Learning by imitation

After the discussion regarding assistants helping the master with the creation of the work of art, it’s interesting to look at the other side of the coin. In a traditional studio, the assistants were often pupils who were learning their master’s techniques by copying his work. Copying was the standard method of learning technique for many years. Has it disappeared completely from modern fine art courses? I know there is more emphasis on “concepts” rather than technique but would be grateful for any information on this point.

There are some interesting copies made by famous artists. I was at the Dulwich Picture Gallery last year (to see a Vermeer which they had on loan) when I saw a copy of a Jacob van Ruisdael landscape painted by John Constable.

Constable’s copy

According to the Dulwich Picture Gallery website “Constable had always greatly admired Ruisdael (whom he called Ruysdael in the manner of the time). Together with Richard Wilson and Claude, he considered him one of the greatest landscape painters. He made frequent copies (‘memoranda’) of his works throughout his life, four appearing in his posthumous sale. DPG657 is a copy of the Dulwich Ruisdael, DPG168, made after the latter, apparently on Constable’s advice, had been lent to the RA schools for copying by the students in 1830.”

Ruisdael’s original of “Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem” c. 1650/52

“[Constable’s copy] differs in showing a boy walking besides a man with a red coat on horseback in the right foreground. These figures were first recorded in the Ruisdael in 1835 and it is a reasonable assumption that they were there when Constable made his copy in 1831. In 1997 the boy, horse and rider were discovered by pigment analysis to be post­-seventeenth-century additions and were removed. Bourgeois was not above ‘improving’ landscapes he had acquired.”

What prompted this post was seeing earlier this week a copy of a Titian painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

“Venus of Urbino” by Titian, 1538

“Reclining Venus, after Titian” Ingres, 1822

According to the Walters Art Museum website “Ingres was deeply inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art as well by Italian painting of the High Renaissance. Although he spent much of his career in Rome, he resided in Florence from 1820 to 1824, where he painted this copy of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1538), from the collection at the Pitti Palace… He intended it to serve as a model for his close friend, the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850), who was creating a sculpture based on the same subject.”

I recently completed a course at Bolton College on Acrylic Portraits. This concluded with our copying a portrait by an artist of our choice and then painting another portrait in that artist’s style. I’ve always liked the Fauves so copied a portrait of Matisse by Derain. (I could have copied a portrait of Derain by Matisse.)

Andre Derain’s original portrait of Matisse

My copy of Derain’s work

It was only by copying Derain’s original that I appreciated the importance of the mid-grey priming layer and the dark grey drawing, both of which are still visible in the final work. It was also important to work out in which order the various colours were applied. The experience of this allowed me to paint a self-portrait in Derain’s style.

Self-Portait after Andre Derain

I was pleased with the result (but I don’t really have a green face!)


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website johnpindararts.weebly.com
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17 Responses to Learning by imitation

  1. seascapesaus says:

    Lots of things to think about here! A friend who teaches art has taught herself lots of techniques by painting imitations. Forger’s Masterclass on tv was fascinating. Did you see it? Your portraits are fun! I would just make your teeth recede a bit (tonally that is).

    • Do you mean the John Myatt series on Sky? I love the way that he is now making a fortune legitimately even if it’s based on his notoriety. I have toned down the teeth! I was just grinning in the photo I based the painting on.

      • seascapesaus says:

        Yes that’s the program. I had forgotten his name. I tried a Derain landscape after outdoors after I had seen that session but found I didn’t understand enough. Your info about the grey underpainting was a revelation. I do like your grin anyway! hope you are not disappointed now the teeth are toned down.

  2. Between 1986-1990, copying was still going on (by at least one person – me), at my college but mainly not of works (although there was a dedicated studio, which strongly encouraged painting in a particular style), more attitudes and ideas. Perhaps this is the way it goes when the bedrock is conceptual work. Love the self-portrait, and your version of the Derain, which both have a real tenderness to them.

  3. Deanne says:

    Yes, your self-portrait is wonderful. I think copying is still encouraged, more in the sense that Richard is saying of ideas or ways of conceiving a project. But I haven’t taught for 5-6 years and even then it wasn’t in painting. I’m a lapsed painter:)

  4. clinock says:

    John, I think you answered your own question when you explained what you were asked to do in your Bolton College course. In my own high school art teaching and in the many painting courses I have participated in since retiring, the concept of ‘copying’ is alive. Despite the modernist rejection of ‘copying’ it survives as a powerful teaching tool, as you have experienced. My students, and myself, in the past, as a BFA student and in the present as a ‘Retired’ student have discovered so much of value in this exercise. It continues and will continue – although I must say that I would never do it as a personal project. As a student of art history I appreciate your scholarly posts…

    • I was asking about degree level university fine art courses rather than “fun” evening courses at the local college. We learn how to do things and how to get certain effects. I’m lead to believe that university fine art courses assume you can do all the technical bit and just teach “concepts”, hence my question.

  5. Very nice self-portrait. I used to paint before, but not anymore. Maybe I’ll take it up again sometime.
    Here’s two of my self-portraits:

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