Yesterday, Sonia Gadra of Frederick, Maryland wrote, “What is your feeling about participating in an art museum copyist program? Do you think a copied work of art has a market? With credit given to the original artist, of course. I think it’s a great way to practice the work of the masters, but could time be better spent creating your own original work?”
Thanks, Sonia. First off, I don’t think you should consider marketing copies. The Chinese have that department pretty well locked up. In Dafen, one of 10 painter-villages in southern China, 6,000 “painter-workers” copy everything from the Mona Lisa to Picasso’s Guernica. Their assembly-line art is sold all over the world. It’s big business, with questionable morality and legality, and you don’t want to be in it.
But the idea of copying art for learning and improving your own art is a good one. Except for a few European museums, the concept has been neglected for decades. Now it’s back like gangbusters, with many museums turning Mondays into painter days.
We’ve been living through a time of rugged individualism when all kinds of substandard efforts are attempting to be known as art. Even as children, we are encouraged to go to our inner soul and extract the natural beauty that supposedly lurks within. The system has flaws, of course, as practitioners find certain effects require some hard-won skills.
This is where studenthood comes in. If classical painting happens to be your area of interest, instructors are thin on the ground. Why not go to the museums? Or why not use good books or the time-honoured material so readily available on the Internet? In a way, copying in a museum is old hat — you’ve got to remember that Rubens never had a coffee table book, let alone a MacBook Pro. Besides, it may be a long drive to the museum, and parking might be a problem.
But, yes, there’s something to be said for getting close to a master. After you’ve copied the work and learned from the experience, you need to honour the old guy by destroying your canvas.
In any case, the time for producing your own unique work might come somewhat later, and maybe a bit easier.
PS: “Take pains and pleasure in copying the best works by the hands of great masters.” (Cennino Cennini, 1370-1440)
Esoterica: When we were living in Spain, I spent a day in the Museo del Prado copying part of a Velásquez. It was a mind-bending, centuries-spanning high. Giddy as a Pyrenees goat, I learned a few things. Up close and personal, Velásquez is a mess of slashes and haphazard gestures. Back a few feet, he’s a cohesive miracle. I found myself unable to copy stroke for stroke. Like a crazed sign painter, wielding well-thinned oils, I let my body do the painting. I’ve never had a frontal lobotomy, but I think my Velásquez day was pretty close. At four o’clock when they kicked us out, I sat down on the gravel on the Plaza de Neptuno to reacquaint myself with the ordinary.
Where are the ‘good books’?
by Nancy Jackson-Timshel, Vallejo, CA, USA
“If classical painting happens to be your area of interest, instructors are thin on the ground. Why not go to the museums? Or why not use good books or the time-honoured material so readily available on the Internet?” Robert, please suggest a “good book.”
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. So many folks asked this question that I guess it was just another case of not making myself clear. My thought was if your interest was Manet, Sargent, Zorn, Degas, Cezanne, Velasquez, Hals, Fragonard, or whomever, you might find a picture book to match. Alternately, tap “Fragonard” into Google Images and you’ll find a considerable supply of good reference.
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Zoom in on the good stuff
by Deon Matzen, Clinton, WA, USA
There is a wonderful site online that allows you to tour such galleries as Tate Britain, MOMA, Frick, The National Gallery-London, Reina Sofia-Spain, Versailles, Uffizi. You can tour each room and select a painting. The best part is you can zoom down to the brush work details of the paintings and look at color, texture, value, etc., in a closeness that the gallery probably wouldn’t allow even if you could go there and paint. Look it up and just enjoy the work, or go in close and replicate the master’s brushwork style.
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by Amy Mann
I’ve been a registered copyist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC since 2000. I love being able to stand for hours in front of a real painting, by a Master I love, and just paint from it. My copies are not exact, brushstroke-for-brushstroke, but are my best perception and response to the original. I love the privilege; I love the atmosphere; I love the day given over to nothing but painting.
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Copying a lot in 4-year atelier
by Harriet Kohl, Baltimore, MD, USA
Having just graduated from an “old fashioned” atelier where copying masters was an integral part of the four-year program, I can attest to the value of the practice. Aside from the fact that the knowledge gained was invaluable, copies did sell at the yearly show (properly signed “after_____”).
Copies of old master drawings were especially sought after. I’ve included my copy of Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit (probably the most copied painting in the world, but I sure did learn a lot). Also, I include a still life of mine. I could have never done it without four years of hard, exhausting work. And yes, a lot of copying.
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Russia: stolen images
I was shocked to find that nine of my oil portraits had been copied by three different sites in Russia. They are selling puzzles and prints of my work, without permission of course. The sites were in Russian, so I couldn’t make out much of what else they were doing with the images. Most of my portraits are classical images. My son is a lawyer and said that there was no use to try to pursue the fact that it was illegal to steal my images. The Russians are experts at it, and it would be a waste of time and money.
