Monday, January 27, 2014

The Value of Copying

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty
In the Daily Beast, Malcolm Jones makes the case for the value of copying the work of earlier masters as a way of improving one's artwork.

"More than fun, it was an education. If you assiduously try to copy something, you can’t help learn about what you’re replicating. I understood more about Vermeer by painting my own Vermeer—about his use of light and sense of color and proportion—than I had ever learned by simply staring at his paintings." 
"Then it hit me (yes, I’m a slow learner): this was how I’d learned to draw in the first place. When I was little kid, I didn’t learn much from all those teachers urging me to express myself—frankly, I don’t think I, or most people for that matter, have much to express, certainly not when they’re six."

Thanks, Patrick O'Hearn

13 comments:

Eugene Arenhaus said...

There is a caveat, though: a lot of newbe artists don't realize that you have to copy the master's *method*, not the picture. So they will copy photographs and learn precious little besides vicious habits.

To get something out of a copy, you ought to have the original in front of you, so you can watch the brushwork. Even the different size of the reproduction can be very frustrating.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Eugene. A caveat to your caveat, though. Copying the master's method is valuable if you're mainly interested in the method.

One could also copy with an eye to compositional design, in which case one could profit by translating from one medium to another or from one scale to another.

Erik Bongers said...

To accurately copy an work of art rather than nature directly, is to look to nature through the original artist's eyes. You are copying a filtered view.

These filters have some benefits.
The original art may have filtered out unimportant details, helping you to see the important stuff.
Think of impressionism, leaving out the details, focusing on color and atmosphere.
An artist may also have enhanced certain aspects, which could help you in seeing things you might not notice in real life.
Think of Freud's enhanced flesh tones.

jeff jordan said...

I never went to Art School, but leaned toward my version of a Classical approach. I copied Velazquez, Rubens, Vermeer, and N. C. Wyeth, among others. Not sure if I was trying to be those guys, but it was an attempt to put on their jackets and see how they fit.

I couldn't be them, nor would I want to, but it was great to look through other artists eyes during the time when I was trying to figure out who I was.....

Liz said...

We're doing a similar exercise in 'copying' old masters but our teacher wants us to learn from contemporary artists who have risen to prominence after the 1970's. It's an interesting exercise (I may have decided to use you Mr. Gurney as my contemporary master) but I think I want to try the copying from an old master as well. Also, just wanted to say hi and that I'm finally learning to work with oil paints at my university and I love it!

babangada r said...

I don't know if i can post an image...but, if so, here is me and 'my' Vermeer which i spent around 8 hours doing at the Metropolitan and, like others, i gained much more than i expected copying a painting that i had looked at all my years growing up and thought i knew like the back of my hand...wrong!
And it really would have taken much more than 8 hours to really give it justice... (one of the things i learned...some things take time)
/Users/jadarowland/Dropbox/Public/jada headshot.jpg

lynnwood hage said...

james ,along the lines of what you were saying..If I'm studying a watercolorist I love..[Sargent,Homer,Marin..or you,James!]Ill make a study in maybe conte or charcoal,OR I'll copy a pencil drawing by Ingre or Degas in pen and wash or watercolor.This way you get a finer sense of how the artist goes about organizing his materials and his thoughts in order to express himself.It's fun and it really makes you THINK and FEEL.
Talking about studying masters old and new,Kimon Nicolaides said,"From a study of the ...masters of painting try to squeeze the sap of life.Study not their manners but their motivation."..and related, but on a different subject..."Practice with pen and ink ,for example,contributes something to the use of watercolor which practice with watercolor alone cannot give,making it fuller and more varied as a medium of expression."..and..."This change of medium might be likened to a change of language.The experience of using two languages makes each more rich than it can possibly be by itself.And ,more important,the attempt to convey a thought from one language to another makes possible a finer comprehension of the thought."
I think a lot of artists would agree that it's difficult to help beginners see in broad terms.[and "broad " doesn't mean imprecise or unbased in reality] Usually they think TOO MUCH about things like brushstrokes!!Nicolaides even recommends ,at first, using inexpensive prints and reproductions instead of fine large ones.
For me,copying brushstrokes on a painting would be like translating Tolstoy word by word.The GIST[Not to mention fine shades of meaning]would be lost.In the case of poetry it might be unintelligible!
I'm sorry if I sounded strident.I'm really passionate about this stuff.Thanks for listening.

