Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Is copying the masters bad or good?

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine"  – March 2011.

There is some controversy around copying old masters’ works. Many art teachers find it “old school” and fear that it will destroy students’ originality.

It is interesting to see how teaching methods have diverged between classical music and fine arts. If you learn to play the piano or classical guitar, the curriculum will lead you to practice the works of great composers: Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi… It used to be the case that art students copied the masters in the same way, to learn the craft. I can hear you say: “But musicians are interpreters, not creators; this is why they have to learn the repertoire.” Although it is true for most musicians, the same system of education has also produced fine composers and continues to do so. Even jazz musicians develop their own style by learning licks by other musicians. The guitarist Wes Montgomery got his first job because he knew all the solos played by Charlie Christian.

Still life from Chardin by Benoit Philippe 

The reward of making some copies during your studies outweighs by far the risks naysayers see in copying. There are some misconceptions on what these risks are anyway.

Whatever you do, a copy of a master’s work by you will always be by you. It will bear the imprint of your personality. I discovered this in my own copies, but the point was really brought home for me when I saw copies that Van Gogh did of Millet’s paintings of peasants. The resulting oil paintings were without question Van Gogh’s.

Knowledge of existing works of art means that you can make some reference to them in your work in your own way. Believing that we create without any influence is just unrealistic. Think about what the musician Charles Gounod wrote about the composer Camille Saint-Saëns : “He has a tremendous ability to assimilate: he would write at will a work in the style of Rossini, Verdi, Schumann or Wagner; he knows them all thoroughly, which is perhaps the surest way not to imitate any of them.”

Your master of choice does not have to be from past centuries. You can copy modern painters whose work you like. Just remember that if you copy living or contemporary artists, it will only be for your own education and you won’t be able to sell your copy (in Europe, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author).

Copying a work by a master forces you to study it very closely. You will spend time with a great work without noticing it, because you will be busy copying it. This will give you an intimate knowledge that only trying to reproduce the intent of the original artist confers. You can discover the artist’s sense of composition, palette and brushwork.

Use good quality photographs as reference material for your copy. Browse the art section of your local library to select high quality reproductions. Posters are also an excellent reference for copying oil paintings because you can see the brush strokes.

Here are a few exercises you can try:
  • Copy drawings from old masters, and then move to copying paintings;
  • Do a tonal copy of a painting with pencils, graphite or charcoal;
  • Copy the work in the same medium as the original work;
  • Try to copy a work using a different medium: for instance, try copying an oil painting with pastels.

Would you take a masterclass with Rubens or Turner? Personally I would. The key is to follow John Ruskin’s advice: “Copying art to learn from it, not to imitate.”


Shama said...

My fav blog.

Benoit Philippe said...

Thank you Shama. Keeps me going.


Cindy Michaud said...

I know I learned more the year my painting gang decided to copy the masters than I have in any other year. we had a blast and produced some great stuff...and while our print was always on it (and credit noted in the "after" signature) some of us leaned in one direction (Vermeer) and others another (Cezanne...) Great exercise for technique!

eLIZabeth Floyd said...

I so agree! Copying great work is a wonderful way to learn, because you move from the position of just admiring a piece to a deep cognative understanding of the work.

Also I would recommend copying from the original if you are near a large museum that has such a program. A photograph is good, but nothing beats seeing the actual piece in front of you and studying each nuance as you try to paint it yourself.

Benoit Philippe said...


Make sure you check Elizabeth's recent copy of a still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem. It is a master copy by a master artist: Finished: Vase of Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem.