Why Studying the Masters is NOT an Exercise in Futility
I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded individual. I understand that mine is not the only opinion on any given subject and that each person brings a different perspective to a discussion, shaped by their own unique life experiences. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t have something to teach me or that didn’t have an interesting story to tell.
That being said, there are some hot button topics that will put my strong sense of open-mindedness to its ultimate test. One of those issues is whether or not a writer needs to read books (and read a LOT of books) in order to be a good writer. Want to see me bend over backwards to restrain myself from mentally body-checking someone? Let me hear any writer say, “I’m afraid I’ll take on another author’s style if I read too much” or “I get discouraged when I read books by writers more talented than I am” or “I don’t have time to read.”
Flames. Flames will shoot out of my eyes.
To demonstrate why these and other asinine arguments just don’t cut it, I thought I’d turn to another art form to demonstrate how studying your craft by studying the masters of your medium can not only lead to you mastering your craft, but it can also lead to you discovering your own artistic voice.
Let’s set up our easels, smear some daubs of paint on our palette, and enter the world of the visual arts medium for a moment. Our task for today? Study one of the most interpreted paintings of all time. The Mona Lisa.
The original by Da Vinci
Different interpretations of the Mona Lisa
And these are just the tiniest sample of what’s out there. These interpretations of the original Mona Lisa create new dialogue and add to the conversation of what art is. They are all original art.
When artists expose themselves to the influence of other artists, you can clearly see that it doesn’t make their work the same. None of these interpretations is an exact copy of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Instead, what comes through in each painting is the artist’s own artistic voice. Yes, VOICE! By studying the masters, you not only don’t create carbon copies or their work, you can discover your own true voice!
Think about it. Each person viewed the same original. Why didn’t they create the same painting or the same interpretation? In part, because their artistic talents vary and in part because they all bring completely different perspectives, those unique life histories, to their creative process.
We filter our work through our life experiences, through ourselves. What comes out is our voice. Our own unique voice. That’s why no matter how many versions are written of the Cinderella story, if you have one inside you to tell, it will be unique from all the others that have come before it, no matter if you read every single version.
And let’s say an artist set out to purposely duplicate Da Vinci’s style, what would the artist learn from that exercise? Would that be wasted effort? No. He or she would learn how a brilliant painting works – how the composition fits, the lighting, the shadows, the perspectives – how all the pieces come together. The artist would have learned something valuable about CRAFT.
The same is true of writers who read and study great books. All of these lessons can be applied to our own medium of writing. Our medium uses stories as its easel, the blank page as the palette, and words as the daubs of paint; what better place to study the masters of writing than in books?
What will your Mona Lisa look like?
Get to reading and find out!