Imitate, then Innovate

Brownie points to whoever can name the (very famous) artist who created the painting above. Extra bonus points if you can say why it is relevant to how smart photographers can learn their craft.

I first saw the Pablo Picasso's Science and Charity while visiting the Museo Picasso in Barcelona in the '90s. This particular museum is a laid out chronologically, which allows you an intimate look into Picasso's life and development as an artist.

Early in his career Picasso made the visual rounds, mastering and then rejecting a number of painting styles before discovering his own. He was simply copying the styles of others -- even saying as much in some of the titles of his paintings at the time.

But while he was busy finding out what he didn't want to do as an artist, he was also honing the technical skills he would use after he found his voice.

With immediate access to the work of most every photographer of note in the world, the web has greatly compressed the time required for this process. Take the photo above, by Justin Lanier. It is very much a copy of a Dan Winters photo of U2 frontman Bono.

At first blush, you might be tempted to write Justin off as another copycat wannabe. But he also is following in a long tradition of photographers being influenced by the work of others. Justin is overtly copying Winters' work as a learning technique. And whether the imitation is obvious or not, conscious or not, it is a fast track to learning the skills and techniques you can apply later in your own work. The important thing is to develop your own style and vision along the way.

Looking at Dan Winters' work, he was almost certainly influenced by his association with Greg Heisler. And Heisler in turn had famously camped out on Arnold Newman's door to get the chance to learn from him. As for Newman, he is credited with being the father of the photographic environmental portrait. But that is not to say that he didn't learn from painters who came before.

For those still rolling their eyes at Justin's overt copy of a Dan Winters photo, consider this: Justin Lanier (pictured just below in a self-portrait) is 15 years old. What were you doing with your photography at that age? Probably not trying to reproduce Dan Winters' photos, or shooting a 365 project, I'm thinking. Click the pic for a BTS photo, with Justin's duct-tape-and-clothes-hanger-wire studio.

Studying and imitating light puts you onto the fast track for leaning your own lighting skills. So when it does come time for you to find yourself visually, you'll have the technical chops to express your ideas.

[Editor's Note, to Justin Lanier: I happened to be exchanging emails with Dan just yesterday about an unrelated matter. You can be pretty sure he is reading this today, and thus viewing your photo and setup. (Pucker factor: f/64.)]


Back to Science and Charity, you may not know that Picasso was only sixteen when he painted it. About the same time he did the self portrait at left.

Incidentally, Science and Charity is a massive painting -- over eight feet in width. Very impressive and imposing to view in person. And it had nothing at all to do with the painter Picasso would soon become. But it had everything to so with the education he had given himself by studying and emulating the work of others.

He painted it for a contest. His father (and art teacher throughout his early years) suggested themes of death, religion and science. To be honest, he was pretty heavily coached on the whole thing. But the teenage Picasso, who had already spent much time copying the styles of the painters who went before him, had the skills to create the painting.

Interestingly, dad served as the model for the doctor; mom was the bedridden patient. So, just like Justin, Pablo was working with the models that happened to be available. So, Justin, you should not take any crap for photographing your dad, either.

Picasso won the contest, and with it his first of several trips to Paris as an artist. As a college-aged guy with a paint brush and an attitude, hanging out with women of questionable repute in Parisian bars led to predictable result. Suffice to say it was quite the visual experience.

But it was also during that time that he entered his Blue Period, and through that process found his own unique vision as an artist. If you can't make it to the Museo Picasso (it's a must-see if in Barcelona) you can get a pretty good proxy by clicking around this comprehensive series of articles.

And the next time someone dings you for trying to learn by copying someone else, know that you are in pretty good company.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Rajan Chawla Photography said...

Justin, keep up the amazing work. I love your drive. Strobist rocks.

October 27, 2011 8:38 AM  
Blogger John said...

I have to admit, I knew the work was Picasso's because not being a Picasso fan, I really enjoyed his early stuff, not knowing that he was emulating the work of others and while I can appreciate the fact that he found his own way in artistic expression... it really just didn't do anything for me.

You have to admit though, the man had some serious cahoonies for painting what he did in his day and age and did set a precedent for artists who followed him this day.

October 27, 2011 8:40 AM  
Blogger John said...

Oh, I also would like to add that while I don't think I've found my own voice yet, I've learned a TON about lighting by emulating others I admire.

October 27, 2011 8:41 AM  
Blogger Don said...

"Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate."
- Clark Terry, Jazz Trumpet Master

October 27, 2011 8:52 AM  
Blogger cory mcburnett said...

Very nice. I did a similar series a few years back re-creating some paintings using the strobist method. It helped me learn lighting, pose models, find props and locations. You can see them here on my flickr if you'd like

October 27, 2011 8:52 AM  
Blogger didymus said...

Just clicked through a few of Justin's photos... Amazing stuff!
Without having a BTS from those you are trying to emulate forces you to think!
Great work!
Thanks David for bringing this up.

October 27, 2011 8:58 AM  
Blogger Bill Gekas said...

So well put David! With the resources on this site and others, I've been practicing the light and style of the old masters and blogging about it with lighting diagrams etc. In the process I've learnt so much which I know I'll be applying to my own style one day.

October 27, 2011 9:07 AM  
Blogger Thomas Churchwell said...

I beleive it is Picasso with his father playing the doctor

October 27, 2011 9:28 AM  
Blogger gleeenn said...

