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(Catherine de’ Medici, c.1547, François Clouet, black and red chalk. British Museum)

A few weeks ago, I went to an exhibition of French portrait drawings at the British Museum. Among them were a few drawings by François Clouet and Ingres whose works I admire for their accuracy and Ingres in particular for his elegance.

Before I went to art school, I would copy drawings by Michelangelo, Holbein, Ingres, Francesco Guardi, Canaletto and Edward Lear among others. I disliked the walls at home staring at me blankly and longed to cover them with drawings so I worked hard to produce very accurate copies. It was great practice as it allowed me to understand  each artist, work out his methods and have a greater appreciation for materials. I also had a better grasp of an artist’s way with line, edges, tone, colour and handling. I made sure to produce a drawing close in size to the original as it gave me an exact appreciation of the draughtsmanship.

(Portrait of Sir John Hay and his sister Mary, 1816, Ingres, graphite, British Museum)

At art school we were not encouraged to copy old masters but to work from nature. This is correct as a copy is derivative. All the same, I found the exercise useful for the reasons I have given above and would recommend anyone trying to improve their skills to choose an inspiring artist and copy his work. Here are a few tips: try to copy from the original –  a printed image is rarely a good substitute and a computer screen image is often a poor substitute – some museums will allow you to do this; if you can not copy from an original then get a high quality print – this works better for drawings than for paintings; plot a few reference points or grid out the drawing to avoid any tiresome mistakes which would be time-consuming to correct; take pride in your work and be as accurate as possible; use high quality materials.

I still have many of my copies on my walls. They remind me of the skill of these artists and how hard it was for me to emulate them. All valuable lessons.

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