Imitation learning


Dear Artist,

Researchers at the Volen Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis University have taken a second look at “imitation learning.” It seems that when natural talent is added to one’s flagrant imitation of others, what results may be the dual assets needed to gain proficiency. Repeated practice and focused desire come into the equation as well. “We are trying to determine what strategies will optimize imitation learning,” says study co-author Robert Sekular. “These strategies are crucial for acquiring many of the skills needed in daily life. A lot of what we do is learned by watching and imitating others.” This includes tying our shoes, feeding ourselves and, apparently, creating art.


“Houses of Ypres”
by A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974)
“What to paint was a problem for the war artist… The old heroics, the death and glory stuff, were gone for ever; The impressionist technique I had adopted in painting was now ineffective, for visual impressions were not enough.” (A.Y. Jackson)

Humans have a natural tendency — in some cases a necessity — to do things in the “correct” way. Much basic learning is done in “monkey see, monkey do” methodology. This goes for sophisticated procedures as well. Novice heart surgeons, for example, learn order, technique and proficiency by watching seasoned pros. Golf swings are refined by playing Tiger’s videos. Complex ballet steps are mastered by observing the legs and feet of expert ballet dancers. It’s the honoured principle of the “demo.” While some human activities are more formalized than others, “visual recipe gathering” is part of our psyche.

The visual arts present a problem in this area. Time-tested processes and academic principles are, of course, valuable, but when large numbers of artists begin to imitate one another a kind of rigor mortis creeps into the creative landscape. Art often expects and demands that one artist be unique from the next. Artists on a quest to find “the secret” can easily fall into the imitation pit. In art, there’s no single, golden way. Ideally, individualists need to sidestep imitation learning and instead rely on direct observation of either the physical world or the universe of the human mind. That’s why self-education is so important in the visual arts. Becoming a student of your own processes and following your nose in the quietude of your workspace can be the most effective route to private bliss and public success.

Many art schools understand and exemplify this dichotomy by teaching little but attitude. This is often a mistake. Those experts at Brandeis say we grab our basics by imitation learning, but it seems it is only later that we get a decent grab at attitude.

Best regards,


PS: “All education must be, in the end, self-education.” (Robert Henri)

Esoterica: If you accept the proposition, as many do, that imitation learning is the swiftest way to proficiency in the arts, a certain obligation comes with your process. Sooner or later you must give a personal spin and attempt to raise your standards beyond that of your imitated master. Apart from being valuable in the building of self-esteem, this move is vital to wider acceptance and is more in harmony with the idealized wisdom of art history. There is a price to pay if you don’t. In the words of landscape painter A. Y. Jackson, “Those who follow are always behind.”


Influence from dead artist
by Karl Heerdt, Lockport, NY, USA


“A Tribute to Bierstadt”
oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
by Karl Heerdt

Being self-taught, I took the approach of monkey see, monkey do. However the standards I had set in my mind as to what kind of work an artist should be producing were not being met by any living artist that I could see. So in turn I looked to the past and learned from the artist that I thought had met or even set the standards for which I hoped to meet or even exceed. I also instruct my students to do the same. As William Merrit Chase instructed his students, “Take from the past, borrow liberally, but take only the best! In this way a student will acquire the sufficient tools and knowledge and be able to instill them into his or her own style.” And I feel that only after acquiring the needed skills, is the artist then able to forge ahead and break new ground. And then to take a position of leader in the field.


No one to imitate
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada


original painting
by Wes Giesbrecht

Your letter gave a little, much needed confidence boost. I’m not formally trained and I have no mentor. I have no one to imitate and I honestly don’t know of anyone making the kind of art I want to. So I’m making it up as I go. Reading books, teaching myself about pigments and colour mixing etc. and having a ball. Thing is, I’ve got my first solo show coming up and I’m a wee bit intimidated by some of the ‘serious’ art folks. Dare I simply state that I’m self-taught and leave it at that? Do you have a better line I can use? There seems to be a bit of a stigma attached to the lack of a fine arts degree.

(RG note) Thanks, Wes. Being self-taught in art is nothing to be sneezed at. When people see quality work that is claimed to be self-taught, they are even more impressed. In my experience, collectors seldom, if ever, ask if a painting was painted by someone with a fine arts degree.


