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The Fine Art of Copying

Style is what's left when you've tried and failed to copy somebody else. Put a little more positively, style is what emerges after you've thoroughly digested the works of those who are your teachers--both alive and dead. It's the little bit of yourself that puts a new twist on their work--that insists on itself in spite of their example and their authority. For some reason this reality eludes many people involved in teaching and learning art. Work that is "unoriginal" is met with abhorrence by art educators who value students' supposedly innate creativity over copying. As a teacher I have encountered so many students who feel that they don't need to know anything about art to make art. They have been taught to think this way.

How would that work if you wanted to learn how to play guitar? Imagine playing guitar without listening to other guitarists--without trying to sound like they sound. How do you compose music without listening to music and understanding it? Is a beginning guitarist just supposed to spontaneously start playing bad-ass blues licks? In fact, music is like art--a language. And the way we all learn language from the minute we're born is by listening to and copying the people around us who know how to speak that language better than we do. That's called learning. Eventually you start speaking with your own personal voice and lexicon. But it takes plenty of practice.

Art is the same way. You learn by copying others. It is not a derivative, unimaginative waste of time. Copying is an art in and of itself. Vincent Van Gogh understood this. Here is one of the many paintings he copied by his idol Jean-François Millet:

Van Gogh, one of the greatest painters to ever live, spent a lot of time copying other artists at his creative peak. If copying the work of others was good enough for him, it's good enough for me and for my students. Left to your own devices, it's hard to learn in any systematic way how to ink, for example. There are some things that come easy, like scribbling back and forth in no particular direction. But to do hatching or feathering eloquently, or employ line weight, requires a serious look at a master's work. This is why when I was learning how to ink, I focused on the work of Joe Kubert:

It's astounding how much I learned about the brush from doing this piece, based on Kubert's 1976 splash for Ragman #1. Most importantly it gave me a sense of confidence with the brush pen that I hadn't had before. His linework revealed to me a panoply of textures and subtleties that I hadn't even imagined. And in spite of it all, there were parts that still wound up looking different from the master--including the dry-brush strokes I did on the brick wall. Copying artists doesn't mean you have to submerge yourself. It's more like having a conversation with a great artist or like sitting in a one-on-one tutorial with them.

Like Van Gogh, I have studied the work of others who came before me and learned so much--both consciously and subliminally. Here's another Kubert copy I did:

The way Kubert perfectly combined heavily-hatched areas with large swathes of expressive blacks appealed to me when I was a young comic book reader. It still does. He knows when to render and he knows when to leave a space blank. Everything there is essential and adds to an overall mood of grittiness, intensity, and energy. Copying his work helped me to synthesize my interests in rendering naturalistically with covalent tendencies toward abstraction and expressionism.

Like Van Gogh, copying the art of others has allowed me to immerse myself in the minds of those who've inspired me. Copying is an art when it allows you to grow your technique and your vision. At its best, it helps you expand the boundaries of the possible in your work.


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