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COPYING: Should it be Part of the Learning Process?

COPYING: Should it be Part of the Learning Process?

Article by Ronnie Rayner Larter

Ronnie Rayner LarterThere seems to be a debate about whether or not it’s good to copy when drawing. Some say no, others say yes. Did you know they used to do that in the old school of art where new students were made to copy from drawings and prints of their masters. In fact, they would spend the first year constantly copying from prints, or from the ‘flat’ as they called it, which was taught as being good practice.

Why was it good practice? Well, in life, we all learn by copying. For example, we copy our parents behaviour and in some measure we become like them through their example. We learn to speak their language, inherit their mannerisms, develop similar behaviour patterns and so on. Copying is something we do as growing children. A baby’s mind is a blank canvas. We knew nothing about life, about language, eating, toiletry, walking, behaviour etc. It was during those early years while we grew into infancy and then into childhood that we picked up all the skills we need for life by copying our parents. The same process is also found in much of the animal kingdom. Copying therefore, is a learning process. We try to emulate our masters of life skills.

So what about copying artwork? Can we look at that process in the same way? I feel we can. In fact, I feel we should copy. All art schools, ateliers and online tutors should encourage copying as it was in the old days. There is a logic and a reason to it.

2014-08-17_53f0f24a52a71_Footdrawing.jpg
Foot Drawing copied from plate 1-7 of the George Bargue’s Drawing Course, late 1800’s
Drawing by Ronnie Rayner Larter

A new student or wannabe artist is a bit like a new born babe. They have no skills at hand, so need to develop them. At art school these days they do not really teach drawing skills, they simply let them get on with their own thing, and look what we have, a huge variety of art that resembles nothing like the masters of old. It’s art gone wild. Just imagine what would happen if our children were never taught behaviour patterns. Would they grow into a wild bunch of people who have no resemblance to their masters of life – their parents?

In my opinion copying is a must for all wannabe artists. I’m not saying we should become slaves to copying, but in the early stages of learning to draw we should copy goods works of the masters until we have developed a degree of understanding of how drawings were rendered, how lines were used to their best effect, how tone was created and so on.

Drawing copied from Leonardos Five Characters
Copy from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing, ‘Five Characters’
Drawing by Ronnie Rayner Larter

I have copied during my time as an artist and feel no shame about it. Copying has helped to develop my drawing skills, and even now, after 40 years or so as an artist, I still copy once in a while to study a particular style. Art is an on-going process of learning and copying should be part of that learning. However, having said that, we must of course spend more and more time drawing from nature and that is the most important skill to develop.

The Drawing Academy tends to advise their students not to copy, but that is in reference to copying from photos to create a work of art. The academy admit that it’s OK to copy from the masters, but it’s still not encouraged to any length or degree, and I can understand why; students need to get into the habit of drawing from life, which in essence is our ultimate goal. However, I feel perhaps copying from the old masters should be encouraged as part of the learning process. I wonder what Drawing Academy students feel about that?

Video presentation – Can You Learn to Draw by Copying? »

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