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Copying other artists, is that bad?

I often say that it is good practice to copy other artists. But isn’t that bad?

It is bad if you then show or even sell the work, especially if you pretend you made it.

But!

It is tremendous practice for learning. When you try to copy an existing work precisely, you get to try to take the same steps that grand master made, and you get to learn about their thinking as they create the piece.

You learn about their process, and you can internalize it, and use it in your own pieces.

For this, it is best if you do try to also use their tools and methods as much as possible. Try to use the pens, pencils or brushes they used. Try to use the paints, colors and mediums they used. And try to work at the size they worked on. That sort of thing.

You learn their techniques that way, and you learn how to think while creating a new piece.

It’s amazing that if you have an artist whose work you admire, who is a touch stone for you, that you can make them your art parent that way! Children look up to their parents, and they learn by copying their parents. Is there an artist whose work you admire, and you want to be able to draw or paint like them? This is a way to learn.

But it is not about the finished piece! Maybe you should even throw it away before anyone thinks you claim that you made it. The end result is that you learned something about process, techniques and use of tools. You can apply what you learned in your own work.

I am not saying that if you just use the same pen as your favorite artist, that that will automatically make you a better artist! Artists are always annoyed when people ask them what pen they use. The inner monologue of the person asking is, “wow, that is beautiful art! If I just had the same pen, I am sure my art would be great also.” And so artists become exasperated. It’s not the pen! They practiced drawing all day every day for ten years to become this good! It’s not the pen!

“What pen do you use” is the wrong question. They should be asking, how did you get this good? And the answer is, by drawing a lot with any pen they had at their disposal.

But. Many of them also spent many hours copying art they admired, and they learned about the simplifications and idealizations their favorite artists made.

Many artists working in the American comics industry started by copying Spiderman and Batman as a child. Copying artists you admire to learn from them is part of the learning process. It is an important part, it can help you progress faster.

Because these are two modes of learning: one is to just get better at drawing. For that, you need to draw a lot, and the pen or pencil you use doesn’t matter. Charcoal on newspaper at a model drawing class? Yes. Pen in a small sketchbook? Yes. Pencil on printer paper? Yes. Whatever you have at your disposal.

When making thumbnails to work out a design for a finished piece, the tool doesn’t matter much either, but it starts to matter. In my experience, it is better to work with a relatively blunt drawing tool so that you can’t fret the details.

But when you make a finished piece! That is when drawing tools matter.

Rembrandt can be your art parent if you want. Just try to copy his paintings.

If you copy a Rembrandt, you do want to use oil paints and not acrylics. He would lay down an underpainting in raw or burnt umber, and then he would add transparent layers to darken and opaque layers made by mixing with lead white, to lighten. Black could be used to make a blue. Only light-fast blue they had back then was Lapis Lazulis, which had to be imported from from Afghanistan and extremely expensive, so artists used that only very sparingly. Lead white, and a dash of red and yellow. His paints have surprisingly little color, they are tonal.

You can’t do that the same way with acrylics. You can’t do a glacis in acrylics the way you can in oil. So when you want to learn by copying a master, the tools you use can matter a lot.

But painting with oil paint does not automatically make you as good a painter as Rembrandt!

But copying one of Rembrandt’s works, and using the same paint Rembrandt used, you know, color pigments with linseed oil, you get to discover how he might have been thinking while he did that. One problematic part of it is that you need lead white which is extremely poisonous, so artists try not to use it as much, and today we work with either Titanium white or Zinc white. Zinc is rather transparant, and Titanium white is opaque, so you’d try to use Titanium white for this, but, Titanium white tends to dull colors in a way that lead white does not. Those luminescent skin colors you see in the seventeenth century master paintings? That’s lead white, and you can approximate it with a mix of Titanium and Zinc white.

When you want to become better at drawing, almost any tool works as long as you draw a lot. But when you want to create a finished piece, the materials you use definitely matter. And it is useful to practice that also, to internalize the processes and techniques of your favorite artists.

You should not keep drawing or painting in that one style, though. That would make you a surrogate of that artist. And you will then always be “they are like that artist, but not as good” no matter how hard you try.

It is better to try to understand the processes of many artists, and to make them your own and to combine them into your unique style.

Picasso famously said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” and I believe that is what he meant by it. Good artists copy the style of one artist, great artists get their inspiration from many artists and mix and match to make it into something unique.

I am having fun making horizontal scrolling comics at the moment and I take inspiration from many artists. No one is doing horizontal scrolling comics at the moment and I think it can really work well. You only really have these vertical scrollers at the moment, Webtoons and such, but I think horizontal scrolling is much more natural for comics.

So I am taking inspiration from the newspaper adventure strips, and particularly how they composed their panels. They would have word balloons at the top of the panel and heads and bodies in the lower part. They’d first place the word balloons and then place the figures, making beautiful shapes.

But for the style I am going for a more stylized European “clear line” or Ligne Claire style, because I love how that style can make panels really easy to read, and the sandy colors really give you a feeling that you are there. For the posing of characters, I am looking at what I learned from Marshall Vandruff in his amazing Bridgman course, where he showed some principles of how to look at poses: what is the action of the pose—what are they doing, what were they doing before, what pose will the body be in next, what story is it telling?

Then look at and construct the underlying volumes, because if these are not correct, your eye will notice and you tend to be pulled out of the story as it doesn’t look believable. Then also look at the abstract shapes they make as that determines in large part if the resulting panel is visually pleasing.

So I am taking ideas from the many styles and artists I have studied and I am combining it into something I hope is new.

Fun Art Challenge!

As a challenge, choose a master artist you want to study. This can be a painter, but also an illustrator. Try to find out as much as you can about their process.

What did they paint or draw on? What did they paint or draw with? How were they standing? What was the area like where they worked: how much space did they have, and what was the lighting condition like? For paintings, what pigments did they use and what mediums? How were they trained, and by whom and where and when?

Choose one of their pieces, and try to make an exact copy of it. Try to understand the layers, how they applied strokes, how they held their brushes or pens, how they moved their arms, how long it took them, what studies they had done to prepare.

You’ll be surprised how much you learn from that, how many new insights you gain, insights that you can use while designing your pieces.

Related

One thing I did recently was copy Joseph Clement Coll illustrations .

I have an article on the benefits of taking books with reference images to copy from while on holiday.

Ergojosh has a great YouTube video about the benefits of copying great artists and how you learn about their thought processes by trying to recreate their works.

I also wrote about choosing your experiences because they will show in your work.

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