Rich said...

If I happen to come across an old master's painting which particularly impresses me, I might look at it, analyse it, enjoy it for a few minutes. If I hang it on my wall, I will go on revisiting, getting a more thorough picture perhaps.
But if I take the trouble to attempt a copy with my own hands, I will have executed the closest approach, spending hours poring, pondering, scrutinizing, engraving it in my memory.
Lots to profit from copying I would say.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

Thanks, James! A caveat to your caveat to my caveat, though. :) Copying with an eye to composition, colour, and things like those can be valuable, but you have to know what to do with them. I have seen way, way too many people copying mindlessly without stopping to think why the original artist picked this particular composition or colour. Worse, there are too many people copying photographs without interpreting them, down to the artifacts of the lens and medium. (I've seen *courses* dedicated to teaching such mindless copying.) These could benefit from analyzing the master work.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are the many people who don't care about any sort of reference or technique at all. These could benefit more from following the master's method.

Simone said...

I'm intrigued by the comment, "....frankly, I don't think I, or most people, have that much to express...." The thought reinforces my opinion that expression without the framework of principles is little more than jibberish. Yet I know some who falsely believe principles inhibit expression. Quite the opposite is true.

James, you got a troll on there advertising some "adult product" of some kind.....

Shaun Stipick said...


Just repeating what has already been said and I think I'm beating a dead horse. You guys and gals beat me to the punch, pun intended.

I don't see any reason why the study and reproduction of a master painting can't be handled as a whole or as an exercise with the intent to learn and understand any individual part of a drawing or painting.

Ideally if the artist could handle the reproduction as a whole, it would probably be the most beneficial and ideal solution, especially if approached with careful analysis and a plan. If it could be completed from the original, that is certainly the best subject matter to createa reproduction from. However, with reproducing a master work, there is so much information to garner from such an experience that despite minor distortions a photo may offer, I know it to be a very useful endeavor, regardless of the quality of the reference and the students level and knowledge. While a fan, but not a believer that Gerome's and Bargue's book is the panacea of all things “art education”, there is a reason why it was so successful and at the end of the day all the artist\student was doing was reproducing a master's reproductions of another master's work. Bargue's book while incredible in its own right, was a 2nd generation copy of another's masterpiece, with Bargue's (admittedly beautiful and technically brilliant) drawings encompassing his stylistic tendencies and distortions. When all is said and done, the artist would still have to filter what is appropriate for their learning experience and the knowledge that they would hope to obtain from the exercise of reproducing a master work. Just as an aside, Academie Julian (for you Leyendecker fans) had a similar approach and documents as well. Given the proper mindset, I think there is much to gain from reproducing a master's work either from a good print or from life. Is one better than the other, probably, but I feel both are of value.

Shaun Stipick said...

In many cases, the hope of seeing the original is not possible for many artists and students, and a formal education may also not be possible, in which case the internet opens up a world of possibilities for the fledgling artist to experience great artists and their works. With major museums now displaying high quality images on their sites, why not use this resource? Why not copy them? Maybe the goal is to figure out how Zorn used the controversial “Zorn” palette, or better yet wrap your head around how Reni used the “Zorn” Palette? So...maybe it should be called the Reni palette? I digress and besides the “Zorn” palette just sounds cool. Compositional studies could be made. Brushwork studies could be made. Value Studies could be made. Glazing and velatura studies could be made. Or maybe take a page from the Angel Academy and draw a stylistic figure from a masterpiece. The possibilities are endless. It seems to me that reproducing in pieces or as a whole are quite useful. For what it's worth (not much most likely) and in this regard, if I read Mr. Gurney's CAVEAT correctly, I agree completely.

If it gets the artists painting and helps in any way, then I am all for it. Its a tool, use it for what you can to the best of your ability and then move on. You can always come back to it late, when your knowledge has grown.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to everyone for sharing different perspectives on this topic. I didn't realize there was such a lively difference of views here, and I think each of you made a great case. The only point I didn't see made was that in 19th century practice, there was another kind of copying, known as "croquis" which involved doing pen and ink thumbnails of compositions as a learning tool. Art museums and salon exhibitions were open on certain days just for artists to come and study from the paintings, and if they weren't doing full-size copies to study paint technique, they were doing croquis for compositional studies.