Brush with the masters

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Caroline Lawrence discovers that copying can be a great way to learn about art

By encouraging pupils to look at the work of artists, crafts people and designers, the national curriculum for art is leading them back towards a more traditional way of learning to draw or paint. The culmination of that route is copying.

I first stumbled on this method of teaching in 1992. Some of the children from my primary school had been planning a week's trip to Aix-en-Provence for the following term. Because Paul Cezanne lived and worked in Aix, I decided it would be fun to look at his life and copy his paintings for a term. Then the children would appreciate his paintings more when they finally saw them up close.

Ironically, the Cezanne room of the Aix museum was closed the week the children were in his home town, but the term's work had not been in vain. Not only had the children produced superb work, far beyond my expectations, but they were now familiar with terms such as "portrait", "landscape" and "still life". They had learned much about Cezanne's life and times, and after immersing themselves in his work for 10 weeks, they could easily recognise his style, even if it was a painting they had never seen before. They had gained great satisfaction and confidence from all this.

A plethora of possibilities suddenly opened up: we could study a different artist each term and never run dry.

Over the next few years, as we went from success to success, I realised that what I had "discovered" was nothing new. Copying is the oldest method of learning to draw, with centuries of tradition behind it.

In the Renaissance, an apprentice would spend years copying his master. We know Michelangelo copied Giotto at the age of 14. Da Vinci and Raphael would have learned by copying, and their work in turn was copied by artists who came after them.

The great English artist William Blake spent three years at a boys' drawing school where his whole day was devoted to copying hands, faces and figures from books of engravings. From the age of 13, Blake spent six days a week for seven years working as an apprentice to an engraver. Most of that time he spent copying. Blake's earliest surviving works are copies of Michelangelo and medieval painters.

Rembrandt copied all through his life, borrowing other artists' ideas and improving them. Matisse's first efforts were copies from books. Later he copied daily in the Louvre, often selling his copies to earn money to eat. Edouard Manet and Mary Cassatt also spent hours in the Louvre copying. There was no better training they could have received.

Picasso is reported to have said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal. " He completed more than 40 interpretations of Velasquez's "Las Meninas". Picasso also copied Delacroix, Manet, El Greco, Holbein and others. Vincent van Gogh copied, too. So did Bacon, Cezanne, Daumier, Degas, Delacroix, Derain, Durer, Dufy, Gris, Hockney, Poussin, Rubens, and countless others.

When our students copy the work of the great masters who came before them, they are entering into a centuries' old tradition.

The best artists to copy, I discovered, are those with strong, clear lines and well defined blocks of colour. Artists we have copied successfully include Durer, Blake, Michelangelo, Norman Rockwell, Henri Rousseau, van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and Velasquez. "Fuzzy" artists such as Rembrandt, Turner and Monet, are better "interpreted" than purely copied.

We devoted one successful term to studying the Greek vase painters. We looked at pottery, the shapes and uses of different vases, black- and red-figure decoration, and the Greek myths - all while copying the originals.

Another term was dedicated to Marc Chagall. We looked briefly at the background of anti-semitism in Russia and at life in Paris during the Twenties. We watched the video of Fiddler on the Roof and learned some poems by Chagall's contemporary, the poet Apollinaire.

A hugely successful term was based on Walt Disney. We looked at his life and the cartoon characters of his studio. We also studied cartoon techniques and the stages of producing an animated film.

Perhaps the most stunning art was produced during the term we looked at Matisse. With his strong, simple, linear style and flat, brilliant colours, he is the perfect artist for children to copy. We experimented in gouache, cut-paper, and charcoal.

Needless to say, whenever possible we visit museums or galleries to look at the originals.

Apart from some techniques I have developed myself, three books in particular have helped me use copying as a teaching tool.

The first is Drawing With Children (J P Archer Pounds 13.99. It can be obtained in the UK through Deep Books Ltd, 0171 232 2747 or Biblios, 01403 710851) by Mona Brookes. Every primary school should have a copy, even if it is the only art book they have - it is full of brilliant advice and practical exercises.

The second is Betty Edwards' classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (FontanaCollins Pounds 14.99) This is a seminal book that every teacher of any subject not just art - should have.

The third is by the artist Jeffery Camp. I discovered Draw: How to Master the Art (Dorling Kindersley Pounds 14.99), just last year. Camp also copies, and recognises it as a valuable tool for learning to draw, see and get into another artist's head.

Its companion, Paint, also finds inspiration again and again in the great masters.


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