Copying a masterpiece – why do it?

Studying a master’s work by copying it can have beneficial effects on our own work. It can help us through a tough time, like when we’re not sure where our art is going. It can inspire us to get to that next level! It can help understand about the painting process he or she used, the palette and color mixes. Learning by copying was done throughout the history of art.

Students would go inside museums to paint. Painters would copy each others work.
Last century, just like today, many painters painted similar subject matter. Whatever was ‘en vogue’ to paint at the time. Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn and a few others all painted models with parasols, girls bathing or naked children playing on the beach. Sadly, some would most likely be called perverts in today’s world, but that’s an issue for another post.

Today, many artists paint street scenes, en plein air. It has become ‘cool’ again, to be out on the street or in nature and paint from life. We add all things of modern life, cars, figures glass buildings, back buildings and alleys. This is our time, our place, no reason to act like they are not there…
I wanted to copy these two paintings for a long time. I greatly admire Zorn’s work. I spent hours inside the National Academy in New York this spring, looking at the 30 or so watermedia paintings, trying to understand! I was blown away, still am..
You’d be hard pressed to find anything of his caliber work anywhere out there today. Yes. There. I said it! Of course, it’s my opinion and I am not going to elaborate.

From looking at Zorn’s work and copying the woman with the bedsheets (I forgot the title of the piece) I learned how to suggest facial features by use of multiple, transparent washes.
From Sorolla (his was actually an oil painting but I did it in watercolor), the woman bathing the child, I learned how he mixed his purplish blues and his use of warm and cool colors in such subtle and delicate ways. Very inspiring!

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8 thoughts on “Copying a masterpiece – why do it?

  1. croquedessin

    I don’t know if I will learn copying some masterpieces because I don’t think that I will understand, like you did : ” I learned how he mixed his purplish blues and his use of warm and cool colors in such subtle and delicate ways.”. But it’s a great challenge and I think I will try it ! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. frankeber Post author

      I know what you mean. I left the part out where I say: this is very hard to do. But I think it is invaluable as an exercise! thank you for your visit!

  2. cathy belleville

    Your Zorn (the original of which is cryptically called “Reveil, boulevard Clichy”) is lovely–I saw it when it was here in SF and was also gobsmacked. These great painters left all their knowledge documented for us–we just have to take the time to study their lessons. I was quite struck by how Zorn mostly kept the same style of painting in oil vs watercolor–he seemed to have no problem putting lights back in with gouache. His stunning paintings of water (like “Summer Vacation”) are great examples of this, and so exciting to see “up close”. Thanks so much for sharing these and for the encouragement in this classic exercise.

    1. frankeber Post author

      Thank you for letting me know the title! Yes, I agree, his watercolor techniques are very similar to how he painted in oil. I was particularly taken by the layering of opaque washes on top of each other. Sometimes it looked weird up close, but then you step back and it’s just…wow!!! …it works..
      I think many painters out there today suffer from what I call ‘hubris’ syndrome and think they are amazing. Going to shows like the Zorn exhibit puts you in your place, especially considering how long ago they painted these pieces.Thank you for your great comment!

  3. tmikeporter

    Inspiring, thank you. I am doing this with Edward Wesson’s work right now. I have painted from one of his works 6 times now! Still not happy or sure of what I have learned.

    1. frankeber Post author

      that’s great, Mike. Sometimes the learning happens in subtle ways. It’s not like the light bulb comes on etc. Remember, it’s a lifelong pursuit!

  4. Jane

    Hi Frank, thanks for this post on copying masters. I’m currently copying masters from the Bargue drawing class in pencil, but never thought about doing it from a watercolor.
    I admire you atmospheric watercolors — do you think it would helpful to copy your work, or other’s work to try to learn techniques?

    1. frankeber Post author

      It can help to copy an artist’s work you admire; I do think so. Techniques are important but sometimes without guidance, it is hard to figure out how it was done. It depends on your level, I think. If you’re just starting out in watercolor I recommend a workshop for technique. Once you master watercolor techniques (and that is really a prerequisite) you’ll have a better idea of what was done and you learn in the process of copying.

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