Copy, copy, copy

german fernandez
April 20, 2021
Copying was crucial to the learning process in the painter's workshop.
Repeating each movement, each shape, each colour, each composition.
It could be done blindly and mechanically, but also consciously and reflexively. First, you train your hand and your reflexes, your "muscle/eye " memory. But also, you see in every brushstroke, in every line of the drawing, as part of a dialogue with the past. An interview. Why put that colour in that place? Why make the eyes like that? and then, as the painting progresses, find the answers. For me, it is interesting to do all this in the Intuos Wacom I use for digital illustration. I try to use opacity at 100% in Photoshop so I can focus on selecting the colour instead of using variations in the opacity, that will be more like a glazing process, but since my interest is to learn how to build light, shape and volume with colour, I stuck to the most basic procedure.
The process of learning through copies makes you observe the detail and the peculiarities of each part of the painting, especially the ones you probably didn't think to do in that way. In this dialogue, like in an interview, most of the excitement comes from the interviewee, the master you are copying. You approach them because you find compellingly interesting some aspect of their work, that speaks to a need you have and want to explore in your creations. So you ask, patiently, following, observing. Here I will describe three masters, that for different reasons I wanted to interview.
Let's first start with a famous one, but for not very famous reasons. Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), besides the famous tenderness of his characters, has a masterful technique, made of unafraid use of colour with the support of a confident drawing, a combination that set him aside among his contemporaries. Murillo's quality can be appreciated in the wide scope of his different works, especially those in the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville. There, among others, is the painting of the saint patrons of Seville, Justa and Rufina. They appeared to sustain the Giralda when the echoes of the Lisboa earthquake were felt in the city. The drawing, the proportion, the lightning, are so solid that could be considered a serene, quiet evolution of the Spanish baroque. Even the proto-impresionism or brilliant nonchalance of Velasquez is left aside. I guess when people talk about academic painting, people refer to something similar to this and actually might be the reason why it was so popular at some points of the 19th century. As usual, an artist is at his best in the less famous works; no in the children, as interesting as they could, but in the old saints, the virgins, the men submerged in the clouds of heavenly, miraculous scenes. While a man of another time and context, the same could be said of course of Rockwell, if we focus on what we could call the technical wisdom of a painter. In this sense, it wouldn't be strange to think of them in the same vein, as both relishes in the charisma of their models and, as already said, a perfectly accomplished technique. This becomes more apparent and especially interesting when we compare Murillo with other recognised artists of his time, such as the rigorously monastic Zurbaran, or the Neapolitan darkness and crudity of Ribera or even the early Velasquez of the Adoration of the Magi.
Beyond tenderness, on another side, there is the academic, perfect, systematic streak of the style, the painting that was born to be considered technically perfect, almost without trace of the human who made it. It may be that the best description for the softened, delicate, and terse works of William Bouguereau (France, 1825-1905), who was renowned for his technique in painting and drawing and one of the most accomplished artists associated with academic painting, something that at the height of the 20th century was not a compliment. Bouguereau's works still are exhibited at the first rooms of the Musee D'Orsay, a kind of introduction to the world before the impressionists, those revered prophets of the avant-garde. Bouguereau stands there as the symbol of the old world, a kind of Ancient Regime. This is curious, giving how different is his work from the traditional painting of, say, Fragonard, Tiepolo or other painters. Because, all in all, Bouguereau somehow denies the existence of a "maniera", of a style, of a personal view, as the perfection of the image is the ultimate technical goal. Yes, there are certain types of beauty and composition to look after, but they are far from the personal render of the violent brushstroke. This could be seen as a bureaucratic development of inertia of a system, or also a denial of the artist as a narrator. It has been seen as both probably during many years. However, as time goes by, there has been a reappreciation of his work, especially in the technical acumen of his practice, and probably, as a consequence, somehow also in his themes and subjects. The academic system was so neat that somehow artists at the beginning of the 20th century, who at some point learn it, complained of its "robotic" result and of not leaving room for expression. Nevertheless, as with other traditions, is an accomplished corpus of knowledge that deserves a deeper look from the uninitiated. When I started to copy his paintings it surprised me the huge amount of middle tones it has, a lot of grey areas with a little amount of certain colour: red, orange, green, according to the object they were depicting but always as a secondary, soft note in the overall tone. There is barely any strong, pure note of colour, but most of the brushstrokes are used to place these softened areas that, for sure, help the author to describe the luminous atmosphere of the image, with to the viewer, however, ends showing a green robe, a pink skin, a green forest, a dark hair.
