Modus Operandi: How’d they do that?

modus operandi - every tuesday

& we’re back! A little later than expected and a bit soggier, but modus operandi has returned. On to this week’s topic…

One of my favorite things about mixed media collage is, of course, the fanatical use of layers and the level of customization within each layer. Learning to do this requires a great deal of trial and error, with heaps of inspiration from the works of others. The latter worries me, though, and I try to be very alert to copying another artist’s idea or style in any of the works I exhibit or sell.

I’m learning, however, to use my art journal as a place free of those rules. It is, essentially, a private space, not a canvas meant to be hung on a wall or an ATC to be traded, which also makes it my favorite place to deconstruct the techniques of others and answer gnawing questions like “How’d they do that?” or “How do I get that look?” It’s a great place to follow tutorials or be inspired by prompts without serious regard for whether or not the finished product looks like mine…or Suzi Blu’s pages…or Linda Woods’ journal…or Da Vinci’s Codex (in 3-D! click the link!).

I remind myself—and maybe you need to, too—art students regularly learn by copying, reproducing works by masters in the sketchbooks or on the easel. You learn by doing, recreating the techniques of others to utilize, eventually, in your own way. It’s funny, I would have no problem whatsoever following a recipe by Martha Stewart, Jaden Hair, or a dozen other sources. I know the recipe is theirs, but the creation is my own, and I need to take that attitude with me into the studio. I need to keep the faith that my own style will emerge from my narrative, my tweaks, my resourcefulness.

Suzi Blu says, “My journal is a beautiful sacred place where I give myself permission to make the worst art imaginable.”

Inspired by her Art Journal Playshops on YouTube, I completed the first prompt. Suzi’s video:

My journal page (yes, the photo is of me!):

I was once a princess...

I was once a princess... (detail)I was once a princess... (detail)I was once a princess... (detail)I was once a princess... (detail)I was once a princess... (detail)I was once a princess... (detail)

Use your journal without rules or boundaries, as a place for free exploration. Use it to learn what those other mixed media and art stars know and don’t make excuses for cribbing from their “recipes.”* We’re all learning!

  • Want to see more images of my art journal? Check out my Flickr photostream.
  • Do you struggle with being fears of being a copycat? Leave a comment below!
  • Have an idea for a future modus operandi feature? Want to know how I achieved a certain effect or what I used to make a project? Leave a comment below or e-mail me at miscellanea (dot) arts (at) gmail (dot) com!

* Though it should be obvious from everything that came before, I think it’s important to be explicit on this point: I am not condoning copying other people’s artwork, techniques or style for your own business. Don’t open up an Etsy shop and fill it with Poppets®; that’s illegal and unethical. However, if you were working your way through Claudine Hellmuth’s book Collage Discovery Workshop: Beyond the Unexpected, and your journal utilized her style and colors, don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s the point I’m trying to make.

Thanks for reading!

Published in books, challenge, journal, modus operandi, quotes on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Tags:  , , , , , , , ,


  1. Wednesday, July 23, 2008, at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Your point is totally true! That’s how I learned my art–observing, copying, even tracing the works I admired, while I learned the skills I needed to create my own. Art is just like detective work sometimes–you unravel the mysteries of a facial structure, a plant, a composition, an idea. Copying–as a learning exercise–is just like when the detective in a mystery story recreates a scene of events. The action always helps to reveal details about the situation that they didn’t know before.

    I hadn’t done the tracing exercise in years; but one day, facing a wall in my drawing of a character’s face, I pulled out an illustration I admired and just traced it. Felt really strange (copyright is very important to me)–but it worked! I figured out “how” that artist had gotten around the same challenge.

    I totally agree–originality is the only way to go with professional art. But your journal is a great place to play! (Mine are filled with “fan art,” some of which are on my mousewords Flickr account.)

    I look forward to seeing more of yours!

  2. Kristi
    Wednesday, July 23, 2008, at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I really like trying to recreate a tone that I admire in a work of another medium–maybe I’ll draw a song, or sing a short story. It’s not necessarily a way to try out a technique, but it’s great for inspiration. I think it’s an excellent point, too, to *trust* that your voice will emerge in the emulation.

  3. Friday, July 25, 2008, at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Wow that was an inspirational video.

    I dig your pages too.

  4. Monday, July 28, 2008, at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    we all learn by copying…but the beauty is in taking a technique and making it your own… If you truly put yourself into your art you can hardly help but put your personal stamp on it. You must learn to walk before you can run, to learn a “rule” before you can break it. Not everyone is a great innovator, but it is often the process (the journey) that is more important than the end result (destination). And often “mistakes” are when the best innovations occur. This is an awesome blog… I’m gonna visit more often!

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