Why it’s good to be a creative copycat

Succulent students’ strawberries, after copying along

It’s drilled into us from a young age not to copy other peoples’ work. 

If you copy somebody else’s work in junior school, you get called a ‘copycat’. In college, it’s called ‘plagiarism’. And when you get out into the big, wide world, it’s known as ‘infringement of copyright’.

But there’s a huge difference between passing off someone else’s work as your own, and copying to learn.

The social conditioning that tells us never to copy actually suppresses an important skill in us. 

From the day we were born, we learned all our major life skills through mimicry; facial expressions, language and movement. It’s what has shaped us, and it’s the most natural way of learning that exists. It’s so instinctive that it’s how animals learn their life skills too.

Yet somewhere along the way in our quest to do as we’re told, and to be totally original, copying becomes a taboo. As fully fledged adults, most of us often wouldn’t dream of copying somebody else’s work. 

This attitude puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to learning. Why?

Copying builds muscle memory

Now, ‘muscle memory’ is quite a misunderstood phenomenon, so let’s get clear on what it means.

Once you become adept at a particular physical activity, e.g. painting, it feels like your hands just
know how to move. Your hands know how to hold the paintbrush and how to glide the bristles over the paper.

But really, the skill that manifests in your hands resides in your brain. 

A better term to use is ‘
procedural memory’, which is “an unconscious type of memory we have just for skills, which operates independently of our other types of memory.”  There are whole areas of the brain that are dedicated to housing your procedural memory.

How is procedural memory formed?

The way that we create this ‘muscle memory’ or procedural memory is to learn by doing, and the only way we can do something which we don’t know how to yet is to watch and copy. Just like we did when we entered this world.


This is where the magic happens.

The mere action of ‘doing’, actually causes physical changes to happen in our brains. 

As you repeat a task, electrical signals will travel along the neural pathways that connect your brain to the muscles you’re using. And when this happens, a substance called ‘myelin’ will form around those pathways in your brain and make them stronger.

As these neural pathways continue to strengthen, you’ll find that you’re able to carry out the activity more quickly and efficiently than before, and you’ll notice yourself getting better at it.

This TEDed video describes how this happens:

As the video explains, in order for effective practice to take place, you need to learn correctly. If you’re doing something in a way that’s not bringing improvement, no amount of practicing will ‘make perfect’.  

How to build muscle memory through motor learning

So, if you want your painting skills to improve, you can build up muscle memory just through doing. We call this ‘motor learning’, and it happens in specific stages.

Let’s look at those stages below, and see how they relate to learning to paint. 

Stage 1: Cognitive

This is the stage where you’re first trying to learn something new. Everything is controlled consciously in the frontal and left parts of the brain.

This stage of learning anything requires a lot of mental effort and attention, and can feel quite tiring. You may find your movements are slow and your results are inconsistent.

Having the right tuition can be an
enormous help during the Cognitive stage. 

I saw this when I was teaching lots of in-person classes. People learn differently and I found that some people simply wanted to be shown and then to re-create the brushstrokes themselves, whereas others found it important to know
why it was they were doing what they were doing. I’d fall into this last category myself, so providing clear explanations came naturally to my teaching style.

Either way, by me showing them and explaining what I was doing, their conscious left-brain could be helped along, not needing to work it all out for themselves, and they could move through this challenging early stage of learning more smoothly and quickly- and crucially, in a more relaxed way. It’s no surprise that stress hormones negatively affect the development of new neural pathways!

Stage 2: Associative

This is the stage where you feel like things are starting to ‘click’. What that really means is that less cognitive input is required. The activity feels easier and more automatic because the commands are coming from an unconscious part of the brain and ‘just happening’ in your hand.

As you become more practiced in the activity, the myelin is continuing to build up around the neural pathways and your skills continue to improve. 

During this stage you’ll typically switch between conscious and automatic movements. It’s quite typical for a person to doubt their abilities when this happens, but it’s all part of the learning process and the key is to carry on building up the myelin through watching and doing.

Throughout the Associative stage your confidence will grow.

Stage 3: Autonomous

Eventually, you reach the autonomous stage, when the activity is completely automatic with little cognitive input from your conscious brain. You see more accuracy and consistency in your work. The step-by-step processes that you’ve been practicing are now embedded in your unconscious brain. 

I’ve been in this stage with my painting for a long time, and I even find that listening to audiobooks or other left-brain distractions frees up the autonomous painting process still further.

Once my School members reach this Autonomous stage, they find that they’re now painting and ‘seeing’ in a way that they weren’t before. Typically, it’s at this point that they’ll try their first ‘solo’ painting using the techniques they’ve learned. Time and again, the person will be shocked by the quality of the work they’ve produced on their own with no tutorial.

Often they’ll say “
all I did was copy along with the tutorials”.  But the truth is that by following the tutorials and painting along, they went through the entire motor learning process. 

