Sometime in the 14th century, Cennino Cennini wrote Il Libro dell’Arte as advice for how to be an artist. One of the most interesting passages, I think, is how an artist should go about developing a personal style. Cennini begins:
take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hand of great masters. And if you are in a place where many good masters have been, so much the better for you.
The point of the exercise is to learn from the source. This means that the choice of master to copy is important. Cennini continues:
But I give you this advice: take care to select the best one every time, and the one who has the greatest reputation. And, as you go on from day to day, it will be against nature if you do not get some grasp of his style and of his spirit.
Selecting the right masters to copy is still not enough. Cennini recognized that the particular interpretations of one artist needed to be studied consistently:
For if you undertake to copy after one master today and after another one tomorrow, you will not acquire the style of one or the other, and you will inevitably, through enthusiasm, become capricious, because each style will be distracting your mind. You will try to work in this man’s way today, and in the other’s tomorrow, and so you will not get either of them right.
By choosing the right artist to study, and by studying his work consistently before studying that of another artist, one will achieve the preconditions for finding a personal style:
If you follow the course of one man through constant practice, your intelligence would have to be crude indeed for you not to get some nourishment from it. Then you will find, if nature has granted your any imagination at all, that you will eventually acquire a style individual to yourself, and it cannot help being good; because your hand and your mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pluck thorns.