Monday, 7 April 2014

When to copy and when not to copy - my own thoughts - part 1


What a very, very loaded word it is. 

I am not the first designer to write about this subject and I certainly won't be the last. I bet if you are reading this, you already have your own thoughts on the subject, and they may well differ from mine - it's a subjective and hugely emotive topic.

Firstly, I want to start off with a positive. Because copying can be extremely positive. It can be vitally positive. It's how we learn - it's how we teach. 

"Watch what I do carefully, then try yourself."
  We repeat, trying to get as close to the original version as possible. 

If you are reading this and you are a beader/crafter/human, no doubt this will be something you are familiar with. Think of a wee one, learning to talk, walk, all starts with copying. Copying is GOOD.

I'm coming at this subject from a different angle from some of you, no doubt. I started playing the piano at seven, the 'cello at eight.....I joined my first choir at six......the skills are learnt through copying and repeating  - practicing - to perfect. I copied the technical aspects of the skills my teachers were passing on to me, and I played and sang music often 100s of years old; music that 1000s of people had played and sang before me, and will do after me. Not copying, but reproducing the music that composers have slaved over - creating, scrawling it out note for note, pouring time and effort and years of experience into the music - so that I can reproduce - reawaken - this piece of music years later, in a practice room in a school in Edinburgh in the 90s, where I can be frustrated and bored and satisfied by repeating and repeating and repeating.....getting my version of whatever piece of musical art I am attempting to hone my craft through the perfection of. 

My story is not unusual - every musician; dare I say every artist and crafts-person, professional and amateur, has learned a lot through copying. They have learned and honed and perfected the techniques of what they do, and a great part of that learning experience is copying. 

Of course copying is only the beginning. As you learn and progress and listen and think, you start to develop your own voice - literally, in the case of music. Your own take on your art; your own version of these old masters. You learn a way or ways to interpret whatever piece of music is put in front of you. You are of course influenced by other musicians, other artists - by music and sound and art all around you - but ultimately, the musical versions that leave your instrument are yours. And the more authentically 'you' your versions can be, the more interesting, true, potentially beautiful your playing can be. 

In jewellery terms, how does this translate.....? It depends. Music is of course different in that I am 'reproducing' a piece composed by another. Music is also different in that if it is not performed, played - brought to life by others, it all but ceases to exist. And if you've ever been to a live concert you'll know that, great as recordings are, nothing beats a LIVE performance, whatever genre(s) of music you favour. You have to recreate music again, and again, and again to keep it breathing - to keep it alive. (And if I want to do that in public by the way, if the music is in copyright I have to pay for those rights. Buying the sheet music does not cover this.)

Back to jewellery.....and how I am extending the metaphor here...If you want to make jewellery for YOU, and to give to loved ones, and are happy recreating others' designs, then perhaps you don't have to worry about this too much. There is nothing wrong with that. NOTHING.

I occasionally do cross-stitch (I'm talking very occasionally here!) and I am perfectly happy to buy wee kits and stick to patterns and other people's designs. That's part of what I like about it. I can switch that part of my brain off. I have no plans to do any cross-stitch designing anytime ever. I am quite content with this, and if this sounds like you, then that is fine and wonderful too. I make the odd bookmark to keep for myself, or possibly to give to my Mum. (Lucky Mum!). I would never sell any of the very few things I make. I love that through patterns/tutorials/kits, I can own a little piece of someone else's art - not only that, but have the fun of making it for myself. 

But say you find that you want to start designing for yourself, that you want to move on from the copying - rinse - repeat stage. It may start with something as simple as making your own colour may want it to end with you running your own part-time, full-time business......It's like loving to read and through that discovering that you want to write.

Step one. Hone your techniques. This (for me) doesn't just mean practicing wrapped loops and crimping, tension and finishing, soldering, piercing and means learning how colours, textures, weighting works within jewellery. Figuring out what lengths and styles work. Learning about materials and metals and their properties, how to seal and finish and present the final pieces. Looking at what other artists do; asking yourself why? Asking yourself what you like/don't like about certain pieces - what works, what doesn't and why. Look beyond your chosen medium - look beyond decorative arts. Look to fine art, music, literature, architecture, nature....LOOK. If you start with this kind of copying - this analytical 'copying', you will find that out of this base, something starts to creep forth. That something will be your own artistic voice. 

Then turn from copying to being inspired by....and that's a whole other blog post, my friends, I'm pretty sure! A copy is a copy, inspiration is not the same (to quote one of my favourite bloggers/artists over at Rosy Revolver:

"Inspiration" is not a synonym for imitation.
It is not synonymous with simulation.
Inspiration is the seed from which art stems.
The seed, people.
Flowers do not grow from flowers.

Flowers do not grow from flowers.

How do we turn others' flowers into our own seeds?....hhmmm....yeah, that'll be in my part 2....along with other secrets of the universe.....

I'm making this sound quite serious, and maybe that's because I am truly serious about the arts. But serious doesn't have to mean solemn and definitely doesn't mean it's NOT fun! It doesn't mean you can't or don't love what you do. I get joy from copying a pattern - from reproducing something well and being able to appreciate and see and hold someone else's beautifully designed object. A tasty dish from a recipe book. A pretty piece of stitch work. It's just a whole other kind of joy.

But how much more joy do I personally get from not only making, but designing also? A deeper joy, that's for sure. It is much harder work to achieve, I think. But the end result.....looking at something and feeling - that is a physical expression of a part of me, of part of my mind and heart and soul. It's the combination of that alongside what you have learned through copying - repeating, honing, practicing, perfecting......that can result in a beautifully finished piece of handmade art. 

Rebecca is a Scottish jewellery designer, currently living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. You can read more about her and her work at her blog, and see more of her jewellery at She also has a supplies shop at


Monique (A Half-Baked Notion) said...

Great food for thought, Rebecca... anxious to read where you will take this :)

Cynthia said...

I know there are many people out there that would consider "copying" a horrible thing, but I agree with what you said and how you said it. I think when some one tries to profit from copying another's work (art), it is very wrong. But as you said, to copy as a means of learning, or to draw inspiration is an entirely different story. I also think that individual creative thoughts can be similar, or even identical. So, when you see someone's jewelry, and it looks very similar to yours, it might just be you are 2 kindred spirits. Good post!

Karin G said...

Great post! I do agree, learning is copying and the road to finding one's own voice long and difficult but so rewarding when you sometimes feel you are on the right track.
Waiting for part 2!

Caroline said...

What a wonderful thought provoking post. I feel I am at such an early stage in the art of jewellery design and this just shows how far I have to go and want to go but inspires me to continue to do what I love doing
Can't wait for you next part!

Shel said...

Great post - very well stated!! It can be challenging not to 'copy' or create designs that look strikingly similar to, if not almost exactly like, another artist's style in this day and age sometimes; especially with everything being instantly published on the internet. And, as I've said before, 'You can only hang a single pearl from a simple earwire so many ways before it looks exactly like everyone else's pearl earring.', but it's still yours, some how, some way,'s yours. Looking forward to your 2nd post - good job!!

lynsey said...

A great post Rebecca, thank you for sharing your thoughts :-)


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