I’m not sure if this is just me, but I have always had this tendency to feel guilty whenever I have to replicate a master’s artwork. My art teachers and mentors have always encouraged it, however, there have been numerous times when I have found myself leaning in disagreement. I remember walking through museums absolutely disgusted at the number of college students I saw there--materials all set up as they worked at getting a spitting image of another man’s work. Copy cats! I would think to myself.
I would do it too though, mostly because I had to. “It’s great practice!” my favorite teacher would say,“ as long as it's for educational purposes only and you are not planning on selling the piece.” But I just never understood why it was necessary. I had my very own ideas, and my art teacher thought they were great--so why did I have to take somebody else’s? Whenever I “practiced” art, I’d find myself trying my hardest to cover it up. I was ashamed, and therefore nobody was allowed to see me doing it. Once I was finished, I would hide all of the evidence that implied I had done so as if I had just finished committing some sort of terrible crime. At times, it did really feel like the closest thing to robbing a bank or becoming a professional hacker. That, and that time I was five years old sitting in one of those car-themed grocery store carts as my mom pushed me and I managed to sneak out a sprite without paying (will never forgive myself for that one).
Perhaps my guilt for copying art stems from the fact that I am also a writer. The closest thing that compares to copying a master drawing to me is choosing to plagiarize another writer’s story or essay--something that I fear doing even unintentionally given the circumstances that come along with it. I remember I particularly despised these sorts of assignments in high school, especially if it appeared obvious that I had been a copycat. I would purposely switch up at least 80% of it and end up failing my assignment. “Connie, this project was about copying Monet’s lilies, why are there floating cats in your pond?” my teacher once asked. Whoops!
It wasn’t until I grew a little bit older and continued to practice copying professional pieces that I realized just what they were doing for me and why they are so important. I realized that creating master copies was a great way to study and was creating limitless potentials for me. My technique was getting better, my proportions more accurate, and I was pairing colors together properly. I was becoming capable of things I had never before been able to achieve. My ideas were expanding as I was taking inspiration from these genius artists I looked up to.
I began to think of myself as a dancer. A dancer has to mimic and follow the choreographer step by step a good handful of times before they can even begin to attempt to put together a choreography of their own. If they had never practiced the choreographer’s moves over and over and over again, they would be rather lost and have no sense of direction. Once they practice with the choreographer, however, there is no doubt that they would be able to make up their own routine and on top of that, begin to branch out--adding in their own moves and twists using their own style. Eventually, these dancers will have become choreographers of their own---just like how an artist can grow to become a master of their own.
What essentially makes master artists masters is that they can put together the proper set of lines to make up the illusion of form. When we copy these drawings, we are studying, growing, learning in the same ways those masters did. From then, we can add to our own definition of form. For the first time, I can say that being a copycat can be a good thing, and you should do it proudly--as long as it's for educational purposes only.