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Pro Painting Tip: Copy the Masters

Feb 06, 2021

Today we're going to talk about another practical Acrylic Painting tip. Learning from people who have walked the path before is one of the best ways to eliminate fear and grow quickly. Why fumble around blindly in the dark, figuring it all out on your own when an experienced traveler can lead you to you to your destination? I applied this in our Acrylic University Landscape Module. In each module we copy and learn from a painting created by one of the greats. It’s been fun and very eye opening! Each artist has different style, technique and tidbits of wisdom for us as painters.

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” –William Ralph Inge

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” –Salvador Dalí

A Hero

One of my artist heroes is the late Russian-American artist, Sergei Bongart. His expressive use of color is fantastic, and I often have studied his work to figure out how he did what he did. Then, a few years ago, I took my study a step further and did my best to copy one of his paintings. It was a simple scene - just a fence and gate with some flowers and trees in the background. But the colors, oh my! There are greens of every variation, violets, yellows, and earth tones – all coming together to create a beautiful, vibrant, luscious painting.

This painting is "My Garden" by Sergei Bongart. This is one of his paintings that I loved and decided to copy at one point to learn about the different shades of green he used. (The photo doesn't represent the real colors well, by the way). 

What I Learned From Copying

In copying that painting, I had the opportunity to match each color and see how he had used them together. I learned a ton about mixing different greens in that process, which was one of my main goals. I wasn’t trying to create a painting I could sell. I simply wanted to learn. I wasn’t changing anything substantial in the composition or colors or anything. I was attempting to reproduce it as closely as I could because I was gaining knowledge through the experience. That was and is the point of the exercise.

Copying Doesn't Make it Easy

You can do the same thing with any artist you admire. Find a painting that you love. Think about why you love it. Is it the subject matter? The colors? The brushwork? What draws you into that painting? Once you can articulate what you love about it, set out to do your best study of the painting. Don’t be surprised if it is difficult and you struggle in the process. That is good. You might be stretching yourself in new ways. That is how you grow. And never feel bad about copying a painting you admire. It is a wonderful way to learn, and artists through the centuries have done this.

Another Way

But there’s another way to imitate a master. This is less about copying the painting exactly as it is but rather about learning the concepts that make the painting work and applying them in your own work. This allows you to create an original painting that is your own while building it on the solid foundation someone else already laid. So, let’s look at that now. Maybe you love painting seascapes. Maybe it’s big skies that speak to you. Or maybe you love more abstract work. Whatever it is that appeals to you, this method can apply to any style or subject matter.

Breaking Down A Successful Painting

When you see a painting you love, there are probably a few reasons:

  1. You love the subject matter
  2. You love the design of the piece
  3. You love the colors whether vibrant or muted
  4. You love the texture of the painting
  5. You love the sense of atmosphere.

There could be other factors, but as far as the visual components, these are what likely made you love the painting, and more than likely it was several, or all, of those elements working together. So, if you can figure out what draws you to certain paintings, then you can pull elements from them.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

For instance, if you love the color harmony of a painting and the general composition, why not take those ideas and use them in your own painting? Change the subject matter and the way some of it is laid out. Use your own reference photos or imagination to make changes, but you already have a winning idea to work from.

Be Observant

The more you try to figure out why the original painting worked so well, the more you will learn about what you can do in your own. Get used to looking for subtleties. For instance, how did the artist use soft edges versus hard edges to move your eye where they wanted to? What is it about the design that keeps you interested? How do the brushstrokes convey energy or calmness in the painting? All of these are elements you can freely take and use in your own work, and with practice, they will produce the same effects and bring out the same emotions there.

Painting Alongside

So, those are two ways you can look at a finished work and imitate what the artist did. But there is still a third way, and it also is a fantastic way to learn as it involves watching a painting in process. In fact, I regularly encourage this kind of copying, both in our Acrylic University online courses and in-person workshops. This form of learning is incredibly valuable because you are learning not just how to assemble a good composition, create a sense of lighting, and choose colors that complement one another, you are also learning the processes for layering, creating brushwork, and using the paint. By painting along with someone you are learning process, which is just as valuable as the end product.

At the End of the Copy

You can use these methods of imitation over and over with any number of painters and works. All these methods are simply ways to practice. Before you know it, you’ll find that you’re not only able to emulate the techniques of the master, but you’ll also find your own artistic voice. By learning the painting process and studying how a painting is composed, you are gaining skills and techniques that help you move forward with great confidence. You’ll realize you can paint anything because the same principles apply to every subject. You will see the world with fresh eyes, and you will find new joy in your artistic pursuit.

“Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.” - Austin Kleon

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