From Imitation to Innovation

How to Channel Your Inspiration in a More Original Way

One of the biggest struggles of beginning illustrators is in not copying the styles or ideas of the work that inspires them. We know what inspires us, what gives us creative energy, but we don’t quite know how to channel that energy into making original art. We don’t know how to leap from that deep feeling of inspiration to actually making something that might similarly inspire others.

We all start off by being inspired by other artists’ work. Maybe we are fans of a graphic novel series, or we have always admired posters or other graphic design from a certain era. Then, one day, it dawns on us that we don’t just appreciate it in a passive way. There’s a moment in which we consciously declare, “I want to do that too!” In her book Find Your Artistic Voice, Lisa Congdon describes this moment as “the spark”, the genesis moment of when ends up being a lifelong love affair with making pictures, and ultimately, making art for a living.

If you are hoping to become an illustrator, or if you are an illustrator now, you have had this “spark” moment. I can’t imagine any other reason someone would want to get into illustration. The chances of making a decent living is probably far lower than taking a more traditional job route. But like any art career, such as music, dance, writing, or fine art, we are allured by the hope that we too could create inspiring things. The pull is irrational but natural: seeing things that make us happy or touch us deeply drives us to do the same. Inspiration begets creativity.

It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to go from “I want to make art” to “I need to have art skills”. All it takes is a lot of practice. The harder thing is to make art that measures up to the art that inspired us in the first place.

If our natural response to inspiration is to create, the question of what and how to create immediately follows. As beginning illustrators, we will have already taken those first steps: learning the basics, like drawing, painting, and of course, picking up some digital illustration skills as well. Building up the foundational art skills necessary to becoming an illustrator is straightforward enough. It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to go from “I want to make art” to “I need to have art skills”. All it takes is a lot of practice. The harder thing is to make art that measures up to the art that inspired us in the first place.

There is a lot of struggle in that gap.

For illustrators, the most pronounced struggle is in finding our voice. Our artistic voice is the unique collection of tangible and intangible qualities that persistently manifests in our work. When we look across the body of our work, there will tend to be a recurring set of mannerisms and motifs. It could be in our basic drawing style. It could be in the tools or techniques we often choose. It could be in the subject matter we tend to include in our art. I would argue that one’s artistic voice emerges unintentionally. The only requirement to find one’s voice is in producing enough work to find its pattern. Perhaps, then, for illustrators, when we talk about “finding our voice”, we really mean finding our style. Style is similar to voice: it is the unique qualities that persistently arise from our work. Style is influenced by our natural drawing style and our tools and techniques. One’s style is also carried by the motifs they persistently bring to their work. But style is far more visible, more tangible, than voice. It’s more evident because it is largely played out on the surface. Without being disparaging, style is literally superficial.

For illustrators, finding this outward style is hugely important, because it becomes our product, our brand, the most visible expression of our artistic identity (not to be confused with our essential identity as humans).

In searching for this style, we of course go back to that which inspires us. Not having fully discovered what our own voice and style are, we have no other well to draw from but the work of those who have. It’s completely natural. The temptation, of course, is to imitate our inspiration in our own work. At first, this is actually good to do. There’s no better way to learn something than imitating it, pulling it apart, deconstructing it, and then trying to reconstruct it on our own. There is also much satisfaction in reaching new heights of technical skill, when we can achieve the same visual results as the work we love. Learning skills and techniques that are common within an industry is necessary, and there is a rightly strong sense of accomplishment that comes with this. It’s sort of like putting together a model car, or piecing together a complex puzzle. It’s the feeling of changing your car’s oil for the first time, or pulling off a complex recipe in the kitchen. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with being able to do things well and on your own. For artists, however, technical mastery and following recipes won’t be enough. When we are imitating the work we love, we will always know that it’s not our own. We yearn to make work that is more personal, more unique, more expressive and original.

For artists, however, technical mastery and following recipes won’t be enough. When we are imitating the work we love, we will always know that it’s not our own. We yearn to make work that is more personal, more unique, more expressive and original.

The big question is, “How can I make work that is more unique, which doesn’t imitate the work that I love?” There really is only one way, and that is to put away your inspiration. After a certain point, you have to let it go and start making work from your heart. The hardest part about this is that you probably won’t like what you make. There’s going to be a period of time when you feel that nothing you are making lives up to the quality of your more imitative work. I liken this to learning to ride a bike without training wheels. Your inspiration is your training wheels. When you are copying the style or content of the artists you admire, it’s like riding a bike with the training wheels on. It looks like you’re riding a bike. It feels like you’re riding a bike. But there’s some kind of rattle behind you that keeps reminding you that you’re not really riding a bike. You’re riding a four wheeled pedal-powered vehicle; you’re not truly riding on a bicycle. When you let go of your inspiration, you are removing your training wheels. In the first few tries, you’re going to feel it. There’s going to be a time when you can’t really ride on the two wheels, but there’s no way to learn but by trying. You’ll fall down, maybe even crash. But with some persistence, and perhaps some support (like a parent pushing you from behind to help you get up to speed), you’ll get there.

