Thursday, February 13, 2014

Copying from drawings

Ingres, portrait of Pagini

A friend was telling me recently that he wanted to make a copy of a painting. He had reproduction of a Van Gogh that he had found online and intended to use. I told him that I thought copying great art was a wonderful exercise for the learning painter. However I did offer a few caveats. Here is what I told him.

Copying used to be discouraged when I was in art school. I have no idea if it is now, but then, the argument was that it wasn't creative. They were right. However it is still a great learning tool and teaches discipline as well. You will spend a lifetime making your own original art. A short time spent building skills seems useful, even at the expense of making a few pieces that are not original or creative. Creative is not the idea with copying , the idea is to "get inside the artist's head". While there is  value in sketching versions of the masters, making a careful and accurate copy is most instructive for a student.  It requires the closest possible examination of the subject work to be copied. The nuances of handling and line, edge and color (if present) only yield to the observer after careful scrutiny.
But I think, more importantly, the discipline of crafting a reproduction of the greatest fidelity is essential. We live in  times that often value the quick or nearly instant over the carefully wrought. Too many art students like to bang out quick work that allows them to quit on a piece before really digging down into the excellencies that a more finely crafted project would exhume.  I advised my friend that if he is going to make a copy of a masterwork, to make the most accurate copy he can.

In the early 1970's, before I studied in Boston, I did a number of very careful copies.  I copied the artists that in the preceding century had been considered the great draftsmen. I copied Ingres, Rubens, Michelangelo and Holbein, Jean Clouet and Degas. I copied their drawings.

Later, I copied a few paintings in museums, but initially, I copied drawings. Here is why, I could get better reproductions of drawing than of paintings. There were inexpensive books available of the drawings of the masters AND they presented the drawings in nearly the original size.


This is important, copying a painting six feet across from a reproduction the size of a postcard will give you some information, but not the fineness of handling, edges and line. Drawings reproduced on paper are more like the original  works . I advise that you find monographs of artists drawings rather than working from a computer screen , a drawing reproduced on paper looks more like the original than the backlit version on your computer screen. After doing copies of drawings you may want to do copies of a few paintings,then I recommend you go to the museum and copy from the original.  Some of you may live in places where there are no museums. If that is the case for you, the next best thing to do is to copy from a print.  Finds a high QUALITY print that is similar if not the same size as the original. The museums and online merchandisers sell such things. The niceties I mentioned before appear better if at all in an actual sized reproduction rather than in reduction.

Tracing the image is counterproductive, Measuring a half dozen or so points and marking them on your paper or canvas does seem like a good idea though. That is easy, a particular point in your print might be six inches down from the top and four inches in from the right. Use a ruler and mark a few  points about your version to avoid distortions and heartbreaking corrections later.

Try to work the whole image, at least at first. Few things are more disappointing than discovering a carefully rendered passage is in the wrong place compared to the passage adjoining it.

Work on a quality paper, something that will stand up to erasure. Use quality pencils in a couple of appropriate hardnesses. Get  a kneaded eraser and a Pink Pearl  for ripping out your mistakes. If a line isn't right, tear it out! Do it over.

There is only one "right" there are a billion versions of wrong.

Don't walk away from the project when it is half right, hold yourself to the project as long as it takes. Put it away and return to it again. Pull a tracing of your version and lay it over the original and check your work for accuracy. Pretend you are a forger. A fine copy, finished, will be a great thing to hang on your studio wall for a reminder of the skill you have observed in your artistic hero. A weak copy will not, it will only remind you of the cursory attention  you were willing to spend on the project. You could tape an apology below it, I suppose. Begin that with the phrase,"I was just trying to...."

I think Ingres is a great draftsman to copy. His incisive, elegant and rhythmic line taught me a lot about artfulness and representation. I was able to copy from the originals years later at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, but I am grateful for the time I spent in my early years copying Ingres drawings from books.