I ran across this post by Jessica Hische about inspiration vs. imitation. Number 4 on her list is History is Important:
Your contemporaries might seem like the most obvious place to start when it comes to finding inspiration, but look beyond them. Have you ever gone on a music site to look up a band's inspirations and found all kinds of cool older bands you liked? You were opened up to a whole new world of awesome music and at the same time formed completely new opinions about the contemporary band you were into. The same goes for design and illustration—if you're only looking at your peers for inspiration, you're not getting the whole picture. They were inspired by artists from the past and found a way to create their own original work—look at their inspirations and the people that inspired them as far back as you can dig. If you're inspired by both historical sources and contemporary artists, it is much easier to create work that feels fresh and new.
Which reminded me of Austin Kleon's advice (from Steal Like an Artist) to climb your own family tree:
...chew on one thinker--writer, artist, activist, role model--you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it's time start to start your own branch.
In January when I was feeling stuck I started to research one of my favorite artists Jean Michel Basquiat. I read that he was hit by a car when he was a child and was in the hospital for quite some time. His mom brought him the book Gray's Anatomy to help pass the time. He began to draw from the book while recovering. One morning, I was looking for something to draw and saw Gray's Anatomy on our bookshelf. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed drawing from it. I stuck with it for a couple weeks. When Gray's Anatomy lost its luster for me I got other anatomy books from the library. Pretty soon I found inspiration elsewhere and left anatomy & Basquiat behind. About a week ago I was browsing the shelves at the library when I saw a book about tribal art. I saw bones and hints of Basquiat in the cover.
This month, I plan to climb that family tree a little further. I'll study the artists that inspired Basquiat and the artists that inspired them. I bet you already know a lot about your favorite artists but do you know who inspired them? I'd love for you to join me in this little project. Find out who inspired them and create your own family tree.