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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Schoolwork & Homework
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.