…and by you, I mean me.
What have I gained from copying? Here is a preliminary list of pedagogical incentives to be derivative. There is copying, and then there is copying.
Technical skills on a budget
I usually think of my high school art classes as the beginning of my art education. What did we do during those hours?
We copied. We copied photographs. We copied from art history. We copied lots of things. Someone pointed out that male and female students were far (far, far, far) more likely to copy photographs of beautiful women than men. The teacher did his best to get us to create art outside the realist tradition, but we all strove to be the best human copy machine. In hindsight, these ideas and practices prepared me for later discussions of appropriation, the male gaze, and realism.
We learned to draw grids on our source images to facilitate accurate drawing. Our school was rural and never struck me as awash with funding, so we had plenty of time to practice controlling pressure with graphite pencils. I came to despise tempera paint, except on the rare occasions when the grocery store would let us decorate their windows. I practiced patience. I learned to work through my own confusion.
In college, the copying was different. We could no longer pick a single image and mindlessly meditatively copy it. Learning to paint from nature (and there was a lot of brisk plein air) encouraged us to find ways to put the art before everything else. Charcoal will always get under your fingernails, so cut them to the quick. It’s cold? Wear five shirts under your jacket. It’s hot and bugs are crawling all over you? Quit using perfume and scented soaps. Learn to blow bugs off your paper, because anything else leaves guts right in your center of interest. It’s a pragmatic compassion.
The irony of realism
Professors helped us see that underneath even the most realistic painting lies abstraction. In fact, rigorously realistic painting REQUIRES that you learn to turn off or dim the part of your mind that tells you what you’re seeing. I’ve written about this before in regards to trompe l’oeil. In order to do that sort of painting, you must strive to be that person who can see the gestalt or optical illusion in both the illusionistic and the literal manner.
Sometimes we made elaborate diagrams of artworks in order to explain them. It wasn’t enough to say that a Benton painting had a curvilinear structure and rhythm. We had to make a scale drawing that highlighted the exact lines or areas of contrast which justified our opinions. These diagrams were inherently subjective, but they were also objective inasmuch as they derived from the canon of art.
We used to talk about it as painting truths. It was our duty or pleasure to seek out patterns in the world. I often thought of it in terms of tree branching patterns. Branches grow from the trunk of a pine tree in a far different attitude than those of a maple, palm, or willow. Not every branch of a tree grows in that attitude, but it’s enough to justify drawing them that way. Sometimes you must exaggerate the truth in order to make it evident.
I have on several occasions copied paintings or parts of paintings. Treating the canon of your field like clip art is an incredibly entitled action. Yes, it is pretentious. It is also humbling.
Imagine two artists. The first one refuses to appropriate anything from the canon because it would be disrespectful. Perhaps he thinks it would make his own work look bad by comparison.
The second artist appropriates. Perhaps she tries to repaint some Old Master’s work. Maybe it’s her own composition, but the style is derivative (or “in the style of,” or “paying homage to” if your language is more charitable). It might be a literal pastiche of printed reproductions and her own painting. In either case, she almost certainly suffers from the comparison.
The first artist knows there is probably something more to learn and a difference between their work and that of the canon. The second artist KNOWS precisely how far her work deviates from that high standard. She made herself vulnerable. Her ego is probably squashed in the short term. In the longer term, she has the advantage. Her nose has been rubbed into her inadequacy, and that is a powerful motivator to improve.
Copying another artist’s work forces you to pay attention to it as you otherwise wouldn’t. Nobody says you will ever achieve a telepathic link with the artist across time. You should, however, expect to gain a few new insights.
Shortcuts for historical reference
Revisionism is a loaded word, and I notice that my dictionary considers it pejorative. Then again, I also understand that in the UK to revise means to study for an exam. If copying art forces you to look at it in a new light, then so does forcing new contexts or juxtapositions upon recognizable elements of art history. If these juxtapositions seem uncomfortable or inappropriate, then that is probably an artist’s strategy for forcing you to consider that discomfort. Is it funny? Does it suggest a change the artist wishes they could go back in time to implement? It is almost certainly symbolic.
Take-home suggestions for teachers
While straightforward copying does have its virtues, there are ways to keep students from becoming Xerox machines. One such strategy is to have students take on an imaginary mentor from art history. They should spend a period of time studying any and all examples of that artist’s work. They should read a biography (if one exists about that artist). Then, they will try to do original compositions in that artist’s style. During this process, they should learn a few characteristic types of mark-making and composition by which to identify and appreciate that artist. Choosing artists adept at a technique the student wishes to acquire would be a wise decision.
Another approach is to have students expand on a famous artwork. Have them print out the artwork the size of a postcard. Imagine that the resulting image is part of a painting. The student needs to restore it. They can decoupage the print onto a much larger picture plane, but then they must fill the surface with compatible imagery. If they are painting, they will have to assume new patterns of touching the brush to the picture plane. The colors on their palette may need to shift. This assignment type forces you to consciously apprehend characteristics of another artwork without replicating them by rote. You will understand the other artist’s work much better, and perhaps your own as well.
I have more ideas and a mess of links for this subject. To be continued…