Painters have been copying other painters' work for ages. In fact, I have occasionally wondered whether the Lascaux caves were originally an art school of sorts. Constable copied Van Ruisdael. So did J. C. Dahl. Degas copied Delacroix. So did van Gogh, along with Millet and Gaugin. Hockney copied van Gogh. And then there's Kehinde Wiley. I could write lists and lists of examples.
My 2002 watercolor above was the first copy I ever made of an historic painting. Why not start with Vermeer? I learned an enormous amount about how far I could push color and how (and how not to) make and scale a copy by using a grid. As I tend to throw myself into things head first and then learn through an experiential process, it took me a while, too late, to realize that I'd screwed up the grid proportions which threw everything out of whack and hence the wonky result. But that's something I've paid attention to closely since and am able to warn my students about now. So, rather than Girl with A Pearl Earring, I call it The Understudy.
In reference to literature, Boris Pasternak once said that "Translation is very much like copying paintings." I think that's true.
When we copy paintings, we become acquainted with the painter at a depth almost beyond language. We learn about composition, color, value, but also how the painter made that stroke. (How did she make that?) We have to push ourselves and our technical abilities and learn to think and make decisions in motion because with watercolor, the element of time is critical. It's exciting and demanding.
Because we're not forging and usually still learning (that never stops), the eventual result is a piece that is very much our own. In making a copy, the copier's experience, stylistic tendencies, process and commitment are thrown into high relief.
“If you fail in copying from a master you succeed in birthing an original art."
Copying oils and pastels in watercolor is challenging but copying a watercolor is an absolute rush. I am extremely proud of some of my watercolor copies including my Dürer Young Hare. I recently almost passed out while copying a Morisot watercolor.
I love teaching watercolor using the method of copying. Not only can we learn everything that I've described above and more but we learn about the lives and work of artists and cultural history. I've also found it to be, potentially, one of the quickest ways to move beyond the beginner phase.
I'm teaching two small online master classes this summer. They are not for beginners but you don't have to be advanced either. You only have to understand the basic principles of watercolor, color and drawing. I want to offer a quick remedial lesson or three for the interested but insecure. I haven't quite worked out how I'll present that but expect to do so any day now. I have a list of people to notify when I open for summer registration.
If you'd like to be notified, please sign up here or email me here with questions.
"When you have practiced drawing for a while... take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters." —Cennino Cennini