Learn, Steal, and Play: Copying Art To Create Your Own | Christine Nishiyama | Skillshare

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Learn, Steal, and Play: Copying Art To Create Your Own

teacher avatar Christine Nishiyama, Artist at Might Could Studios

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Introduction to Copying


    • 2.

      Imitate + Learn


    • 3.

      Steal + Combine


    • 4.

      Honor + Play


    • 5.



    • 6.

      Best Practices for Sharing


    • 7.

      Project Assignment


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About This Class

Do you ever copy another artist’s artwork? And do you feel like a bad artist because you find it difficult to draw without using another artist’s work as reference?

Most artists seem to think copying is something to be either ashamed of or guilty of. But y'all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying, and in fact, there are many reasons you should copy.

There's a big difference between copying to learn and copying to plagiarize, and this class will help you follow the best practices to copy ethically.

Almost every artist’s journey begins by imitating other artists. And it's one of the most powerful ways of learning there is. Over time, the experience of copying other artwork leads to exploring and developing your own unique style. You learn how that artist does what they do, what you do and don't like about it, how you might could do it, and eventually, how to do it in your own way.

There are four reasons an artist might choose to copy other artists:

  • Imitate + Learn
  • Steal + Combine
  • Honor + Play
  • or Plagiarize

In this class, we're going to take a look at those four reasons to copy and the best practices to follow when you choose to copy another artist.

Now, you may be thinking: ok, so you’re saying copying is good but plagiarizing is bad? Well, what’s the difference? How do I know where the line is? Don't worry, I'll be covering that as well!

And together, at the end of the class, we'll put our knowledge to work with a project assignment where you'll choose a piece of artwork and copy it using the theories and practices we've covered.

So c'mon, let's get copying!



Check out my other Skillshare classes here!

You can also see more about me and my work on my website: might-could.com.

And you can sign up for my email list for weekly essays on creativity and artmaking!

Thanks so much! <3

Meet Your Teacher

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Christine Nishiyama

Artist at Might Could Studios

Top Teacher

Hallo! I'm Christine Nishiyama, artist + founder of Might Could Studios.

I make books and comics, and I draw a whoooole lot. I teach aspiring and established artists, helping them explore their art, gain more confidence, and discover their unique artistic styles.

My core belief is that art is good and we should all make more of it. 

Instagram: Yeewhoo, I quit all social media! 

Books: Check out my books here, including a graphic novel series with Scholastic!

Subscribe to my Substack newsletter: Join over 10,000 artists and get my weekly essays on creativity and artmaking, weekly art prompts, and behind-the-scenes process work of my current picture book. Subscribe here!

