How to Learn By "Copying"

Posted Oct 9th, 2015

So, we can all agree, in the world of black and white, copying another person’s work is wrong. In school it was called plagiarism. It's bad and always ends in a fail. In the online world of creatives, when a brave artist shares a new and inspiring work, it often shakes up the industry and eventually creates a trend. As the trend grows, the style or idea is typically copied by others for many reason - money, success, fame. Of course this is the negative side of copying, sort of like plagiarism. But what if we explore the grey area of copying and call it by a less dirty word, like “emulation”. I've personally found the act of copying as part of deliberate practice a great way to get better. In this post, I’d like to share what I've learned.

What I Learned from Emulating

Despite all the negative reputation, emulation or “copying” is a traditional part of learning any craft.  I can’t tell you how many terrible “work in the style of *insert famous artist here*” paintings and drawings I created in art school. With each awful reproduction, I actually learned quite a bit about technique and style. It helped me see the details clearer and forced me to explore different ways to use the medium.

A couple months ago, I found myself fascinated by this particular animation. I thought the transitions from scene to scene were brilliant and I wanted to figure out how the animator achieved this look. For a week or two, each morning I spent some time working on this project. I would watch the animation, frame by frame and try to recreate the basic idea in my own project. No tutorial. Just me, my rusty old brain and the animation software.

Working in AfterEffects, trying to learn through emulating another animation.

Eventually I figured it all out and I was so pleased with myself. I rendered out the final animation and posted it on social media, waiting for the millions of accolades I would receive. As you probably suspected, the outcome didn't knock any socks off and there were just crickets in the world of social media. Even though the original animator’s work was a gorgeous piece of mastery, my feeble attempt looked amateurish when viewed next to it. And, it was obvious that I'd copied.

Vacation from Sandra Tournemille on Vimeo.

But, here’s the thing. It’s not the visual output that matters. Of course, it would help my sore ego if the final piece turned out as amazing as the original. But the process of observing, recreating, and emulating another established artist’s work was a wonderful form of deliberate practice. I learned some new techniques for transitions, timing and how to use 3D objects in After Effects. I also discovered that although I love the look of vector characters, which are currently super trendy in motion graphics, I don’t particularly enjoy creating the style myself. Learning what I dislike spending my creative energy on is super valuable as I continue on the journey to discover my genuine voice with animation.

In his incredible book, Louder than Words, Todd Henry describes Emulation as part of a larger progression in each creative journey. First there is Discovery, where the artist uncovers an interest or passion, Emulation comes next as the artist focuses time and effort copying other great works in order to learn, grow and develop skills. Divergence is the third step where the artist should deliberately make the bold move to carve out their own style and individual journey. Crisis is the final step, when the artist tends to feel as though it’s time to try something new. At this point, they should begin the cycle again as they discover a new trajectory in their creative journey. 

An artist can get stuck at any one of those 4 steps and like many other animator’s I sometimes worry that I won’t move past the Emulation stage. Personally, the journey has felt slow and tedious. I want to improve my skills and animate like the cream of the crop that I see on Vimeo, but I also know that with time, patience, and persistence, I will diverge into my own style. I think it's important to trust the process.

Beware, Danger Ahead!

But along the way, it’s important to note that emulation can quickly turn from a positive tool of learning, to a cheap short cut. Beware of your motivations and intentions when in this stage. If you find that you are frantically jumping from trendy style to another trendy style. Perhaps its time to take a moment and examine your motivations here. Are you just looking for that quick route to finding success? What are you getting out of emulating these styles? Are you actually learning something? Or are you too focused on the anticipation of gaining more clients or audience with your output? At this point, your motivations might be a clue that it’s time to refocus your priorities or move onto “divergence” and focus on developing your own style.

Another danger I have come across at this stage is the possibility of killing my creativity; particularly if I am finding all my inspiration online. Scrolling endlessly through Vimeo or Pinterest feeds, rather than doing the work, will cause feelings of overwhelm when you see one brilliant work after another. How in the world can you compete with so much beautiful work out there and what is the point when everything has been done already? If you notice this voice in your head, you need to stop immediately. Stop scrolling and walk away from the computer.

Lately I’ve made a rule for myself: scrolling through animations on Vimeo is not allowed until the weekend. Also, any animation or artist blogs that I follow must not be read until the weekend. Weekdays are sacred focus days for me and I cannot afford to be derailed by this “comparison monster”.  If you struggle like me, perhaps give this practice a try. Also, go for a walk in nature, watch some old films or head to the library where you can bury yourself in all sorts of amazing art books. I’ve found this sort of inspiration, away from the computer, has a way of restoring the confidence and quieting that internal voice of artistic doubt.

So, what is the takeaway here? Well, just remember that copying or “emulating” is a fantastic tool for learning. I would highly recommend using it in a focused, deliberate way as part of your practice. But make sure you have a goal for that practice before you begin. Are you looking to improve your timing in animation? Perhaps anticipation or follow through? Perhaps you need to sharpen your design skills or you’d like to be more creative with transitions. These are all perfectly awesome goals to focus on as you try to emulate some of the work out there. Choose a goal, then put your head down and create.

I would love to hear some things you’ve learned from emulating other artists works. Leave a comment below or link me up to some projects you have been working on. And I’d love to know what you are struggling with the most when it comes to animation, so shoot me an email or leave a comment below. Now, go make something awesome!

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