Self-taught method too slow
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA


“Na Kika”
Maple Burl sculpture
by Hap Hagood

With all the really good art instructors today, coupled with the fact that to be strictly “self-taught” in today’s art world is quite often too slow a process, I think it is to the artist’s advantage to take classes and learn all one can from these really good teachers. Then the artist, upon returning to his/her home studio, rather than imitate what he has learned, must incorporate parts of what he has learned into what he is already doing, thereby maintaining, developing and improving his own true style. As artists, each of us must strive to create works in a style readily recognizable as one’s own. Shakespeare said it best: “To thine own self be true.”


Don’t ask, just do it
by Brian Kliewer, Rockland, ME, USA


“Hillside Farm”
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Brian Kliewer

Self-education is at the core of being an artist. You can get a push from someone, but you have to move on from there. I am self-taught in painting. My website explains that. So what do I see as queries in Google searches from my site visitors? I see terms like, “How to be a self-taught artist?” and “Can anyone truly be a self-taught artist?” My answer would be, “If you are asking then how self-taught are you going to be?” “Just do it” is a phrase that comes to mind. That’s what I did. Yes, I bought art books early on and tried the color recipes, etc., etc. They stunk. I threw many of those books out and just followed the process that worked for me and honed it over the years. My “muddies” became clearer and clearer. I learned from doing. In the end, I developed a style that was different and it could be seen when my paintings were viewed against others in the galleries. I became a student of my own process.


Inspired by many others
by Hiria Ratahi, Whakatane, New Zealand

As a self-taught artist, I am inspired by the many works of others, the blends of colour used, textures, abstracts that start creative ideas in my head. Am I ‘imitating another artist?’ No, I don’t think so. Often, by the time I have finished a painting it is very different from whatever inspired me in the first place. I deliberately gather articles and cruise galleries on the Internet because I have realized the works of others inspire me to work on my own paintings. I am experimenting with different objects such as ends of different sized nails, hollow objects instead of using brushes all the time. Currently I enjoy painting abstracts that mean absolutely nothing to anyone else but myself. I like to get inspired and use whatever comes out of my head, and build on it from there.


Artist’s style transcends media
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA


“Where is it”
watercolor on Yupo
by Nancy Davis Johnson

Every class, workshop, art discussion in which I’ve taken part contained an admonition that we artists have to ‘find our own voice.’ I remember the elation I felt when someone commented that they could recognize my painting style. But when I began experimenting with watercolor on synthetic paper (YUPO polypropylene sheets), I wondered if my technique could still be identified on this radically new surface. And it was, in that the results I get painting on this “paper” are also identified as uniquely mine, even though the painting on YUPO is totally different from the same scene done on a typical watercolor paper. This says to me that an artist’s way of making marks on a surface retains its character regardless of the media and supports used.


Art school attitudes
by Gina Chase, Vancouver, BC, Canada


original painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Gina Chase

I am a third year painting student at a well known art and design school. I could go on and on about my experience there, the difficulties, the attitudes and judgments, the ways I have grown and been pushed outside of my natural habits. It is all a challenge that I am okay with. The question which torments me, which I wouldn’t dare mention at school, is about choosing which ‘world’ to aspire for. It seems that there is a chasm between the commercial-reproduction art world and the ‘high’ art world. In art school, all that they acknowledge is the ‘high’ art world, and thoughts about reproducing and distributing is frowned upon. Do they have to be separate? I think about using a pseudonym for the distribution side. It seems there are only a few gems who really make a reasonable living at gallery art. Am I misguided? Are there other options? I don’t care about fame — I am in art for the lifestyle choice, and the freedom, and I love to create. I am interested in making money and having time. Any thoughts? I think fourth year is a springboard opportunity and it would be nice to have a trajectory in place.

(RG note) Thanks, Gina. You can achieve anything you want provided you understand that your true art education will begin when you leave art school. Further, forget pseudonyms, be proud of your name as you are of your progress, and yes, there are many, many who thrive in the gallery world, and, contrary to popular pedagogy, they don’t need to sell out.


