In most career fields, academic training includes learning about history and what came before. Art is the same but takes it a step further. Part of the study of representational art is creating “master copies.” A master copy is simply the practice of replicating an artwork from a well-known artist. Replicating paintings and drawings is designed to familiarize the student with the techniques of the original artist. It’s almost like role-playing.
Choosing which Painting to Copy
I resisted this practice for awhile because I didn’t like the idea of just copying something. I always like to include a bit of my own vision. But how do I do this without missing the point of the exercise? My idea was to make a very minor change to a significant aspect of the painting.
For my first master copy, I chose one of the most well-known paintings in the world: Girl with a Pearl Earring. By now you have probably already realized that my modification for this painting was the earring itself. I changed the pearl (which it wasn’t, anyway—probably tin or glass) to a hoop earring.
Because this painting by Johannes Vermeer is so famous, a tremendous amount of research on it has been done. I saw this as a great opportunity to delve deeply into the process. Through analysis of the painting and pigments, conservationists have learned that “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was painted in multiple layers. This was a common practice at the time. Artists used a neutral color to create a monochromatic version of the painting called a grisaille. Then, they would glaze over thin layers of color.
A limited number of pigments were used by Vermeer in creating his masterpiece. For the painting overall, Vermeer used the following paint colors:
- Yellow Ochre
- Brown Ochre
- Red Ochre
A significant difference between Vermeer’s painting and my copy was the medium. While he used oil paints, my medium would be colored pencil. While this may initially seem opposite ends of the spectrum, that is not at all the case. (Read my article “Why do colored pencil drawings look like oil paintings?“)
The paper I chose was a bright white, hot press watercolor paper by Fabriano Artistico. From there I selected my pencils – mostly Caran D’Ache Luminance. However, I limited myself by restricting my pencils to those with the same pigments used by Vermeer.
Using the same underpainting concept as the masters, I began the master copy with a monochromatic underdrawing with raw umber colored pencils. After the basics were down, I set about building with the more colorful pigments.
Just like with oil paints and how Vermeer worked, multiple layers of color were were glazed upon the grisaille in order to create the blending and luminous glow.
The framing for my mastercopy is quite different than the original for a couple of reasons. First, unlike oil paintings, art on paper (versus canvas) is usually matted and behind glass. Second, the original is in an ornately carved and gilded 17th century frame. It was a popular choice at the time; however, today’s tastes are more minimal. And, personally, I believe that a less elaborate frame better accentuates the art.
In May 2023 I began a new master copy also using a minor modification for humor. Are there other famous paintings that you can think of where this kind of twist would work well?