Four Reasons Why Artists Don’t Always List Their Inspirations

2017-artwork-why-artists-dont-always-list-their-influences

If you make art, then literally all of your art has been influenced or inspired by something you’ve seen, read, watched or played. Although there is a clear difference between legitimate inspiration/influence and lazy uncreative plagiarism, there’s literally no such thing as a “100% original” work of art.

This is mostly because being influenced by other things is an integral part of the learning process and because creativity itself works by combining, altering and/or extrapolating from pre-existing things. It is quite literally impossible to make a work of art that isn’t at least mildly inspired by or influenced by something else.

Of course, this is something that many people don’t realise for the simple reason that artists don’t always state their influences (nor should we be compelled to do this). So, I thought that I’d look at some of the many reasons why this happens.

1) There are too many: One reason is that, if you’ve been making art for a while and have developed your own distinctive art style, aesthetic etc… then there’s a good chance that a lot of things have gone into this. Although it’s impossible to create a “100% original” work of art, the more inspirations and influences you have, the more distinctive and/or unique your work will look.

For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited painting that I made on a mildly uninspired day after 4-5 years of regular art practice.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 3rd July.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 3rd July.

The influences and inspirations for this one painting include the roaring twenties, the film noir genre, a game called “The Blackwell Epiphany“, the first season of “Boardwalk Empire“, a film called “Blade Runner“, various English and Welsh seaside towns, films shown in letterboxed widescreen, the use of colours in a set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens”, a computer game called “Deus Ex“, Derek Riggs’ cover art for various Iron Maiden albums from the 1980s etc… I could go on for a while.

I mean, if you go back far enough, even “South Park” and “Pepper Ann” (two of the earliest influences on my art style from long before I started practicing art regularly) are probably a mild influence on some parts of the drawing style of this painting.

If you’ve been making art for a while, then you’re hopefully going to have a fairly hefty list of inspirations and influences. And, well, trying to remember, think of and list all of them for literally every piece of art you make can sometimes be borderline impossible.

2) Inspirations aren’t everything: One reason why lists of artists’ inspirations are so fascinating is because it’s easy to see them as a “recipe” of sorts. It’s easy to think that if you look at all of the things that have inspired an artist that you like, then you’ll be able to create things just like they have. But, inspirations aren’t cookery ingredients and a painting isn’t a soufflé.

Even if two artists have exactly the same inspirations, their art is probably going to look at least slightly different. Why? Because those two artists are different people with different imaginations.

Since it’s probably my largest inspiration, I’ll use the film “Blade Runner” as an example. One artist might look at this film and see cool-looking lighting, Aztec-influenced architecture, dense futuristic cityscapes filled with angular buildings etc…

However, another artist might look at this film and see elements from the film noir genre like old American buildings, 1940s-inspired fashions, rainy weather etc…

Both artists have had the same inspiration, but their art will probably look vastly different. This is because what the artist does with their inspirations is often more important than the inspirations themselves.

3) Misconceptions about copyright: Although I could write an entire article about copyright reform, there are a lot of popular misconceptions about copyright and originality out there. I’m not a copyright lawyer, but even a bit of basic research on the subject will show you that even heavy inspiration is permitted, even encouraged – provided that no highly specific details (eg: exact character designs etc..) are copied.

In essence, ideas and generic visual elements from anything cannot be copyrighted. For example, the concept of “a trenchcoat-wearing detective in a busy, rainy, neon-lit futuristic city” cannot be copyrighted. Anyone can make art that is based on this idea, because no-one can own an idea. However, the exact details of individual frames from the movie “Blade Runner” can be copyrighted because they are one highly-specific interpretation of that particular idea.

This is why many people can make the claim that copyright encourages creativity – because, if you see something that you like, you have to break it down into it’s general ideas and non-specific general visual elements (eg: lighting, colour schemes, architecture types, fashion types etc..) and then create something new using those basic elements. You can’t just directly copy the exact details of thing that has inspired you.

4) Letting a work stand on it’s own merits: If you are relatively new to making art and you list your influences, then there’s a chance that people may make comparisons between your work and the things made by more experienced artists, filmmakers, comic makers etc… that have inspired you.

Not listing your inspirations can sometimes be a way to ensure that your work is judged on it’s own merits. Yes, some people might work out what inspired you, but they’ll probably only do this after they’ve had a chance to see your work on it’s own.

Yes, anyone who knows anything about how art, imagination etc.. works won’t judge a piece of art based on it’s inspirations. After all, everyone is “standing on the shoulders of giants”. But, it can be easy to worry about this sort of thing if you’re new to making art. However, if you are worrying about it, then it’s probably a sign that you need to find more inspirations (since the more inspirations you have, the less your artwork will remind people of any one thing).

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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