Feast your eyes on the incredible work below. I asked my School members to share the
first solo painting they did since joining the School, and this is just a handful of what they shared. Some of them hadn’t painted for years (even decades) beforehand, and some had never painted at all. 

“All they did was copy” until they reached the Autonomous stage of learning and had the confidence to try their own paintings:

Jackie Knight
Jill Buckley
Julia Ingram
Judith Thompson

You can find more of these first solo paintings at the end of this post.

The other thing you should copy

If you copy the technique of someone who is accomplished at a certain skill, you can improve your own technique. But if you reeeeally want to reach their skill level, you need to copy something else they do. 

You should copy
the way they practice.

Top athletes, musicians and artists tend to have something in common:
structured practice

They work on developing their skills
at the edge of their current abilities. They show up consistently, and they practice frequently, taking lots of breaks (a good reason to choose watercolour to paint with, because you can leave the paints to dry between sessions and re-wet them). 

Imagine carving a sculpture out of stone as an analogy for structured practice. There’s no shortcut to the finished piece: it has to be carved from the outside, by chipping away at the bits you can reach. You’ll achieve the finished result if you’re consistent and chip away frequently, but you’ll need to take lots of breaks. And if you copy the best techniques, you’ll build muscle memory and chip away more effectively. To deconstruct a skill in this way can help you to climb up the steepest part of the learning curve and get good at something
in as little as 20 hours.

We all know that copying someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, without crediting the original artist, is at best not cool, and at worst illegal. 

learning through copying a process that you’re shown is an excellent way to develop skills FAST through motor learning. 

Has copying helped you to develop your creative skills?  Have you built muscle memory through motor learning?  Do you feel you’re in the middle of the motor learning process at the moment?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

p.s. If you’d like some help to learn painting through motor learning, you can take my free pear class where I introduce you to my watercolour method and break down the process step-by-step.

p.p.s Below are some more examples of the first solo painting some of my School members completed after ‘copying along’ with the tutorials.

Suzanne Matthews
Ginger Burke
Gail Curtis
Elise Herriott
Jane Medeiros
Catherine Fears
Helen Goldring
Shelley Van Doran
Margaret Longbotham
Connie Nielson
Rehana Lafont
Connie Hardt
Kevan Sue
Linda Lowe

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  1. Mildred Dickinson on September 1, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    That’s an amazing concept about copying. I always thought it was bad to copy. I was so hung up about it I did less art work!! So now I won’t feel so guilty about copying.

    • Lilia on September 1, 2020 at 4:20 pm

      Me too!

    • Jennie Y on September 2, 2020 at 4:18 pm

      Thank you so much for this, Anna. Your post came at a crucial time in my entrance into establishing an art practice. As one who has been told I have quite a bit of talent, talent is only useful when you know what to do and how to use it. Knowing what to do and how to use it comes from copying the technique of others who have already mastered it.. I have been frustrated with how to begin, and Anna’s post has helped to remind me the usefulness and importance of copying – AND of establishing a routine of constant practice.

      For those who question the integrity of copying, one need only a small amount of knowledge in Art history to know that the Masters learned by copying the Old Masters of the 18th century who came before them. It’s one of the tried and true techniques of classical art training.

      If copying was good enough for Pissarro, Monet and Van Gogh (to name just a few “copycats”), I do believe copying is good enough for me. One need not be concerned about sacrificing creativity and individualism. Just take a look at Picasso. After all, as Picasso once said ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ Working is often done by copying.

      Thank you Anna!

      • Dr. Monica Parson on May 5, 2021 at 1:57 pm

        Hi! I teach a Motor Learning class at the collegiate level. I am also a portrait artist.. First let me say, everything you have said here is correct except for the misnomer and incorrect concept of muscle memory. Everything we learn is stored in areas of the brain. The brain is what enables us to remember what we have learned. The muscles are dictated to and told to act by the brain. So the term ‘muscle memory’ is incorrect. Everything else you have said about the three stages of motor learning comes from research, and is spot on! I’m grateful to you for explaining this to the average person. This is helped me in that when I teach art, I will be incorporating copying, and as well as the three stages of Motor Learning (Fitts & Posner, 1967).

  2. Carol staines on September 1, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    I say that I’m self taught……but I learned by copying people more skilled than myself, including Anna!

    • Sue Da Silva on September 1, 2020 at 6:25 pm

      What a lovely article….I am a newbie, so this is good cheerleading; also what you’ve shared are just good life principles, applicable in loads of places…I appreciative perspective (pardon the pun)

  3. Barbara Marx on September 1, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Anna, a wonderful informative article so appreciated.

  4. Bonny Wagoner on September 1, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    My hard fast rule is I don’t copy anything. Sure, learn the technique but that’s it. Then I’m an independent spirit – I make my own work.

    • Yvonne on September 1, 2020 at 3:38 pm

      I’m with you! Observe, learn, read up, practise with different materials, follow descriptions for technique but do your own thing. I can appreciate what has been described in Anna’s article, but some of us with an artistic streak actually find it very hard to copy anything by rote because our imagination and independence are contradicted by it.

