Acanthus Ornament Cropped for blogCopying. In the non-art world this word really should be spelled with four letters. Actually, that last sentence isn’t entirely accurate. Copying normally has a connotation of being a negative thing, at least we are taught that. The reality is that all kinds of less than honest behavior of varying degrees goes on and we (what passes as society) publicly decry the behavior but generally give it a pass if it does not affect us directly or doesn’t measure too high on the Richter Scale of immorality. But let’s pretend we are all very honest, pillars of our communities, and shining examples of wholesomeness. So when we hear the word copying we think of plagiarism or some other form of cheating.

I want to praise copying (but not plagiarism). In the art world, perhaps not so much today but back in the good old days, copying was a fundamental part of an artist’s education. As an apprentice the budding artist would copy the works of his master and make the rounds of public sculpture and museums to copy the works of the “Old Masters”.  For a long time this was part of the foundation of art education. When novelty became more prized than craft this educational experience began to taper off. A few stalwarts held onto and maintained this orthodoxy but by and large it went the way of the Dodo.

For an artist there is no substitute for copying works of art. If you want to be a more skillful draftsman then one should draw frequently and have in front of him an excellent exemplar. Painting is the same of course. If you want to be a painter then you must paint… a lot. One learns a great deal from copying great works of art. Things like proportion, composition, how to create certain types of lines and planes to achieve a particular end. When copying a painting you learn the secret of how an artists mixed and applied color or how brushstrokes where used to create form. Even if your drawing or painting falls short of the masterwork you are emulating you are still benefitting from the experience. Remember, “failure” is only failure when you don’t learn from it and grow from the experience. If you think to yourself “Well, that was hard. It didn’t turn out well at all. Guess I’ll do something else.” that is what failure sounds like.

Carraci Copy Evolution Small

You find that through the process you begin to “absorb” all kinds of secret knowledge of the masters. Sometimes you are specifically trying to learn a particular thing. Along the way, as you search for this thing, you also collaterally pick up an understanding of composition, balance, harmony…. a whole unrecognized aesthetic sensibility works its way into you subconscious. And when you are working on “your own stuff” this subtle knowledge (subtle because you absorbed it rather than that it is hard to recognize) makes it way into your work. You probably have a lot of kettles on the stove as an artist; working on a variety of projects as you explore your ideas. On the back burner there should always be a drawing or painting that you are copying. Just as an athlete or musician practices their skill so should you. Pick a drawing that that speaks to you, that has within it something you do not yet know but are desirous to master. Make sure you choose a good image. You’ll never learn anything from copying bad art…. except bad habits. When in doubt it is hard to go wrong with one of the biggies: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rubens, Prudhon. But don’t limit yourself either. Go to the library and check out a book about old master drawings. Flip through it, pick a  drawing, and get to work. A personal suggestion here (as if my blog isn’t anything more that a series of personal suggestions and opinions):  Pick something challenging or a topic you wouldn’t normally gravitate toward. Pick something that seems like it might be a bit too much. I think that artists should stand right at the edge of impossible and dangle their toes over the precipice. Then lean forward just a bit. Didn’t Nietzsche say something like that?

That which is falling should also be pushed.”

Included is drawing based on an engraving of an ornamental design and a sequence of a copy of a Carracci drawing.

Carracci Copy for Blog


~ by Kelson Barber on March 4, 2014.

One Response to “Copy-Cat”

  1. Not only love your art, but also your words.

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