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction to Copying: Hi, I'm Christine Nishiyama artist and founder of Might Could Studios. I teach and talk about art-making a lot and today I have a question for you. Do you ever copy another artist's artwork? Do you feel like a bad artist because you find it difficult to draw without using another artist's work as reference? Many artists think about copying in the following two ways. One, copying is a sign of a weak and untalented artist, something to be ashamed of, or two, copying is the sign of an unethical and deceitful artist, something to be guilty of. But there's nothing inherently wrong with copying. In fact, there are many reasons you should copy. There's a big difference between copying to learn and copying to plagiarize. This class will help you follow the best practices to copy ethically. Almost every artist's journey begins by imitating other artists. I'm sure a lot of you like me spent most of your childhood bent over a pad of paper copying cartoons like Pokemon and Sailor Moon. None of us were attempting to plagiarize Pokemon designs. We were all just copying as a way of learning to draw. It's one of the most powerful ways of learning there is. Over time, the experience of copying other artwork leads us to exploring and developing our own unique artistic styles. Through the process of copying, you learn how that artist does what they do, what you do and don't like about what they do, and eventually how you could do it in your own way. There are four basic reasons an artist might choose to copy another artist. Copying to imitate and learn, steal and combine, honor and play, or plagiarize. In this class, we're going to take a look at those four reasons to copy and best practices to follow when you choose to copy another artist. Now you may be thinking, okay, so you're saying copying is good, but plagiarizing is bad. Well, what's the difference? How do I know where the line is? Don't worry, I'll be covering that as well. Together at the end of the class, we'll put our knowledge to work with a project assignment where you'll choose a piece of artwork and copy it using the theories and practices we've covered here. Come on, let's get copying. 2. Imitate + Learn: Copy to imitate and learn. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it's the sincerest form of learning. Let's dive right into the four reasons an artist might choose to copy another artist. The first reason artists copy is to imitate and learn. I spent a huge portion of my childhood copying page after page of Pokemon monsters and Sailor Moon characters. I didn't know it at the time. But what I was doing was imitating these other people's artwork so that I could learn how they did it. To do that, I was trying to copy every shape, line, and color as closely to the original as I could. I was literally copying them. Not tracing, which teaches you nothing, but copying, which can teach you a great deal. I copied because I wanted to learn how the animators drew all these characters I loved. But through copying, I was also learning how to draw from a mechanical point of view. How do I move my pencil on the page to get my lines look like those lines? What rules and principles is this artist following? It was only by copying again and again, over and over, that I was able to see the details of those artworks I loved, learn how they were made, and train my hand to move in a way that I could command. Just like everything else, copying takes time to learn. Try not to expect perfect carbon copies if you are new to copying and drawing. The goal may be to copy it exactly, but the point is to learn. Even if your copy looks totally whack, I bet you still learned a whole lot. The more you copy, the more you'll learn how to control your hand on the page, and the better you'll get at controlling your hand. A note here. My copy-to-learn phase primarily happened in the 90s before social media or blogging exploded, so these Pokemon and Sailor Moon drawings were stuffed inside a three-ring binder and mostly kept to myself. In the era of the Internet and social media, things are a little bit more sticky with what to do with these copy drawings. Drawing and sharing drawings are two different things. I'll be talking about when and how to share your copied work later on in this class. 3. Steal + Combine: Copy to steal and combine. If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal them. Take those hands. The second reason artists copy is to steal and combine. Attempting to draw accurate copies of other artworks is great for teaching us the rules and principles of art. But at some point, you'll start to get bored with just copying and following other people's rules. To make your own original art, you have to choose which rules you want to follow and which you want to check out the window. After a while, I became bored of copying Pokemon and I thought it would be cool to start making up my own Pokemon creatures. That's when I shifted from imitation to inspiration. As I started drawing my own Pokemon creatures, I was still copying in many ways, but my intention was no longer to imitate and learn, my new intention was to steal pieces from different sources and combine them to create something new. For example, here's an original Pokemon that I came up when I was young, which I apparently named TigglyTuff. The monster itself is new, but I can see, even now, where I stole the pieces from. Body, eyes, and mouth from Wigglytuff, squiggle from Drowzee, and hair tufts from Eevee. Instead of copying a Wigglytuff exactly, I stole pieces from different Pokemon and combined them to create something new. Little did I know at the time, but I was on my way to making my first pieces of art. It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to. Now, this is where we come into some of the nuances of stealing and combining. With my TigglyTuff, I could see clearly where I had stolen elements from, even today, decades later. In that sense, I was still relying heavily on copying, I created a new Pokemon, yes, but my sources were obvious and the character design was not changed enough to be something truly my own. If I were to create and share something like this today, I would feel inclined to share the original source and artists as by influence. If we're ready to go deeper, again, how do we use the steal