    • Judith Woodburn on September 1, 2020 at 5:04 pm

      The intellectual approach to understanding how our brain learns a new skill was fascinating and helpful.
      My granddaughter lives upstairs , and since she has watched me copying paintings, she started to do the same. She is seven years old, and since she started to paint, her drawing and painting skills have improved immensely. I get frames at the dollar store, and she has created a gallery of her work. She discusses with me, her colour choices, and she has learned to mix colours, It is so endearing to have her using the names of the colours on her pallet. Her enthusiasm has been inspiring.
      Thank you for your wonderful videos. I can draw, but the painting with precision and effect has been a challenge for me.

      • Betty Etzler on November 11, 2021 at 5:25 pm

        You are giving your granddaughter a precious gift that will always be part of her!

  5. Rita on September 1, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    Good Morning,

    I must say that the way I learned to paint was to copy. I had no other way to start and have evolved as a result. I love botanical painting and Anna’s work and books have always inspired me. Thank you Anna.

  6. I W Van Straaten on September 1, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    Thank you Anna,because of learning me so much. First I copied and then you get your own style. The style that suits you.

  7. Lynne on September 1, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    This is absolutely true!!

  8. Jennifer East on September 1, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    This is very interesting. I am still solidly in the cognitive and can appreciate the frustration of the huge mental effort. But when I finish the piece, I feel that I have gained so much. Do you feel that the copying should be the same piece or is copying the technique sufficient?

    Thanks for the info!

    • Anna Mason on September 2, 2020 at 10:02 am

      Most people feel more comfortable painting the same subject with step-by-step instruction initially but if you can apply the technique to your own things stright away that’s also great.

  9. Renee Werner on September 1, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Oh, thank you for the reminder to 1. not belittle a legitimate way of learning and 2. that this is in fact one of the best ways to learn anything!

    I needed it!

  10. Sandy on September 1, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    I have been learning by copying for a while now and am amazed at what I can do. I need to practice my consistently to keep up the momentum. Thanks for the explanation and encouragement

  11. Gloria on September 1, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    Thank you….this makes SO much sense! WOW, to the first time solo projects of your students! Beautiful!

  12. Ellen Hines on September 1, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Very interesting!

  13. Beth James on September 1, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    Great explanation!

  14. maxine r perry on September 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    I began by copying accomplished artist’s works, like Anna. I find nothing wrong with copying techniques and photos. What I found after doing several artists is that I tended to amalgamate all techniques into what worked for me, “my style”. For all beginners go forth and copy.

  15. Françoise on September 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    I never thought I could do anything good in art until recently when I took a drawing class in a museum, copying great masters’ paintings or sculptures. And I made big progress really quickly. That’s why I was confident that what Anna was asking us to do – copy her own watercolours – would teach me a lot. I haven’t quite reached the stage where I feel autonomous enough to apply her technique to my own creative ideas but I am trying to take small steps at the moment and starting from her pretty blue tit painting, I have taken one of my own photos of the same bird sitting in a slightly different position on a bigger branch and I have managed to paint something quite pleasing to look at. I can now measure how much I have learnt from Anna’s initial model and can now imagine I could try drawing the same bird flying or maybe a different bird altogether. That’s what Anna probaby means by “becoming autonomous” and I quite agree with that.

  16. Carol Kelly on September 1, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    I’ve been very critical of myself lately while attempting to paint Anna’s tutorials. It almost feels unauthentic to “ copy”.
    Is there a point when you become comfortable choosing the correct hue and tone and confidence to take on a subject ?

    • Mary Jo Mooney on September 1, 2020 at 4:18 pm

      I agree with you. I have the same issue/feeling. I’m also very critical of my paintings. I’m also struggling and question when I’ll understand the correct hue and tone. I look at the trees, grasses, animals to see if I can figure the hues and tones. I love Anna’s tutorials and will continue doing them until everything just clicks. Thanks for letting us know we aren’t alone.

  17. Linda Coffey on September 1, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    As a retired math teacher who just recently started painting, I totally agree. Practice is so important to learning any skill.

    I do think that by watching your & other tutorials, I have been developing muscle memory & a basic watercolor painting foundation. I am also gaining confidence in my artistic abilities.

    I try to incorporate different types of practicing besides painting with tutorials. Trying to find my own style. It’s a fun journey & I hope to one day be able to call myself a watercolor artist!
    Thank you Anna!
    linda Coffey (Lyn Coff)

  18. Gloria Chin on September 1, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks for this article. I feel so much better now. I have been carrying around this guilt of copying other people’s work with me for years and years and in a way it has kept me back from advancing. Now I can go ahead freely and improve my work by learning from others.

    • Anna Mason on September 2, 2020 at 10:00 am

      I’m so pleased to hear the article has helped you Gloria – goodbye guilt, hello painting fun!

