Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Copies from the Masters, Part 2

As an exercise before a day of composing, Chopin would spend an hour or two playing music from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. When he played Bach’s music he felt he absorbed the master through the pores in his fingertips.

Why don’t we do the same thing as artists? Maybe it’s because we’re taught that it’s bad to copy someone else’s work. And we’re justifiably concerned about becoming an imitator of someone else’s style.

But there’s nothing at all wrong with copying as a way to practice and learn. It’s the shortest path to understanding. The safeguard against becoming derivative is to copy several different artists side by side to see how many ways there are to solve a painting problem.


The goal of these copies was to compare how four classic illustrators painted a head. You may recognize, clockwise from the upper left: Haddon Sundblom, Dean Cornwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell. By trying to replicate a little detail from each one, I could get a better feel for what kind of brushes and mediums they used and what sequence of steps they had to follow to get their results.

Leyendecker, for example, must have spent time in the early stages working out soft transitions within the form. Only at the end would he cut in the background with big light strokes using a smooth, slippery medium.

Each of these great illustrators developed his own way of painting by absorbing earlier masters. There’s a bit of Zorn in Sundblom, Brangwyn in Cornwell, Bouguereau in Leyendecker, and Rembrandt in Rockwell. We stand on each other’s shoulders, and we see through each other’s eyeballs.

4 comments:

Emilio said...

I think that evolution on art is based on the study of past painters, as well as scientific studies and new discoveries couldn´t exist without past advances on science.
Like i said yesterday, i am a young argentinian paleoartist, you can take a look at my last work (reconstruction of herrerasaurids)in my blog:

http://emiliodinosaurart.blogspot.com/

It would be great to know your opinion about my art.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Emilio for you nice comments and for your great piece. It looks so real that I felt like I was on the ground next to those herrerasaurids.

Emilio said...

Thanks so much, your work has inspired me since i was a child, dinotopia made me dream, the world you created is so big, so great, i can ´t wait to get Journey to Chandara. glorious work, i hope there will be more Dinotopias in future,
I will keep "bloggin" my future works
Thanks

larin said...

What makes your comments more ironic is the fact that traditionally artists learned by copying. Part of their training was typically an extended amount of time copying different subjects that had been painted by the master of their studio. I have not been to art school, but from everything I have read about current art training it sounds like this practice has been abandoned. It seems that our society has become so focused on creativity for the sake of expressing oneself that we have forgotten to teach artists all the skills they need first. We wouldn't let musicians loose with a variety of instruments and tell them to compose something until they had learned the mechanics, yet that seems to be the preferred process with visual art. I couldn't agree more with you, though, about the value of this exercise (which is why we'll be using historical art examples to practice our drawing skills at school this year).