If you copy something in order to learn to draw, it’s best to copy something by a great artist, for the great artist has more ideas and better ones than a lesser artist.  So you’ll learn more.  We tend to think that visual materials render transparent representations of things, as though the artist just presents what is there.  But it is, in fact, visual ideas that the artist creates.  They are ideas about appearances and of course they vary tremendously from artist to artist and from culture to culture.  Edgas Degas expressed it well in saying that “drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”

Copying a drawing is like doing a brief apprenticeship with its author.  He tells you what he noticed and what he ignored.  What he noticed is the drawing itself.  What he ignored you have to figure out for yourself by comparing his drawing with life.  Engaging in a conversation of this sort means being able to choose your teacher from any artist that ever lived — so long as you have access to his or her images!

I copied Matisse’s 1901 painting La Coiffure in a sketch book while visiting the National Gallery of Art.  It’s not the first time I’ve done so.  One earlier occasion I was visiting the gallery, plodding along a bit sleep deprived from a late night the night previous.  Sitting before Matisse’s picture I just relaxed and gazed admiringly at it.  The afternoon was growing late. I had to go.  But some impulse prompted me to make a fast drawing — just 5 minutes, I told myself.  So I began to draw with a pencil in a little notebook.  And then — amazing thing — it was as though someone were shining a flashlight beam at the painting upon each contour where I drew.  As I copied the line, my brain lit up that part of the painting. 

I was perfectly sober.  I’m a tea loving, tea totaler.  Sleep deprivation can have its own intoxicating effects.  But I want to give some credit to the pencil and my hurry, also.  And to Matisse, of course.  And to an over-worked, but grateful imagination.

[Top of the post:  Copy after Matisse by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on paper] 

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2 thoughts on “Time Travel

  1. I love your painting of Matisse’s woman. I agree that we can learn so much from copying the masters, learning about their style, techniques, their “eye” as you say. What to include, what to leave out–always a challenge.

  2. That’s pretty much how I have learned to paint and draw — taking cues from the works in the museums and from the pictures in art history books. Then — after you learn some things — the old masters set you loose on the world to do your own thing. It’s a great school. Thank you, Deborah.

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