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The Value of Copyworkby Miles Mathis
about 90 years ago, museum copywork was an integral part of the education of
every young painter. Depending on
whether you were French, Spanish, or American , a sojourn at the Louvre, Prado,
or Metropolitan would have been considered de rigueur. Those lucky enough to have wealthy parents,
patrons, or sponsors might even have traveled outside the country to find the
great works of the past (Italy was, of course, a favorite destination). But the advent of Modernism changed all
that. From where we sit, with our
simplifying hindsight, it appears that at the very moment Picasso left his Rose
Period, an historical lifeline that even the Impressionists and
Post-Impressionists respected was cut.
The past was no longer the residence of giants upon whose shoulders we
might stand (to paraphrase Isaac Newton).
Instead it became a dustbin, and our success as artists became measured
by how quickly we could relegate our fathers and teachers into it, and how long
we could stay out of it.
artistic indebtedness was not a sin until the present century: Michelangelo was
heavily indebted to the Greeks; Rubens was greatly influenced by Michelangelo;
Van Dyck copied Titian; the Spaniard Velasquez studied the painters of the
Italian Renassiance, especially Caravaggio, and influenced European painting
from Goya to Manet. The American
William Merritt Chase copied Velasquez in his youth, and John Singer Sargent
copied Velasquez as well as the Dutch painter Frans Hals. And what would Rodin have been without
Michelangelo before him? In
twentieth-century America, the influence of these Old Masters is still felt,
but "art history", so called, has gone elsewhere. And it is this "elsewhere" that
shows most clearly, I think, that those with the fewests debts also have the fewest
after decades of neglect and abuse, classical painting—and copywork along with
it—has seen its ebb-tide and is preparing, one hopes, for a resurgence. There has been an historical break that is
not easily remedied. But our museums
remain a repository of information and ideas—some them obvious, some
esoteric. In this article I hope to
inspire others to discover for themselves the great wealth that history still
offers those wise enough to seek it.
Museums and libraries have been my classrooms—places where I could
research from the primary source, where I could work mano a mano,
literally hand to hand, with the great artists of the past. Like the Protestant Reformation, copywork is
a return to direct inspiration, perhaps not divine, but nearly so. One can remove all intermediaries—teachers,
critics, editors, dealers (the clergy of aesthetics)—and decide for oneself the
importance of Rembrandt or Raphael, Murillo or Zurbaran, Vermeer or Van
Dyck. And by purchasing your education
wholesale, as it were, you will find that you have also saved time: the more
you can control your own progress the more personalized it will be, and thus
the more efficient. You know, for
example, where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You probably have very specific questions the anwers to which
would shore up these weaknesses, but no one will tell you what you need to
know. Perhaps no one can. The trick is to find someone who does know
and to pry it out of him. The best
place to beg for technical secrets is at the museum, because the artist cannot
say no. You set up your easel, and in
the process of imitation you begin to understand the process of creation. The information is not told to you; it is
intimated, sublimated. Copywork is truly
learning with the right side of the brain, for the technique is not
rationalized but intuited. And since
painting is a capacity of the right-brain, the experience can be felt directly
without the interference of the rational left-brain. This is important, for the left-brain is an intermediary just as
insidious as the art critic. The great
left-brain—master of technology, statistical wizard, birthplace of economics,
prime-mover of the modern age—and sour scourge of art. Resist the temptation to overanalyze your
work and you will have taken a giant step toward discovering your Muse.
before you discover your Muse, you must first discover your mentors. By reading widely you can find the artists
you most admire. These artists will
teach you to paint: then and only then, if you are lucky, your Muse will teach
you to create.
you have discovered a mentor—an Old Master who inspires you, say—your first
step is to find a book about that artist.
You should look for a recent publication with as many color photographs
as possible. You can buy a book at the
bookstore, of course, or you can do your research at the public or university
library. If you live in a college town,
I highly recommend the fine arts library at the university. The bookstore will have a few of the newer
publications (which are lovely if you can afford them), but the university
library will have a much larger selection, and you are more likely to get all
your work done in one place. Unless you
are also a student, you won't be able to check anything out, but since you will
just be doing research this won't really matter. Next to the photographs in the book (or in an index at the back)
will be listed where the original work is located. This is more likely to be correct and up-to-date in the more
recent publications. Works listed as
being in museums are less likely to have relocated because of a recent sale
than works in a private collection, but always call before you make a long road
trip to copy a particular work. Those
works still owned by individuals may be listed as being in "private
collections", with no specific information included. But some will list the owner's name. These works are not off-limits to you. If the owner is nearby, give him or her a
call. It may be possible, depending on
the person, to at least view the work.
