No Image Available

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Free Thinking: Originality – is it a sin?


We prize originality but how can we achieve it? Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks offers some intriguing insights.

Let's begin with a riddle: when is a fake not a fake? Answer: when it's an original. As in the strange case of Elmyr de Hory, the notorious twentieth century art forger, who produced hundreds of faked paintings in the style of great artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and many others during a highly successful criminal career.

The irony is that de Hory's forgeries are now themselves such valuable collectibles that other forgers are busy forging de Hory fakes. So collectors of his work find themselves in an Alice-in-Wonderland situation in which they have to try and prove the authenticity of their own sought-after de Hory fakes.

But how can a copy transform itself into an original of such aesthetic and commercial value? After all, when it comes to being creative, we've always been told that copying is a cardinal sin. I was reminded of this the other day when I stumbled upon a list of ‘classroom creativity killers’ on an art professor’s website. It didn't surprise me to find that top of the professor's list of ‘killers’ was the dangerous practice of encouraging children to borrow other people’s ideas, instead of confining themselves to their own ideas and experiences.

The professor’s view of originality as something unusual and inventive that doesn't owe its existence to other peoples' ideas or materials is widely shared. But does it really hold water? Take a look at the early works of any great artist and you'll see how closely they resemble the style of the artists they admired - for example, early Beethoven sounds a lot like Haydn and Mozart.

This shouldn't surprise us because artists from the Renaissance onwards, like medieval craftsmen before them, were actually taught that originality was achieved through copying. They understood the timeless truth that copying – or imitating lies at the heart of all learning.

The old masters learned their trade by becoming apprentices in the workshops of their masters, which were like creative factories. As they became more adept at copying their master's style and technique, they would begin working directly on his canvasses and commissions with him – painting bits of background and so on. Modern worries about the sorting and ownership of ideas just wouldn't have made sense to them.

My own experience as a professional ‘creative’ has taught me that copying is a vital stage of the creative process. I learned how to draw cartoons by first copying the work of cartoonists I admired, and through this process I gradually discovered my own original style.

So it’s interesting to consider how it is that copying can lead us along the path towards its apparent opposite, originality. How is it possible for this paradox to resolve itself?

Well, in the first place, the act of copying gives us a deeper understanding of what we're copying. For the apprentices in the old master's studio, the process of detailed copying gave them a practical insight into how their masters achieved specific technical effects for example, how certain kinds of small brush strokes resulted in the look of velvet, lace, or silk.

Copying encourages us to change our point of view because to get it right we have to imagine ourselves in the skin of the other person. We have to try and work out their intentions and see things through their eyes. Thinking differently in this way is widely regarded as a necessary condition for any kind of creative enterprise.

Through copying we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves because the differences between our copy and what we're copying define our uniqueness. It's like discovering what you think by hearing and reacting to what other people say. Even if they're talking about something you've never given much thought to, it's impossible not to start forming your own opinions and ideas as you listen to them.

So go ahead and give yourself permission to be a sponge and begin absorbing everything that goes on around you. Explore and imitate how other people approach things because it will provide you with the essential raw materials for your own creative endeavors. Stop worrying about originality and trust that it's an inevitable consequence of everything you touch, just like a fingerprint.

Finally, what you choose to copy gives you an insight into your own taste and stylistic inclinations. Your own voice will become stronger as you follow your interests in this way. And the space between what you copy and your copy will form the seedbed for your personal style and individuality. At first originality is like a barely audible voice crying out in a blizzard, but the more you copy and explore your own difference, the louder and clearer that voice will become.

Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

Other articles by this author:


No Image Available

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!