The Art of Copying

Do you want to improve your art skills dramatically? There is no shortcut, as you might already know. Still, there are great ways to improve and learn that are more effective than others. One of the best ways to bring your skills to the next level is by copying. Copy nature, copy paintings, copy photos, copy it all!

Some oil painting copies in my sketchbook

Some oil painting copies in my sketchbook

Why copy?

Have you ever seen a masterpiece from an old master? A painting by John Singer Sargent, Ilya Repin or Alphonse Mucha for example? Then you stop and think to yourself, how did they do it? How did they get so good? Yes, I have done that many times, and honestly these old masters works still blow me away every time I see them!

Fantastic painting by Ilya Repin - “Barge Haulers on the Volga”

Fantastic painting by Ilya Repin - “Barge Haulers on the Volga”

The thing is, old masters were people just like you and me. Their methods to learn how to paint and describe a 3D reality in a 2D medium are not a secret. They learned how to describe reality by copying it. They also copied other artists works that had achieved a great level of skill. In return, they learn how they can not only copy nature but actually interpret it and mold it as they will.

It is like an aspiring cook, they do other people’s recipes before they have the skills to make their own. For some reason, art still has a veil of mystery around it, but it is just a skill like anything else.

Have a focus in mind before you copy

So you have probably copied a photo or a painting before. Maybe you have copied your favorite artist or cartoon character? Those are great exercises, but you have to keep in mind what you are actually focusing on during this exercise.

The main point is that you don’t want to become a printer, someone that replicates an image but has no real knowledge or control over what comes out on canvas.

That is a common problem you might encounter if you go study at a classical atelier, I know that because I have been there! I will write another post about the pros and cons of ateliers and my experience in them. But I will tell you now that getting lost into being a copy machine is one of the few cons.

The right mindset for copying

Alright, so when copying, what can you do to make sure you improve your work? You do these steps in order:

  1. Find an image(a painting, a photo or look at real life).

  2. Analyze what you like about this image, really focus on one or two aspects of it.

  3. Only copy that aspect of it.

  4. Move on to the next image to copy

  5. Repeat

This is the most efficient and technical way to go about copying, in my experience, it really keeps you focused! This way it is also easier for you to absorb good information, instead of being lost trying to make a replica of what you are looking at.

I will show what I mean with all this, below you can see a video of how I go about copying a painting:

You are not hanging this study in a wall! This is a STUDY for you to internalize, learn and improve and that's about it.

I really can’t stress enough how many students I have seen suffering while copying. Just to get just the exact stroke on a background object or on a hair strand while copying a portrait painting or even while doing it from life. They would spend hours on end on one copy! How much knowledge is that hair strand going to give you? How much importance does a background object hold? Are those the aspects of this image you are studying? NO! Therefore it is not worth your time to worry about it!

If you stick to copying this way, it is by no means a shortcut, but it is a foolproof way to improve. The more you do it, the better you will get!

Resources to find good quality images to copy from

Some times it might be a bit hard to find a decent image using only Google image search, so I will leave a link here for the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection. It is a fantastic resource that offers high quality images for free! The same goes for the Rijksmuseum with its amazing online collection.

I hope this helps you in your studies! Keep at it!