Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On The Shoulders of Giants

Sir Isaac Newton once said that, "if I see further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He was of course referring to the great astronomers who came before him, people like Galileo and Kepler. Most physicists believe Newton to be the greatest scientific mind ever in their field and yet Newton gave the credit for his success to others.

Everyone I know who is good at what they do will speak with great reverence of those who influenced them and their work. August Wilson used to tell me that he wanted to be as good a playwright as Chekhov. Billy Wilder worshiped Ernst Lubitsch and kept and sign above his desk: "What would Lubitsch do?". Paddy Chayefsky said he learned to structure drama by studying Lillian Hellman. Everyone good has their giants, but I have seen in the last few years that giants are no longer acknowledged. It seems that the younger people are the more they want to make a mark without doing the work it takes to make that happen. They want more than anything to be different, to be unique. This is without studying what came before. This is without copying the work of the giants who walked the earth before them. That's right, 'copying'. Human beings seem to learn by copying others.

Mike Mignola, the artist who created the popular Hellboy comic book, developed his 'unique' drawing style by copying the drawings of artist Frank Frazetta over and over until his own style emerged.

I once heard a radio interview with a musician who had played with the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. This man had grown up on Davis' music and one day told Miles that when he was a kid he would play his records over and over again. He said that he would play his trumpet along with the records trying to sound as much like Miles as possible. Miles laughed and said, "Sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself." Nowadays I find that people want to 'sound like themselves' without learning to sound like someone else like first. They want to skip steps taken by others. Artists want to be Picasso without going through the same steps Picasso took. They want to be innovators, but all innovators stand on the shoulders of giants and do not spring fourth fully formed from the head of Zeus.

I often tell my students to find what I call a 'virtual mentor'. That is they should find a person or two or three (giants) to copy. Copy is not a strong enough word, you should steal from these giants. Picasso said, "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." When you find these virtual mentors try to be as much like them as possible and they will teach you things about your craft that you didn't even know were there to learn. Put a sign above your desk that says, 'What would ________ do?' And one day, without even meaning to, you will find that you have learned how to sound like yourself. And you will see just how far you can see when perched atop a giant's shoulder.


Rob said...

You mean I can't just jack into my computer and become excellent like in the Matrix? (grin)

I agree. Imitation is a great way to learn and often overlooked in today's instant gratification culture. (I, too, blogged a bit about it at one point).

In class and on this blog, you've given me several more virtual mentors to choose from. I also appreciated your comment not to assume mentors are infallible.


Brian McD said...

Thanks, man. I'll check out your blog too.

But I do think you should begin with the idea that your mentors know more than you. Even if you see something that looks like a flaw, you should assume that they had a reason that you don't quite understand. I think you have to give everything over to the mentor or you will cut yourself off from leaning. After YEARS of looking at a mentor's work you may be able to see real flaws in their work. This is of course assuming that the mentor is a true master of their craft.

But I have seen far too often people wanting to kill of their mentors way too early. It's a bad idea, I think.

BKO said...

Learning never stops. When it does the artist dies. Alot of creating has to do with struggle. I know of some really great artists in the movie industry who won't share there technique because they are afraid some young buck will come by and be a better him. No matter how good they are they start to fade or plateau. Those that share there technique, I have noticed, know that it is only that. There true self, there voice, cannot be copied. That is what makes us unique! Not our techniques, that is only craftmanship. I agree with Brian, copy your masters learn from them question them, no matter what you think you cannot be them and in learning your craft your voice will emerge. I have done what I do long enough to not worry about those young bucks. They may get some work but will leave when it get's tough, I'm in this despite the struggle.

Another thing I have noticed is that some people don't know who the masters are, but rather only who they like or who is popular. How do you teach taste or for people to look past the popular?? And what is taste?? Sorry this may be off subject. All in all I wholeheartedly agree with Brian!!!!

Emma said...

I kind of disagree with that - while I think that it's great to study other artists and learn the whys and hows of what they do, you still have to stay alert and questioning, not to throw yourself at the feet of the ones who came before. You respect them, revere them, appreciate them... but there's already a Mike Mignola.

It's true that your voice will eventually emerge, and your art will be more of your own... but until then, what are you being true to? You're just another knockoff, and there are way too many of them.

So I don't get it... is there something I'm missing about this? Like I said, I wholly support the idea of picking and choosing and analyzing and incorporating other peoples' styles and decisions - why reinvent the wheel - but that all comes back to you, really.

Brian McD said...

Hello Emma,

Thanks for keeping up with the blog. I’m not sure how to say this without seeming to be condescending, but I really don’t mean it that way. But the younger people are the less truth they see in this. It seems to be a symptom of youth to look for their style, to find a way to stand out. The truth is you can never be Mike Mignola and you can never get away from being yourself. I was reading a book by Richard Williams, the animator and animation director for Roger Rabbit, and he was saying that his mother, an illustrator told him that when he went to art school he would find many of the students practicing their signatures instead of painting or drawing. Sure enough, that’s what he found. She also gave him the advice that he should not concentrate on his style only on learning how to draw.

Understanding how your mentor thinks is not the same thing as knocking them off. The knock-off artists is primarily interested in the surface of the work. But the person who strives to understand their mentor will find himself or herself.

You say that there is already a Mike Mignola, but there was already a Frazetta when Mignola began to copy his drawings and you would never say that Mignola is a Frazetta knock-off. You would never say that Spielberg is a Hitchcock knock-off. Or that Chayefsky is a Lillian Hellman knock-off. Or that John Byrne is a Wally Wood knock-off.

The more deeply you look into a mentors work the more you will learn about yourself and your own work.

All I can tell you is that I do not no one exception to this rule – every single person I have ever know who is at the top of their field can point to their influences. And these influences are almost gods to them. I have seen it too many times not believe it. This is an observation not an opinion. You can have a conflicting observation, but not a conflicting opinion.

Emma said...

Okay, I understand it better now. It's not exactly stealing, it's kind of deep intimate understanding of the thought processes of the mentor... and because it's a virtual mentor, and not someone who is actually sharing their thoughts on their work with you, everything you get out of it ends up being you.

It didn't seem condescending... I'm aware that I'm really young, and so much of art understanding only comes with practice practice and the passage of time. I was so frustrated when I showed Mike Mignola some artwork and asked for advice and he said, "Just keep doing it for another forty years."
No shortcuts around forty years!

Brian McD said...

You got it! You cannot help but be you, so there is no point on focusing on it. Just learn your craft wherever you can.

As for time, it reminds me of something Chuck Jones said. He had an art teacher that told his students that they all had 50,000 bad drawings in them and the sooner they got them out the better. Just another way of counting the years.

There is a great story in the book Art and Fear about a young piano student who was upset because he couldn't make music as good as what he heard in his head. The teacher say, "What makes you think that ever changes".

Keep doing what you're doing, but you may never feel like you have reached you goal. In fact, you shouldn't.

warren said...

Amen to that. It goes deeper when you realize your visual mentors are (or were) just as frustrated with their own limitations as you are with yours.

It never ends, and never should, just like you said.

Just found your blog via 'Temple of Seven Golden Camels'. I'll be rereadeing your past work to catch up!

Cholki said...

Good Stuff Brian thanks for keeping the storyfire lit. I also found your blog via The Temple of Seven Golden Camels.

son of lim said...

"You cannot help but be you..."--- very true Brian. This is definately something to always keep in mind, especially if you are an artist or an aspiring artist. Great blog!

Marco Raaphorst said...

I love that Miles Davis quote. thanks!