Yes, copy from nature as well, but only by seeing what another mind has understood about an object or a scene will prime you to fully understand the same object or scene yourself.
Be open about it, let people see you copy the thing and never sign it with your own name, but copying is essential. The masters of the past knew this simple fact when they ran the old studio/atelier system; forcing their pupils to endlessly copy casts of classical statues, or copy painting or engravings. It makes you notice the important points that you must pay attention to if you want to achieve the same effects. I was talking about this with my sister and I remembered when I was about twelve or thirteen trying to copy Michelangelo’s famous chalk preparatory drawing for the Libyan Sibyl of the Sistine Chapel. If you want to see the full page drawing go here.
|I tried to copy this drawing when I was thirteen. I still have the nervous twitch.|
If you know this drawing, you will think I’m probably writing this blog from a padded cell somewhere, but no, I am perfectly sane. And I was then as well. My parents always took the right attitude, never tell a kid they can’t do something (even if you privately believe so), just let them get on with it.
So nobody told me I shouldn’t try, and I was never told my efforts were foolish and that they would never amount to anything. This is how you learn to draw, no matter what anyone thinks – copy, copy copy.
And what if you make no money from it and nobody knows your work? Doesn't matter, you still have the skill you worked hard to aquire and nobody can take it away from you.
So was I a butter wouldn’t melt Little Lord Fauntleroy in a velvet suit, copying the great masters before taking my piano lessons? Hardly. Most of the copying I did, as a child was from comics and cartoons, and being based in the UK I saw an equal share of British and American publications. I had the velvet suit though!
|But of course that's not me. My hat was much bigger than that.|
I discovered the earlier British artists like Arthur Rackham, Heath-Robinson, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) and even further back in time there was the great Hogarth. I remember seeing the horrible image from Hogarth's quartet of prints, 'The Four Stages of Cruelty' in a school textbook. The quartet of prints tells the brief story of a Tom Nero who starts as a cruel child torturing animals and progresses through his life to murder. The prints were a moralistic lesson to the poor about the cruelty they daily handed out to animals. Hogarth saw that cruelty every day in London, and in the 1750's had made the connection that one kind of cruelty always leads to another, in this case murder.
In the final print we see him after sentence of death has been passed, at the surgeons hall where he is being dissected. Its a truly disturbing image that still has impact today, and although I didn't copy it I did study it with the morbid fascination that children always bring to such things.
I suppose that Hogarth's example shows what a practically self taught artist can do, copying from his master when apprenticed as a silver smith, and later from the artist who he greatly admired and who later became his father in law Sir James Thornhill.
So Hogarth knew the score - copy, copy copy.