How to (mostly) not be derivative


When I look through the drawings I did as a kid, one thing stands out. I copied everything. Even into early high school, I was still copying stuff. I remember spending days copying from my Star Wars Sketchbook (that’s my awesome TIE fighter above). I thought making an exact replica was the bee’s knees.

That’s fine when you’re young and still learning. Not so fine when you’re older and trying to craft your own, individual style.

We all copy. It’s how we gain experience and confidence. But how do you get from copying to something that displays the authentic you?

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Eww. That sounds boring. Like learning to play scales on piano (a personal trauma from my childhood). But there’s no way around it—you have to make friends with the sometimes tedious act of practice.

Style can’t be forced, and takes many years of dedicated practice. Only by sticking to a process, making mistakes, and trying again … over and over, will the “real” you shine through.

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

– Steven Pressfield – The War of Art

Go deep into your well of experiences and influences. Draw upon (pun intended) that well of knowledge and pour it onto the paper. Ask yourself: What do I love? What do I believe in? It’s not just “how” to draw, but also “what” to draw.

I love to steep myself in retro and sci-fi. I have no idea why I gravitate towards those things. Perhaps it’s because I watched the moon landings on TV. Or all the trips down to Florida with the funny roadside Americana. These things are now a part of me, and I do everything I can to make them a part of my work.

Use your unique experiences and viewpoints to tell your stories.

Ok. But that’s all pretty theoretical. Is there a practical way I can not be derivative right now? Here’s a hack I use when I feel I’m not pushing myself enough …

  1. Sketch out your piece using as much reference material as you like.
  2. Put the reference material away.
  3. Re-draw without referring back to it. Keep re-drawing and making changes. Move things around and change the size of the elements. Add something and take something away. Look at the layout upside-down.
  4. By the time you’re done, you’ve likely arrived at something different.

This is a variation on the process German typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann uses. He will play around with the reference material extensively. Then, the next day he will draw it from memory. By that time, the brain has processed it into something unique.

Yes. Everything has been done. But it hasn’t been done by you.