Copy a Painting by an Old Master: Improve Your Art at the Museum

Copy a masterpiece in a museum

If you have spent any time in museums around the world, you have probably seen an artist creating a copy of a painting there. If you go to the Louvre in Paris, for example, you are bound to see a stream of artists copying their favorite paintings.

The practice of copying masterpieces has been one of the cornerstones of traditional art education for a long time.

If you happen to live where you have access to major museums or art galleries, you should take advantage of these resources.

You can benefit just by attending the exhibits, but better still, try to obtain permission to copy paintings there in the gallery.

You may call the museum to see if they have such a program for artists. If they don't, ask for permission anyway. Even if they have never done it before, you can be the first.

Once you have permission to copy a painting, you will need to follow the museum's protocols. For example, in the Louvre, and other museums where I have worked, painters are not supposed to use the same size canvass as the original. As you might expect, painters are not usually allowed to eat or drink in the museum, and they must clean up thoroughly after every session.




Below is a short video clip showing the artist copying a painting.

Do Some Research Before You Show Up To Paint

Learn about the history of the work and its creator. How did the artist approach the work? What techniques and materials were used?

Prepare Your Canvas

Once you know the size of the original painting, prepare a canvas to work on (adjust the size according to the museum's guidelines).

Spend some time to create an accurate drawing based on a reference picture (from a book, for example).

I recommend using a grid technique to transfer the drawing from a copied image from a reference book. Make sure the drawing is accurate. You will be glad you did, instead of waiting until you show up to paint in the museum and spending all your time getting the drawing in place.

Not Sure How To Go About It?

To reduce the learning curve, I know two very helpful books that can get you started: How to Paint Like the Old Masters by Joseph Sheppard and Painting Masterpieces: Recreating 30 Works by Famous Artists by Mark Churchill. It you are just starting, I suggest you study Mark Churchill's book first. If your ambition is to paint like the old Flemish masters, then Joseph Sheppard's book is or you.

Or do you just want to see a demo of the old masters' methods? I know of two modern painters who paint like old masters and have created videos: David A. Leffel , and Gregg Kreutz.

Their styles are similar, since Gregg Kreutz is actually one of the most successful students of David Leffel. Both take an alla prima approach to their paintings, and both are masters of chiaroscuro, the technique used by old masters to convey contrasts between light and dark.

If you don't have access to a museum where you can copy paintings, you can use a high quality reproduction as a substitute. Or just check out a book from the library and copy one of the pictures.

The textures of paintings often don't show at all in print, but if you can get a copy of the painting with a good level of detail, you will be amazed at what you learn from copying it.

Keep in mind that the goal is not only to learn a particular artist's techniques, but also how that artist thought. After I copy a painting, I always walk away with something. I don't necessarily take on their style, but by stretching myself to learn from other masters, I become a better painter. Believe that you can too.

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