Expanding consciousness
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“Experimental: Upwards”
acrylic & folded canvas on stretched canvas
by Helena Tiainen

We all can learn a lot from each other but this is certainly only the first step in the process of understanding anything. Once enough information is gathered on any particular subject matter, one is supposed to proceed and create a way of one’s own. But in order to individualize something the information learned has to be first mentally digested, assimilated and integrated and physically practiced. I believe we are all here to expand consciousness. Through our individual ways of experiencing anything and through our ability to communicate this experience in artistic and scientific forms of expression, we constantly reveal new combinations in the kaleidoscope of the collective consciousness. Experiencing different ways of seeing and understanding can be eye opening, mind expanding and life altering. Instead of seeking for approval and agreement, perhaps we all should seek for experiences that differ from our usual mode of operation and see what is in them for us to learn and allow our consciousness to expand.


Why not study others?
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada


Chris Riley

I find myself “wilfing” for hours, sometimes admiring others’ art online… with the insatiable quest for divine inspiration, online mentoring or maybe just seeking my personal uniqueness that I feel is still elusive. Often paralyzed by the feeling of not being unique enough, I confess I spend a lot of time searching (and painting ) to find my own voice. Even the masters emulated each other or followed trend from time to time. And so I give myself permission and time to learn from others. The “others” change constantly depending on my frame of mind and yet all the work is mine alone. And why not? “Musician” type artists cover other people’s songs all the time until they have the courage and the following to put their own words down and out there for criticism and/or praise. Brilliant pianists play ancient compositions with the beauty and grace as if they were their own creations. It takes courage to step away from the familiar.


Grabbing the basic skills
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA


Dianne Watercolor Demo

There are certain basic generic skills needed to make any medium work to the artist’s advantage. The monkey-see/monkey-do approach is unbeatable for learning these without the frustration of the trial/error approach. We learn the skill of forming letters to make words when we first begin to learn to write; this we do by imitation, but as we become comfortable with forming those letters, we begin to do so automatically, no longer needing to think about it. At this point, the shapes and tilts of our letters begin to take on their own personality so that another person can recognize them as our handwriting — our personal style. Even so, there are those who will imitate somebody else’s handwriting or fake a style of some sort. In the visual arts, a very similar thing happens. We can be shown how to do certain skills; the more we practice the skill, the more our own personal twist will take form — our own individual mode of expression, thus we form a style which can be recognized by others as uniquely belonging to a particular artist. There will always be those who imitate another artist’s style or fake one of their own, but the true artist will automatically develop a style without thinking about it.


Still need good demos
by Renee Emanuel, Pittsburg, PA, USA


“The Iris Cloth”
oil painting
by Renee Emanuel

Your letter reminded me of a venerable, crusty and well respected teacher I studied with. Her work was lovely, but she insisted students learn “her way” and that included some questionable assignments to teach her students the value (or lack thereof) of their work. We worked on ungessoed brown craft paper with oils, guaranteed to biodegrade and difficult to work with. Her color palette and technique were sacrosanct. I stayed for 10 weeks and learned some good information. Others stayed for years and to this day, their work often still looks cloned — lesser versions of the “master’s” work. This taught me a valuable lesson that has stayed with me through my own teaching career. You said, “Ideally, individualists need to sidestep imitation learning and instead rely on direct observation of either the physical world or the universe of the human mind.” I am an individualist and yet I needed the benefit of some good demos to help me find my way. I was lucky in the end to find great teachers like Betty Lou Schlemm, Dennis Fritz and others who helped give me the means but didn’t dictate the direction!


Art and Life
by Asterio Tecson, Cape Coral, FL, USA


paper clips sculpture, 12 X 11.5 X 8 inches
by Asterio Tecson

Art imitating Art is an accepted practice in the endless process of learning. But it is only when Art begins to imitate Life that the artist starts to re-invent himself, unlearn what he has been taught and start to seek a new way of looking at things, and have a different passion for expressing himself. Learning by copying another artist’s work is not imitation but more of discovery, like an archeologist digging up some ancient fossil and finding the facts behind the myth. Art’s main concern indeed is in the making of a myth, a visual metaphor imitating life. An artist drawing from Life is different from a Xerox machine making copies of an artist’s drawings. Here lies the obvious fact that Art, by ‘imitating’ from Life, produces a totally new emotion — a visual experience, an entity that either amazes or disturbs the viewer from their ‘private complacency’ and raises question about how Life imitates Art.


