3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

Artists have been copying master paintings for centuries and for good reason – there is so much that can be learned! More than 25 years ago, I participated in a “Copycat” show at The Burkholder Project in Lincoln, NE where I shared a studio for awhile with several artists. As a successful working artist, Anne Burkholder has always been an inspiration for me and I loved being a part of her world.

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

The painting I chose to copy was “Breakfast In Bed” by Mary Stevenson Cassatt, 25″x 29″ oil on canvas painted in 1897. The title card above shows photos I took of the original painting which resides at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. I loved this painting for many reasons, one being that it depicts a frozen “authentic moment in time” between a mother and child.

Breakfast In Bed – The Original Painting

At the time I chose to paint this copy, I had never seen the original painting. I only had a reference from a book to work from. 5 years ago I had the chance to see the painting in person and was blown away by how bright and lively the colors were. After seeing the original work, I realized my painting looked very dull in comparison. I took several photos of the original painting and plan to “update’ my copy in the future. I’ll be sure to revise this post whenever that happens.

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

“Breakfast In Bed” by Mary Cassatt. Photo credit: The Huntington Library.

If you are interested in copying master paintings, I would strongly urge you to visit the real painting in a gallery if you can. Photo reproductions can never capture the color and brushwork. Above is a photo of the painting that the Huntington Library has on its website. This photographic representation doesn’t come close to conveying the vibrancy of the original work, although it’s much better than the photo I worked from.

The Challenge Copying Master Paintings From Reference Photos

Below is the reference photo I worked from when I painted my copy of “Breakfast In Bed”. Honestly, I was shocked that I still had the book! Even the photo of the image in the book doesn’t represent the color of the photo of the painting, which speaks to the challenge of photographing artwork. The color will never be right. For this reason alone, digital painting has an advantage for posting artwork online.

3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

Photographic reference I used from a book titled: Mary Cassatt by Maria Costantino

I decided at the time to paint the painting as close to the original size as possible which provided some unexpected insight into Cassatt’s techniques that I will cover later. The original painting is 25″x29″ and I painted my copy on a 24″x30″ canvas using acrylic paint. That small size difference can account for some measuring mistakes in my work. I didn’t start painting in oil until last year and while I’d gotten good results from acrylics in the past, I now know there is a “flatness” to the medium that can’t compare to oil.

My Attempt At “Breakfast In Bed”

Below is the painting I did for the Copycat show at The Burkholder Project. At the time I knew nothing about the sight-size method and free-handed the drawing on the canvas. There are mistakes in placement of limbs etc., but it turned out OK. The likeness of the mother and child is fairly accurate but as you know by now, the color is way off.

3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

My copy of Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast In Bed”

3 Things I have Learned From Copying Master Paintings

There are countless things you can learn from copying master paintings, but I’m going to go over 3 things that rose to the top for me when I attempted to copy Mary Cassatt’s work. In a nutshell, those three things are:

  1. Brush Strokes & Size
  2. Color
  3. Composition

1. Brush Strokes & Size – My Biggest Surprise

Learning about Mary Cassatt’s use of brushes was a huge eye-opener for me. Because of the casual, loose appearance of the painting I had assumed she used a large brush. But as I was trying to match her painterly strokes, I found myself going to a smaller and smaller brush size. I think I was surprised by this because as a painter, you are always told to use as large a brush as possible.

3 things I learned from copying master paintings

Above is a detail photo I took of the painting when I visited the Huntington Library. For the intricate parts of the painting, I would estimate the brush size was a #2. For some of the broader areas I’m guessing the size was anywhere from a #4 to a #6. I think I used larger brush sizes for my painting as I couldn’t see the texture of the paint from my reference photo. Yet another reason to see the original in person!

You will see much more brush work in the detail photos below on color. Getting close to the original painting gave me an entirely new perspective on how Cassatt approached her work. I wish I could have spent more time observing the painting. Perhaps I will be able to return one day.

2. Color – Seeing (in person) Is Believing

I feel like I’m repeating myself talking about color, but my second biggest surprise when I saw the painting in person more than 20 years after I painted my copy was how “off” I was with the color palette. As you can see in the photo below, the cheeks on the child are much more red and pink than what I had to go from in my reference photo. Clearly the printing of the book was heavier on the cyan and black and much too light on the yellow and magenta. Because of the darker values on the reference photo, my copy had much more contrast and suffers from lack of subtlety.

