It’s Okay to Copy the Other Guy’s Drawing

From our earliest days in school we learned that copying other students’ work could result in serious consequences, sometimes even a failing grade. But if you are a drawing artist, copying the other guy is a necessary virtue for improving your skills.

Juliette Aristides, In her book Classical Drawing Atelier, writes about the value of copying from master artists. “By looking to the accomplishments of artists who came before us we can have a dialog with the past and speed our artistic journey. There is no better place to start than with the practice of copying master works.”

Thursday’s Drawing Lab crew flowing through the process of copying after Charles Bargue.

But copying another artist’s drawing might seem like cheating. Author Gerald Ackerman assuages this concern in the Charles Bargue: Drawing Course book. “Even though copying works by other artists might appear contrary to the modern stress on originality, centuries of the practice have proven it to be a good learning experience.”

Mike’s diligent copy of a Charles Bargue lithograph print after the artist Adolphe-William Bouguereau called “A Roman Woman”.

During our Drawing Lab sessions, I encourage beginners and advanced students to browse the selection of books in our studio for master drawings that call out to them.

To narrow the search, Ackerman suggests, “When you choose a model to copy, there is something about the drawing that attracts you. What is it? What entices you? Why do you think it matches your level of ability?”

Our ever-expanding library of drawing and art books featuring some of the greatest drawings every produced in history.

Imagine the artist’s work you are copying as an immersive collaboration. “What you and the artist are trying to do is produce an illusion, a convincing imitation of nature,” writes Ackerman.

Drawing Lab students always have the option of copying from reference images or drawing from life. During Wednesday evening’s session, Helen laid down her convincing imitation of nature.

It is important to alternate between copying master drawings and sketching things from real life. One process informs the other, bringing a classical foundation and aesthetic to your own style of observational drawing. We always have a wide variety of natural and man-made objects in the studio to draw from.

Zak applies her experience in blocking dominant angles and shapes as she works through the initial stages of copying Thursday evening’s Bargue reference print.

There is a certain amount of rigor needed for the practice of copying. Juliette Aristides notes, “The amount of knowledge and skill used to execute a brilliant work of art is breathtaking. The artist must simplify, design, and construct the reality that she is looking at in order to convey it as she has seen it.”

Scout carefully measures an angle in her Bargue composition.

“By studying masterworks and making master copies, the artist learns to see through another’s eyes. Emulation becomes the first step toward self-expression,” writes Aristides.

Lenore’s in-progress charcoal study after Bargue’s “Seated Arab” print. She has started adding tonal values over the blocked-in framework.

It is not my goal to make students into human copy machines. Instead, I point them to the work of master draftsmen. In embracing the techniques of the masters, students aim for consistency in pulling together convincing illusions of nature. “This is an achievement even in a copy,” writes Gerald Ackerman. “Finally you will witness a mystery: a series of lines abstracted from nature and recorded carefully suddenly assume shape, depth, and character—with an aura of beauty.”

Tina mixes her studies of an actual plaster hand with Bargue’s academic lesson in drawing a plaster hand.
Nikhil spent Wednesday evening drawing from life. He used excellent contour lines for a very convincing imitation of a pepper.
We all know the real reason Scout comes to Drawing Lab.

Schoolwork & Homework

Fiona emailed us this observational drawing assignment she did for school art class. So cool to see advanced students apply their Drawing Lab skills out there in the world!
Jesse’s ink practice studies of textures are really coming together in an awesome way!
Dotty is logging serious time in her sketchbook with wonderful little pencil studies as she moves toward Level 3!

Note: Photo featured at top of page is Drawing Lab student, Cyndi, as she interpreted Charles Bargue’s “Seated Arab” with graphite gesture strokes During Wednesday’s session.

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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.