Simple Art Tip #4: Make Mastercopies

I did my first mastercopy for the first oil painting class I took in college. I decided to copy a painting by Milt Kobayashi because it looked simple enough. Once I started working on it, though, I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as I’d thought. Kobayashi has an amazing ability to mix just the right color and place it just right to create the effect he wants. I had to fix things over and over just to get them to look deliberate, which had the opposite effect, of course. My mastercopy looks pretty similar to the original, but it looks overworked and uncertain. It doesn’t have the *magic* of the original. I learned not to underestimate something just because it looks simple and I learned the power of working with confidence. 

Recreating works by artists you admire helps you learn from their process and problem solving. Even if you don’t know exactly what their process is, you’ll learn something from trying to figure it out. You’ll learn about yourself and your own process, too, just by how you approach the task of recreating the work. 

Notice I used the word recreate and not copy. You don’t want to trace the image you choose. You’ll learn nothing from that. You want to recreate the image from scratch. 

Before you start, pick an artwork that you find especially beautiful or impressive. Once you’ve picked an image, take a good look at it and try to pinpoint what it is that makes you like this particular work so much. If you’re not sure what that is, try to at least think of one thing you want to learn from the work. All you need is something to focus on so that you’re not just stuck trying to perfectly recreate the piece.

The purpose of a mastercopy is to learn from it, not to create an identical copy of it. Try to get as close as you can to the original, but keep your purpose in mind—the thing you want to learn from the work.  

Depending on what it is you want to learn, you might benefit from recreating the work several times. For example, if you want to learn how to make flowing lines like the ones in your artwork of choice, you might want to make several studies of it. Recreate it as many times as you need to, until you feel confident creating those marks. This starts getting into deliberate practice, which I will write about in a later post. 

Some examples of things you can choose to focus on when creating a master copy include color schemes, composition, lighting, stylization, line, anatomy, etc. This can be anything you find interesting, really. Anything you want to learn to do. 

Please guys, don’t post your mastercopies online. Another tip I’ll write a future post on is learning not to post everything you create. Mastercopies are meant to help you learn. Showing off your skills at recreating someone else’s artwork isn’t cool; it’s amateurish. It also puts pressure on you to create something others will like and your focus is then shifted and you’re no longer learning from the experience. 

After creating a mastercopy, you may want to write down what you learned from it. Ask yourself, what did I struggle with the most? What parts of it did I find easier to do? Were there any problems I ran into that I didn’t anticipate? What parts of the work did I enjoy doing the most? Which did I dislike the most?

Writing these things down can help bring your ideas and feelings into focus. You’re also more likely to remember what you learned once you put it into words. Whether you choose to write it down or not, analyzing your experience will help you get a better sense of what your strong points and your weak points are.

You may be surprised by what these turn out to be. If you didn’t struggle with anything or didn’t learn anything, you may need to pick something more challenging to recreate. If you struggled, you definitely learned something. 

If you want to go a step further, you can take the thing or things you learned from creating this mastercopy and apply them to one of your own pieces, whether you make a new piece or edit an existing one. 

If you really want to challenge yourself, try creating a second mastercopy without using the reference. You’ll be forced to remember the steps you went through before and it’ll help solidify what you’ve learned. 

You’ll find these bits of knowledge can help you when you’re working on your own projects. They’ll help you make better decisions. If you run into problems in the middle of creating something, you might want to ask yourself, what would x artist(s) do? You might even want to read through your notes to refresh your memory. 

While making mastercopies is a great way to learn, it’s important not to get stuck making only mastercopies. There is only so much you can learn from mastercopies. You’ll always learn the most when you create your own artwork and make mistakes. Remember that you learn by doing. The more you do, whether you think your work is good or not, the more you’ll learn, so take it easy with the mastercopies

Also, remember to have fun! It’s easy to get caught up in trying to make a perfect replica of your favorite artwork. You’ll probably get frustrated when you find it’s harder to do than you expected. The point is to struggle and learn, so take it easy on yourself, too.