  19. Teresa Tipton on September 1, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    I loved this Ted Talk and your post, Anna! I remember as a 4 or 5 year old copying my sister’s first grade work because I wanted to go to school so badly. It is how I learned my letters and to write. Eventually it is how I learned to draw by tracing pictures from coloring books, magazines and other printed media. Taking art classes through school used a lot of copying or mimicking other’s works. I am still learning your technique and hope to improve my own artwork as I move through your tutorials. I have learned so much already but lots more practice (copying) is needed. I am so happy to have joined the school last year. The classes have literally changed my life. I am a much more calm person when I get to paint!

  20. LInda Halstead on September 1, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    I feel really guilty when friends and family admire my paintings and I always feel obliged to tell them I have just copied them. (They are all kind enough to say I must have some skill to be able to copy well). Exactly, as you have pointed out, I am hoping that I am developing the skills to branch out on my own soon. I shall let you know!

    • Joan Tolman on September 1, 2020 at 4:31 pm

      I have been painting watercolours now for around 18 months but it has been copy, copy, copy!! Seeing the works you have posted by your ‘solo artists’ has given me the inspiration and perhaps the confidence ‘to ‘go it alone’ myself. I absolutely adore your portfolio too Anna.

  21. Kerry Heller on September 1, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    I’m a true beginner. Copying Anna’s style and taking part in her workshops and books not only inspires me but gives me confidence in abilities I didn’t know I had. My brain Is leaning to see and understand things it never did before. Thank you Anna.

  22. mary nunn on September 1, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    This took me by surprise Anna – In earlier times, we artists apprenticed and copied the ‘master’. I’ve been loath to copy thinking “‘ I could copy this painting, but when does it become my own?'”
    I have discussed this with other artist; I learn something new every day in my studio – one answer that resonated with me was ‘you may copy initially but by the twentieth it has become yours’..
    To me the point of Art is to be guided by the Creative Spirit and if I can sell something, that’s good too!

    Web site is decades out of date. M

  23. Nancy Hage on September 1, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    This is the way I’ve always learned! In art school, my major ended up being in ceramics…pottery. I used to simply sit and watch my instructor throw pots for hours. Just watching was the first key. Then trying to make pots just like he did. Eventually I acquired the skill and was able to branch out into adding my own personality to the clay. It’s a simple and proven process. In doing many of Anna’s tutorials, I’m experiencing the same thing with this medium. I was a fish out of water when I first began working with watercolor and nothing I did seemed to work. Learning how to use the paint, layering with a HUGE dose of patience, has been amazing. I still feel like I can keep learning from this by watching and doing as Anna does with many more tutorials…but in the meantime, along with doing the tutorials, I’ve started branching off and putting to paper a few of my own images. I still falter and struggle a lot, but I can see the skill level improving all the time. I’m so grateful I found this wonderful course to guide me on my way with watercolor; Thank you Anna!!!

  24. Harriet Lehman on September 1, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Loved reading the post. I, too, have been insecure about my ability because I felt like I was just copying Anna. This blog post helped me realize that, as a true beginner, I am learning with each painting. Thank you, Anna.

    • Gail Curtis on September 2, 2020 at 5:40 pm

      You have hit on a “real Human truth” that shows great insight. In a considered way you have explained this beautifully. Your point about practicing what the teacher/artist does to improve their skills is also great . Great teams win because they practice for a common purpose. So “more JOY from painting. Thank you Anna

  25. Sheryl Brake on September 1, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    What a great blog post! This is very interesting information. I have been following very artists, including you, for a few years and while I have copied others work in the process in order to develop a cohesive skill set. By combining a variety of skills from fellow watercolor artist, we begin to develop our own unique style and work. Again, thank you for the great blog. I feel less guilty now in trying to replicate the skills of my favorite artists!

  26. Paula on September 1, 2020 at 4:14 pm

    This is so so true! I find that when working through Anna’s tutorials, my style seems to come through, anyway…practice makes perfect!

  27. Grete Lepperød on September 1, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    Very interesting and helpful. Also good to get some more confidence to keep going, not having to feel bad about this process that involves copying. No need to hide the pictures we are learning from. . Just what I needed. THANKS!

  28. Mary Jo Mooney on September 1, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Anna thanks so much, I feel more relaxed when I’m painting along with you. I’m going to continue until those darn tones, hues and color mixing become automatic. I’ll be a natural some day. Thanks again.

  29. Jo Ann Frommer Rom on September 1, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for all of the information from the blog. My goal as a member is to paint everyone of the tutorials until I feel I can do the techniques with my own creation. I have been an oil painter most of my art career, so watercolor has been a challenge. I hope that is ok to continue with the tutorials and yes copy the techniques. I love the classes and enjoy the comraderie with the other artists and see how others have progressed in their skill set.

    Thanks again.

