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Aug 6, 2013

The Copyist...

Copying masterworks in a museum has long had a tradition in oil painting. Every generation of artists can learn from painters who lived hundreds of years before their time. But this tradition, no, I mean this opportunity – no, I mean this form of advanced schooling – has been seriously interrupted by how the major institutions are run today. I know of only two world class museums in America that permit artists to make master copies from their original work: the National Gallery of Art (where this video was shot), and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

If you can't see the video on Facebook, 
or would like to watch it at higher resolution,click here: 

Here is a video of a young Chinese woman copying a masterwork by Degas. Her focus and intention was so powerful I didn't want to interrupt but I did. And she graciously allowed me to film her for you to see. If you would like to be able to do the same thing in your hometown museum then share this video with the directors and conservators who control the art and the space. And call the National Gallery to ask what they require from every artist before allowing them to come in and paint from an original. This can be done. It has been done for centuries. It is still being done in Europe. And it will be done in America again.

At the very least, this is sad, because copying from an original can teach the artist far more than what they will learn from a poster, or worse, a pixilated image on a computer monitor. It is maddening to see that most august institutions in North America have thrown up yet another roadblock to artistic literacy by preventing painting in their galleries. There are things an original has which does not transfer to a reproduction: layering, translucence, texture, brush strokes, and so much, much more. All of which ultimately separates the original from the simulacrum.

But the National Gallery in DC and the Met in NYC do allow serious painters to paint from their collections. In the case of the National Gallery, an artist must first apply, go through a vetting process, and then work on a set schedule – and there can only be one artist painting working in a gallery (or room) at a time. And of course, every copy must be two inches larger or smaller than the original for obvious reasons, and the artist must use the provided easel and drop cloth. And they must stand back from the painting just like anyone else. No going into a nose dive just because they've got a special badge around their neck...

All of those restraints are acceptable, even understandable, if we are allowed to paint from an original. And all of this would improved the level of painting going on in America. I was thrilled to see ten or twelve painters in the National Gallery during the brief time I had to walk around. It added to my experience to see these lucky painters working inside one of the greatest collections in the world. I hope I can convince my own hometown museum to follow suit. I'll certainly try.

Painting master copies won't turn you or I into a master artist. But it will allow us to peek into the mind of a master painter so venerated that his or her work has been preserved and displayed for centuries. Working from an original means you can deconstruct and then recreate the decisions those painters made in the past, and reproduce the edits and emphasis they employed, and gain from their insight, experience and knowledge. It's the 'standing on the shoulder of giants' thing.

Besides, painting in a museum would be a nice thing to do.


If you would like to work on your outdoor plein air painting skills with me in Tuscany check out the upper left corner of this blog. We are off to Italy next May and you could come too! We have five spots left. Email me if you want more information. – TJK

2 reader comments:

Arty Quin said...

I agree, Thomas! Thanks for taking this video and sharing this experience.

Unknown said...

A great and worthy insight. I hope the museums of today will allow painters to copy their paintings