Creativity As Variation – A Ramble

Even though this is an article about making art and writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music (again!). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I ended up going through a slight classical music phase. Although this mostly involved listening to the few classical pieces that I really like (eg: Moonlight Sonata, Pachelbel’s Canon, The William Tell Overture Finale, Danse Macabre etc..), it also made me think about how traditional classical music differs from many other forms of creativity and what this can teach us.

The interesting thing about traditional classical music is that it is all about variation. Since Beethoven or Pachelbel aren’t exactly going to start writing any new material, all of the creativity surrounding traditional classical music is finding new ways to play and arrange these old songs. In essence, traditional classical music literally just consists of cover versions. And, yet, it’s absolutely fascinating.

I think that a lot of this comes from the fact that any performance of a piece of traditional classical music is both familiar and new at the same time. If you’re already familiar with the underlying song, then the emphasis is on how well it is performed and how the musicians interpret the piece. The creativity comes from how a musician makes the song in question sound interesting or distinctive. It is about variation, rather than “originality”.

Interestingly, most other forms of creativity also used to be like this. Few to none of Shakespeare’s plays are truly original stories. Likewise, many traditional European paintings are based on religious or historical stuff that has been painted many, many times before. In the olden days, originality mattered a lot less. Yet, many works from the past are still considered to be masterpieces.

Of course, it could be said that the invention of copyright (and the gradually creeping expansion of copyright terms over the years) has had a chilling effect on more contemporary examples of this kind of thing. But, it would probably be more accurate to say that contemporary copyright laws merely insist that creative people include a much greater degree of variation when taking inspiration than they used to.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer, it’s clear that modern copyright laws still allow artists and writers to be inspired by the same stuff. After all, most copyright laws around the world acknowledge that general things like ideas, themes, colour schemes, poses etc.. can’t be copyrighted. So, yes, copyright still allows you to be inspired by things, provided that you do it in the right way (eg: by looking at the general elements of something else, and then doing something different with them).

However, copyright laws generally state that an artist or writer’s interpretation of an idea must be different from everything else that shares the same inspiration. So, copyright law still technically acknowledges that most forms of creativity are variations on pre-existing things, but it demands a much greater level of variation than used to be standard in the past.

Still, the idea of more traditional variation-based creativity can be incredibly fun to play with. As long as you stick to creative works that are out-of-copyright, then you can create your own variations and interpretations of them without any restrictions. The interesting thing about doing this is that re-creating something familiar means that you have to think a lot more about what you are doing. Since your version will be compared to the original, your decisions about things like style, tone, technique, materials etc.. matter a lot more.

For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a study I made of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Day Dream“:

The full-size painting will be posted here in early April.

As you can see, I ended up making all sorts of subtle changes whilst copying this painting. I altered the composition very slightly, I used a slightly more limited palette, I included more darker areas (to make the colours look bolder by comparison), I used different materials to Rossetti (eg: waterproof ink, watercolour paint and digital tools), I used my usual cartoonish style, I made the background look less detailed and more “wild” etc..

Whilst painting this study, I was very aware of my own “style” and wanted to make the finished painting look both like my own work and like the original Rossetti painting. I wanted the finished painting to look familiar and different at the same time.

And this is what makes variation-based creativity so interesting. The whole idea of “familiar, but different”. The idea of standing on the shoulders of giants. The idea that great works are more than just one thing made by one person, that they are things that are part of the collective imagination. That they are things that are interesting enough that other people want to re-create their own versions of them.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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