We are taught from a young age not to copy…don’t copy the test answers from your neighbor…don’t copy your best friend’s homework…all valid instructions, and yet in the world of creativity, copying is a great place to start in building confidence and expanding boundaries. This is certainly true in art, but I think it can be applied in most subjects seeking to add a creative component to the classroom.
Copying the Masters
Historically, copying master artworks was the way aspiring artists trained to become artists themselves. Picasso mastered landscapes and a traditional style before he expanded into groundbreaking movements such as cubism. Art in its purest form is a copy of reality. In fact, many consider realists to be imitators who are technically advanced, but not necessarily creative. I personally did not appreciate abstract art until I took the creative aspect into consideration. When you seek to understand the intention of the artist and the process through which they arrived at the finished product, the work becomes a lot more exciting. Regardless, most abstract artists started off learning in a traditional way, whether by copying masters or copying reality. It is through the process of copying that students gain skills and confidence from which to leap into the creative.
Copying Abstract Work
In a journal article titled, Imitation, Inspiration, and Creation: Cognitive Process of Creative Drawing by Copying Others’ Artworks, Okada and Ishibashi experimented with the use of copying to inspire creativity. Both the Control Group and the Copy Group were asked to create drawings of a still life at the beginning of the experiment and again at the end. In the middle, the Control Group was asked to do two more drawings of a still life, while the Copy Group was asked to copy an abstract drawing. In the final still life, the Copy Group was asked to incorporate the style they had copied. Okada and Ishibashi stated, “Process analyses suggested that participants’ cognitive constraints became relaxed, and new perspectives were formed from copying another’s artwork.” They concluded that the drawings became more creative after imitation. Consequently, the study offers concrete evidence to support the role of copying in creativity.
Build on Other Ideas or Steal
When seeking new ideas in creative problem solving, we are encouraged to “build on other ideas.” We accept that in the pursuit of a creative solution, it is okay to use or copy someone else’s idea and add to it. In his book, Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Ever Told You About Being Creative, author Austin Kleon is a little more direct, encouraging readers to steal. Kleon states, “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace the influence instead of running away from it.” He explains that copying is reverse engineering. He says, “It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”There is great wisdom and there are many ideas to steal from Kleon’s book from practicing “productive procrastination” to keeping a “praise folder.” All provide great tools for bringing creative practice into one’s daily life.
Process / Room for Failure
Unless someone is a master forger, there is always an element of oneself in the process of copying, whether intentional or not. When using it in the classroom, I think it moves students away from the pressure of ideas and into the focus of process. In my opinion, not enough attention is placed on process and very little room is given for experimentation and failure. I used to teach a darkroom photography class, and I loved the students’ exposure to process and failure and problem-solving in that class. No student nailed a perfect exposure of their photograph the first time. They had to go through the process and then evaluate the results: Too light? Too dark? Not focused? Then, they adjusted their exposure time or refocused and tried again. Often, it took quite a few times to get it right, and that was ok. It’s the only class I can think of where the students expected failure and knew how to rebound—or they took the time to just experiment with different things. Working with digital programs gives students the same opportunity to experiment since there are often layers and undo options; however, many students won’t experiment unless you encourage them to.
In his book, Create the Future, TrendHunter founder, Jeremy Gutsche devotes an entire section in praise of failure. While the book is geared toward the business world, there is a lot of insight to be gained for the classroom. He encourages business leaders to have a gambling fund to absorb the costs that go with failure and suggests viewing failure as a training cost. He even recommends firing people who aren’t brave enough to fail. He states, “To accept failure, you need to find positive ways to interpret unexpected results.” (p. 50) Students are accustomed to learning one way to do something and being told the steps to get there. Copy projects force students to figure out how to get there. Allowing students time and room for trial and error in the process is a huge step in preparing them for the unexpected failures they will most certainly encounter in life.
Copyright: Remix vs. Piracy
In the early 2000s, illegally downloading a song carried the threat of a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison if caught and prosecuted. The Digital Copyright Act of 1998 aimed to protect copyrighted material found on the growing digital platform of the internet but was perhaps a bit overprotective. Organizations such as libraries and educational institutions joined the Digital Future Coalition, who along with others aimed to “mitigate the draconian nature of the new statute” (Public interest copyright advocacy and fair Use Education: 1995-2015). In November of 2005, the first of the fair use best practices was introduced including the ability for teachers to use material to create multimedia lessons for students.