Many connoisseurs are quite happy to find someone interested in their
collections. If, during the meeting,
you develop a rapport with the owner, you may be able to get permission to copy. Usually, though, it is much easier to make
an appointment to copy with a museum, which is open everyday, than to deal with
an individual who will have many other demands on his time. The best thing is to find a beautiful work
in a museum nearby. Reasearching a
number of artists at once will increase your chances of finding an
you find, despite your best efforts, that all your mentors' works are in London
or Madrid or St Petersburg, for example, remember that almost every major city
has a museum of fine art. You will be
surprised at what masterpieces many of them have, especially in storage. In order to discover exactly what these
museums have, it is necessary to find a catalog of the complete inventory. Again, the library will have many of
these. Or you can send off to the
museum for a catalog. You will probably
find that the museum just up the road has a number of pieces that interest you.
choosing a work, it is important to keep in mind what you are trying to learn. This will vary from trip to trip, but
constantly reassessing your own development will help you choose works that are
likely to answer questions you need answered now. Especially, do not overreach yourself. It is important that each session be a positive one. For me, I find it helps to isolate a single
problem and to concentrate on an area in a painting that can be copied in one
day. For instance, with John S.
Sargent's Venetian Beggar Girl (Dallas Museum of Art),
click for detail
I was interested
in the overall looseness of the brushwork.
I did this copy very soon after beginning to use oils and my goal was to
learn to handle a brush the way Sargent did.
Therefore, the small scale of the painting (24 by 18) and its nearly
monochromatic palette allowed me to isolate brushwork as my exercise. It also allowed me to have a complete painting
at the end of four hours—a painting that I would always have as a reminder of
what I knew and how I knew it.
couple of years later I went back to Sargent (Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,
Tate Gallery, London)—this time for color.
Again, I chose an area I could copy at one sitting—in this case about a
quarter of the painting. I was
interested in the way Sargent had worked the little girl into the background,
not with detail, but with bright yet unexaggerated complementary colors,
especially orange and green.
about the same time, I did a partial copy of Bouguereau's Admiration
(San Antonio Museum of Art).
again, the canvas is 24 x 18, and I worked for about four hours. This gave me time to bring the skintones to
a fairly high degree of finish. Since
Bouguereau used minimal glazing or overpainting in his faces, this is all I
needed. The trick to copying a
Bougeureau, I discovered, lay more in the choice of undertone, the absorbency
of the canvas, and the choice of white to use as the base skintone.
course, you may plan an exercise that can't be completed in one sitting, but I
find that many of those who spend weeks and months exactly copying large
detailed works lose the ability to treat the experience as an exercise. It instead becomes hero worship—replication rather than the passing of a torch. This should be avoided at all costs. I might mention, however, that you should
not be afraid of being unoriginal or derivative while you are learning to
paint. All of us who learned to play
chopsticks on the piano as children were not derivative. We were simply young. You must allow yourself to go through a
learning phase where you are not very good and not very inventive. Because to become good and inventive you
must first learn to paint. To again use
the musical analogy, if you want to write music you have to learn the scales. If you want to paint you must first become
technically proficient at applying paint to the canvas. This is simply a fact.
you have chosen a work to copy, the next step is to contact the museum. Sometimes you can get all the information
you need over the phone. Unfortunately,
just as often you get the run around.
Copywork is rare outside of New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
(and it is rare in these places, now, too), and an administrator or curator at
a smaller museum may not know his museum's policy of admission. You may be told that copywork is not allowed
when in fact it is. Don't give up until
you have written a letter to the director stating that you are a student (you
don't have to be enrolled anywhere or look eighteen) and that you are copying
for your own edification (as opposed to copying for resale). This should get you in.
you are interested in copying a work in storage, you will need to get special
permission from the director or curator.
An appointment will have to be made to give the museum time to find the
work and to prepare it for copy. All
museums should have public access to stored works, provided you make an
appointment well in advance. Some will
require references. But, of course,
actual policy will vary depending on the museum. For instance, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, despite being
a first-rate collection, allows no copywork, ever. This is unfortunate, for it displays not only a large gap in
commitment to public service, but also a forced break in the history of art: if
the young artists of today can't learn from the past, what will fill the
museums of tomorrow? If you encounter
other such instances, I encourage you to complain vociferously. It is just another example of how our
artistic heritage, and the past in general, is being entombed.
some specific recommendations:
take an assortment of canvases. You may
change your mind about what to copy once you see the complete collection, or
decide to copy more than one painting.