  30. Crissy Sirianni on September 1, 2020 at 4:37 pm

    I love this article! It gives clarity to what freedom we have to learn from copying and what freedom we don’t have to claim another’s work as our own. The distinctions you made were spot on! There certainly is nothing wrong to mimic someone who has achieved great skill. Your tutorials are so helpful being step-by-step. I’m a teacher and statistics show we learn best when the teacher models for students: “I do, we do, you do!” I’m so thankful for your school and the effort you put into teaching your method of watercolor. Thank you so much!!

  31. Ranjana on September 1, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    Hello Anna,
    Thanks for this much needed insight into the subject of copying…. You are right the social taboo on copying is so strong that, to tell you the truth, I was getting stuck halfway…I am a self teaching watercolorist… And I started learning with coloured stuff from YouTube from artists such as you… Then I couldn’t sign the paintings…. With people urging me to sign I had to start painting my own stuff… Which was not too bad.. But not the stuff one can really present… So I was half way.. Not painting anything new.. Because I felt I want good enough and not copying either…I feel better now…. And your students have made some really wonderful paintings… Very very nice. Thanks.

  32. Jo Ann Frommer Rom on September 1, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    Attached is an oil I painted of a hybrid night blooming cereus. I so enjoyed the project.

  33. Pam Lund on September 1, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    I wish I’d had this information as a child, it would certainly have made life easier. Some copying was positive. I learned to do cursive writing one letter at a time from a school friend while in 3rd grade in Washington State where it normally wasn’t taught until the following year. But my family moved to California for my 4th grade year, where cursive writing was taught in 3rd grade. Fortunately, copying helped from setting me behind in school. But that same year, I was shamed by copying someone’s art project and from that time, I’ve focused on always having to be “original” to the detriment of my learning. I appreciate this explanation so much.

    I DO try to paint something every day and that has definitely improved my painting. Having choices in tutorials rather than a fixed program also allows me to select something that I feel a connection to while I paint. There’s an intimacy in these detailed subjects that benefits from that connection.

  34. Jacque Snedeker on September 1, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    Is it proper to sell a painting where I give credit to the artist tutorial?

    • Anna Mason on September 2, 2020 at 9:59 am

      I think that’s one for the artist concerned. My take on it is that if I am clearly credited for the original painting and/or the tutorial then that’s OK with me.

  35. Bonnie Wilhelm on September 1, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. It really helps to know it is OK to copy and learn with our art.

  36. Genie on September 1, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Hi Anna,Interesting article,when l first started teaching(many moons ago. I was told tell them what you are going to teach them. Tell them.Then tell them what you have already told them,this was something l used throughout my career,and in life its self.

  37. Pam Aylmer on September 1, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    Hi Anna and group,
    I’m all for it and thanks for the outline of structured learning theory. There’s a book called “Steal Like and Artist” (https://www.amazon.com/Steal-Like-Artist-Things-Creative/dp/0761169253) in which the author argues that were it not for stealing ideas from each other, there would have been no Impressionists, no Fauvists, no post-modernists and so forth. Artists have always stolen (copied) ideas from each other. Art education boils down to one’s ability to use other’s ideas to interpret your own.

    I enjoy your blog, Anna, and especially seeing your family and beautiful artwork.

  38. LadyCinnamon on September 1, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    What a fantastic article, Anna, and exactly on point. Thank you so much for opening up the full clarity of your tutorials. I’m encouraged now to get back to painting – and to even pick up my guitar again.

  39. Karen Rushton on September 1, 2020 at 5:48 pm

    Your subject and article hooked me. The do not copy has been stuck in my head. In the elementary classroom I wanted the students to copy by letters and numbers and so on. But in the art class room I had another situation. Maybe I handled it wrong. When a drawing example was left up to see, students got pertified with the not good enough. So I seldom left an example up for long. The course started out hard for me because I wanted to draw from the picture. Now due to the courses patience, I am learning to copy. Trace and carefully watch tutuorials. Learning technique.

  40. Elisabeth on September 1, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Daniel Coyle had ridden a good little book on this topic: The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Absolutely recomendabel.

  41. Julie Thomas on September 1, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    I’m still very much a beginner at watercolor painting, and I completely agree with and appreciate Anna’s blog post about copying and developing muscle memory as an essential phase of learning. At this early stage in my skill development, I consider the concentration required to be a form of in-the-moment meditation, because I’m not stressed by self-imposed pressure to achieve perfect results. (With Anna’s detailed instruction and modeling, I’ve amazed myself!) I’m also a knitter, and those skills are so much a part of my muscle memory that I can listen to a book or watch tv while I stitch away. I enjoy digging into a complex lace pattern that requires every bit of my brain, not to master a particular stitch, but to build the complex pattern into a beautiful piece of fabric. I love the analogy of painting and knitting; I do not consider myself an “artist.” In knitting, I’m a skilled, experienced craftswoman, but I’m not a designer. In painting, I’m a beginner, still working on forming the “knits and the purls,” learning the vocabulary, and understanding color theory. Step-by-step painting tutorials are my “patterns” and instructors, Tracing a provided sketch allows me to focus on brush strokes, color mixing, shading, techniques, and all the “stitches” involved in creating a painting.

