22 August 2016

Who's a copy cat?

First of all, where did the phrase "copy cat" come from ... how do cats copy, is it because when they have a hissing, fur-on-end standoff situation one tends to mimic the actions of the other?

No, it seems that cat has been a derogative term since the middle ages, and according to this etymological history, the term means a jerk prone to imitation. Or, the expression may have originated from observing the habits of kittens that learned by imitating the behaviour of their mother. We don't know for sure ... and does it matter where it came from if we all agree on how to use it?

But I digress. I wanted to think about the value of copying in art practice. There's been a lot of it done, over the years. Back in the day when painters started as apprentices, after they'd learned how to grind the pigments they were set to copying the master's drawings on their slates, to develop proficiency. Or they might copy from the workshop's model book, a valuable reference tool compiled by the master and sometimes added to over the generations. Its poses of people and animals were used again and again in paintings. Drawing from direct observation of nature wasn't something everyone did.
Pages from the Vienna Album, 1400-25 (via)
As art became more creative, rather than a matter of working within rigid patterns or to the constraints of a patron, these model books evolved to hold new, personal ideas - what we now call "intellectual property" and strive to own - and those painters too wanted to keep hold of their own ideas, they didn't want them copied. Copyright disputes go right back to 1511, in the case of Durer v Raimondi. When is a copy a forgery? Have a listen to the 15-minute podcast on Copying Art here (10 June 2016).

By the time of Pisanello, model-books were becoming sketchbooks
Drawings by Pisanello (1395-1455) 
"Pisanello's animal figures are descendants of medieval patterns, but they have progressed far beyond their ancestors, both in their function and in their appearance. However important an element drawing had been in a work of art, it was only at this time that it began to be a direct and personal expression of the artist's creative imagination."

Zoom forward to the present day, and the people we know who are trying to learn how to draw, how to express our creative imagination. "Draw what you see", we are told. We try. We look at the drawings of the masters, just as the medieval apprentices did. We can learn from copying them - and better, we can try, by replicating their marks and gestures, get a feeling for their individual style and for their approach to a subject. 

These copies are not going to be put for sale as, er, forgeries - they are for our private use, to develop skill or to develop, through "taking it further", work of our own. They are a starting point. And sometimes it's getting started that's the hardest thing. Why not let the masters help us along?

Copying isn't a crime; here's one persons story. "Safe at home with my comic books ... I just kept on doodling, never worrying about having anything to say. I was content to copy, and in copying I soaked up valuable lessons—about hard work, about art, and about my own limitations. "

Or is it that copying feels "amateur" rather than "real art"?
"A lady copying at a drawing table" by Paul Sandby, 1765 (via)

1 comment:

magsramsay said...

Big difference between copying to learn and passing copies off as your own. I learnt such a lot drawing from the masters at the National Gallery particularly about composition.Drawing is seeing.