Awesome, awesome article and perspective, not to mention particularly encouraging for all the younger photographers out there!

Thanks for doing the homework on this, David.

October 27, 2011 10:31 AM  
Blogger Steve Kalman said...

Great post. I happen to be reading DuChemin's 4th entry in his trilogy, the subject of which is finding and expressing your vision. This post on acquiring the skills to communicate it was perfectly timed for me.

As someone else in this same thread said, Strobist rocks.

October 27, 2011 11:07 AM  
OpenID said...

I remember Jay Maisel in a Kelby training vid saying we ought not be copying others but rather working to develop our own photographic style. I disagreed, especially when just learning lighting/style. Copying masters/talented people then doing our own thing is a better approach. Nobody expects people to sit down at a piano and compose an opus without knowing twinkle twinkle little star first. Baby steps. :) Cool article, thanks for posting!

October 27, 2011 11:24 AM  
Blogger Flavio Martins said...

Great observation David. I believe it happens in every facet of our lives. Musicians will also typically start their careers by "covering" other people's music. Even as our kids, when they become parents, often raise their children as we raised them before finding their own unique parenting style.

October 27, 2011 11:28 AM  
Blogger Cory said...

Photography, like any other art form, is about learning the skills to take great pictures and the creativity to make them stunning and memorable. Imitating skills and replicating results is a powerful force to both learn and to gain confidence. It is the exact reason throngs of photographers follow strobist. You gain a skill and its just another tool in the toolbox. It allows you a plan A, B, C etc. when approaching a shoot. Justin you are incredibly talented and have moved from the imatator to the mentor. Now people can look to replicate your results and find you a source of inspiration. Keep it up JL and DH. We ALL need to keep learning and be inspired!

October 27, 2011 12:54 PM  
Blogger Greg Mooney - Atlanta Photographers said...

Picasso: Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal!

The Masters are the best place to find inspiration.

October 27, 2011 1:17 PM  
Blogger Brian Carey said...

This posts title says a lot and the rest is a bonus! Thanks!

October 27, 2011 1:35 PM  
Blogger Sabrina said...

I agree. Many photographers though stop at imitation and spend their whole life there in what someone once termed "immortality by proximity". The challenge lies in innovation perhaps because imitation is mostly about craft and innovation takes vision and voice.

October 27, 2011 2:12 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Picasso is famous for completely disregarding technique and the rules of perspective used by the old masters. His painting "style" was anti-craftsmanship (the opposite of craftsmanship)

October 27, 2011 2:25 PM  
Blogger CharlesValerio said...

Justin, I'm heavily impressed with your work and truly inspired!

October 27, 2011 3:27 PM  
Blogger Kitchen Riffs said...

Good stuff. Another reason to look at paintings is many artists really mastered light. It's artists who first figured out perspective, and it's artists who learned how to make 2-dimensional objects look 3-dimensional through shadows and highlights. They had to paint the light on the canvas, and if you look at many paintings (you really have to see them in a museum for this; the effect often isn't apparent on prints) you can see the brush strokes and colors the artists used to create the effect they were after. You can see how they created layers of light - they were the first to 'light in layers' - and the lessons apply today, too. Anyway, great post. Thanks.

October 27, 2011 6:27 PM  
Blogger Dream Boy Martin Kimeldorf said...

When you go philosophical a special light comes out of you...and it is wonderful!

October 27, 2011 7:09 PM  
Blogger 2Max said...

Thank you for sharing with us the "Justin" story. Indeed an inspiration to all of us.

October 27, 2011 9:24 PM  
OpenID blogwerks said...

Thanks DH for putting in a good word for the value of imitation. It seems to me that imitating what we've seen/heard/read/been shown is the foundation of all earning. I've certainly learned a lot here by trying to follow others' examples.

October 27, 2011 10:48 PM  
Blogger TheArtfulBurner said...

Great stuff. You totally cracked me up with (Pucker factor: f/64.)

October 28, 2011 7:29 AM  
Blogger Bill Langbehn said...

Not too appear to be bragging too much on my nephew Justin, but I have the opportunity to watch his development almost daily. As many have surmised from just a few examples of his work, Justin’s maturity in the craft is way beyond his years and also that of many of us. After years working in business communication employing video and photography, what impresses me most is his craftsman-like approach to his work and applying what he learns to his production. Add that to a continual interest in challenging himself with new projects, and we see the discipline of an artist at work. Remember his name as he is and will make us all proud! Oh, yeah, a very nice piece Dave 

October 28, 2011 9:07 AM  
Blogger geomo said...

I could be mistaken, but I believe it is a Van Gogh.

October 28, 2011 10:41 AM  
Blogger Arron said...

Very well said. I cannot say I make it a point to copy someone's work. However, it is impossible not to if you want to learn.
" should not take any crap for photographing your dad, either."
I could not agree more. I have shot my girlfriend to the point where she wont even come around me when I am looking at photos.

October 29, 2011 7:09 PM  
OpenID Phil Stefans said...

Great post! Love this sort of stuff...

October 29, 2011 9:47 PM  
Blogger aerone said...

My high school art teacher who showed me work from painters like Picasso told me: "Good artists borrow; Great artists steal."

I have reason to believe he stole that quote himself... but his point has stuck with me all this time.

November 01, 2011 3:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home