THE ART OF THE MASTER COPY – Sam Clayden

London Fine Art Studios - Master Copy

Copies after Colleen Barry drawings – done in front of the TV. Credit: Artist Colleen Barry

So we’re all stuck indoors at the moment. While some of us might be lucky enough to live with someone who is willing to pose from time to time, most of us are without models for the most part – and personally there’s only so much time I can spend looking at myself in the mirror. 

But the lack of models doesn’t mean we have to put our art practice on hold. One of the things I find most beneficial is to copy the masters. After all, who better to learn from than the artists you most admire? If you want to paint light like and texture like Rembrandt, copy Rembrandt. If you want to paint with broad, efficient brushstrokes, copy Sargent. If subtle colour harmony is your thing, look at Serov. Love the majesty of the Russian landscape painters? Then study them. 

Artists through the centuries have copied from those who went before them. It’s one of the most effective ways to truly begin to understand how many ways there are to approach a painting and why different methods give different outcomes. 

I’ve committed to doing several master copies in Lockdown 3.0. But I don’t just throw myself into them. For me, the purpose of a master copy is to really deconstruct how they achieved what they achieved and to draw or paint it just as they would have. That means taking the time to analyse the work you’re copying. Read up on their methods, ideas, materials and techniques. See if you can find unfinished works by the artist that might show something of their process. 

If you look closely at a drawing or a painting, chances are they left behind clues as to their working process. Can you see a hint of an umber wash shining through in the shadows, suggesting they started with an imprimatura. Are the brushstrokes easy to see and can you figure out why they chose to paint each one in that particular direction? Does it look like the artist has built up thick texture and then glazed over the top? Was there clearly a tight drawing before the paint was applied carefully in layers, or was colour harmony the main focus of the painting, in which case they may have started with washes of colour to establish the major colour relationships. 

It’s like being a detective. If you look closely enough and for long enough, you can often pick apart an artist’s process. If you can try to emulate that, some semblance of the artist’s methods will seep into your own practices. 

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Copy of Ilya Repin’s portrait of the composer Modest Mussorgsky

This first effort was a copy of Ilya Repin’s portrait of the composer Modest Mussorgsky. I found out how big the painting was and made sure I reproduced the head at the same scale as the original, just to be really fastidious about things. Repin painted it in just four sessions while Mussorgsky was in hospital after a lifetime of alcoholism and madness. He died just days after Repin finished the painting. I love the psychological intensity of the bleary eyed alcoholic in his final days and so I wanted to ensure I captured that. 

There are very few writings (in English at least) on Repin’s technique on the internet, but looking at some of his painted studies, it shows perhaps that he started with a very broad schematic drawing and then painted confidently and boldly over the top, with as little fuss as possible. He also painted relatively thickly in the lights, and so I wanted to emulate that by painting with a nice loaded brush. 

I learnt a lot from the study, particularly in tackling those luminous shadows. His colour was pretty vibrant, too. I made sure to spend no more than 4 sessions on the painting, just to ensure I didn’t overdo it – after all, Repin didn’t have that luxury as his sitter died. 

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Studies by Ilya Repin suggesting process

My next copy is of a detail of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Potato Gatherers. This is quite a different painting from the Repin piece, but I love the tender, honest portrayal of the peasant woman working the fields. I’ve always been attracted to the simple beauty of the subjects of the late 19th Century Naturalists, as well as their fusion of Academic and more modern approaches of painting. 

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Copy of a detail of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Potato Gatherers

In terms of how he tackled the work, I couldn’t find much about Bastien-Lepage’s practices specifically, but I know he studied under Cabernal at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. Of course in the Academy, drawing was prized above all, and so I started with a pretty accurate drawing in charcoal, before applying washes to establish the major colour relationships. I then pretty much worked piece by piece to bring it to a finish. I could also see a lot of warmth coming through the darkest areas of the hair and clothes in the original painting, so I started with washes of transparent oxide brown before painting, cooler darks over the top. I probably could have used another session or two to finesse and glaze, but I feel I learnt enough in the two sessions I spent on this.

So without babbling on too much, here are some more paintings and drawings I’ve copied from the masters. It’s fun,insightful and requires only a reference image and a lot of patience. 

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Copy after Sargeant drawing

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Copy after Isaac Levitan – Birch Grove

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