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Tapping the Long Tale...

On the subject of influence, Part I

My inspiration board

I've been thinking about a comment Didier Graffet made in the interview I linked to in yesterday's post. He said, "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work, but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

I've been reflecting on both ends of that sentence: first, the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us; and second, that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

I'll talk more about that necessary turning point in a subsequent post. Today, however, I'd like to focus on the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart -- those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, wants to be a top chef; so right now, in addition to formally studying Culinary Arts, she also works as an apprentice to a Michelin Star level chef in one of London's most exacting kitchens. In learning to cook as he cooks, which she's expected to do without deviation, she is taking the first steps toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art. Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work . . . until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own. Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia (somewhat dated now, and decidely non-pc, but it rocked my world at 16 nonetheless); or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (...and would you have guessed that last one?) Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

The "Inspiration Board" above contains art by some of the people whose work has in some way influenced mine. I suspect many of you reading this blog will be able to identify the artists through the pictures themselves (hey, it's a party game, how many can you name?!)...but if any of them stump you, you'll find a list of all of them here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

By Charles Vess

In a similar vein, Charles Vess  is running a terrific series of posts called "10 Artists I Like" over on his Facebook page. For those of you who don't have access to Facebook, these are the artists he's listed so far: Hermann Vogel, Felix Lorioux, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Edwin Austin Abbey, Margaret & Frances Macdonald, Hal Foster, and Harry Rountree.

No doubt there are younger artists out there for whom "Charles Vess"  and "Didier Graffet" are promient names on their own lists of "Artists I Love."  I imagine them now, pouring over books and prints, discussing their favorite writers and artists on chatboards, creating stories and drawings in which their influences are still too raw, unfiltered, and obvious...until slowly, slowly, something magical happens, and a style distinctly their own emerges. The work matures. Apprenticeship ends. They are artists.

And so the generations turn....


Part II of this post can now be found here.


This is such a beautiful post, Terri. Thank you.


Such beautiful inspiring words and links, you have outdone yourself in inspiring others this morning Terri!

Brilliant post Terri :) I mull over this a lot... the necessary copying of the masters when you are learning (and we never stop, of course) and then the distinct owning of your own unique way. I have a similar aversion to taking inspiration from living artists... somehow if they are dead something changes, and it becomes ok during the study process. I wonder what that is?
Also, I find things inspire me without me knowing... something passes my eyes, in a dream or awake, and it appears later in a drawing unannounced. I notice this more with words, but the flow back and forth is never-ending, eh?
And I do like the word "alchemize" ;)

Hello Terri,

Thank you for sharing your beautiful inspiration board, and for writing on the importance of growing up and evolving as an artist, from doing work directly inspired and influenced by others, to being able to express and explore one's original creative realms.

On another topic, my 3 year old son and I have been wondering if there might be a fourth story (Autumn) to look forward to in the Old Oak Wood series with Sneezlewort Boggs. We have been enjoying the tales and art of the books immensely, and are most greatful to you and Wendy for sharing such a lovely world with us. It is rare to find children's literature so original and inspiring.

Wonderful post! I really enjoy seeing inspiration boards ~ so full of rich beauty and delightful discoveries. Perhaps that might be a topic for another series of posts sometime?

Thank you for sharing this Terri. Your words are incredibly inspiring.

Great post! As a professor, I'm constantly telling my students to "steal" - give them permission to try doing something like so-and-so's. And they sooo want to... eventually, I ask them how they might develop it into something of their own.

I also work a lot with the concept of "stirring the imaginal cauldron"... and all that stuff that goes into the soup - one never knows exactly what will bubble out if one stirs vigorously enough! I love knowing that Tolkien used that metaphor... thanks for more ingredients for my stew, as always.

Wonderful post, thank you!

Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post! I'm going to print it out and tape it to my inspiration wall. I love how you've managed to capture the essence and importance of artistic influence in such a concise way.

(As an aside, my step-son is also training to become a Chef, and has been apprenticing for this past half year in a kitchen here in Munich. It's been interesting to watch how his personal style of cooking has changed: a bit of the influence of his previous Chef can still be seen in some of the things he does, but it's blending with the influence of his new one. Fun to observe.)

Thank you for your very kind words.

Regarding the Old Oak Wood series: Wendy and I had originally hoped to do four books, one for each season, but the publisher didn't commission a fourth book in the end. There were a lot of people involved in the making of the books (a photographer, a book designer, a book packager, and Brian Froud art-directing the photos), thus each book was expensive to produce. Today, with advances in digital technology, it would all be easier than it was back then, when we were filming in the old-fashioned way; but the Frouds have moved on to other projects now. It's nice, however, to hear that you and your son are enjoying the three existing books. I have a real soft spot for Sneezle!

