It’s drilled into us from a young age not to copy other peoples’ work.
If you copy somebody else’s work in junior school, you get called a ‘copycat’. In college, it’s called ‘plagiarism’. And when you get out into the big, wide world, it’s known as ‘infringement of copyright’.
But there’s a huge difference between passing off someone else’s work as your own, and copying to learn.
The social conditioning that tells us never to copy actually suppresses an important skill in us.
From the day we were born, we learned all our major life skills through mimicry; facial expressions, language and movement. It’s what has shaped us, and it’s the most natural way of learning that exists. It’s so instinctive that it’s how animals learn their life skills too.
Yet somewhere along the way in our quest to do as we’re told, and to be totally original, copying becomes a taboo. As fully fledged adults, most of us often wouldn’t dream of copying somebody else’s work.
This attitude puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to learning. Why?
Copying builds muscle memory
Now, ‘muscle memory’ is quite a misunderstood phenomenon, so let’s get clear on what it means.
Once you become adept at a particular physical activity, e.g. painting, it feels like your hands just know how to move. Your hands know how to hold the paintbrush and how to glide the bristles over the paper.
But really, the skill that manifests in your hands resides in your brain.
A better term to use is ‘procedural memory’, which is “an unconscious type of memory we have just for skills, which operates independently of our other types of memory.” There are whole areas of the brain that are dedicated to housing your procedural memory.
How is procedural memory formed?
The way that we create this ‘muscle memory’ or procedural memory is to learn by doing, and the only way we can do something which we don’t know how to yet is to watch and copy. Just like we did when we entered this world.
This is where the magic happens.
The mere action of ‘doing’, actually causes physical changes to happen in our brains.
As you repeat a task, electrical signals will travel along the neural pathways that connect your brain to the muscles you’re using. And when this happens, a substance called ‘myelin’ will form around those pathways in your brain and make them stronger.
As these neural pathways continue to strengthen, you’ll find that you’re able to carry out the activity more quickly and efficiently than before, and you’ll notice yourself getting better at it.
This TEDed video describes how this happens:
As the video explains, in order for effective practice to take place, you need to learn correctly. If you’re doing something in a way that’s not bringing improvement, no amount of practicing will ‘make perfect’.
How to build muscle memory through motor learning
So, if you want your painting skills to improve, you can build up muscle memory just through doing. We call this ‘motor learning’, and it happens in specific stages.
Let’s look at those stages below, and see how they relate to learning to paint.
Stage 1: Cognitive
This is the stage where you’re first trying to learn something new. Everything is controlled consciously in the frontal and left parts of the brain.
This stage of learning anything requires a lot of mental effort and attention, and can feel quite tiring. You may find your movements are slow and your results are inconsistent.
Having the right tuition can be an enormous help during the Cognitive stage.
I saw this when I was teaching lots of in-person classes. People learn differently and I found that some people simply wanted to be shown and then to re-create the brushstrokes themselves, whereas others found it important to know why it was they were doing what they were doing. I’d fall into this last category myself, so providing clear explanations came naturally to my teaching style.
Either way, by me showing them and explaining what I was doing, their conscious left-brain could be helped along, not needing to work it all out for themselves, and they could move through this challenging early stage of learning more smoothly and quickly- and crucially, in a more relaxed way. It’s no surprise that stress hormones negatively affect the development of new neural pathways!
Stage 2: Associative
This is the stage where you feel like things are starting to ‘click’. What that really means is that less cognitive input is required. The activity feels easier and more automatic because the commands are coming from an unconscious part of the brain and ‘just happening’ in your hand.
As you become more practiced in the activity, the myelin is continuing to build up around the neural pathways and your skills continue to improve.
During this stage you’ll typically switch between conscious and automatic movements. It’s quite typical for a person to doubt their abilities when this happens, but it’s all part of the learning process and the key is to carry on building up the myelin through watching and doing.
Throughout the Associative stage your confidence will grow.
Stage 3: Autonomous
Eventually, you reach the autonomous stage, when the activity is completely automatic with little cognitive input from your conscious brain. You see more accuracy and consistency in your work. The step-by-step processes that you’ve been practicing are now embedded in your unconscious brain.
I’ve been in this stage with my painting for a long time, and I even find that listening to audiobooks or other left-brain distractions frees up the autonomous painting process still further.
Once my School members reach this Autonomous stage, they find that they’re now painting and ‘seeing’ in a way that they weren’t before. Typically, it’s at this point that they’ll try their first ‘solo’ painting using the techniques they’ve learned. Time and again, the person will be shocked by the quality of the work they’ve produced on their own with no tutorial.
Often they’ll say “all I did was copy along with the tutorials”. But the truth is that by following the tutorials and painting along, they went through the entire motor learning process.
Feast your eyes on the incredible work below. I asked my School members to share the first solo painting they did since joining the School, and this is just a handful of what they shared. Some of them hadn’t painted for years (even decades) beforehand, and some had never painted at all.
“All they did was copy” until they reached the Autonomous stage of learning and had the confidence to try their own paintings:
You can find more of these first solo paintings at the end of this post.
The other thing you should copy
If you copy the technique of someone who is accomplished at a certain skill, you can improve your own technique. But if you reeeeally want to reach their skill level, you need to copy something else they do.
You should copy the way they practice.
Top athletes, musicians and artists tend to have something in common: structured practice.
They work on developing their skills at the edge of their current abilities. They show up consistently, and they practice frequently, taking lots of breaks (a good reason to choose watercolour to paint with, because you can leave the paints to dry between sessions and re-wet them).
Imagine carving a sculpture out of stone as an analogy for structured practice. There’s no shortcut to the finished piece: it has to be carved from the outside, by chipping away at the bits you can reach. You’ll achieve the finished result if you’re consistent and chip away frequently, but you’ll need to take lots of breaks. And if you copy the best techniques, you’ll build muscle memory and chip away more effectively. To deconstruct a skill in this way can help you to climb up the steepest part of the learning curve and get good at something in as little as 20 hours.
We all know that copying someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, without crediting the original artist, is at best not cool, and at worst illegal.
But learning through copying a process that you’re shown is an excellent way to develop skills FAST through motor learning.
Has copying helped you to develop your creative skills? Have you built muscle memory through motor learning? Do you feel you’re in the middle of the motor learning process at the moment?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
p.s. If you’d like some help to learn painting through motor learning, you can take my free pear class where I introduce you to my watercolour method and break down the process step-by-step.
p.p.s Below are some more examples of the first solo painting some of my School members completed after ‘copying along’ with the tutorials.