Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #11

To Copy or Not to Copy…

During the days of my preliminary studies in art, I seemed to remember hearing the notion that copying art was definitely frowned upon. I believed this mindset was birthed from the flawed misconception in the visual arts popularized in the early twentieth century that originality is the one and only virtue in art and that copying another’s work would only hamstring your attempt to be completely unique.

As I have taught through the years, it has been interesting to me that so many have heard the same and almost apologize when they have admitted to copying another’s work.

To me this has always seemed ridiculous.   Can you imagine an aspiring concert pianist never playing Mozart, Chopin, or Beethoven for fear of not being unique?

Clearly, in the visual arts one does not want to plagiarize another’s work and sell your copies, but what a loss to not learn from them.

I have copied many works for study and have seen exponential growth in my work as a result of understanding harmony, edge, and value control to name a few aspects.

Early on I had several tendencies in my work that lessened the quality of the overall image. One of them was hard, inappropriate edges on the lips that made them look like the wax lips we used to get at Halloween, pasted on the face.  I overcame this repeated error by spending days at the Metropolitan Museum in New York drawing and copying in pencil the delicate transitions of the lips Sargent achieved in his portraits.

The image above shows a copy I did of a Carl Von Marr painting which helped me understand the prismatic effect light has as the sunlight hit the ground.  As I studied this, I did not just take his harmonies and copy them into my work, but they taught me what to look for in a similar light effect to produce a more spectral sense in my own work.

(Speaking of Carl Von Marr, I will share more of his amazing work in weeks to come.  His paintings have had a major influence on me as I poured over them as a youngster.)

The image below shows one such work featured in “Not Far from Home” where the lessons learned from Marr proved fruitful.

Lastly, what do I mean to copy another’s work?  Again, it is not to simply steal ones harmonies, designs, etc, etc…, but rather to learn from them by studying paintings in part or full.  This can be by painting sections of or by executing drawings of tonal ranges or edge transitions, whatever your area of weakness may be.

So with a clean conscience go ahead and copy works to increase your understanding and bring your work to the next level.  There is so much to be learned from the Masters!!!

For more info on “Not Far from Home”, click book.  Thanks!

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4 responses to “Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #11

  • willie jacobs

    Hi Daniel, thanx for the insight. As being totally self-taught, this is the best posting I coyld read to helkp me advance and mature in my work. I will definately spend some time learning from the masters. At this stage time is survival. Can one be allowed to sell what you have copied. Say you make it clear to the client and give acknowlkedgement to the artist instead of your signature? Say for instance I copy a work from Rembrandt, the Centurion, and write on the painting, “After Rembrandt”?

    I would love to learn this way, but get rewarded for the time spent away from earning an income.

    Regards, Willie Jacobs

  • paintdancer

    Thanks for the blessing, Dan! You made a very good point about musicians playing Bach and Chopin. As a pianist, I learned a tremendous amount about point and counterpoint from Back and the fingering and octave range required within Chopin’s polonaise’s forced me to play the scales over and over to increase my skill. I once copied a small portion of a Sorolla and could not believe how much it taught me! Thanks for the reminder!

  • A. Crawford

    This observation is extremely interesting to me because I think it is applicable across all disciplines. For many years now, the be-all-end-all of writing has also been originality–which is ridiculous. Rhetoricians across the ages taught their students by….having them copy master writers, starting with the Roman rhetoricians. Edward Corbett’s classic rhetoric text, which is still in print, incidentally, and has even been recently updated, has a number of copying exercises in it for college students. Now, when nobody copies anything (and students are not even taught cursive penmanship), nobody can write.

  • Bettye Rice

    Dan, this was so helpful to me as I have admired certain artists (including you!) and have studied and copied their work for a learning experience. I did a copy of Monet’s brown version of a cathedral in Roen to try to learn light reflection and movement, Norman Rockwell for his people studies, and you for your reflection of candlelight on skin. I also admire your including your spirituality and beliefs. Thank you so much for blogging.

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