more money, need more time, or incur annoyance from others.

9. Pay Day

I have a friend who’s an illustrator, who used to post fun, clever drawings on Instagram. I always looked forward to them, but they didn’t have a lot of people following them. Then, I noticed a mutual friend of ours, also an illustrator, began posting very similar drawings to Instagram, as well. The style was very different, but the setup and humor was exactly the same. It was obvious they was imitating our other friend, except theirs were much more stylized. This mutual friend had a more followers than my friend and I combined, and everyone loved their drawings. One day, out mutual friend announced that their drawings were being featured on a popular blog site. It was a high profile site and they were going to get paid for their drawings.

My friend was angry at our mutual friend’s success, saying that sucked being copied AND that they’d make money from it. I could only agree and understand exactly how my friend felt. While our mutual friend did well with drawings that were basically leveraged from someone else’s idea, the PRO is that they found success, were getting paid, and building a following for their work.

The CON is that they lost a friend, hurt someone in the process, and were not able to recognize that they’d hijacked someone else’s work to succeed.

10. A Career Based on Someone Else’s Work, Style, or Achievements

The 2016 film, “The Founder,” tells the story of a struggling salesman who took someone else’s brilliant ideas and turned them into a behemoth business enterprise, all for himself, cutting out the men who created the idea in the first place. Ray Croc undermined the McDonald brothers to create the chain of McDonald’s restaurants that are known throughout the world. While it’s a sad story for the McDonald brothers, it’s a success story for Ray Croc, despite how he did things.

It’s not uncommon, as Walt Disney leveraged the literature of the Brother’s Grimm to creative successful animated films. As I mentioned before, OWL CITY leveraged the sound of another band to become famous.

And even J.K. Rowling has been criticized for leveraging the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien in her “Harry Potter” books. The harsh reality is that when someone develops anything that is fresh and new, it invites the thralls of copycats and imitators to come and leverage their work.

Do you remember when the first iPods came on the market? It didn’t take long before companies began selling knock-offs that imitated the iPod, but which were far inferior in quality. I mean, does anyone remember how many millions of dollars that Microsoft put into their iPod killer, the Zune? Now, it’s just one of another billion gadgets that is nothing more than a faded memory.

The PRO for those who imitate is that there’s always something new on the horizon for them to latch onto and leverage or exploit to make life easier and more profitable.

The CON is that because things change so quickly, people who imitate usually don’t stay relevant as long, because the original creator can adapt and continue to create at the same level, with the fortitude to stand the test of time.

Thank you for reading. I hope this was an informative and entertaining discussion for you today and you’ll check back next month for new content and a new discussion that will hopefully have some impact on your creative journey, whatever that may be. As always, I’m grateful for your time and appreciate your support.

Take care and God bless!

Mark