Friday, November 04, 2016


There are those who hesitate to copy artwork because they worry about copyright, or about making a forgery. But copying the work of other artists either for practice or as an aesthetic measure of one's own has always been common. Artists in training often copy work of their masters or masters of previous eras. Rubens copied da Vinci, Degas copied Holbein, and van Gogh copied Millet, to name only a handful, and so it goes into our own time. It's fine of course to copy the work of others provided that 1) you label it as a copy or "after so and so," rather than your own original work and 2)  you don't pretend it's a long-lost original by the master's own hand. The first is fraud, the second is forging. [Of course, real forgers make new works in the style of various predecessors and then try to pass those as newly discovered masterworks.]

Beyond the legal and ethical limits, though, copying the work of a master is a good way to become at least passingly familiar with their techniques and media. Certainly copying has been worthwhile in my own learning and growth, and I've used any number of previous artists as models. As a realist, it's obviously been more important to me to learn the craft of representational art, and it's those kinds of works that have attracted my interest. Early on, I copied Velasquez, and Goya (two favorites) before branching out to other "old masters" and then into other representational work. Although I have copied works by artists of the 20th century, most of my study has been of the great realist painters of the past. I've made copies of quite a few painters including a few of the early 20th century.
After Durer: "The Large Turf, 1503" watercolor, 2002

Here is a watercolor copy I did of a well-known painting, also in watercolor, by the great master Albrecht Durer. It was painted in 1503 in Durer's studio in Nuremberg. He was perhaps twenty-five and already a master of many media including engraving, watercolor, and oil painting. This watercolor seems to clearly be a study of grasses and weeds, perhaps intended by Durer as a way to improve the backgrounds and other vegetation in his larger and more ambitious works. For me this piece provided intense study of draftsmanship, color, and meticulousness. It also showed me that his control of values, particularly the darks, gave true depth to his work, which of course this copy sorely lacks.

Albrecht Durer, "Wild Hare," watercolor 1502
As is commonly the case with copies I've made, this work taught me a great deal about the medium but also about the work and temperament of the original artist. Durer must have been an exceptionally patient draftsman. Studying his"Wild Hare," a watercolor from 1502 shows just how astonishing is talent really was. Again he controls the range of values from light to quite dark with amazing facility.

After Frederic Remington: "The Hungry Moon," oil on panel, 2013

This oil painting is a copy of a work by the renowned illustrator Frederic Remington, which is in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This particular nocturne dates to 1906. Remington was a highly successful and wealthy illustrator and writer around the turn of the 20th century whose main subject was the American West. But in his last few years he began a series of night paintings that he called "nocturnes" with an eye to the fine art market. The series was very successful, so much so that Remington wrote to a friend that he had "landed among the artists, and well-up, too." The series was exhibited a few years ago at the National Gallery and other museums, where I had an opportunity to see them. These are mostly dark, low-key paintings with somber Western subjects. In this particular painting, he depicted three Native American women skinning a downed buffalo in the snow, at night, while their braves keep watch. The title says it all--these are desperate, hungry people. It was interesting to recreate Remington's composition (note how the horse to the right keeps us looking at the women) and imitate his palette. He used a generally cool blue-green tone overall to provide a sense of moonlight in many of his nocturnes, as he did in this one.

Again copying this work provided clues into what Remington's entire process. That is, by drawing the composition, then transitioning to a copy in oil I had an opportunity to follow his thought process and what digital artists today call "work flow." This copy is hardly up to the standards of the original, but as a way of learning and advancing craft, it was a valuable experience. To give an example of Remington's uncanny and delightful expertise, here's his nocturne, "The Stampede," from 1908, the year before he died. The moving cattle, galloping horse, and bold of lightning simply stopped me in my tracks as a 13 year-old boy in his first visit to an art museum (The Gilcrease Museum, in Tulsa, Oklahoma). This painting is fairly large and engages the viewer more completely in person.
Frederic Remington, "The Stampede," 1908

Bio of Frederic Remington

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