Copying the Masters

November 22nd, 2006

Some art teachers encourage students to copy the masters’ work while some discourage it. I think it depends on how the “copying” is done. For me, I learned to “do” a pastel painting by copying.

I drew and colored growing up and was always interested in art. Because of the intensive study in academia I put aside art. When I became serious about doing art as an adult I went to take classes at the Evanston Art Center after work two or three nights a week. I started with drawing, from portrait to figure to still life and landscape. I did a lot of charcoal drawings and learned a great deal about tonal values. Then I went off to color. I didn’t care about learning color theory because I could “feel” color. Color is just natural to me. However, I didn’t know how to do a painting with pastels. I could draw but didn’t know how to do a pastel painting.

I learned a lot about painting in that fall/winter after my move from Chicago to New Hampshire in the previous summer. My medium was pastel. I stated by copying Cezanne’s oil painting “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire 1897-98” then I went on to “Mont Sainte-Victoire 1904-06.” I stopped in the middle of doing the later because I felt I was just painting faces of cubes. I shifted to paint water lilies from Monet’s paintings. It was joyful doing the lilies, like painting strokes of colors. I tried to do Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night 1888” but could not even started it because all the emotions in the painting just came up to me. The I did Georgia O’keeffe’s “Red Flower 1918-19.” It was a big red flower with blue, yellow, green and violet shapes in the background but strongly I felt psychologically impacted. I knew I would never copy her paintings again. My epiphany came by copying a poster that belonged to my sister. It’s Monet’s “Le jardin de l’artiste a Giverny 1900.” I painted the whole painting and learned how to “weave” different colors together and how to shift hues and saturation of colors. I also learned that I didn’t paint a flower, tree or bush; I painted in shapes of colors. I remembered reading a book and the author commented that Cezanne criticized Impressionism to be out of form but the author thought Monet was using light as his form. After copying Monet’s painting I considered Monet did actually use forms. He used shapes/strokes of colors.

Some teachers said that when copying a master’s work you have to try to understand why and what the master was doing and how the mater felt. For me, I look at the painting and get into the painting and just let the energy of the painting (master) come to me. After that winter of copying master pieces I was off on my own. No more copying.

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“Sometimes, mornings and evenings – for I had stopped painting during the clearest and most brilliant hours… – I said to myself, while doing my rough sketches, that a series of impressions of the ensemble [of the water lily pond], taken at hours when my vision had the best cahcne of being accurate, would not be without interest. I waited until the idea took shape, until the arrangement and the composition of the motifs little by little had inscribed themselves in my brain, and the day that I felt I had sufficient trumps in my hand to try my luck with a real hope of success, I resolved to act, and I acted.”

– Claude Monet

– From “Monet Water Lilies” edited by Charles F. Stuckey

 

The Dainty Arch - pastel painting by Maria Yu

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Dainty Arch” – pastel painting by Maria Yu 

 

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