'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Copying art

Many artists argue about the merits and evils of copying. Some say it is plagiarism and anyway does no-one any good, as it inhibits originality.

Some say that it is the very best thing to do, especially when starting out, when learning techniques, and before your own style has developed.

"When you have practiced drawing for a while... take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters."
Cennino Cennini (about 1400).

The latter was certainly the case during the Renaissance, when Cennino Cennini wrote this in his Il libro dell'arte, or Craftsman's Handbook.

Personally, I have found that copying has helped me enormously over the years. I feel I can 'get under the skin' of a great artist if I copy a work. Somehow I begin to absorb some of the artist's thought processes and I seem to make sense of the reason for structure, forms and colour choices. Certainly my drawing and painting techniques develop too. And of course there is no better way to know something, really know its shape and colour and proportion, if you have to draw or paint it.

Anyway, one of the exercises I did some years ago was to copy a small part of a late Gothic/early Renaissance fresco.
(To find out more about the fresco technique you can go here.)
Mine wasn't a true buon or wet fresco, for which one has to have great confidence and experience as the fresh plaster absorbs colours instantly and there's no possibility of correcting mistakes. It was more secco - working on dry plaster and using egg yolk as the binder.

Above you can see the huge early Renaissance Maesta, the 'majestic' alterpiece of Duccio di Buoninsegna, and on the far right, middle row, is the figure of Saint Agnes, which I copied.

She is this one holding a medallion and a lamb.

Here is the finished work:

Before starting any fresco, the artist always made a 'cartoon' - a drawing of part of the work, life-size. This was then 'pounced' onto the plaster. Tiny holes were pricked along the lines of the drawing, the cartoon was held against the smooth newly plastered wall and a small bag full of pigment powder was patted over the holes, making a series of dotted lines on the plaster underneath which indicated the outlines of the work.

I had trouble getting this transfer technique to work so resorted to gently poking tiny holes through the paper and into the plaster - not a technique any renaissance Master would have approved of, but it worked to a degree. The holes show of course, if you look very closely, or click on the image to see a close-up..

The completed size of my little fresco is 21 cm (6 1/2 ins) x 16 cm (8 ins). I had to cut most of the hairs off my tiniest brush to do the soft shading on the face and around her hairline. I used gold paint to decorate her scarf and robe, and gold and glitter mixed for the halo. In the original, Duccio would have gilded the areas using real gold flakes painstakingly applied. The halo would then be 'tooled' ie a pattern embossed in it.

The main thing I learnt was that egg tempera is very opaque. Because the under colours do not show through, I could not layer colours to get the gentle graduations from pink to cream on her cheeks, and had difficulties getting the effect of light and shade on the folds of the headscarf. I had to resort to the same technique as all fresco artists - tiny lines or hatching, increasing in density and/or thickness, in order to make gradients of tone (darkness) and hue (colour).
I also learnt that the yellow of the yolk changes the colour of the paint (Of course!) Blues are especially tricky, as they tend to the green. The late Gothic and early Renaissance painters used flakes of the precious blue stone lapis lazuli, or ground it up. Giotto gave his frescoes wonderful recession (depth) by using lapis lazuli for the backgrounds instead of the gold usually used.

I'll let Cennini have the last word:

When painting the faces of young persons... use the yolk of the egg of a city hen, because they have lighter yolks than those of country hens.

This is a post I wrote some time ago when I had a separate art blog. If you have read this before, I apologise. Although I humbly consider it can stand a re-read.


  1. What an absolute delight that posting is. I don't think anyone needs to apologise about copying the old masters for all the very legitimate reasons you give. Some of the old masters were apprentised themselves for a time where they learnt the traditions and techniques. Anyway nothing just appears in a vacuum, every one of us stands on the shoulders of those that have come before us -its called building on our heritage and culture.

    Just love the Cinnini quote!!!

  2. Yes.. the shoulders of giants. And yep, the quote is lovely, especially for me, as I was sure that I would never be able to eat 'pale supermarket' eggs again after having my own chooks. One day I'll move back to the country and get some more

  3. WOW. Sorry if that's a bit, well, how can I put it, unsubtle as a comment.

    I have no practical artistic ability although I grew up amongst people who had/have. But I've never had any knowledge of practical techniques like this. This is, of course, my own fault because I could have read about them in preparation for my trips to Italy where one is surrounded by such works.

    Anyway I sat reading your post and looking at the detail whilst I was eating a large tub of yoghurt for breakfast. Fortunately there was only just over half left because I don't even remember finishing it I was so engrossed.

  4. I've very flattered by your response GB. And pleased that, in some small measure, I've assisted someone to greater internal health today.

  5. Gulp! Thank you for the lesson. I think your St Agnes is wonderful. Of course copying is commendable - like an apprenticeship - limbering up before developing your own artistic voice.

  6. Thanks YP. And I like the way you put that; 'limbering up'.

  7. Hi Katherine, Your "copy" is amazing and I loved hearing about the technique too. I've never copied a piece of art but have copied a style that I liked and admired. We all learn from each other and inspire each other creatively in so many ways!

  8. I'm tempted to say "the yolk's on me" but I will refrain....

    I don't know diddly-squat (it's an old American expression from an old American) about art, but I could spend hours looking at paintings in a museum. Two highlights of my life were seeing the Paul Gaugin exhibition and the Andrew Wyeth Helga exhibition at our National Gallery of Art on two separate business trips to Washington, D.C.

  9. Thank you Kate i - and welcome to TLVD! As you say, creativity is often stimulated by something we have seen or heard, sometimes years before.
    My tutors are fond of saying "Someone's probably done it before." But that doesn't stop us from constantly striving to say something in a new and more accurate/ simple way...

    Robert - I am so envious of your gallery visit opportunities.
    And I'm familiar with the expression you use. It's also what hens do when they lay eggs, donchaknow? They 'diddle' which means 'to move purposefully (but seemingly randomly to a casual observer) around an area looking for a suitable place in which to lay an egg'; and then they 'squat' which of course means 'to squat'.

  10. That's very beautiful. I so appreciate the gift those of you have that can do things like that!

  11. Thanks Beau. It's a reward to give people pleasure through my work.

  12. I enjoyed reading it. I love they way you painted her, very beautiful.

  13. Thanks for your comment Meg. She's not very realistic, because the renaissance artists like Duccio were supposed to use a 'pattern book' when painting faces. It originally came from the old Byzantine iconic religious figures.