From "sorry" to "thank you"

We've all heard it said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  But a gallery owner once said -- when I expressed reservations about a technique I was using at the time -- "You know the difference between amateurs and professionals, don't you?  Amateurs borrow ideas from other artists.  Professionals steal them."

It was good for a laugh, I guess, but it definitely made me uncomfortable.  And I mention it today because I spent a lot of time on this image yesterday.  It actually started life as a painting in a gallery, and I really really liked it.  So I took a picture.

Looking at the picture later, it occurred to me that it would be fun to substitute my own textures and colors for the blocks of color in the painting.  So I did that, and I really liked the results.  But it still seemed to have the composition of the original painting.  So I tried changing that.  I tried rotating it and flipping it, but it still worked best in this configuration.

I tried lengthening it, I tried squashing it, I tried warping it... and still, this was the way it looked best.  So I thinned some black lines and thickened others, overlaid an image of cracks on mud and called it a day.  So here it is, and I really do like it a lot -- especially the colors and textures.  But the incontrovertible fact is that the composition isn't mine.  And for me, it's really the composition that makes the image.  So, in a way, this picture feels like a violation of a trust.  And I don't even know the original artist's name.

What I do know, though, is that that's a method of teaching, used both in art and in writing.  You have the student copy a great master, on the theory that they learn style and technique and that serves to inform the development of their own style and technique.  So what did I learn from this?  That I really like the strong contrast of the black sections.  That I'm still hooked on the Rule of Thirds.  And that I can take textures and colors from one work, place them in another, and get depth by changing the shading.

So it's all good -- but I still feel like I should apologize to the artist.  And that reminds me of an important lesson I learned a couple of years ago: if you're the sort of person (and I am) who says "I'm sorry" WAY too often, so much so that your family starts objecting, learn to rephrase it.  Next time you catch yourself in the act of apologizing, try saying "Thank you" instead.  Not "I'm sorry I'm late," but "Thank you for waiting."  Changing the statement has a way of evening out the playing field.

So as one artist to another, even though I don't know his or her name, I will just say, "Thank you for sharing your beautiful composition with me."


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