I’m reading a book called Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins, and I’ve just learned an interesting thing about the legendary artist, Michelangelo: it turns out his first commission was a con job. According to the author, Michelangelo had been hired by a shady art dealer to create a statue and make it look old so as to pass for an antique. This fake was then sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, an avid collector of antique art. Cardinal Riario was fooled at first. But eventually he figured out that it wasn’t the real deal, so he returned the statue to the art dealer. One would think that the Cardinal would then turn his anger towards the artist, but in a surprising turn of events, he hired Michelangelo and became his first patron in Rome.
Apparently, it was quite common during the Renaissance for apprentices to copy the works of their masters. And they didn’t just “kind of” copy their art – they copied their masters so closely that eventually their replicas became indistinguishable from their masters’ originals. I’ve seen one of these replicas in person and of course I would never have known the difference, but the resemblance in style and technique is so close that historians today still can’t figure out if the work was produced by the master or the apprentice.
For the artists of the Renaissance era, this wasn’t cheating. For them, it was a form of study. And for an apprentice to create an exact replica of a masterpiece wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of. Because imagine how good you would have to be to create an exact replica of something like the Mona Lisa – for most average artists, that would be virtually impossible. So it’s no wonder Cardinal Riario was impressed by Michelangelo’s forged statue. He didn’t just see it as a fake antique. He saw it as proof that Michelangelo had worked hard enough to be so skilled that he could mimic the works of other legendary artists.
Now of course it’s essential to respect the intellectual property of others. Don’t start plagiarizing other people’s work. Copyright infringement is illegal, and saying “But Michelangelo did it!” won’t get you out of court. But imagine if you made it part of your process to try and mimic a legendary singer, just for your own development. How much practice would it require for you to try and sound exactly like Maria Callas or Chaka Khan? How much would you grow by trying to scat like Ella Fitzgerald or trying to wail like Steven Tyler? How vastly would you improve by attempting the range of Stevie Wonder or the power and emotion of Barbra Streisand? The immediate goal may be to copy them, and you may very well fail as often as you try. But the ultimate goal is to learn from the process of copying them, so that eventually you can develop the skills necessary to create something that is entirely your own. Think about it: Michelangelo didn’t start his career with the Sistine Chapel. He started out as a rookie, just like the rest of us, trying to copy some other legend…but doing it so well, and practicing for so long, that he eventually became a legend himself.