It's very interesting having a chef in the family, isn't it? Lots of parallels to developing as an artist.

Thank you, everyone.

A very good idea! I'm going to run the "On Your Desk" series for a little while longer, for the stragglers who haven't gotten their photos in yet, but "Inspiration Boards" is an excellent idea for the next series.

In writing, so many of the people I'm inspired by are not only living but still producing new work, so I find I don't have any real aversion to being influenced by living artists either. (Paula Rego comes immediately to mind.) I could do a whole 'nother Inspiration Board filled with contemporary artists whose work has inspired mine in one way or another.

What's odd is when you've lived long enough that you find yourself inspired by artists who are younger than you. Artists like you, dear Rima, and Virginia Lee; or writers like Kelly Link and Chris Barzak. 'Kind of like the first time you go to see a doctor who turns out to be younger than you...or the first time you vote, as I did in the last US election, for a president who is younger than you. (Yikes!) It's very disconcerting the first time it happens...and then it slowly becomes normal as it happens more and more.

That is a most wonderful post, and I love the inspiration board. Some of my influences are in there, too. :)

If I was making an "Inspiration Board" of comtemporary art, Papaveria Press would certainly be on it.

A wonderful and, dare I say it, inspirational post! I think there is a kind of fear of admitting to influences sometimes, in case someone thinks you're copying, or at the very least, that terrible term 'derivative'. But how else do we learn and evolve as artists, writers, musicians...or whatever we do? I love trying to work out how other artists 'do it', the techniques they've used to get particular effects, the way they apply paint or wield their pencil, I want to try it out myself. I know that imitating their techniques will not make my work look the same as theirs, and I don't want it to, but I might discover something new again, a new welding of style and techniques, and THAT'S what I'm looking for. Learning new things keeps us young, don't they say! One of the most potent things I learned while studying Literature at uni was that our perceptions are uniquely personal, we may all read the same book, but each of us brings our own experiences to that reading and ultimately, we are not reading the same book at all...similar but never exactly the same. And in the same way, we may all be influenced by the same artists, but the unique way each of us experiences their art can create vastly different end results. I find that so fascinating! Everything goes into the mix, even the strangest and most unlikely elements.

And I would have to add along with writers and artists, that MUSIC is a vast influence on me and all my work, no matter what I'm doing. I cannot live without it!

Thank you, Terri for such an inspiring post. I am also going to print it out and pin it to the household inspiration board. Why? Because you express so beautifully and simply what seems so natural and obvious but actually if a mere mortal like myself tried to express it, would come out convoluted and probably not make much sense. My partner and I are both back to studying, in early and middle middle age. Him, landscape architecture and me, designing with plants. I think your post will remind us of all the influences that led us onto this path and the new ones we will both explore in the process of learning. These include not only the great and more humble landscapers, designers and gardeners, but also the writers and artists whose vision of the world around them echoes something within one and adds to that personal soup you refer to. I am really looking forward to your next post in this series.

"The ecstacy of inspiration."

Yes, just so.

I'll have a desk photo for you later today (or tomorrow). :)

Such a great post, thank you!

Oddly I have been able to discover all sorts of artists by randomly searching for specifics kinds of imagery on Google. New favorite: Jessie M. King.


In fact the picture of King's you have included above is one I just today posted as my new Facebook profile image; how weird is that???

I adore Jessie King. One of these days I want to make a journey up to Scotland to explore Kirkcudbright, which seems to have been as filled with artists (from the Glasgow Arts Movement) in King's day as my own village is filled with mythic artists now.

So much has been already said. I am just weeping happily over my cold tea. "I am not alone, I am not alone."

Thank you for a beautiful post.

Beautiful, beautiful post. I can't wait for part two.

Love and lotuses,


Melinda, I love your blog!

Tolkien uses the soup metaphor in his essay "On Fairy-Stories," Valerianna, which is a very good read.

Amen to music. I've always loved how Charles de Lint gives a list of the music he was listening to when he created each book. For me, I can't listen to anything with words when I am writing (or editing someone else's writing) because it messes with the rhythm of the sentences; I need music that's entirely instrumental then. But for painting I listen to everything and anything. It's the best mood-altering, creativity-stimulating drug I know.

Wonderful, thoughtful, powerful post! As someone who is 43 and only just now starting listening to my artist whisper, I find the words ring so true!

I just read the following exchange in a Q&A session with one of my favorite American novelists, Luis Alberto Urrea:

Q: What writers did you emulate (or attempt to emulate) the most before finding your own "voice"?

A: ALL OF THEM. Le Guin, Bradbury, Neruda, Didion, Bukowski, Brautigan, Borges, Abbey, Dillard, Kerouac, Dylan, McGuane, Malcolm Lowry....

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