Thoughts on Art and Originality

The drawing below (charcoal medium) is what artists call a study – by that, they mean an exercise that serves to develop technique and (possibly) style without the artist getting too hung up on Art with a capital A. A study is usually a focused look at an ordinary object, such as a leaf or, in this case, a toy block with a couple of marbles.

It is possible that I am writing this post because I am unsure – I did not come up with this study, I did not arrange this “still life.” It was an exercise in an art magazine that I own. It has been a while since I have drawn, instead of painted, and I wanted to get my hand back in, as it were, before I started on another, original project. It is the artistic equivalent of scales. Which makes me wonder: we don’t look down on an accomplished musician because he plays another composer’s music. But somehow, I think less of this drawing because it isn’t completely mine, isn’t original, even though it was my hand on the pencil, my eyes and muscles and knowledge that went into forming the drawing. And yet, we also borrow – all great artists do. Shakespeare supposedly only came up with one original plot. If we agree that Shakespeare (and others) qualify artistically, then borrowing elements to use in a piece of art does not prevent it from being art. Yet we all know that if we borrow incorrectly, we are cheap imitators or plagiarists. One possible conclusion that originality is in the mind of the artist, not the object.

In terms of style and originality, I would argue that there are as many different ways of drawing a thing as there are ways to think about it – for example, do I think about it in term of texture, in terms of light and shadow, in terms of color, in terms of shape, in terms of social context, in terms of its history, etc. The list goes on. I think, ultimately, that the drawing below is an exercise only, and that it should probably have stayed in its sketchbook, much like scales should stay in the practice room, since my thoughts on this object have all been thought before. But I wanted to share them with you, so here they are.



  1. G. Bird Said:

    Your musing that, possibly, “originality is in the mind of the artist, not the object” made me muse myself.

    If there is “nothing new under the sun,” does this make originality only a deficit in the mind of the artist? Is it then only an unawareness of what he copies that makes his work original? Perhaps, if he knew the Form (in a Platonic sense) whose beauty he sought to emulate there could be no originality?

    If as Christians we posit that beauty is a form (of some sort) in the mind of God and our works partake beauty as they copy His, does than mean that only ugliness can be truly original?


    • calebsash Said:

      I think, given our natural human limits, that any “true” originality is impossible, as impossible as imagining a new primary color. Let’s not equivocate.

      I think we might find that the closer we got to representing the true form, the closer we would be to producing something “original,” which, admittedly, is a bit of an artistic paradox. . .

      Possibly an analogy may be drawn here. As it is impossible for a human to create meaning from life for himself, so it is for an artist to extract originality. The problem with both the person searching for meaning and the artist searching for originality is that they are aiming incorrectly. A life aimed toward God results in meaning as a by-product. An artist aimed toward truth gets originality thrown in as a bonus. Maybe. Just some thoughts.

      Also, I think an ugly thing is a perversion of a beautiful, and therefore not original at all.

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