and combine method to create our own original artwork? Copying to steal and combine begins with a spark of inspiration. You see something, love it, and are inspired to create something new from that inspiration. I mean, that's exactly what art is. Absorbing an existing idea and combining it with other ideas in your head to create a brand new idea. It's impossible not to be influenced by the things around us, it's the very essence of creativity. Everything we create is a mashup of everything we've ever seen, heard, felt, and experienced. All these things together from Pokemon to Sailor Moon to the movie you saw yesterday, make up your artistic influences. We are constantly absorbing new influences into our ever-evolving artistic voice. If I had never seen Pokemon when I was a kid, I would draw today in an entirely different way. If I'd never read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, I never would have been inspired to create my picture book, We Are Fungi. These influences, inspirations, and the act of copying to steal and combine are essential parts of the creative process. Ideas create ideas. Art creates art. But in order to make a truly new idea, the key is to steal from multiple different sources and alter them as you work. Here's another example to show you what I mean. For this warrior woman sketchbook drawing I made, I got my inspiration from two completely different sources. The recent HBO show, Vikings, and the '90s anime show, Sailor Moon. You can see from these images that I stole elements from Vikings, like the clothing aesthetic, shield design, sword, and upper body pose, and you can see I stole the long flowing hair and lower body pose from Sailor Moon. But even when seeing these images next to my drawing, my drawing looks completely different. Yes, there are stolen elements, but I was combining stolen elements from two very different sources and altering them to be drawn in my own style. To me, this has moved from beyond a copy and it's now a piece of original art. If you copy something line for line, aiming for an exact replica, you haven't made art, you've just made a copy of someone else's art. If you copy different elements all from the same artist or source, you also haven't made art, you've just made your own version of that artist work. But if you take little bits and pieces from many different sources and alter and combine them in new ways, you've now created something new and original. You've created a work of art. To recap, why would we steal and combine? Because it helps us learn what we do and don't like the other artists are doing. How do we steal and combine? We steal elements from different sources and combine them to create something new. The benefit is that it enables us to utilize our inspirations to create new original art. My note to you to remember is that in order to create original work, you need to source elements from at least two different sources and alter the elements enough so that they are not obviously recognizable. Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination, devour old books, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, lights, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work and theft will be authentic. 4. Honor + Play: Copy to honor and play. Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. Making a piece of original artwork is of course, fulfilling and fun. We artists often feel pressure to always draw something completely original every time we draw. But making original art requires a certain mindset, inspiration, and energy level. Let's be honest, sometimes we're just not there. Which leads to the third reason artists copy, to honor and play. If we're aiming to draw consistently, we need a way to draw, even when we don't have exciting ideas, boundless energy, and flowing creativity. One of my favorite ways of drawing when I'm low in creativity is to copy some of my influences. The intention here is to copy something we love and lift the pressure of drawing something new. Basically to play on the page. Copying to play is more lighthearted than the previous two ways of copying. To do it, you only use one source of influence, but you draw the source artwork in your own way, injecting your own artistic style to basically create your version of that artist's work. This is similar to the popular Instagram drawing challenge, draw this in your style, where artists offer up a piece of their art, inviting other artists to copy it in their own way. Changing the linework, colors, and overall style while crediting the original artist and artwork. Here's an example of a draw this in your style that I created from Alba Ballesta Gonzalez's original artwork. This piece in particular brought me out of a big artistic funk when I just felt like I didn't have the energy to draw anything. Then I saw Alba Ballesta Gonzalez's challenge and was completely inspired to create my own version of it. I got really into it, enjoying drawing and really having fun for the first time in a while. All because I was inspired and had an easy low-pressure way to jump right into the drawing. No big original idea required. I actually use this honor and play method a lot. I often want to draw, but I don't have a big grand idea or a whole lot of time to sit around wondering back and forth about what I'm going to draw. Sometimes I just want to draw. Studio Ghibli movies by Miyazaki are super popular among artists. I think part of it is that they're just so visually inspiring and are practically begging you to draw them yourself. On days when I'm feeling blank, copying a scene or a character from Miyazaki is one of my Go tos. Here's my version of Kiki and Gigi from the Miyazaki movie Kiki's delivery service. If you saw just my piece and knew the movie, you'd automatically know that I had drawn from Kiki's delivery service. But you'd also immediately know that it looks quite different than the original. It's recognizable, but it's in my own unique style. It's the same, but different. Honor and play has two benefits. One, it gives us a creative outlet that's easy to approach in a low-energy mood. Two, it allows us to share and influence we love with others, passing on the inspiration. With the honor and play method, we're not copying the piece closely enough to be learning, and we're not deviating enough from it or stealing enough from other sources for it to be combining. It's right in between the two. It's playing. It's a fun way to draw when you just want to draw for the sake of it. We've gone over three of the four reasons to copy, and so far they've all been good reasons to copy. They're beneficial and help us to grow as artists. But what happens if we move beyond the intentions of learning, stealing, and playing. When is copying bad? That's up in the next video. 