An author I know once said he was insulted when someone told him that he was their second favorite writer. On a certain level, I understood: Why did they need to tell him where he rated on their personal list of favorites? It seemed unnecessarily specific. A simple, “I really love your work” would have done the job. On the other hand: I’d love to be someone’s second favorite writer. I wouldn’t mind being someone’s tenth favorite writer. Or 20th. Because somewhere high above me on that list has got to be a Shakespeare or a Nabokov, or a Shel Silverstein or a Dr. Seuss, and I’m fine with that. But it’s still a strange compliment to process.
Inevitably someone is going to compare your work to someone else’s. And when someone says, “This reminded me of your work,” it’s hard to know what they mean. They can mean your work has a similar style, or theme. Or they saw a picture of a lion, and even if your work is nothing like this other artist’s, that artist also drew a lion. This one, for me, is particularly daunting, because there are a million lion pictures, all of which, are lions. But basically they’re saying that your lion is a good lion, too, and that’s about all you can get from that.
We all enjoy a little real-time approval. As long as it’s the right kind of approval.
A number of people have compared my work to early Sendak. Sendak’s always been an influence, but I don’t want to be a Sendak clone, so that’s always a little worrisome. I’ve had someone compare my animal studies to Claire Wendling, which is flattering, since she draws amazingly well, but aside from the fact that we both draw animals, I don’t see much similarity.
It’s always a reflection of their tastes, their opinions, what they see and don’t see. And when they choose someone you have a particular affinity for, it can feel like maybe they do understand you, or maybe they just happen to like the same things you like and that’s good too, just not necessarily all that revealing. But it’s impossible not to read in. To try to find what they’re seeing that maybe you’re not, whether or not you approve of the comparison.
Sometimes when I get a compliment on social media—OK, every time someone gives me a compliment on Facebook, and they’re a peer—I have to check out their work. If I like their work, it’s an especially good compliment. No matter how much I like the person who’s giving me a compliment, that compliment is always meatier if I like their work. Even if they say it reminds them of early Sendak. And if I really admire their work, or they’re one of my heroes, I’m happy enough with “good lion.”
Recently, an artist I’m following on Facebook announced he would no longer be posting his process sketches on social media because he was tired of hearing people compare his work to other artists. He had been working for 50 years to perfect his style, and felt that if all you can say is, “It’s like so-and-so,” he’d rather you didn’t say anything at all. I found this personally disappointing because I really love to see other artist’s process sketches, and I was sad to miss those posts.
But then, for some reason, he did decide to continue to post his paintings, which could just as easily be compared to someone else’s paintings. Paintings were okay, but sketches—this was where the line had to be drawn, if for no other reason than a point had to be made, and people needed to see the consequences. But let’s not go crazy. We have to have our social media. We all enjoy a little real-time approval. As long as it’s the right kind of approval. And if you’re unsure, it’s always safe to stick to a thumb’s up, smiley face or heart. Why take the risk?
Still, I understand. As much a s I try to take these comparisons as flattery, there’s always that part of me that wants to say, “Hey, my stuff is original. I’ve worked hard to achieve this.” But “Your work reminds me of” is often the best way they can say, “I like your work,” no matter how off-base you might feel the comparison may be. And I have to admit, I do it too. A lot. It’s a convenient shorthand. But I can see how it’s easy to think that they’re saying your work is derivative or lacking in originality or something similarly less than flattering. But probably not.