Copy a Classic

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Updated November 3, 2022

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Michelangelo was a highly-skilled forger, and selling a counterfeit sculpture would actually impress the buyer and earn him his first patron. Vincent van Gogh copied Hiroshige, Paul Gauguin copied Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne the Old Masters. Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) re-created many hip-hop songs from the 90s to teach himself how to produce music.

Figure: “Flowering plum tree, after Hiroshige” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Credit: Niels, Wikimedia Commons.

Figure: Woodblock print of “Plum garden at Kameido” by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857. Credit: Chester Beatty Library and Wikimedia Commons.

While most people might use the words imitating and copying interchangeably, there is a subtle and important difference. To imitate is to represent, reinterpret, or reproduce the style and vision of someone else’s work. To copy is to try to make an exact duplicate.

The goal of this prompt is to get you thinking about and feeling what it’s like to make something that you appreciate. Of course, this isn’t the final goal of your creative work; it’s an exercise to improve your skills. Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way. The idea of “copywork” has been applied to UI design and software development, too. If I’m typing the same words someone else wrote, I can’t claim originality over it, but it is a learning exercise.

You might find yourself facing gaps in your own skill and knowledge. It’s in copying that we experience a new dimension of the work—at the very least, a similar technical problem-solving that the original artist had experienced as well.

Imitate a Classic

To imitate is to represent, reinterpret, or reproduce the style and vision of someone else’s work. To copy is to try to make an exact duplicate. Imitation is not superior to copying—both have their place. You might need to imitate before you know how to copy exactly. For example, if you were to re-create a song you really liked, you might need to find the right instrument, drumkit, or sound file, and figure out what the layers sound like. But to imitate, you find your own way to recreate the original.

When I asked Dacoury Natche how he learned to make music, he spoke of imitating as a way to refine his own technique as he was first getting started. There will be things that you don’t know how to do yet, and that’s the point. When you don’t know something, do whatever you can to replicate it. As producer Chris Kim pointed out, the search for the answer and attempts to imitate or reproduce the original often provide more interesting results than recreating the original idea in the precise steps of the original creator.

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