Also, museums rarely let you copy at the same size as the original: you either have to copy a detail or blow the
full-size canvas up or down by two or three inches. So build your canvases accordingly.
you are copying a work painted before 1900, it helps to have your canvas
already toned (to about the color of raw linen). White grounds were not used much before the present century. I have found that the color of the ground is
usually not as important as its value (its darkness). Just throw a turpentine wash of raw umber or some other mid-tone
over your white canvas. If you paint on
a white canvas, it will be hard to match your values to a painting on a toned
ground. Also, I highly recommend you use
white lead as your ground when copying old works. If you want to match their effects, you must match their
supplies, and I assure you that none of them were painting on acrylic gesso. If you are lazy, you can always paint a thin
layer of white lead right over the top of your pre-stretched gesso, and then
tone it. This gives you a quick fix,
and provides a ground with less absorbency.
Your brush is then more likely to skate nicely across your canvas like
the old masters.
take a clean cloth tarp to put under your easel. The museums are not impressed by a dirty tarp, because they have
no way of knowing whether all the paint on it is dry or not. So take a clean tarp large enough to cover
the floor under you and your easel.
That way you can put your paint box on the floor, and with your palette
on your arm the only furniture you need is your easel.
in a sturdy collapsible easel. Only the
major museums (like the Metropolitan) furnish an easel. I recommend a sturdy wooden easel with three
collapsible legs. Daniel Smith has a
nice one that is not very heavy for about ninety dollars. It is much lighter than a "French"
easel, and if you are not a watercolorist you don't need the trays and the
horizontal capability. Obviously, if
you are copying a watercolor, you may want to spend a little more for the
French easel. [But be forewarned that
most museums do not allow copying in watercolors. Water is a greater danger to old paintings than even oil paint—which
can be easily removed with turps.] It
goes without saying that you can also build an easel, but sometimes the
hardware is hard to find. I have never
built a portable easel, but I did build my studio easel, and the hardware for
it could not be had for love or money.
I ended up "borrowing" the hardware from a broken easel that
had been pitched out into the courtyard of the art building at the
university. As artists we must be
creative in so many ways.
a paper bag or a piece of cloth to wrap your used brushes in. You don't want to have to clean all your
brushes at the museum.
a small box of pastels and conte crayons.
If the museum absolutely refuses to give you permission to paint, you
can almost always draw instead. For
some exercises this is just as good.
When I copied Sir Anthony Van Dyck's Corneliis van der Geest
(National Gallery, London) I couldn't get permission to copy in oils on the
I was in a hurry, so I did a
drawing instead. Since I was interested
in how Van Dyck had captured the old man's character through lighting, detail,
and color, pastels worked very well.
don't forget the importance of drawings.
Drawing is not only the basis of painting, it is also an exercise worth
doing for its own sake, or for the sake of beauty. And unlike paintings, drawings can be copied with a great deal of
success from photographs in books (especially charcoal and pencil
drawings). Line quality can be copied
and learned both for its own sake and as it relates to brushwork. Developing expressive line quality will help
you develop expressive brushwork. In
copying drawings, choice of paper is very important. You must match the texture very closely in order to match the
line quality. In this the only tools
you have are intuition and trial and error.
I matched the effect of Peter Paul Rubens drawing Daniel in the
Lion's Den (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) with a sheet of Japanese Kitakata that I first dusted with
charcoal and rubbed heavily to effectively "antique" it. Then a piece of willow charcoal, fairly well
sharpened, gave me the line quality I wanted.
teaches you the importance of the surface and tools in creating an effect,
whether with charcoal or paint.
Matching brushwork is more than just loosening or tightening your wrist,
for example. In copying an artist like
Sargent you must have fairly oily paint and a very smooth, non-absorbent
canvas. Whereas if you wanted to copy
the great Russian painter Nicolai Fechin, you would have to blot all the oil
out of the paint and use a canvas with more tooth. You would also have to give up your filbert for a bright and a
painting knife. Learning these
technical aspects can save you much frustration. Many students blame themselves for lack of skill where the only
problem is incompatible paints, brushes, canvases, and desires.
too, that technique is just a tool.
Once you have mastered technique, then you must teach yourself to
create. This you can learn from no one. The ultimate goal is to justify your
technique by putting it in the service of your ideas, and to attain a level
where these ideas have a quality all their own. In the end, what one learns from the masters that is most
important is that great artists are not just virtuosos or brilliant
technicians. Nor, as we have had ample
evidence in the 20th century, are they simply groundbreakers, visionaries, or
ideamen. History teaches us that they
must be both: masters of an expressive medium with ideas of a depth and
sophistication worthy of expression.
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