On Mastercopies in Art

Is copying bad in art?

In my experience within art education communities, there is a deeply held belief that copying anything in art is harmful. It’s true that copying another’s work and passing it off as your own is clearly unethical. But copying other artists has long been one of the most efficient ways to transfer artistic skill and information from one generation to the next.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Copy of the Figure of ‘Prudence’ from Raphael’s Fresco of ‘The Virtues’ in the Stanza della Segnatura (Vatican)

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A music teacher does not ask the novice trumpet player to compose a symphony in their first lesson. Instead, she asks that the student learn the already discovered fingerings, the already discovered musical notation, and the already discovered techniques for posture, breath control, etc. In fact, trumpet students inherit a massive amount of technical knowledge before attempting something as complex as writing an original symphony.

Yet in many art classrooms today, with no training whatsoever, we ask students to “do what they feel” and create “original” artwork. The result of this informationless approach is that students are incessantly reinventing the wheel. I cannot tell you how many students believe that they uneaerthed xyz drawing concept because they were forced to rediscover it when no one taught them it already existed.

One of the most efficient ways to transfer known artistic skills is through the use of mastercopies. This is very similar to having music students master known songs, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, in order to practice low level skills before advancing to more complex tasks.

Learn how to paint a mastercopy in our online Ateliyay! Painting Bootcamp.

Shinichi Suzuki, inventor of the Suzuki method of teaching music.

The Sazuki Method, created by Japanese violinist Shin’ichi Sazuki during the mid 20th century, is a widely adopted and effective pedagogical model for teaching music and is used throughout the world.

When learning music using the Sazuki method, students are first asked to imitate, or make mastercopies of, short simple works. After mastering these simpler works, they are tasked with more complicated variations of those works as well as additional songs that they can imitate in order to learn their instruments. This progression of copying increasingly more difficult works helps students to master skills. As the students progress through the course of study, they gain foundational knowledge on which to draw on throughout their musical career.

For many centuries, training in the arts followed a similar method for transferring known knowledge to new students.

Nearly every recognized master of painting – Da Vinci, Degas, Delacroix – advocates the constant and regular copying of the masters in order to advance artistic skill sets. Surely all these geniuses cannot be wrong. The taboo of copying in art education must be replaced with a healthy respect for learning through studying what is already known as the masters strongly admonish us to do.

By first mastering the techniques, ideas, and skills that have already been discovered, students can explore truly new ground without wasting time and effort on what is already known.

You can get detailed guidance on how to paint a mastercopy in our online Ateliyay! Painting Bootcamp. 

What do you think? Should art students complete mastercopies to hone their skills? Let me know in the comments below.

Want to help your students learn from matercopies? Check out these free art lesson plans.

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One Comment

  1. Yes, students should copy old masters. It is so wonderful that we have them to enjoy, and to learn from. My drawings of hands became much more elegant after copying DaVinci.

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