Preservation of the endangered
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I have spent years copying the masters but putting my own post modern twist on the original. I give tribute to the master in the title. Sometimes I have felt I shouldn’t have attempted such an ambitious work — that my skills weren’t up to it. Somehow, over the days it begins to take form and I have reaffirmed my own abilities. They are part of my menagerie with which I live. The insertion of endangered species makes my statement that they too are just as rare as the original painting and worth preserving. Millions are spent to acquire the master paintings but very little in comparison is relegated to preserving biodiversity and conserving habitats.
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Getting in character with the master
by Bela Fidel, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
Copying the Masters has not only been a valuable learning experience but it has also enabled me to step into the particular painter’s shoes. By that I mean that as I paid close attention to a brush stroke, a color, the placement of a detail, I could almost feel what the painter might have felt at that very moment. I could compare that to being an actress in character, living someone else’s life. More than the learning involved, this is what I enjoyed the most. A trip back to the past, a moment of privacy with the painter, a dialogue privy to just the two of us. For a whole year, once a week for three hours, I copied oils and drawings with colored pencils (only thing allowed in this case) at the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
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Tricks when using the masters
by Harriet Howell, TN, USA
Most of my watercolor paintings are done plein-air, and sometimes I get so caught up in the color and movement that design goes out the window. When I get back into the studio and can look more objectively at my work, I frequently turn to Degas to solve the design problems. Squinting, or using a red piece of plastic subdues the color so the black and white value pattern emerges. That forms the skeleton that holds the rest of the wild color and brush marks together. Degas’ pastels are especially good for doing this. When teaching, I use paintings by Vermeer to illustrate the use of color variation within a large dark or light shape to define form, while keeping the value pattern. Van Gogh is wonderful for showing how different the same subject can be by changing the horizon line, the color palette and the size of certain objects.
Don’t destroy your copies
by Quin Barrie, ON, Canada
I don’t think destroying your copy is required, and in most cases it’s a mistake. Another artist is hardly dishonored if your copy exists, unless you are employing it for fraudulent gains. Simply signing with your own name or including attribution on the back alleviates all such issues.
And, it can be a significant detriment to lose the stages in one’s evolution, often the qualities of who we are is composed of the steps we took to get there. I speak from experience in regretting the disposal of many of my early works, because I thought them crude, amateurish or irrelevant. I now tend to regard my past works as elements as the archive of who I was at the time. And like old holiday photos, they can be delightful, fascinating and inspiring to re-visit re-examine.
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Copying to canvas and stone
by Chris Rose, Quathiaski Cove, Quadra Island, BC, Canada
Methods, tools and materials have changed but some basic approaches remain the same. Viewing other artists’ creations is extremely educational. No piece of art is neutral. Each gives new insight and a different message. I learn new techniques by observation and by trying to emulate the styles of others. This has been a very rewarding approach. Many years ago I copied some paintings of old masters and these copies are still hanging in our home — they will do — short of the original painting we could never afford. Thus The Melon Eaters by Murillo as a copy (my first ever) is still enjoyable to look at, while the original hangs in the Pinakotek, Munich, Germany. (My copy is now hanging in the living room of my former boarding school Schule Schloss Salem, Germany.)
Copying someone else’s work has ethical dimensions, but it is regarded as quite an acceptable activity in some European galleries as long as the proper credit is given. Copying someone else’s art is certainly not original art but hopefully it will turn out to be an expression of good craft/technique and will give enjoyment to the viewer. Using the method of copying taught me a great deal about painting techniques without going to Art School.
Carving stone is an entirely different matter. For the original Inuit imitation I use my imagination and the little knowledge I gained of the Inuit culture during my university years. Later, I used photographs as the basis for my sculptural forms. I would try to get the models or dancers to hold a position long enough to take pictures from four perspectives. This makes the carving much easier. Unfortunately, in most situations, a photograph of dancers in rehearsal, snow boarders, skiers, kayakers with their fast movements, leave us with one perspective (if we are lucky). The remainder is left to our creation and imagination.
Painting on shaped canvas books
by Richard Harper, Memphis, TN, USA
A couple of years ago, I began copying paintings that I love and have influenced me over time. Realizing that I had spent more time with books than in museums, I made my copies in the form of shaped canvas books. Though I love art books, I’ve always been annoyed when publishers print “across the gutter” — over the binding area from one page to another. So I made fun of this in some of my work. I copied a picture from our local museum, a Caneletto, and contacted the museum to see if I could come there and copy, but they gracefully declined. I think I would have been anxious to work there, so I was a little relieved, but it would have been a great experience.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Copying the masters…
Beach day 1
acrylic painting 24 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Carmen Beecher of Satellite Beach, FL, USA, who wrote, “I copied John Singer Sargent’s Repose and I enjoy it so much it is hanging over my fireplace. It’s one my favorite paintings, and not even an original!”