Learn from the Masters

Howard Lyon recre­ates a clas­sic.

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For this work­shop we’ll take an in-depth look at the ben­e­fits of copy­ing an Old Mas­ter paint­ing. I’ve cho­sen to copy a por­tion of the paint­ing Jeanne, by Wil­liam Adolphe Bouguereau.

There are many artists who I ad­mire, but I think Bouguereau sits at the top of my list be­cause of his tech­ni­cal mas­tery. I’ve worked in the video game in­dus­try for 13 years, as a free­lance artist and a gallery artist, and while my sub­jects and clients are var­ied, I’ve al­ways been able to look to Bouguereau for in­spi­ra­tion.

The goal of do­ing a mas­ter copy is three-fold. The first goal is to learn from the aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties of the artist you choose to copy. This is key to de­vel­op­ing taste or con­nois­seur­ship.

Dur­ing the 19th cen­tury the French govern­ment, con­cerned that French artists were de­clin­ing in taste, com­mis­sioned Charles Bar­gue to cre­ate a se­ries of plates from clas­si­cal works that stu­dents would copy. This trained them to draw with great ac­cu­racy, but also in­formed their mind as to what was pleas­ing or ideal. This is sub­jec­tive, of course, but when you choose a paint­ing to copy, keep this in mind that you’re train­ing your taste.

The sec­ond goal is to learn how the artist ap­proached colour, value, edges, and de­sign or com­po­si­tion. I try to pay close at­ten­tion to the way edges are han­dled and where the artist makes stylis­tic de­ci­sions, as op­posed to be­ing rigid to what can be ob­served. For in­stance, Bouguereau has greatly sim­pli­fied the hair in his Jeanne piece to cre­ate larger shapes, and only in a few key spots does he ren­der in­di­vid­ual hairs.

The third goal is to be ac­cu­rate. This is the least im­por­tant, but still of great value. I say this be­cause there may be por­tions of the paint­ing that are nearim­pos­si­ble to copy with com­plete ac­cu­racy and paint in the same way that the Old Mas­ter did. If the orig­i­nal paint­ing was done with big brush work that feels spon­ta­neous and loose, you don’t want to get out your small­est brush and try to mimic a sin­gle brush stroke with a hun­dred small strokes, just to show how metic­u­lous you can be.

I sug­gest that paint­ing with sim­i­lar vigour and man­ner as the orig­i­nal artist will be much more valu­able to em­u­late, than cre­at­ing a os­ten­si­bly per­fect copy that misses out on the orig­i­nal tech­nique. Howard has worked in the video game in­dus­try as a con­cept artist and art di­rec­tor. He has also free­lanced on prop­er­ties like Magic: the Gath­er­ing and War­craft, as well as a fine artist for gal­leries. See his art at www.howard­lyon.com.

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