Around the same time, attorney and professor Lawrence Lessig was arguing for the right to remix and published his book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy. In a promotion for the book, it states “America’s copyright laws have ceased to perform their original, beneficial role: protecting artists’ creations while allowing them to build on previous creative works. In his 2007 TED TALK, Laws that Choke Creativity, Lessig shares video examples of what “remix” is and argues that this is how the current generation of young people uses their creativity and it has only grown since 2007. His passion and belief in the sharing of artwork inspired him and a client, Eric Eldred, to found Creative Commons in 2001. The Creative Commons is a “nonprofit organization that helps overcome legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges.” Currently, twenty years later, the site is a great resource for anyone interested in sharing or borrowing with varying degrees of permissions.
Today, thanks to the efforts of many, “fair use” protects most use of copyrighted materials in an educational setting used for learning, personal expression, and remix. If a teacher is concerned about copyright infringement, Attorney Adam J. Schwartz advises that you ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you making any money from it?
- Are you changing the original work significantly? Was all or part of it reproduced?
- Did you credit the author or artist for the work or inspiration?
- Is your remix a parody?
If you answered “no” to profit and “yes” to any of the rest, teachers and educational institutions should safely fall under “fair use.”
Ideas to Copy
Here are just a few ideas to copy or build on for your own class. Remember to make your own example first, so you lead by example and know what challenges to expect. Once you have completed a project at least once, you’ll have student examples to share with your class.
Intro Parodies– In my T.V. broadcasting class, we need to create “intro’s” for our broadcasts. These, like a television show intro, are about a minute in length and are meant to introduce the crew as well as entertain. The students like to parody shows and scenes from movies and commercials that other students will recognize and enjoy. When creating a parody, the focus is on mapping out the scenes with a storyboard and including the “5 w’s and h.” They have to think creatively about substituting locations, props, and people.
Movie Trailer Flip– Another video theme copy was inspired by the Freeform Channel’s “31 Days of Halloween.” In order to fall in the Halloween theme, Freeform takes non-Halloween movies and creates a trailer that presents them as a scary movie. By selecting certain scenes, they make a happy kid’s movie look terrifying. For this project, students can pick any normal movie they want and create a scary movie trailer out of it, or they can simply flip the genre of a movie to the opposite: drama to comedy, comedy to romance, and so on. Another adaptation to this might be to incorporate a content theme. For example, use title slides to tell another story like something about a story in English class or an event from history.
Getty Museum Challenge– During the recent quarantine, the J. Paul Getty Museum issued a challenge for social media followers to recreate a work of art from the comfort of their own homes. According to Sara Barnes from My Modern Met, “the internet did not disappoint.” The results were incredibly creative and so much fun to see. Teachers can mold this idea to suit their own content needs. Students can find a painting that represents a book they read, a moment in history, an artist they admire, and then recreate a modern version of it. They can find something abstract and use it to represent a math problem. The possibilities are endless and the results are fun!
I think it’s important to acknowledge the process when completing assessments for grades, and I think it’s important to be flexible with how students approach this. I will often give students a completion grade rather than dissect the project, or I will list very basic components that the project needs in the rubric so that I am evaluating their effort and not criticizing the result. Often I will follow along in the process and make suggestions before they turn it in. If they know they will get a 100 for finishing the project, they are more willing to do the extra things to improve along the way and to experiment. As for flexibility, if possible I like to give students permission to run with an idea that they have that builds on the project. A student might want to pursue something in a way that tunes into their strengths (much like Gardners’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences). If they want to pursue something in a logical way, or a kinesthetic way, or a musical way, or an intrapersonal way, then I am most often flexible. The only time I’m not as flexible is when the project needs to go somewhere specific for public consumption (which happens in my class). Sometimes after a student turns something in, I’ll say, “Hey, can you fix this and this?” and then I’ll grade it. If they are willing to go back and do it, they deserve a better grade because they have learned something. I think sometimes we may forget that the goal is for students to learn, to be creative, to become resilient, and not for us to punish them through grading.
This is also an excellent opportunity to have students reflect and assess their own work. By comparing their project to the original, they have an easy frame of reference. They can have the opportunity to point out what worked, what didn’t work, what they changed, what was challenging, and how they worked through the challenges. If the focus is on process, then the reflection really becomes the evidence of learning.
Go Ahead. It’s okay.
I hope I have taken the edge off of the idea of copying. There is so much inspiration out there. It would be a shame not to use it, build on it, and learn from the process. Be creative and remember to give credit to the source of your inspiration!
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is a renaissance woman. She is a high school communications teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur, an avid traveler, and a voracious student of life. She holds a B.A. in Art Therapy and teaching certificates for both Art and English. She received a Master’s of Science in Creative Studies and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo in 2016. Her master’s study work focused on research in motivation and finding the balance between technology and creativity. Her desire is to create a learning environment where all students can discover their strengths, their creativity, and their own version of badass.