    I may never consider myself an “artist,” but with Anna and other artists who are willing to share their knowledge and approaches, I know I can become a reasonable watercolor painter. I enjoy the learning process, am often pleased with my results, and can see gradual improvement. Painting from tutorials allows me to deal with perfectionism and fear-based procrastination, relieves stress, and makes me happy. I’ve known for a long time that learning new things is good for the aging brain, and it is very interesting to find out a bit about the physiology of why that’s true.

    • Anna Mason on September 2, 2020 at 9:57 am

      Thanks so much for sharing this experience Julie – and I love the comparison to knitting. I agree that there are different types of ‘creating’ – perfect for when we are in different moods – the copy along/ or work to a pattern type which can be relaxing and enjoyable, and then the ‘making something brand new’ type of creation that is usually pretty exciting too and doesn’t always come to order. I think most of us need a mix of the two.

  42. Ann on September 1, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    A great post. In sumi-e painting we are taught the tradition of copying the masters before branching out on our own for much the same reasons you cite. Thanks for the lesson.

  43. Derek Baker on September 1, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    Anna I must be the worlds biggest copier. I don’t think I have an original idea in my head. I will copy anything ,fotos,others paintings etc. Two years ago I had brain surgery and I find painting helpful. My work is all cards for every occasion. I have three children,10 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren,so iam busy! Always looking for topics to suit my family and friends

  44. Mariam on September 1, 2020 at 6:56 pm

    Anna, this post rings so true for me. I currently am taking classes where we are shown how to paint a specific thing, if you will. And usually we try to emulate the way the instructor painted it. But the best encouragement we get is to use her example as just that, and if we feel like doing the painting differently, to go for it. In other words, she is there for us to copy if we are unsure, but mostly she is there to give us reference on how to approach the beginning, middle and end. Also, there is a small book entitled ‘Steal like an Artist’ that really helped me to understand that copying is just exactly what you describe – a learning method, as long as we never try to pass our copying along as original art. Also a great lesson! Thank you for this post – I needed it today!

  45. Sue Woffinden on September 1, 2020 at 7:22 pm

    While following the viola tutorial this afternoon It went through my mind that I was just trying to copy your instructions not really knowing what I am doing so was relieved to read your email that it is the best way to learn, I am very encouraged and look forward to moving on.

  46. Jackie Rodriguez de Guzman Santisteban on September 1, 2020 at 7:29 pm

    I agree with you, only practicing, and imitating what others can do you can improve your skills, and finaly develope your own style. Nature is allways inspiring so don´t worry to begin copying, and be patient, your style will allways find you.

  47. David Thorpe on September 1, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    What a fascinating article, I have taken up drawing and painting about 4 months ago and was basically told that everything done should be your own work. Difficult when you have no idea what to do. I have just done the pear exercise, not the best but I got a lot more satisfaction following the guidelines given.
    As a driving instructor I constantly have to unteach the things that students are doing because they copy what they see their parents doing when driving.
    If you have a good teacher/mentor then copying what they do can only be beneficial.

    • Anna Mason on September 2, 2020 at 9:54 am

      Thanks David – driving is a great example of a muscle memory activity – given how when we can do it we can sometimes dive somewhere and not remember a thing about the journey! Thanks so much for your comment.

  48. Jill Buckley on September 1, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    What a fabulous post, so informative and encouraging. I feel like I have already learned an incredible amount while working through your tutorials. I really appreciate looking at the phrase….”copy cat” (which has always had negative connotations for me) in a different light. While my ultimate goal is to work on my own unique paintings of course, but, currently and am quite happy to be a copy cat. After a month of being a “copy-cat” doing your tutorials I attempted my first solo painting to be better able to gauge if I was truly learning ,building skills and was surprised that I really could make those decisions on my own. Btw…..I don’t think of any of my painting sessions as “practice”. In my brain…..practice and painting are not the same, I don’t feel that I tend to be as focused if I allow myself to think I am just practicing. So when I pick up my brushes, I work as though every stroke, every colour mix, tone, hue choice is important to the finished piece. Does that make sense?

  49. Denise on September 1, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    I, too, am a retired math teacher, recently coming out of retirement due to the pandemic to teach and tutor online. I am finding that although my careful, verbal explanations are important, my written step-by-step and color-coded work translates to all languages when the students copy my work and refer to it until they become more confident. Just like what Anna does. That is how I taught math for 25 years! It is side-by-side practice that must come first to learn a skill. I am a very green newbie to watercolor, even to painting, and your style, Anna, makes a lot of sense. I had only ever had one single attempt at painting just a few weeks before I discovered you, Anna, and it was watercolor. When I was at the framing store, recently, to have my pear, blue anemone, and blackberry (from your gorgeous book!) framed, another shopper asked if I painted them, said they were just beautiful, and I, of course, told that I traced the basic shape and followed a tutorial, that I was just beginning to learn. I should have just said, “Thank you!” The clerks helping me could not believe they were my first paintings, saying that they were artists, themselves. It led to a discussion of the merits of copying. What a confidence boost. I felt as if I had joined a secret society called “artist”! Thank you, Anna!

