Riffing on Artists

kupka_riff

Frantisek Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” (oil), and Allison Johnston’s “Orange Scales of Justice” (pastel and chalk)

Sometimes I hear other artists complain about needing inspiration in order to produce new work. Although I find that my personal problem has more to do with an excess of thinking and a lack of doing, I can certainly relate. Every now and then I have the sneaking suspicion that the GENIUS idea I just sprouted has already been done… perhaps many times. But that brings up an interesting question: If we are all unique individuals with unique thoughts and experiences (and I believe we are), don’t we automatically infuse that uniqueness into our work, regardless of whether the concept is truly original? And let’s be honest, nothing is truly original anymore. The spark of an idea must always come from some other source of inspiration. It’s what we do with that inspiration, how we put our own spin on it, that really matters.

Yesterday was the final critique for my drawing class. The end-of-semester assignment was to create a “riff” of another artist’s work. Initially, the idea made me uncomfortable — there is a lot of bad art out there which is meant to pay tribute to the genius of an artist whose skill level is above and beyond the capabilities of most of us. In other words, no matter which artist I chose, I felt completely incapable of doing the original work any justice. But after a frank discussion with my instructor lamenting my lack of time, quality materials, and ability, she reminded me of the importance of individuality and perspective. We are all unique, therefore we all create unique work. If we embrace our own voices as artists and refrain from attempting to mimic, our work which is inspired by another can have its own unique style, its own unique point of view. Most of the great artists of the past were influenced by each other, pulling bits and pieces of inspiration from the world around them. But they always made their work their own. It’s okay to be influenced by other artists, it’s natural. But if we’re not putting our own uniqueness into our work, what’s the point?