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May 16, 2018
Only God creates. The rest of us just copy. Michelangelo
Sitting in the cool shade of our covered back patio, my friend blurted out in transparent honesty, “I’m having a hard time calling myself an artist. I’m a copyist, not an artist.”
It took me aback at first, but I listened to my friend voice her struggle as she got her inner-critic’s voice out into the open for all to hear. My friend creates beautiful icons by copying famous icons. She does commissions for others, and sometimes teaches young artists to do iconography.
I felt her pain, as I’ve had the same struggle within my own art, though I have learned that I am still an artist, even if I copy.
I knew that copying is a legitimate way to not just learn how to draw or paint, but to grow into being an artist in your own right. I know because of my husband’s experience.
When Mark was a teenager, he learned to be the amazing artist he is by copying dozens of old master drawings. While his family was stationed in Germany, they didn’t have American T.V., so he was forced into a boredom that led him to his passion, and inborn artistic talent.
He got his days and nights mixed up because he worked into the night copying famous artists’ works. He also learned from a German instructor, Herr Hertzfeld, who taught him the old masters technique of opaque watercolor, doing still-lives.
Whether we copy from a still life or copy from a drawing or painting, or from a photograph, we are training our artist’s eye to see.
Art instruction in the Atelier or Academy traditional style is learning by copying. That’s how Picasso got his start, but balked at having to work within such strict parameters, and wanted to launch into his own original style.
Good artists copy, great artists steal. Pablo Picasso
Out of the constraints of copying others, one’s style can be born.
You've got to be able to copy things faithfully before you can deviate, Damien Hurst (one of the most successful artists in the UK)
Moreover. even while copying, ones unique style still comes through. If you look in on an art class with a model or still life, it’s so apparent that each student artist’s perspective is completely different than the next.
How can you say that copying isn’t art, I felt like saying to my friend. But out loud, I affirmed to her that indeed, she is an artist, even if she didn’t feel like it. Because she is!
She went on to explain more precisely that she felt that she was really blocked if she thought about wanting to branch out from her iconography and attempt something original. She felt that she wasn’t really an artist if she couldn’t do something original.
Not necessarily true.
For one thing, every artist has strengths and weaknesses. One may excel in coming up with an original composition or forging compelling content, another may have excellent craftsmanship and technique, or a sense of color. As all of these areas of skill come into play, even more significant than any innate talent is the element of practice. Even a gifted artist has to work at it.
But the point is, being able to copy is a gift in and of itself. It’s like singing. Anyone can sing, but being able to sing on key and in harmony is a talent that only a small percentage of people actually have.
If you, like my friend, feel strangely inadequate because you’re best at copying, take heart. You, like all artists, are somewhere on a continuum of growth and development. You are not what you once were, but are on a journey to what you can be. Just keep going, keep copying, and some day, decide to attempt to try something completely new and original. Take a class and dedicate yourself to practicing. In the meantime, keep copying.
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