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

Detail photo I took while at the Huntington Library

What I love from the original painting that you can see in the detail above is the color dance between the bright pinks and the bluish-purples. The texture and abstract quality of the paint is also quite a surprise. It looks like she was flicking paint around with the tip of her brush. This makes me want to go back and redo my copy SO BAD!!!

3 things I have learned from copying master paintings

Another detail photo from my trip to the Huntington Library

In the photo above, you can see the beautiful muted blue tones which are complemented nicely by the whites with warm, yellow toned highlights. In this close-up you can also see how much warmer the skin tones are and the variety of color she used from accents of cad red on the fingers of the mother’s hand over to the blue tones on the upper arm of the child.

Nowadays when copying master paintings, I do studies on my iPad in ArtRage. What I’ve learned the most about color doing these studies is that in realism, the colors are very complex in the combination with other colors but very simple in range. Limited palettes seem to be big winners.

3. Composition

One of the best takeaways from copying master paintings is learning the artist’s strategy regarding composition. As we take a look at the image  from the Huntington Library below, you can see the creation of a triangle beginning with the crease of the pillow in the upper right side. The crease falls in line with the highlight on the dark hair along the top of the mother’s face. This line meets with the child’s eyes and then continues on behind the head with another pillow crease (I got the angle of that final crease wrong in my painting – eeek!).

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

“Breakfast In Bed” by Mary Cassatt. Photo credit: The Huntington Library.

The eye is then directed by another diagonal line of the mother’s arm and child’s legs from the middle, left-hand side towards the lower right. Just beyond the child’s foot, which is forcing the eye to look up, the viewer is met with the edge of the side table which also moves the visual flow upwards to where we originally started. This triangle keeps the viewer’s eyes moving around the mother and child and invites you share in their moment.

Would Mary Cassatt Be OK With Copying Master Paintings?

Absolutely! Cassatt obtained a permit to copy paintings at the Louvre while she was studying in Paris. As an art student, she found little teaching at the art schools. This is a sad fact that hasn’t changed much over the years. When I went to school, there was very little instruction in the painting classes. You had to fend for yourself which is why copying from artists you admire is so important.

A better way to copy a master may be to find a painting that you like, set up your own version of it and paint that. By doing so, you have an original painting inspired by a great artist AND you get to learn how that artist solved for any problems you may encounter along the way.

My Trip To The Huntington Library

If you EVER find yourself in proximity to the Huntington Library, you must go. Not just for the Art Collections, but for the incredible Botanical Gardens. I only had a couple of hours to spend there that day. I had been in town to see my friend Donna speak at a conference in Pasadena and was lucky enough to have my cousin Janice, who lived near there at the time, pick me up and take me to see my favorite painting.

The Botanical Gardens

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA are STUNNING!

I feel so bad that I had Janice racing through those gardens so I could see the Cassatt painting – she was such a trooper and must have thought I had lost my mind.

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library inviting me to sit down and relax – ya, didn’t happen

Oh how I wanted to stop, sit on these benches and soak in the beauty of the gardens, but this was before I had found the painting. Time was ticking!

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

An epic tree in the Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library

I didn’t have time to stop and see what was going on with this incredible tree, but I did have time to take a photo. I’m telling you, this is a magical place!

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library – W O W !

Jealousy set in as I witnessed people sitting by the pond enjoying the view. Do I stop and soak in the beauty of the botanical gardens and risk missing out on the Cassatt? NO! I still feel bad for dragging my cousin Janice through this sanctuary at such a high rate of speed.

Found it!

Once we got closer to the art collection I almost fainted when I saw a poster of “Breakfast in Bed” outside the building. It’s like they knew I was coming! Thank you for the visual aide, Huntington Library 😀

3 things I have learned copying master paintings

We’re getting closer!!!

After asking around, we finally found the room that is home to this gorgeous work of art. I can’t tell you how weird it was to walk up to this painting for the first time after having admired it for decades in art books. It really blew my mind when I saw it in person. I almost cried (but I didn’t!)

3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

Finally – we found “Breakfast in Bed” by Mary Cassatt

I still can’t believe how lucky I was to see this painting in person. Everything lined up perfectly on that trip and if it hadn’t been for the generosity of my cousin Janice, I would have been oh so close but so far away.

3 Things I Have Learned Copying Master Paintings

At last! You can see the angles at work that I spoke about in the composition section from this perspective

I’m sure the Art Collections at the Huntington Library are equally stunning to the Botanical Gardens, but I only had eyes for Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed” that day.