  50. Mike Tice on September 1, 2020 at 10:44 pm

    Anna, thank you for this “lesson”. I never looked at art in this way but what a revelation!

  51. Nancy Rochford on September 1, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    God our Grand Creator, has put into His marvelous Creative works wonderful inspiration for us all.

  52. Fee Fraser on September 1, 2020 at 11:33 pm

    For the 1st time ever, I listened to a very interesting talk, with 2 Canadian fashion & special effects make up artist… whilst I was drawing out some new ideas to paint. I can’t believe how smoothly the drawings went, how creative I was, and how quickly I was able to get them drawn ready for painting! The chat was very random for me, I thought, I liked to create in silence.. Clearly not! Thank you Anna, for “switching off” the left side of my brain!! I’m going to listen to some talking, not music, when I paint them too. Let’s see if that process works just as well.
    Anna, you’re a star, great advice as always xx

  53. Syndy on September 2, 2020 at 12:39 am

    Copy the process, nail the technique, but make it your own. Always interesting, thanks Anna

  54. Shabri on September 2, 2020 at 2:35 am

    Well said Anna. Nothing wrong to copy if its making your techniques better. When the time is right originality will also come eventually. I learnt at your school for sometime and worked in many tutorials. I learnt the technique and now practice it in my own work. All thank to copying your work that gave me a new way to look at my artwork.

  55. Rajitha on September 2, 2020 at 4:08 am

    It’s almost like you read my mind .I was not very comfortable and had same doubts to show the copied paintings to my friends .Now I can just tell them I am copying to learn .Thanks for the post .

  56. Marsha Close on September 2, 2020 at 6:32 am

    Anna, I thank you so much for your Art School, your tutorials and teaching methods, the Ted talks, the positive reinforcement, it’s truly like a university class. Regarding coping someone’s art, my favorite portraits, I’ve painted three and when completed look so much different, one was a young girl, when finished she was a young woman, not even sure how that happened. So when I frame them I’ll put the original on the back of the picture in a envelope. Thank you again for the Joy of Painting.

  57. Brenda Fradd on September 2, 2020 at 7:53 am

    This has opened my mind to extending my artistic skills, and to many other ways I can improve my life in general. Thank you so much. I don’t have a website but am now considering how to set one up!

  58. Sophie Dusoulier on September 2, 2020 at 9:03 am

    So true! My piano teacher always talk about muscle memory … you were talking about the hands holding a paint brush and then “they know how to move” that exactly what happen… I am a gilder and sometimes I am surprised to see my hands doing things .. like if they were working beside me!!!! And doing the right very precise move without me thinking of it! I have to say that copying you is the best way for progressing!

    • Susana on September 12, 2020 at 2:34 pm

      Similar to touch-typing … I guess that’s an example of using muscle memory. I learned to touch-type 48 years ago and at the time was one of the fastest typists … I didn’t have to think about what my fingers were doing as I was totally focussed on either the manuscript in front of me or my shorthand notebook.

      • Anne Galloway on April 15, 2021 at 5:41 pm

        Susana, I was a touch typist too for 30 years and the skill has never left me. I’m one year with Anna’s school and I’ve noticed that Instinct/muscle memory is taking over. Your analogy is a good one.

  59. Nancy Rochford on September 2, 2020 at 9:53 am

    It takes a lot of talent to be a skilled copyist. The beloved American artist Norman Rockwell was a skilled copyist. His use of photography is well known. Being able to use a photo and transfer it onto a canvas is no minor achievement.

  60. Mary Hogg on September 2, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Thank you – very interesting and reassuring. Although I know that ‘practice makes perfect’ this really explains why and hopefully will give me the impetus to set aside regular time instead of dipping in and out! Hadn’t thought about it as muscle memory though which makes perfect sense.

  61. Jennie Y on September 2, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you so much for this, Anna. Your post came at a crucial time in my entrance into establishing an art practice. As one who has been told I have quite a bit of talent, talent is only useful when you know what to do and how to use it. Knowing what to do and how to use it comes from copying the technique of others who have already mastered it.. I have been frustrated with how to begin, and Anna’s post has helped to remind me the usefulness and importance of copying – AND of establishing a routine of constant practice.

    For those who question the integrity of copying, one need only a small amount of knowledge in Art history to know that the Masters learned by copying the Old Masters of the 18th century who came before them. It’s one of the tried and true techniques of classical art training.

    If copying was good enough for Pissarro, Monet and Van Gogh (to name just a few “copycats”), I do believe copying is good enough for me. One need not be concerned about sacrificing creativity and individualism. Just take a look at Picasso. After all, as Picasso once said ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ Working is often done by copying.

