Imitation as Inspiration: Improving Your Technical Skills and Artistic Style by Copying Others

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

It’s trite and true, but more than that, imitation is a great way to hone your own artistic style and voice.

Now, I’m in no way advocating plagiarism or forgery, but instead turning to those you admire as a starting point down your own creative path. If you don’t have the means to take actual classes, copying others is a great way to teach yourself new skills without thinking much about it. When you are trying to replicate another’s work, you have no choice but to pay attention to the technical details, like composition, lighting, shading, or depth of field.

And it’s a great place to start if you have no idea what you’re doing.

With most of my experience in photojournalism, my photographic style could best be described as “realistic minimalism” in terms of composition and editing. What I saw through the lens should be what everyone else sees, with little or no variance.

But since revamping my website and going back through my portfolio, I’ve been itching to push myself more creatively, to work with the gear that I’ve long had but never mastered, to really figure out my creative voice.

Yet, there’s a reason I haven’t already done that: it is a time-consuming and a scary thing to do. I’ve always been a perfectionist, so I can let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of the good. There have been a lot of creative failures behind the scenes that no one has seen as I try to create something interesting from scratch.

So maybe it was time to imitate someone else. When I saw a portrait of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel by Vincent J. Musi on Instagram, I found my inspiration.

A tri-colored cavalier king charles spaniel in a photography portrait by VIncent J. Musi
When I saw this photo of Nessie, I was instantly reminded of my parents’ Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who bears a striking resemblance to this one. I loved the framing, lighting, and overall composition, so I used it as inspiration for my own photos. (Photo by Vincent J. Musi; taken from his Instagram)

The meticulous lighting, the stark background, the subject matter…I knew I had the tools, even if I don’t have the know-how, to put my own spin on this.

With a draped sheet for the background, an umbrella flash, and a treat-holding Michael, I was able to get a few shots of Mitzi with her I’m-behaving-so-give-me-the-treat face. While I’m a huge fan of natural lighting, I am always reminded what good external lighting can do to an image, so I loved how Mitzi just popped a little more, even without any image processing.

But I wanted to imitate Musi’s style, with the spotlight coming from behind the dog and the clean background. I know I don’t have the equipment or know-how that a professional like him does, so I would need to do a lot more post-processing. I also wanted to bring my aesthetic into it, which tends to brighter, more saturated, and high-contrast images.

The results ended up being images somewhere between Musi’s and pop art:

They’re bright, saturated, and high contrast. I wanted to enhance the qualities that the flash brought out, such as the sparkle in Mitzi’s eyes and the texture of her fur, while creating a more textured background through gradient colors.

While my photos are not exactly like Musi’s, had I not seen his portrait initially, I would not have produced the photo I ended up with without that inspiration. I thought more about the lighting and editing, and even now as I type, I am thinking about different lighting setups to practice with in the future. All because I copied someone else’s work.

With more imitation, I’ll learn even more, eventually building a toolbox of skills and techniques that will help me hone my own unique creative style, hopefully to the point where someday my work is worthy of imitation.

And so the cycle of flattery will continue.


Have you found creative success through copying others? What have you learned about your own skills through the practice of imitation? Comment below!

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