5. Plagiarize: Copy to plagiarize. Copying opens your eyes to new possibilities and new techniques, but trying to fob it off as your own is quite another matter. The fourth and final reason artists copy is to plagiarize. Let me just go ahead and be crystal clear here. Plagiarism is wrong. You may have previously thought copying and plagiarism were the same thing, but they're actually two very different things. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary to plagiarize is to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own, to use another's production without crediting the source. To me, the difference between copying and plagiarizing always comes back to your intention. We've talked about copying with the intention to learn, to create something new, and to play. But sometimes a person copies with the intention of taking advantage of another artist, or the intention of skipping the hard work of creating their own original art and passing someone else's art off as their own, or the intention of profiting off someone else's art. There are so many horror stories out there of artists getting their work plagiarized. Sometimes it's a random person on the Internet passing off someone else's work as their own. Sometimes it's a huge corporation selling blatant copies of an artist's work without crediting or paying them. Like Tuesday Bassen and Zara as seen here. Whether it's a company or an individual, whether it's shown to 10,000 followers or two, plagiarism is unethical and no good comes from it for the plagiarized or the plagiarizer. It's hurtful to the plagiarized artists, directly affecting their careers, income, and mindset. It's unhelpful to the plagiarizing person because they're just short changing themselves in true creativity and not creating art authentic to themselves. Influences are meant to create inspiration, not dishonest imitations. I believe copying is an essential part of learning to draw. But you have to be honest with yourself and others about what you're doing. If you copy a piece of art and share it online, you need to credit the original artist as your influence. But humans are complicated and sometimes our own intentions are confusing. If you're unsure about your intention, here's an easy check when you're considering sharing your work. Do you feel the need to hide who or what influenced your drawing? If you're not willing to share your sources, then you're probably not drawing with an intention of learning, creating something new or plain. This might be a piece of artwork that you should keep to yourself. Private, personal artworks can be a great source of learning too, and you don't have to share every single thing you make. Remember, copying only becomes plagiarizing if you attempt to pass off someone else's work as your own. In the next video, we're going to go over some direct methods and practices for sharing your copied work if you choose to do so. 6. Best Practices for Sharing: Best Practices for Sharing Copies. The idea of plagiarism is scary. No one wants to be called out or accused of something unethical. I think this may be why people are scared to admit or talk about copying. But as long as you're honest with yourself and others, copying can be a successful part of any artist's growth. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when you're thinking of sharing artwork spurred from copying. If you copy a piece of art with the intention of learning and want to share it online, credit the original source. Let people know what you're copying, and if it's not a well-known franchise like Pokemon, who you are copying, and then as a bonus, you could also choose to include an image of the original artwork alongside your artwork so people can see exactly what you copied and how yours may differ. I say bonus because I know that's not always possible in every form of sharing or every instance. But the idea is when making a direct copy, you should point people to the original source as clearly as you can. Here's an example for my Instagram account to show you how you don't have to be uptight about copying and crediting. There's no shame in copying, as long as you're being honest. With this drawing I copied directly pretty much as closely as I could to the original art, just in my own preferred color palette. When I shared this piece online, I called out the book title and the Sesame Street brand name. This book is a branded book illustrated in Sesame Street style versus an individual artist's style, and there's actually no author or illustrator listed on the cover of the book. So I didn't credit individual people. Though ideally, I would have dug a little deeper to find the illustrator's name and include that as well. That's another important point here. You don't have to be A-plus perfect with this, you guys. If you're doing your best to be as transparent as possible, it's okay. I provided enough information in this post that someone could easily find this book and this illustration and learn more about it if they wished in about a two-second Google search. That's what we're really aiming for, for being honest and that the source is clear and findable for other people. I did have ever choose to include a snapshot of the specific part of the book that I was copying from. I find it fun personally to look at the differences between them too. It can teach you a lot about your own natural way of drawing. If you copy a piece of art with the intention of stealing and combining and want to share it online, consider: did you steal from enough sources to create something new? Did you alter the original ideas enough to create something new? If yes, then awesome. You made a piece of original art. It's not necessary for you to share the original influences. All art is influenced by something always. In this case, this piece of art has been merged so much with you that it's now your piece of original art, so share away. However, if you answered