A copy of a sargent portrait with text that says

5 Reasons You Should Copy a Master Portrait Painting

painting portrait painting

Art students and amateurs alike have been copying the works of masters for centuries. Some people think it's lazy and uncreative, while others swear by the efficiency and effectiveness of imitating master paintings.

In this article, you'll learn five reasons why you should consider creating a copy of a painting you admire.

1) Address Your Weaknesses

Is there something in particular you're unsatisfied with in your paintings? Something you admire in works you see in museums but you haven't been able to achieve on your own? A master copy just might do the trick.

When you copy a master portrait, you're copying the colors they saw, with their brushwork, and their simplification. So if you're not comfortable using a big, juicy, unblended brush mark in a portrait painting from a photo, you just might get comfy with it when you're imitating it someone else's painting. Or, if you tend to add too much information in the shadows, copying someone else's broad, simple shadows will give you the feel for how to leave out unimportant details.

Copying this Velazquez painting helped me embrace juicier brushwork.

2) Copying Master Works is a Tradition

The practice of reproducing paintings and drawings for the purpose of learning is about as old as the concept of teaching art itself. Before universities and art schools, students would apprentice in an artist's studio, copying the master artist's work and eventually helping to paint background elements and drapery in commissions. In the French Academy, students learned by copying Bargue plates, which created a standard for how to use line and value in drawings.

Making our own copies of great art has persisted as a tool in art education because it works. Why does it work so well?

3) You Learn Best Through Imitation

Think about all the first things you ever did, and you'll realize that most of these things you learned by copying. Babies mimic their parents' words, children learn handwriting and spelling by copying sentences, or you may have learned to dance young by imitating your family's moves. If not, you can take lessons as an adult where you learn to copy steps!

Now think about how well you've learned various things over the years when you were applying a monkey-see/monkey-do approach compared to learning by reading, watching, or listening alone.

It works a lot better when you actually do it, doesn't it?

4) Learn the Language Before You Translate

Take a look at the red line in that ear and the lost edges in the eye of this John Singer Sargent copy.

To use language again as an analogy: Before we can write poetry or prose, we need to understand words, grammar, punctuation, etc. We need to learn how others have used these elements to describe their thoughts and feelings in order to know how best to express ourselves verbally.

If we want to create great art, it helps us to learn how master artists have translated their experience of the visual world into value, color, shapes, and edges. When you paint from a photo or model, *you* have to do the translating into paint on a canvas. Make no mistake, there is a translation! It's not as simple as copying what you see in a photo or from life. When you copy a master portrait painting, you learn how they used paint to create a work of art, so that you are better equipped to do that translation yourself.

5) Practice a New Technique

Last but not least, copying the work of a great artist can help you learn a new approach to painting.

For example, you can learn about underpainting and glazing by copying a Vermeer who is said to have used this practice. Research the method used by the artist and the colors in their palette (or take a class with someone who can teach you) and see how you feel about the technique as you go. You might find that you want to use what you learned in your own work!

The process of glazing on a copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.

A Word About Copying and Stealing

Remember, the purpose of copying in this context is to learn. 

That does not mean that you should copy a living artist's work, claim it as your own, and try to sell it. That is at best frowned upon, and at worst illegal. (Do a search on copyright theft.)

However, it's totally legit if you're copying the work of a long-gone master artist (think more than 100 years ago), and/or you're making the copy for yourself and not exhibiting, selling*, or pretending it's your original idea. This is a great practice, will help you grow by leaps and bounds, and you can always hang the study in your home or give it as a gift to a loved-one.

Master Portrait Copies 6 Week Course

If you'd like to copy a master portrait with guidance and critique along the way, check out the Master Portrait Copies 6 Week Course. It's available as a video course, and sometime also available live.

You'll complete two portraits in six weeks: One created with a traditional underpainting and glazing technique, and another painted Alla Prima.

Choose from a variety of pre-selected portraits, complete with a palette selection that closely resembles the pigments the original artist used.

I hope you found this article useful! Have you created a master portrait copy, and if so what did you learn?

*In some contexts it's OK to sell these copies. So long as the artwork is in the public domain, it's not marketed in a fraudulent way, and it's clearly marked as a copy by you of another artist's work. Also, this is not legal advice! I'm an artist and definitely not a lawyer.

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