Friday, August 9, 2013

Copying as a learning tool

Many years ago I spent a fair bit of time researching traditional Chinese art.  I was in my “Chinese phase” (one of many phases in which I would take as many books as I could carry home from the library on a given subject).  One of the things that I thought was particularly interesting was the mention, in several places, that when spring_tile_detaila student went to study art at a school, they were set to copying the work of acknowledged masters.  They weren’t allowed to choose subjects or even compositions on their own until they had spent several years repeating the brush strokes of the great artists of earlier periods.
Of course, this struck me because in the West we are discouraged from copying or even really mimicking artists, alive or dead.  But the concept made a great deal of sense to me, never having had the advantage of an art school education.  This would be a great way to learn to paint – I could copy a painting I liked and when I didn’t get it right, I could critically examine the original and mine side by side and see where it went wrong.  Sometimes I could fix it, but even if not, I would learn something I could carry with me to the next painting.  The above painting is one such exercise.  The image in the lower right is copied from a book by Alison Stilwell Cameron called Chinese Painting Techniques.  The calligraphy is from a book of Chinese poetry and is called I Want To Go Out, But It’s Raining.  What the poem says is beside the point, but I love it and will share it anyway.
The east wind blows rain,
Vexing the rambler.
The road turns to mud
From fine dust.

Flowers sleep, willows drowse,
Spring itself is lazy.
Who knew that I
Am even lazier than spring?

                                             -- Lu You
                                                 circa 1200AD
I was always conscious of the Western taboo on this subject, so as soon as I could begin to create my own original work, I moved on.  But I think it shouldn’t be viewed that way.  This is probably a practice that all artists could benefit from throughout their lifetimes.  There is always something more to learn.
Having said that, a fair number of mosaic artists I know have seen their worked not only copied, but for sale online.  That would be bad enough if the original artist were credited, but he or she never is.  So before I go any further let me be firm about this – NEVER, EVER, MAKE A COPY OF SOMEONE ELSE’S ART FOR SALE.  It should only be for learning purposes.
What brought this up is running across this blog post this morning:  Artists Don’t Own Subjects! by Jean Haines.  Although her main point is the association of subject matter with particular artists (sunflowers with Van Gogh, Venice with Sargent, etc.), she mentions copying as a valid learning technique, and set me to thinking about this.  I really think maybe I’ll return to that as a learning aide. 
How do you feel about this?  Do you use copying as a learning tool?  Why or why not?


  1. A very valid point. When I started mosaics it was at the school in Ravenna and everyone started with a piece for piece copy of an ancient mosaics. It made no difference if you were an experienced contemporary artist, you still had to start with the copy.
    As you say, you look at your work and compere it to the original. This, to my mind is where you begin to discover what the original mosaicist wanted to show.

  2. Yes. Thank you Lawrence. I had forgotten about the Ravenna school - I haven't been there, but I had heard that they do it that way.



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