Copy That.

When I was in school our art teacher used to say:

Kopieren heißt kapieren.

Which translates to something along the lines of “copying something means understanding it.” What he meant is that if you want to understand how a piece of art was created, if you want to understand the technique the artist used, or aspects like form, composition, materials, and use of color, you will learn the most by getting your hands dirty and copying and dissecting the piece down to the last detail. So I spent a considerable amount of time copying Max Beckmann and other expressionists as well as the Cubist style of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. And my teacher was right: By copying Cubism as good as I could, I learned a lot about the characteristics of the painting techniques like, for example, the interplay of the different layers of shades of brown and grey, and how an illusion of sculptural three-dimensionality and movement is created through light and shadows on geometric shapes.

Copying is an incredibly useful tool for learning. The process of copying something makes it your experience. By deconstructing it you gain a tangible understanding of the thought process of the creator(s) and how all the individual pieces come together to form something new and special. And by reassembling those elements again and recreating the piece, you acquire the necessary technical abilities – and make them your own. Copying itself is an art.

Copying has a bad reputation, though. Because often, it is understood as simply stealing an idea or concept. Of course, you should always credit people accordingly and respect the license under which a piece of work is published before you take and manipulate someone else’s work. Copying must not be theft. But that doesn’t prevent you from thoroughly analyzing something and then building your own thing based on what you learned. Nothing is completely new and even the most sophisticated innovation could not have happened without so many ideas that came before it. In the end, every new idea is just a combination of other ideas and your personal experience.

So the next time you see something that excites and amazes you, ask yourself: How was this done? How would I do it? Then, View Source (or use the DevTools), build prototypes and demos, and learn from copying and deconstructing the most advanced solutions out there. And then, apply it to your work in new and unseen ways.


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