Nor perfection is desirable in the eyes of everyone, as not anyone could temper the will at all moments. Humans are passionate, whether they like it or not, and there is a place for passion and fulgor in the arts, a place whose most welcomed guest is Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish Baroque painter. The painting called " The Four Evangelists" by Rubens has- for me- it all, especially in how he used his mastery of colour to convey an atmosphere and to define the shapes of the characters without submitting himself to a restraining palette or a rigid light scheme. You can see those details in the original, from the tones he used to depict the skin of the faces, the volume of the clothes, as well as the sometimes subtle, sometimes vibrant scheme of lights and shadows across the bodies of the apostles and the angel in the middle of the composition. I learned a lot!. I started copying the head of Saint John (around July 2017) and his colourful cheeks in contrast to the pale skin and then progressed to make the complete figure and the light-coloured cloth. The flowing nature of his brushwork however is firmly attached to a complete mastery of the principles of classical anatomy, chiaroscuro and perspective, a product of his youth training in Italy. This scaffolding of knowledge is what usually separates his work from his followers, even the ones of his workshop(the case of Van Dyck is an outlier in this regard). As usually happens, what was criticized more in Ruben's style, this exuberant and free-flowing manner, that supposedly lacked substance, is certain in the works of followers, imitators and copyist from his very own time, who are numerous, as Rubens was the most popular painter of his time.
#adobe #workinprogress #drawing #wacom #photoshop #digitalpainting #murillo
#classicallytrained #intuos #arthistory #googlearts , #copytolearn
1) Google. (n.d.). Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Google Arts & Culture. Google.
2) Google. (n.d.). Saint Juste and Saint Rufine- Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Google Arts & Culture. Google. Title: Saint Juste and Saint Rufine. Date: 1665/1666. Type: Oil on canvas. Painter: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. "The work depicts the two patron saints of Seville, holding the hemp leaves symbolic of their martyrdom in their hands, and supporting a miniature of the city's symbol, the Giralda Tower. The completed work is from the artist's most accomplished period in the 1660s, showing his mature figural style amidst a light-filled sky. " Here a video about the copying process:
3) Google. (n.d.). William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Google Arts & Culture. Google. Here a post about the copy an another video about copyingof other painting by the same author: and
4) Google. (n.d.). Peter Paul Rubens - Google Arts & Culture. Google. Here a post about the digital copy:
5) Just as I mentioned when describing the work of Bouguereau, the relativity of color, later made evident by the Impressionists, is at the core of everyone marvelled by what is good at painting. Let's remember the old tale about Apelles and the lines traced one next to another. Painting works as a juxtaposition of relatives. AND optical illusion. That is the name of the game. It is only then that the magic occurs: light vs dark, harmony vs contrast, etc. Surprised I am, then to find the texts of Hans Seldmayr ( pro Nazi art historian) on Rubens and the depiction of skin; ignoring painting techniques such as the cangiante and the live color, his arguments about whiteness of the skin go against everything a good painting and most of the Old Masters went for when the trade and the craft of painting was pursued, namely the richness of the depiction,(certainly, let's not be naive and think all the painters or Old Masters were politically correct) a system which relied, as well as perspective drawing, its value in its ability to host any depiction of reality, regardless of condition even if it is true that the historic-political context of the European painting leave short opportunity for a rich depiction of dark skin. That is why most characters copied here have white skin. Also we might be surprised that Seldmayr chose Rubens, the master of anti-classic turbulence of all -baroque!- painters. The system of painting (figurative, realistic) bases its strength in a versatility that allows different pictorial objectivities. This (strictly technical) paradox can be observed in photography; any photographer has to calibrate a different balance when the portrayed have different tones of skin.
Kinew, Shawon. Sedlmayr's Mother-of-Pearl: Further Notes on Rubens and Flesh Color. (2020) and also Seldmayr, Hans. Notes on Flesh Color in Rubens (1964)
6) However upon further reading, I guess I might approaching involuntarily to Harold Blooms's arguments exposed in his Elegy for the Canon, where he excoriated readings other than a aesthetic one as away of understanding the tradition-in that case, the literary tradition, which he saw as being sidelined by the interpretations of, mostly, writers labeled as part of the Critical Theory approach ( he mentions Foucault, Barthes, Lacan, among others). While usually this is the case, probably the truth is in the middle of both extremes, keeeping into account that there is a strong overlap between the two tradition (literary theory/ critical theory). I a point more related to the article's topic (copy as learning) is Doody's analysis of Bloom's theory of influence ( a take on Bloom's Anxiety of Influence).
Bloom, Harold. Wester Canon: the book and school of the ages. Harcourt Brace and Co. (1994)
Dudeen, Noory. Precursor and Ephebe: Oscar Wilde, Harold Bloom and the Theory of Poetry as influence. Trinity College of Dublin.(2000).
Other articles I wrote on painting in general: and