“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
This saying is often attributed to Pablo Picasso, though it’s possible this is a refinement of quotes from others, including T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky.
Whatever the case, it is commonly regarded by artists to be a profoundly true observation.
Compare that idea (don’t copy, steal) with this quote from Edgar Degas:
“You have to copy and recopy the masters and it’s only after having proved oneself as a good copyist that you can reasonably try to do a still life of a radish.”
Edgar Degas (from smithsonianmag.com)
A number of those who endorse the first statement might also endorse this second. Why? Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” holds the key.
In the quote above, Degas is describing the first step in Terry’s process— imitation. In other quotes, Degas bears witness to the wisdom to the rest of Terry's formulation.
“The studies you have amassed are useful only as supports, as valuable pieces of information . . . You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement . . . Make a drawing. Start it all over again, trace it. Start it and trace it again.”
Edgar Degas — (quoted in From the Classicists to the Impressionists: Art and Architecture in the Nineteenth Century, Edited by Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, p. 402)
Here, Degas may not necessarily be describing studies of great paintings but of nature. Still, the general approach fits with Terry’s: a creator fixes her attention outward and then draws it inward—assimilation.
And below, Degas describes the final step—innovation
“It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can't see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary.”
Edgar Degas, (quoted in Maurice Sérullaz, L'univers de Degas, p. 13)
It is at this point that an artist might be said to have progressed from copying to stealing (in the formulation attributed to Picasso). Note that what Degas and Terry and others are pointing out is that an artist needs to copy before she can steal.
Thank you for reading.