At a certain point, you figure out how to balance on two wheels. And while you are on the same bike, pedalling and looking mostly the same as you did on the training wheels, it’s a totally different experience. The feeling of balancing and moving forward is indescribable. You are more agile. You can turn from side to side, leaning over, defying gravity. There is no more rattle from behind. You are now truly free.

When I look at these stages to becoming more original, I see three overall stages. There is the moment of inspiration, that first spark. Then, there is the period of time when you are building up skills and closely imitating your sources of inspiration. And then, finally, there is a time when you cut loose from your inspiration and try new things, on your own. You are not necessarily making earth shattering work, but you’re now trying out ideas and techniques in your own way. You know you have the basic building blocks, and now you’re giving yourself the chance to put them together in innovative new ways. These are the three stages of what I call the Three I’s: Inspiration, Imitation, and Innovation.

The power of The Three I’s is that it succinctly describes the process we all must go through to finding our own unique voices. I think it’s especially powerful to know that imitation is not only okay, but necessary to becoming original. Before we can innovate, we must imitate. There is no master who did not first have a mentor. Everyone begins as a copycat. It’s also validating to know that on the way to being innovative, there is an awkward stage. There’s a time when we will make mistakes, when we fall off the proverbial bike and have to get back up with scrapes on our knees and elbows. Truthfully, these stages are more continual than chronological. We are never truly done innovating, and hopefully, there will always be new sources of inspiration that are worth, at least for a time, imitating.

If you’re an illustrator who knows what inspires you, if you work in a style that you feel is not completely your own, you are not alone. We all go through the Three I’s as we work to develop our own ways of doing things. If you’re looking for a next step, a way of pushing through to Innovation—if you are wondering how to get those danged training wheels off for good, here are a few tips that I hope will help you:

  1. First, don’t expect to be more original by sheer determination. You can’t just come up with a “style” one day and from that point forward be on your merry way. Originality will develop through persistent exploration and practice, but the results you truly desire will come on their own time.
  2. Your first priority is to be good, not original. As Paul Rand said, “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” You will find yourself gravitating toward certain techniques, tools and mannerisms in your work. You will find yourself wanting to be better at these above others. Follow this pull, and allow yourself to focus on these things above all others. Naturally, these will become foundational to a more unique voice later on.
  3. Consider that The Three I’s occur not just over your career as a whole but in every job you do. In my own process, I make time for all three to happen. I’ve written about my BRDSFD process before. Early on I make time for Inspiration in the Research and Discovery stage. In my O-mode Sketches I am drawing from references, Imitatively. And, finally, in my I-mode Sketches, I put away my references (my inspiration) to ideate—that is, to come up with Inovative ideas.
  4. The most important thing for me, which I encourage all artists to embrace, is that it is better to be original even if that means being a bit scrappy at first. This is better than having a polished but clearly derivative style. Your work may look cool, it may impress others, but if you are just excelling at making what everyone else is already doing, you are replaceable. Styles come and go. You may even find that, after discovering your own style, others start to copy it. People can always imitate what your work looks like, but they will never have your perspective. They will never have your intuition and taste. These are what go into making original work, far more than developing any particular technique or external style. Originality is more a mindset than a style. It keeps an observant eye on the crowd but refuses to be a part of it. Paul Rand says it’s better to be good than original. I say it’s even better to be both.
  5. Remember this handy little saying: Imitate to learn, Innovate to earn. Here, I mean that we should always feel free to imitate and copy while we’re learning. But when it comes time to illustrate something professionally, whether under an employer or as a freelancer, imitation must never be an option. It may seem obvious to say this, but there is a lot of temptation to take shortcuts when we’re under pressure, and often that means stealing ideas and styles from other artists. Plagiarism may get you to the finish line in a project, but it won’t give you any pride, and you risk making enemies out of allies. When you share work that is directly imitating someone else, be sure to credit them and explain your intent.

Unsurprisingly, the key ingredient to becoming more original is you. Being truly you, showing up even when it feels vulnerable, is what really counts. It means being able to see fads and trends for what they are, and refusing to just copy them, even if that means your work looks a little less polished or popular. Being original means placing an emphasis on finding your personal perspective over making perfect pictures. It means knowing what inspires you but knowing that it will take extra effort to channel this into something new. Don’t make a remix, and, as Todd Henry always says, “Don’t be a cover band: cover bands don’t change the world. Find your voice.” Finding your voice takes work and bravery. Just like learning to ride on two wheels, there’s going to be some scrapes and bruises. But the bike isn’t a true bike until the training wheels come off.

For more information about how I step through my creative process in every illustration, moving from Inspiration to Imitation to Innovation, please check out my class, Drawing Toward Illustration.

For a more overall description of The Three I’s, I talk about this in Lesson 9: Inspiration vs. Imitation, in my class, Sweet Spots.

If you want to dive deeper into working out a more original style, starting with Inspiration and then blasting through to a more unique style, I guide you through this journey in The Style Class.

I also have a live talk, “How to harness your inspiration without imitating it” on YouTube, which very directly speaks to this struggle!

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.

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