no to those questions. For instance, if you only had one influence or you didn't change the original source enough for it to be distinguishable from the original. Or if you're just not sure, you should credit the original source or influence or artist. So first, I'll show you an example where I created original art here. As you can see in this post, I started off looking at images of X-Men characters. But the drawing quickly morphed and evolved to be completely different than any of the images I was looking at. In this case, I didn't feel compelled to call out any specific characters or artists. I wouldn't have even had to include a reference to X-Men at all. But I did that particular day because it happened to be the theme of a challenge I was drawing with. Next is an example from when I answered, no, to the gut check. I was not making a direct copy, in fact, I was aiming to steal and combine, but I ended up only using one source and the end result looked quite similar to the original pirate ship. So I credited the original source in my post and included the original artwork next to mine as well. I'd say this one was almost altered enough than the original. The style, color, and additions of cats is all new and different. But I still only had one reference. There's no shame in letting people know what you're referencing, honoring, and playing. The advice here is the same as if you are making a direct copy. If you copy a piece of art with the intention of playing and want to share it online, credit the original source, let people know what you're copying. If it's not a well-known franchise like Pokemon, who you are copying. Same applies to sharing the original art is a bonus too. Here's my example showing how to share this kind of work. Here I credited the artist, the title of the painting, and shared their original artwork next to mine. Also in this category would be any draw this in your style work. Here's my example from Alba Ballistic Gonzalez's challenge. The common practice to draw this in your style is to share a multiple-image post with your image first and the original artwork second, including the draw this in your style hashtag, the original artists handle, and any personalized hashtag that the artists might have created for that specific challenge. Finally, if you copy a piece of art with the intention of claiming someone else's art as your own, just don't. The sharing and even more so the selling is where copying can turn into plagiarizing and you guys don't do it. Don't be afraid to copy and share your copied work. Just do your best, be honest, transparent, and have good intentions for yourself and others. 7. Project Assignment: Project assignment. Now that you've learned about all the different intentions and practices of copying, it's time to get down to work. For your project assignment, I want you to choose a favorite animated or cartoon character. Perhaps it's when you used to enjoy drawing when you were young or maybe it's an animated show you watched today and find visually inspiring. That cartoon is probably already a visual influence on your art, whether you realize it or not. Try not to overthink your choice. Just go with one of the first things that comes to mind. Then choose which copying intention you want to practice and follow the next steps. If you're copying to learn and imitate, focus on trying to recreate the artwork as closely to the original as possible. How did they create their line work that way? What medium or tool might they have used? Remember, don't trace. This is about recreating a copy on your own. You'll learn tons more from drawing than tracing. If you're copying to steal and combine, focus on creating something new inspired by the cartoon. You'll need to find and look at multiple references, at least two. This could be multiple characters in the same cartoon or completely different cartoons. Copy bits and pieces from the different sources, combining them together into something never seen before. Maybe take the eyes from one, the body from another, and the style from a whole another one. Play around and have fun with it. You can take the combining as far as you want. Perhaps its pieces are recognizable, or perhaps it's so combined that no one knows where the influences came from. If you're copying to honor and play, focus on recreating the artwork, but in your own style. Your piece should be recognizable as the original cartoon, but visually altered. Perhaps you draw it in a completely different medium, or color palette, or a line work style. Or perhaps you draw the character's clothing, hair, expression the same as the original, but draw the eyes and body proportion in your own style. The possibilities are endless. Play around and have fun. Whichever intention you choose, besides plagiarism, because remember we're not doing that, please share your artwork in the project gallery. Here are some guidelines for what to share in your project. The image of your original references and inspirations, the name of the cartoon you choose, what show or movie it came from and the creator. You may have to do some googling to find the artist or animator, but this is good practice. Tell us which copying intention you chose. You can choose to share any progress work you like if you're into that. Finally, share your completed artwork with us. I love seeing your art and I really hope to see your work in the project gallery. Well, I hope this class has alleviated some of your confusion and shame around copying. I really believe that copying is a wonderful way to learn, get inspired, and discover your own way of drawing. All art is a mashup of ideas. We can all influence and inspire each other, so long as we are creating and sharing from a place of honesty and transparency. Learn away, play away, steal away, and copy, and don't forget to credit your influences. I started noticing something all my favorite artists had in common. They all copied each other. I realized that this is what artists are supposed to do: Communicate back-and-forth with each other over the generations. Take old ideas and make them new since it's impossible to really imitate somebody without adding anything of your own. Create a rich, shared cultural language that was available to everybody. I became convinced that the soul of culture lay in this weird, irreverent, but reverent backs-and-fourths.