Friendly oils
by Ines Epperson, Vancouver, WA, USA


oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Ines Epperson

Regarding earth-friendly oils, I discovered probably the best oil paint I’ve ever used: it’s from M. Graham and Co. a small manufacture based in Oregon. I am allergic to solvents and chemicals, and found out that these oils don’t need solvents for cleaning. Only walnut oil. You can also use walnut oil to thin the paint. I recycle it whenever it’s dirty, by letting the pigment settle and pouring the clear oil into a different container. As for the paints, you will never find an oil paint that doesn’t contain some toxic ingredients, but Grahams are the healthiest. Their pigments are highly concentrated, which gives them a brilliance no other oil has, and you don’t have to use as much.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Imitation learning



From: Peter Barnard — May 09, 2007

Plagiarism may be the highest form of flattery, but it is in copying that we learn. Unfortuntately the two go hand in hand. If we were just starting out to learn without the benefit of something to copy then the wheel would have to be reinvented every day. Civilization doesn’t work like that. London UK

From: Chris Everest — Jun 01, 2007

I have had very little practical tuition in painting beyond the occasional video or TV programme. In certain ways I know what I don’t want to paint like by what I do want to paint. For example whilst admiring the seeming spontaneity of impressionism I would gravitate towards the detailed obsessionism of the pre-raphaelites. If the artist cannot, for example paint from classical statuary he can paint from pictorial copies of it. Art, it seems to me, is more about looking and seeing than reproducing. If it was simply about reproducing what is classed as art then the camera would be the tool rather than the brush or pencil. We strive to see beyond what is visible and that is the aim of the teacher. To allow us to work it out for ourselves.

From: valerie vanorden — Mar 07, 2012

I think this subject is a little bit like how to raise a child. You either raise them “to be happy” or to “behave themselves”. Praise God, I was of the former cult and am still copying others in order to learn how to “behave”. Ha ha. But my parents certainly retained my art on their refrigerator and bragged me up a bit, which is why I am so durned spoilt today. If I don’t get some praise for my artwork, I’ll go drum some up. Anybody hear me out there? Yes, we copy this or that, and it is like letters of alphabet or plays in basketball, but in the end, we make the moves and create history. I understand there are studios in China where masterpieces are not so lovingly copied in mass-production. Is this true? What are the results? Are there multitudes of artists coming out of this environment?






Kindred Spirits

original spirit art
by Sandy Sandy, Vincetown, NJ, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Rick McClung of Atlanta GA, USA who wrote, “When a student has accomplished the fundamentals of drawing and painting, he or she should apprentice themselves to a master. From the beginning students should be taught to first gain control of their materials, ego, etc., with their goal being to let their individual expression grow or progress beyond merely repeating their teachers. The reverse is taught today by many. The results, I am sad to say, being a lot of great ideas, subjects, etc. painted poorly.”

And also Daniela Ionescu of Paris, France who wrote, “I don’t want to make you sad but, in my case, too much diversity and too many interests in others makes me much less performing than if I do only one thing. I know this but I can’t stop myself in looking around about I even never know, I am just surprised from time to time by some book, some painting, or some letter.”

And also Cyndie Katz of New Boston, NH, USA who wrote, “When I heard Kurt Vonnegut died I rushed right over to the library to check out one of his books, and chose one I didn’t know about: Bluebeard. Guess what? Its main character is a painter, and a predominant theme is imitation learning. A great read. Vonnegut rules!”

And also Marty Gibson of Scottsdale, AZ, USA who wrote, “In regard to your statement that we need to save Mother Earth, I would like you to think about the fact that our planet will survive whether we as a species do or not. If we foul our nest to the point where it’s uninhabitable then we’re done for. It’s not the planet we are saving; it’s ourselves.”

And also Darney Willis who wrote, “When revelation is imitated and repeated over and over by anyone it becomes external formula. Following external formula may appear to lead to inward understanding but it will eventually lead to stagnation. If one receives personal revelation that grows first from inner perception, then the river of inspiration and creative solutions can continue to flow in a life giving stream. This is true in art as well as in a golf swing.”

And also William Leo Cranny of Kalamunda, Western Australia who wrote, “None of us likes to see beautiful parts of our planet disappear but it does occur to me that those who are protesting the most are displaying extreme selfishness. More than once I have reminded complainers that their own homes may well stand on land that was once beautiful and pristine. For them to deny later arrivals the right to have a roof over their heads smacks of hypocrisy. Hands up those complainers who would volunteer their own homes for bulldozing to make way for higher density accommodation to save a piece of scenic beauty.”




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