Monday, October 31, 2011

Copy the Masters

The above image is a painting by Monet titled "Hauling the Boat Ashore at Honfleur." Its image is being used for educational purposes here and on the site where I found it. Always be careful about copying images online, make sure you check whether it's public domain or has a Wikipedia Commons or other permission with attribution.

While no one is going to mistake my painting for Monet's painting, below is my attempt to copy it in another medium at another size. Monet painted large in what looks to me like oils. I painted small in Color Conte but maintained more or less the same aspect ratio (the proportion of the short side to the long side).

It's valuable practice to copy the masters, especially classical masters whose works are out of copyright. Don't copy them the same size in the same materials or you may be accused of art forgery, they're usually worth millions. You can learn a lot from someone who's that good a painter though.

Very often if I copied a master painting small, I'd leave out the figures. This time I dared to try them, since I had enough practice at small gestures to see how he did them. I looked close and simplified only a little. It was a delightful surprise to find out that with only a few strokes, I too could manage to show the strain and effort all three men put into moving that large boat.

I'll remember that when I'm out in the city jotting sketches of people doing things. It's okay to do little figures less than an inch high and show their broad body motions rather than try to get the heads in exact proportion to their little bodies and their feet exactly right. Sometimes hands and feet don't even show at that size. That's okay. Less is more.

Urban landscapes are full of people and parked cars. You can't get away from people and big manufactured objects if you sketch outdoors in the city. Out in the country, you can move over and leave out the farmer and his tractor. Put him in and the painting may appeal more to people.

Without the figures, this would have been a beautiful sunset painting anyway. Another thing I learned came from following Monet's color choices. I can't count the number of lovely sunsets I've done shading from yellow through pink, red and lavender. I can get the sky colors pretty well painting them from life and extrapolate when I'm painting from a photo.

Yet I hadn't ever done what he did in this painting - shade the yellow all the way to white at the lightest part of the sunset where the sun's obscured by clouds. It goes that bright. It reads true in his painting. So I painted the sky following his, improvised a little on the cloud shapes due to size and seeing many similar cloud formations in person. I didn't copy the clouds exactly.

I went to do the reflections on the water using the same sticks, then checked Monet to see if I'd done them the way he did. Whoops! There was another lesson. The reflections of the sky on the water are darker, less intense and less contrasting than the sky. Out came the gray Conte to glaze over those reflections till I more or less matched the hue and intensity Monet used for those waves.

Wow. I sat back from it and the sky zoomed into the distance, the water below looked more like water with that simple change. When I paint a sunset from life I'll watch for that effect and match it.

I used the same blue, violet and brown sticks in many different parts of the painting. I could see that Monet probably had some piles of mixtures and just kept changing the proportions of this pigment or that to achieve color unity. By the time I was done, I realized I'd only used seven or eight sticks total - not the entire 24 color box and probably wouldn't have used any more colors if I'd still had the 48 color set.

Copying the masters is an art lesson across time. Especially when they predate photography, you will see things you don't always see when you're looking at reality or a photo. Monet's strokes guided mine even though I worked in a different medium. Monet's design is now deep in my memory, something that will affect how I set up to paint sunsets in reality.

It's a good exercise to improve your skills. Look for masters that you always loved and wanted to paint the way they did. Their techniques can still be derived from looking at their works in museums or even working from online images as I did.

Wikipedia has many images of master paintings whenever there's a listing for a famous artist. Most of their images fall under Wikipedia Commons, where you can check to see what rights the photographer allows and whether you should give attribution for reposting the image. Most of them allow you to create derivative works with attribution - that is, you post who it came from when you post your work online.

Don't try to sell your copies of master paintings even if they're out of copyright and you painted from the original, without clearly labeling it as such. "By Robert A. Sloan after Monet" would be enough to tell people that isn't your original design, it's your interpretation of Monet's design.

However, a famous professional artist often includes images of past master paintings as an element in his still lifes. Sometimes he wraps them around objects, playing with perspective. Other times a corner of a master painting will show in its frame as if the still life was set up in the museum or the collector's home. If you attribute the painting, creating derivative works like this are original. It's like sampling in rap - it can be an interesting technique in itself if you're careful about copyright.

Each museum has different rules about sketching or painting from the masters. One museum of modern art in Kansas wanted a form filled out explaining which painting you're going to copy on what day and in what medium. Others will limit what mediums you can use without those prior arrangements. Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco will allow pencil sketches in small notebooks of anything including the Rodin sculptures, but to use any sort of paint you need to contact the museum staff and make prior arrangements.

The first step in checking your local art museum is to look at the museum's website. Their rules are usually posted online if they have a website. Next, contact them for details and plan ahead. Observe all the rules carefully. They're there to protect the art and keep your work from distracting other patrons who want to see the painting.

Legion of Honor has another rule that's good to observe in general. Don't paint anything from a master in exactly the same size and medium. If you scale it a sixth smaller or larger, you can still get a good feeling for the master's techniques and wind up with a beautiful copy for your home, or to sell as "By me after Master."

With living master painters, the best way to approach copying their works is to email them. Contacting the artist may get you more help than just being able to look at an online image and copy from that. When I asked my teacher, Charlotte Herczfeld, if I could copy one of her recent paintings, she sent me her original photo references and snapshots she took at each of the stages of painting it!

I had a good relationship with her before I asked because I had been her student for some time. But other master painters may be generous and helpful if you want to copy their works for your own artistic growth. If they say no, the best thing to do is move on and contact a different modern master whose work is in a similar style. It's never a good idea to violate copyright.

I would not sell a copy of a modern master even labeled as such. That's direct competition with her. Having the copy on my own wall to study or in my sketchbook is one thing - painters have done this throughout the history of art. But copying to sell is another matter entirely, one to be reserved for those whose work is out of copyright and whose estates will not suffer if you sell your version of the painting. Monet and his heirs aren't going to be hurt by it if I did a copy for sale - and didn't lie about what it was.

Painting from the masters is one of the traditional teaching methods for classical art. If you take it up on your own, you'll improve at a surprising rate and every time you do, something about their techniques will become a new tool in your own repertory. The next time you see white accents near the sun in one of my sunsets, you can thank Monsieur Monet.

My copy of "Hauling The Boat Ashore at Honfleur" by Monet, 5" x 8" Conte color on brown rough paper.


  1. Thanks for the great advice. I did a small 5x7 copy of one of Monet's waterlilies paintings some time ago, and it's interesting ... most people remark on Monet's sense of light and colour, but what struck me most was his sense of composition and design.

  2. You're so right! I found that true working on this painting. I've been studying color and light for years but his compositions are amazing - that makes the lighting effects even more powerful. Thank you!