Copying art: stealing or an education?

Much can be learned by painting in the style of a master. Photo by Ståle Grut on Unsplash

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"Art is about expression. So let your art express you"

- Kevin Murphy

Long before he became a master of illustration and portraiture, Kevin Murphy spent his childhood and teenage years copying the work of other artists. Fantasy and bodybuilding magazines were ripped up and reimagined to make original artwork.

This collage of borrowing from other artists was an important education. Eventually, his fascination with other artists’ work led to a remarkable career and, of course, the creation of a world-class school and online art program. However, none of this could have come about if copying other artists’ work had not inspired Kevin's own, original work.

Copying the work of other artists can prove a worthwhile and powerful learning tool for young artists. Of course, care and thought are necessary to deter plagiarism. Plagiarism always prevents original ideas from forming.

Ideally, the goal behind copying or borrowing from other artists is to develop your own unique style and expression. And the longer you paint, the more your style will emerge.

Copying like a Master

It is a great tradition to copy master artists. And, if you are copying the right art, there is a world of information to glean. Historically, students of the old masters learned how to paint by working in the style of their teachers.

This process of copying their master’s work would enable a student to practice a skilled method of painting before having to develop their own approach. Many famous artists employed this practice, such as John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso.

Many of these artists copy’s hang in collections around the world. They bear the mark of either having been created in the studio or workshop of an artist under supervision, created by someone in the social circle of the original artist or marked as a piece of art done in exact or partial imitation of an original.

So the tradition of the master copy is filled with a rich history and by copying high-quality work, students can experience great practice without the strains of original content.

Copying Teaches Quality Control

Simply viewing a painting rarely gives an artist enough information to learn a new skill. Until you begin to copy a painting you can never fully understand another artist’s technique, color mixtures, or process.

Without copying paintings from master artists, we would have very little idea what their palettes may have looked like. For example, when looking at a Bouguereau painting, the result looks quite gray or brown. But when you begin to mix the colors to mimic the painting, gray or brown exists in very few, if any, areas. Simply by looking you would never understand this. By actually mixing the paint yourself, you can see how the effect came about in the original painting.

Copying can also change your quality control. Following a master’s painting forces your hand to produce higher quality in order to have a successful painting. A faithful copy forces you to make marks that you may not make on your own. When you have an appreciation for a style, a mark for mark match will ensure that you become more critical of what you see and do.

Any professional work, either old masters or a contemporary piece, that you choose to copy will slightly force you to make their style yours. And this is an excellent educational tool for trying new things and developing your own, unique style.

Evolve student, Michael Boehl's copy of a Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville.

See What Other Artists See

One of the additional benefits to copying other artists work is that the original painting has already made the shift in dimension for you. Looking at a person and painting them means that an artist must take a three-dimensional being and translate it into a flat, two-dimensional painting.

The benefit for a student seeking to copy work lies in the fact that the shift in dimension has already happened. Even if you work from a photograph you must still attempt to translate something onto a flat surface.

"[Copying] provides learning through experience and learning through the eyes of an accomplished and successful artist"

However, when you copy from a finished painting, you have a translated image in front of you. An established artist has already translated the subject or photograph into a two-dimensional painting and breathed back in a feeling of a third dimension. Now you simply replicate what you see, what they saw, and how they processed it.

This is a huge educational benefit for any artist. It provides learning through experience and learning through the eyes of an accomplished and successful artist. And if you enjoy their style and effect, you can begin to incorporate that into your own work.

Skilled artists bring life into their subjects, and by copying a painting, you can develop skills on how to go forward when you tackle your next painting.

A copy of  a Van Dyck Painting by Daniel Folta

Developing Personal Style

There is a world of information to be learned by copying. However, the idea is that you do not want to copy style continuously.

When an artist begins to consistently take the style of another artist and make that their personal style, infringement and plagiarism loom.

Let your style be your own. Personal style in art is not something you can force. Style happens when you paint what you love painting.

If you love to paint flowers, then copy an artist who creates floral paintings in a way that you love. Then begin to try new things, use things you’ve learned from other artists, and begin to develop a unique voice.

The longer you paint, the more hours you put in, the more your style will emerge.

Copying art, in the form of photographs and paintings, can help you to grow as an artist.

Conclusion

Copying the work of other artists can enable you to begin to form new and unique ideas. As time goes on, you will begin to develop a collage of experiences that culminate into your own, individual painting style.

Carefully avoid matching or mimicking another artist’s voice forever, but reproducing their work can be a fantastic educational exercise. Beyond that, have your own voice. You can have similar styles to someone, but you want to develop your own artistic, individual voice.

Art is about expression. So let your art express you.

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