Monday Morning Art School: why copy a masterpiece?

Think of it as getting a painting lesson from the masters.

Great Springs of the Firehole River, by Thomas Moran, 1871, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy National Park Service.

If you visit art museums regularly, you may have seen students set up to copy masterpieces. Or, you’ve seen copies made by great artists of other artists’ work. What were they trying to accomplish?

Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in May, 1889. He painted around 150 canvases there, including the iconic The Starry Night. He also made about thirty copies of masterworks of others.

“I started making them inadvertently and now find that I can learn from them and that they give me a kind of comfort,” he wrote. “My brush then moves through my fingers like a bow over the strings of a violin – completely for my pleasure.”

The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), by Thomas Eakins, 1871, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum.

Copying masterworks is a time-honored way of learning, both in western traditions and in others. Transmission by Copying is one of the six principles of Chinese painting laid down by the Chinese art historian Xie He in 550 AD.

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying,” wrote Austin Kleon.

The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, by Paul Signac, 1909, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy Pushkin Museum.

Copying is a way to study and evaluate a painting that’s far more immersive than simple looking. It enables us to understand another artist’s process. It forces us to consider what we find admirable in art in general. And it teaches us brushwork.

Most importantly, it sets aside our own need to tell a story. That liberates us from the frustration of our own limitations. We can concentrate on composition and color instead of being fully engaged in the problem-solving of unique subject matter.

It makes sense to copy works you admire. If you’re drawn to the paintings of the Canadian Group of Seven, don’t copy a Titian. You’re going to be paying a lot of attention to the painting you copy. It should be something you really love.

Today, we have a technical advantage over Van Gogh, locked up as he was. We can easily retrieve high-quality images from the internet. Many museums even have scalable images on their websites.

You must be able to see the brushwork to fully immerse yourself into the work. (Of course, if you’re copying a linear painter like Bronzino, there may not be much visible brushwork to copy.)

Woman with a Parasol, Turned to the Left, by Claude Monet, 1886, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy MusĂ©e d’Orsay.

What you can’t see on the internet is the dimensionality of the painting, its impasto, so that is one area where you’ll have to interpolate.

“I was surprised at how small the Mona Lisa is,” is a common sentiment about one of the world’s most-copied paintings. It’s important to know how large the work you’re copying is, even if your copy is going to be very small. The brushes appropriate to a massive painting are not appropriate to a miniature, and that will affect your interpretation.

Mona Lisa shows that paintings can undergo significant changes through restoration, fading, or the appearance of pentimenti. She once had eyebrows and eyelashes and was lighter in color; all those changes have occurred in the 500 years since Leonardo set down his brush. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from copying her, but it’s something we should be aware of.

Monday Morning Art School: drapery

Drawing drapery isn’t a dated skill; it’s as fundamental to the t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today as it was to the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, undated.

I spent a lot of time painting the human figure at the Art Students League, but I never studied drapery, unless you count the drapes that might be behind a model or still-life. That’s typical, but unhelpful. In the real world, artists are far more likely to draw the clothed figure than the nude.

“The masters must be copied over and over again,” wrote Edgar Degas, “and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.” In that spirit, I’ve illustrated this post with a series of drapery studies by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. I suggest you copy them not on paper, but in creating a drape—and then draw from your draped copy.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, 1506.

The t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today are worlds apart from the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century. Modern clothing is more formless and forgiving than ever. But the principles, regardless of the fabric, remain the same.

Wherever fabric is held down or comes into contact with the underlying support, it creates a pivot point. That point is a hub from which folds radiate. That’s easiest to see if you hold a towel in your hand and let it drape. Where you’ve pinched it is the hub from which all folds originate. If you hold the same towel in both hands and let it drape, you’ll see the collision of folds from two pivot points.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, undated.

In clothing, there are often several points of contact, creating several different hubs. Across the back of a shirt, our two shoulder blades strain the cloth in opposition to each other. In jeans, our knees, ankles, derrieres and hipbones are all in contact with the fabric. Even in tight jeans, there will be folds, albeit subtle. Wherever the figure presses against the fabric, it makes a hub for folds.

A person and his clothing tend to move and act as one. Not only does our clothing conform to our bodies in the moment, it carries the memories of past movement. Think of the knees of your favorite jeans. That’s one reason it feels strange to borrow another person’s clothes, and why we develop old favorites we’re loath to get rid of.

This is my favorite of Albrecht DĂĽrer’s drapery studies. Undated.

To draw folds accurately, you need to see them as having shape and volume. It’s useful to see each fold as having three surfaces: a top and two sides. The valley between folds is the base from which the folds arise. You may not always see both sides, because one might be folded back, but they’re always there.

It may be difficult to puzzle out whether you’re seeing the top or sides of a fold. The answer is really immaterial, as long as you’re drawing the fold as a three-dimensional object. Folds are infinitely variable, and sometimes the top will take the form of a sharp crease, or a side will disappear for a while. Even when that happens, bear in mind that you’re drawing a three-dimensional object. Folds are never simple lines drawn over the surface of fabric.

Like the rills on a hillside, folds have a way of transmogrifying into other shapes. They twist and turn and merge into other folds, or vanish entirely. It’s helpful to block out drapery as a whole before you start drawing. Just as if you were drawing a hillside, start by measuring the big shapes and checking angles.

In your first pass, don’t worry about subtleties of shading. Think of your this phase as a plan from which you’ll draw or paint. In other words, make it clear, concise, and accurate.

When you’ve finished, you can test the accuracy of your drawing by dropping a contour line across it. Imagine a bug crawling in a straight line from one side to another. Trace that line with your pencil. When your imaginary bug hits a fold, he’ll crawl into it and out the other side. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out where your bug should go, you’ve made a drawing error or been unclear. Go back and resolve that.