Kill Art Block through Selective Copying

From day 1 in art school, students are discouraged from copying (plagiarizing) other artists’ work, and rightly so. Submitting another artist’s work and taking claim for it is not only bad form: it’s wrong. BUT, that doesn’t mean copying is bad

Copying other artists’ style and technique as part of your own study and practice is something that can be really beneficial. I believe that copying is an understated learning tool when it comes to making art. After all, we learn virtually every other task or craft in our life through this approach, whether it’s how to tie a shoe or learning the solo to “Manic Depression” on the electric guitar. In the Renaissance era, apprentice painters would learn and ply their craft by copying the works of the masters. They would diligently and methodically copy painting after painting for decades until they developed an understanding that would inform their own creative pursuits. If they learned by copying, so can you.

Did I mention that copying is another great way to kill art block? (I guess I just did.)

Keep in mind, it’s not so much WHAT you copy, but HOW you copy.

When copying to learn, I recommend that you select a specific section or object within a drawing and focus on copying it. For example, if you struggle with drawing hands, make your focus to copy only the hand in your study. This will remove the pressure of having to copy an entire drawing. I recommend this approach – especially for novice and intermediate artists.

Let’s look at the image below, featuring a panel from Daredevil #182, drawn by Frank Miller. There’s a lot of stuff to break down, but I’m going to focus on studying the way Frank Miller draws hands in this panel. When our focus is small, we can improve our study. It’s also a much quicker way to practice when art block invariably hits.

Daredevil by Frank Miller
Studying the hand, looking at the reference, and making corrections. Copying is an iterative process.

Don’t be discouraged if your copy isn’t perfect, especially for the first go around. Above is my rendition of Daredevil’s hand. You can see that I misjudged the length of the thumb and corrected it. It’s not an absolutely flawless copy of the original, but that’s not my intent. What I extracted from this study is Miller’s shading technique as well as the positioning of the fingers. It’s a quick study and I’m ready to move on.

Copying another artist will train you to be more observant. You can easily compare your work to the original source and refine your work as needed. As you build up your observational skills through study and copying, you will start to see that knowledge transfer into your own drawings.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can copy a panel from a comic book. Here I am studying not only the line work and cross hatching that Miller uses, but I am also attempting to emulate the coloring scheme.

Copying a panel for study. Above: Art by Frank Miller. Below: my study.

Do you agree that copying is an effective learning tool? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.