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.