How To Deal With Unconscious Inspiration (Plus An Art Preview)

2016 Artwork Unintentional Inspiration Article Sketch

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about something that can happen to pretty much any artist. I am, of course, talking about unconscious inspiration. This is when you end up making some art that you’re really proud of, only to later realise that it reminds you a bit of a piece of art that you weren’t even thinking about when you were making it.

I had a really interesting experience with this when I was making another painting in my upcoming “fake 1980s movie posters/ VHS covers” art series (that will appear here in early September).

Initially, I’d set out to make a detective movie/ action movie style painting showing someone posing dramatically with a gun. But, since the character looked more like a librarian than anything else, the painting went in a slightly more comedic sci-fi kind of direction. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The actual painting is something like 70% larger in size than this preview.

The actual painting is something like 70% larger in size than this preview.

I’d thought that my inspirations for this painting were 1980s movies/comics like “Robocop”, “Judge Dredd”, “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner” but, when I’d finished, I suddenly thought “Hmm… This reminds me of Derek Riggs’ awesome cover art for Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere In Time’ album!“. Worried about accidental plagiarism, I quickly reached for the CD rack near my computer and found my copy of “Somewhere In Time”.

Thankfully, my painting has countless content differences and quite a few significant compositional differences when compared to “Somewhere In Time”. However, I could still just about see the inspiration. And, yet, when I’d made the painting, I wasn’t even thinking of this particular album cover. I suspect that my subconscious mind might have made the connection because both things were at least partially inspired by “Blade Runner”.

So, yes, unconscious inspiration can happen to anyone. But, how do you deal with it?

First of all, by virtue of being unconscious, the chances that you’ll unknowingly copy something exactly are fairly slim. Even conscious memory can be a fairly unreliable thing, so I’m guessing that subconscious memory is just as (if not more) inaccurate and unreliable. What this means is that there may be some vague similarities, but the details will probably be fairly different if you’ve been inspired unknowingly.

For example, I initially worried that my painting used the exact same composition as the cover of “Somewhere In Time”. But, when I actually looked at the album cover, I realised that it didn’t. For example, in “Somewhere In Time”, there’s a dead robot’s hand in the foreground, rather than an entire dead robot in the background etc.. The two things looked fairly different, even if the inspiration was clear.

Still, if the two things do look very similar, then it might be worth making changes to your art or publically acknowledging the inspiration (even if it wasn’t conscious). I’m not an expert on the “rules” relating to these things (and the line between inspiration and plagiarism is a fairly subtle, but important one). So, do some research and use your own judgement here.

Another way to protect yourself against unconscious inspiration is to have a lot of conscious inspirations. Having multiple inspirations (as many as possible) is, of course, the best way to ensure that you don’t accidentally rip off one particular thing.

Having lots of conscious inspirations also means that if a subconscious inspiration slips into your art, then it’ll have less of an impact. Why? Because it’s just one inspiration out of many, rather than just one large inspiration that you don’t know about. Generally, the more inspirations you have, the more “original” your art will probably look.

Finally, another way to deal with subconscious inspiration is to look for common inspirations. Sometimes, we can think that we’ve accidentally been inspired by something when it turns out that we actually just have an inspiration in common with it. Virtually all works of art are inspired by something. So, sometimes, two works of art may share a common inspiration.

I had an experience with this a few months ago, when I made a vintage film noir-inspired comic project. After I’d finished making the film noir poster-inspired cover, I suddenly worried that the writing I’d used for the title looked like the title of a modern film called “Sin City”. However, after looking at some more vintage film noir posters online, I realised that this was a common font/ writing style that is used in at least a few old film noir posters. It was a common inspiration, rather than a rip-off.

Still, there are no fixed “rules” when it comes to dealing with unintentional or unconscious inspirations – it’s different for each work of art. So, use your own judgement and – if in doubt – make changes to your own art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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