    Thank you Anna!

  62. Sandra Jones on September 3, 2020 at 2:56 am

    Sometimes clients want you to copy exactly their reference photo, and I realize it is ok…especially a paying client!

  63. Jackie powell on September 3, 2020 at 10:16 am

    Thank-you so much for your free lessons i think your work is amazing .I love the information about coping i always felt quilty but as your information says its actually good so now I am going to try my own stuff i think I am ready thankyou Anna

  64. Geraldine Owen on September 3, 2020 at 10:26 am

    Thank you Anna for this very interesting blog and informative Ted Talk. I enjoyed reading the other students interesting comments too. Thank you all.

  65. Judy aka BridgehavenJude on September 3, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    Great blog Anna! And also found the Ted talk great too. I have MS and learned about the mylin covering over nerves in our brain through a way different experience. I leaned how MS attacks the mylin sheaths covering our nerves and that process damages our nerves and creates the various handicaps from MS. So when I watched that little video – I was like, “Oh wow! there is something to celebrate about it!” It would be interesting to know if continuing to build up the mylin as the video says through learning, would even repair some of the existing damage to them. My MS went into an inactive mode a few years ago, so I don’t have the disabilities many of the people on my MS Facebook page have and I am not getting any worse – or so it seems. Most of my “art” I have taught myself to start with, but then went looking for people or books that could teach me more about it. I agree, all learning comes about from someone that went before you and therefore can show you the way. Thanks so much Anna!

  66. Sharon3 on September 4, 2020 at 6:50 pm

    Thank you Anna for the inspiration to paint. I enjoy following your techniques. I appreciate all that you do,, to inspire me to get the wow in my paintings. Really enjoyed the fact i am a copy cat. and proud of it. (Thank you )

  67. Hermineh Miller on September 5, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Anna,, I am a long time calligraphy teacher in the US. I receive you posts. I was especially interested in the last post about Practice. It would benefit my sudents very much if I could put the entire blog on my class page. Do I have your permission to do so? I would prefer to use the entire blog so that my students could see how important “copy” practice is to the development of skill. If I could use the entire blog all your information would be available to them. I hope you find this request doable. In no way do I want to usurp your information. Namaste, Hermineh Miller

    • Anna Mason on September 10, 2020 at 10:04 am

      That’s fine – you know the rule – so long as you don’t pass it off as your own, haha. Thanks for asking Hermineh.

  68. Asya on September 6, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Hello not sure if you aware but I just found out that one of yours book at amazon published under someone else name – Sumbwas Micheal

    • Anna Mason on September 10, 2020 at 9:59 am

      Thanks for letting me know, I will have my publisher get this taken down – how outrageous!

  69. phisit khaikaew on September 9, 2020 at 2:42 am

    I used charcoal to paint, watching other people draw. And I put the color, looking at the other person. I watched you draw flowers because you captured the beauty of flowers. But i can draw like you But I don’t draw because there are many people who draw similar, beautiful notes. But I have tried all my life to paint a more touching and spiritual expression that is more beautiful. That was nice and now I don’t draw anything. At this time, I dedicate myself to medical illustrator and advise my kids to watch you paint gorgeous watercolors, thank you for having a beautiful picture.

  70. Beth Amen on September 11, 2020 at 12:57 am

    Such an interesting article you have written, thanks so much Anna. I thought there was something wrong with me because copying seems to be when I do my best art work..the reproductions are really good which surprised me. When I look back on it I have done that when sewing and many other things in the creative realm.. This is a great encouragement to me I can’t thank you enough and I will keep painting!!

  71. Katt on March 24, 2021 at 9:56 pm

    I love this technique, thank you so much Anna! I can’t wait until I graduate to “Autonomous”!

  72. joyce E Love on November 11, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    I did not belong to your school when you first posted this blog. I appreciate that you included it in this week’s email today. I’ve never gone to a formal art school and over the years I have taught myself from books & taken some in-person workshops from a few artists and gotten various ‘takes’ on copying. A couple artists have said that they have seen their work copied and asked students not to copy it at the beginning of their workshop without too much explanation of what WAS alright to paint using their techniques. Another workshop instructor said to learn by copying, but to always change something about the painting layout, color or whatever to make it your own. A couple have said nothing and I’ve left those workshops wondering about what to do with the art I produced there. Some artists’ books give permission to copy their designs like you do in your school. I’ve been somewhat confused about the copying issue and am happy to know your thoughts and why you espouse those ideas. I will just avoid the purists who say you’ll go to hell if you dare copy any part of your painting. I’ve never taken an actual course like this one and appreciate your thoughts Anna and it makes so much sense.

  73. […] Observe the skill being ‘modelled’ (or demonstrated) AND described thoroughly – then try to imitate it as best you can (‘copying’ can be hugely freeing in this context and a great way to learn skills […]

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