06 March 2014

Education Through Emulation

Cows In Summer - 11x14" - Oiil
Since art's earliest times, copying the work of other artists has been used as a valuable learning tool. In schools, ateliers, and workshops around the world this practice still goes on as part of learning. Van Gogh did a whole series of sketches and paintings after Jean-Francois Millet, but made them his own through his unique colour palette and style. 

Jean-Francois Millet - Rest After Work

Vincent Van Gogh - Rest Work (After Millet)

Cennino Cennini (1370 - 1440) said, "Take pains and pleasure in copying the best works by the hands of great masters."

I have a strong belief that as long as a person is living they should continue to learn. No matter how much of an 'expert' one might come to be regarded, there is always going to be more to learn. As I live in a community 2 1/2 hours away from the closest major city, the opportunities for art workshops and learning are very slim. The opportunities for learning the more traditional methods of the past are even slimmer.

I have some favorite books and videos I often turn to, and I participate in some online communities to help me build my skills and learn, and I have worked through open studios with a local artist in one of our closer smaller cities. But I sometimes turn to the time honoured tradition of copying master works. This process of studying and learning offers insight into not only how that particular artist worked, but how I work as well. I am not alone.

Gerald King is but one of many copyist's at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which has run a copyist program since 1941, allowing artists to apply for a permit to copy works in the gallery. The gallery even goes so far as to supply an easel, stool, and drop cloth. Artist's are required to sign an agreement for rules surrounding the copying of works, but as King demonstrates, that agreement does not exclude the selling of these copies.

Some question the ethics of this practice, especially when master copies are sold. For me, I am okay with the practice with a few caveats. The works being copied should be out of copyright. The works should not be sold as originals as was done by art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi and the many, many Chinese and Russian artists whose sole practice is selling hand painted reproductions. (There is a good 60 Minutes interview with Beltracchi on Youtube.) And any reproductions should state "After [artist's name]".

I usually try to avoid the complicated issues by not making an exact copy, but instead by using the master works as a jumping off point, by using just a portion of their painting, or as Van Gogh did, by painting it in my own style and colour palette. In "Cows In Summer" I stayed fairly close to Cornelis Vreedenburgh's View On The Ijssel Near Hattem. I was not striving for an exact replica, so did not follow his same colour palette or try to match brush stroke for brush stroke. My goal in creating this copy was to study how Vreedenburgh painted the cattle without details. 

Cornelis Vreedenburgh - View On The Ijssel Near Hattem

The lesson was invaluable and I will use what I learned in future paintings; and with any luck, to good results! This wasn't my only lesson however, Vreedenburgh's work set me off on a exploration of Dutch impressionsit landscape painters. I have always enjoyed Van Gogh's paintings, especially his landscapes, but I have since discovered so many others I had previously not known about. Johann Hendrik Weissenbruch, Pieter Wenning, Meindert Hobbema, Willem Hendrik van der Nat, and others. This lead me to the Hague School group whom I want to learn more about.....and on an on it goes. All from wanting to learn how to paint cows with a minimum of brush strokes and details.