Why make master copies?


If you want to learn to paint, copy a painting….not a photograph.

Let’s face it; learning to paint can be hard going. We all know that practice is crucial but what is the best way to practice?
Master copies are a traditional method of practising but what is so special about them? I’ve recently been working on a Lawrence copy, here’s what I discovered:

Art appreciation

In making a copy of a master work I spent far longer looking at it than I would have otherwise, perhaps even fifty or a hundred times longer. I looked more closely, I asked questions about it and then found their answers. I analysed and interrogated it in far more depth and detail than I would, perhaps even could, have done otherwise. As I began to see just how much was really there I came to a deeper appreciation of what painting can be.

The simple solution

Copying a master painting provides ready-made solutions; as I worked I discovered particular painting problems and how the painter had solved them.

It also taught me what questions I should be asking in my own work.


I have nothing against photos, or photographers per se but painting well from photographs is actually far more difficult than making a decent master copy or painting well from life.

In painting from life you are translating what you see, feel and think on to the canvas in some manner. I admit that this is a drastic simplification and that I am also assuming at least some representational intent.

In painting from a photograph you are, presumably, trying to achieve the same result but with a significantly distorted image. The photographic process adds a whole plethora of distortions, due to the lens, depth of field, shutter speed, filters and so on. If you have scanned your image or changed the file type, viewed it on a monitor or printed it out, each time you have changed it and the relationships within it, like chinese whispers.

If you minutely copy a photo you will, eventually, end up with a photo-realistic image, if you chose a good photo, it should be a good photo-realistic image but that is not the same as a painting.

{Now is a good time to ask yourself what is, or is not a painting….I’ll save my thoughts for another post}

In painting a master copy the translation has already been made. Someone has looked, seen, felt, thought and experienced the scene or subject and responded, translating all into oil paint, medium and canvas.


Seeing with new eyes

After making your master copy, the next time you go to your favourite gallery, you’ll see your favourite paintings in a whole new light…Welcome to a whole new world!