Copying Paintings of the Masters and Other Artists

Blackhead, Monhegan, 1916-1919, oil on panel, 9.37"x13", Edward Hopper. Wikimedia Commons

One of the tried and true techniques of classical art training is to copy the work of the Old Masters, those who painted before the 18th century. While this isn't as much a part of current art school training in many places it is still a highly valuable undertaking.

For a look at some of today's "Old Masters" and where you can still receive higher education in classical drawing and painting, read Brandon Kralik's article, Today's New Old Masters Outshine the Avante-Garde (Huffpost 5/24/13)  

Contemporary society is much more concerned with originality (and copyright infringement) so this kind of training doesn’t take place as much anymore, but copying the work of a master or, in fact, any other painter whose work you admire is an invaluable and highly instructive practice. Some people, called copyist artists,  even make a legitimate income from copying the work of famous artists.

Benefits

Drawing is a way of seeing. There is much to be learned from copying a painting you admire. In fact, The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has started a program, #Startdrawing, to get people to start copying paintings by drawing them as they move through the galleries because, as they say on their website, "you see more when you draw" and "you begin to see things you never noticed before."

The museum is discouraging taking photos with cellphones and cameras, encouraging visitors instead to slow down and spend time drawing the artwork, forcing them to really look at it, rather than moving through exhibits quickly, snapping photos and taking it all in with only a quick glance.

The museum even passes out sketchbooks and pencils on Drawing Saturdays. 

Read: Museum ‘Bans’ Cameras, Asks People To Sketch Artwork To Truly Appreciate It

But you don't have to live in the Netherlands to try this approach. Bring your own sketchbook to a museum near you and draw the paintings you like.

They have something to teach you!

Artistic decisions have already been made for you. You already have the subject, composition, format, and colors worked out for you. It is just a matter of figuring out how the artist put it all together. Simple, right? Actually, it is not quite as easy as it might seem.

You will learn new techniques. There are always new painting techniques and tricks to learn and copying different paintings will help you acquire these skills. As you look at the painting and try to copy it ask yourself questions such as the following: "What color did the artist lay on first?", "What kind of brush did the artist use?", "What direction is the brush stroke going?","How did the artist make that plane recede?", "Is that edge soft or hard?", "Did the artist apply the paint thinly or thickly?" 

You will develop resources and skills to bring to your own paintings. Through copying paintings you admire you will develop a bank of knowledge about color and techniques that you can draw upon when creating your own paintings. 

Process

Spend time doing a study drawing first.  You can do studies from good reproductions in books, from the internet or even from a postcard.

Do a value study of the painting.

Getting a sense of the values is important, no matter whether you're working on your own composition or copying someone else's. It will start to give the painting the illusion of depth and space.

Use the grid technique to scale the drawing up and transfer it to a canvas.  If you are copying a work from a postcard or book this is a good way to get the image onto a canvas. Use tracing paper to trace the composition and draw a grid over it. Then create the same grid, proportionally enlarged, onto a canvas or paper, to scale the image to a bigger size.

Study the artist's background.  Learn more about he or she painted, the materials and techniques used.

Do a color study of the painting using a different medium. Using a different medium than the one the original painting was done in is another way to study the color and composition before using the original medium.

Do a copy of just a small section of the painting and enlarge it. You don't have to copy the entire painting to learn something from it.

Be clear on attribution when signing your finished painting. You may only legally copy a painting that is in the public domain, meaning it is out of copyrightWhen you're done, the best way to sign your painting is with your name and the original artist's name as in  "Jane Doe, after Vincent Van Gogh" to be very clear that it is an honest copy and not an attempt at forgery.

The painting in the picture above is of Edward Hopper's Blackhead, Monhegan (1916-1919), 9 3/8" x 13 ", painted in oil on wood, located at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. My copy is painted in acrylic, is 11" x14", signed on the back "Lisa Marder after Edward Hopper" and resides in my kitchen. Rocks can be challenging to paint but the knowledge gained through copying this little gem of Hopper's has helped me in subsequent original paintings of rocks and cliffs, as well as how to achieve some of the effects of oil paints that I was after with acrylics. There is always more to learn from the many great painters who have come before us!

Read: Signing a Copy of Someone Else's Painting or Photo?

More: How do I Sign a Copy of an Old Master Painting?