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But I Followed the Recipe

Monday, 4. February 2019 1:52

How many times have we heard that? How many times have we said that? Whether it concerns our grandmother’s blueberry cobbler or a new cocktail, we often find that even though we followed the recipe exactly, it doesn’t taste quite the same. And it won’t—ever. The reason is because every chef, cook, mixologist, or bartender puts his/her own personal touch on everything s/he makes. It can’t be helped. This is why you sometimes order the same drink at the same restaurant, but it doesn’t taste like the one you had the last time you were there: different bartender.

The same thing is true of art.  We can’t not put our signature on the things we create. We can try to eliminate any vestige of our own ideas from the work in order to create “true” reproductions, but it is very unlikely that we will succeed. No matter how much we study those we consider “masters” or how precisely we copy their style, we will never exactly reproduce their images or sculptures or plays or sonnets. And even if we could, we would have only succeeded in making a copy of someone else’s original.

If we take another tack, we might determine the formulae that others use in creating their work, but, when we apply that one of those formulae, like the cook or bartender with someone else’s recipe, the results will be different. And that is not a bad thing, for no matter how we might try to copy, we are sure to be disappointed; nature almost demands that our work be unique.

This is not to say that we can learn nothing from studying the work of others. Indeed, we can learn much. Writers often say that to be successful, we must be readers first. We can even imitate what we study, and that too is informative; in attempting to reproduce the works we encounter, we learn much about technique and about the implementation of that technique. But while it is likely that our “reproductions” will not be perfect, it is equally likely that as learning tools they are unparalleled.

And having learned from certain artists, we move on, for we find that there is an unending stream of artists whose work is worth studying. And once we move past imitation, what we then produce can sometimes reflect what we have studied, much as we often find bartenders creating unique drinks that are a riffs on old standards. This is a practice often observed in the work of jazz musicians. There is no reason our work cannot do the same.

But ultimately, we have to take what we have learned and apply it to our own original creations: work that is not a copy, not an homage, not a riff. And that is just as well, because no matter how meticulously we attempt to use some else’s recipe, in the end—unless we develop skills in forgery—we produce our own work. Better to embrace our individuality from the beginning. We may study others, absorb the lessons, but finally we must work from our own recipes to create our best work.

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