return to 2003

The Value of Copywork

by Miles Mathis

Until 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.

But 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 assets.

Now, 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.  

But 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.

Once 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 inspirational work.

If 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.

In 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.

A 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.

At about the same time, I did a partial copy of Bouguereau's Admiration (San Antonio Museum of Art). 

Once 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.

Of 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.

Once 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.

If 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.

Now, some specific recommendations:

Always 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.

If 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.

Always 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.

Invest 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.

Take 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.

Take 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 same day.

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.

Finally, 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.

Copying 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.

Remember, 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.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.