I’ve Painted a Master Copy. Now What?
How to bring lessons from the masters into your portraits
By Chelsea Lang
One of my favorite painting exercises for any painter (especially those focusing on portraiture) is the master copy. Standing on the shoulders of artists who have come before you is one of the most effective ways to explore different painting styles and mimic their mastery.
However, there’s a concern I hear artists voice around master studies; while their master copy may have been a success, they’re struggling to achieve the same composition, looseness, or painterly brushwork in their own original paintings. How do we put our master knowledge to use in our own artwork?
If this struggle sounds familiar, you are not alone. The reason I’ve found for this is simple: copying from the masters gives you a near brushstroke-by-brushstroke guide to follow that you simply don’t have when there’s a model or a photograph in front of you instead.
So how can you overcome this?
My favorite way for bridging the gap between a successful master copy and an original painting is to create a piece with a composition that mimics one of a master painting as closely as possible.
For example, if you wanted to learn from a piece like Sargent’s Lady Agnew, you might have your model wear a dress with satin or gauze accents, or focus on lighting that casts a clear shadow off to one side of the face.
For Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. J P Morgan Jr., I wanted to focus on learning from the brushwork and color palette of her face, and cropped my study accordingly.
Considerations I keep in mind when composing my own originals after completing a master study include:
Light diffusion (how hard or soft the edges of shadow shapes might appear on the model)
Overall color harmony
Pose of the model
Style and material of the costuming
Arrangement of the subject within the composition
Background detail and composition
I find that the more intentional the artist is with these considerations, the easier it is to focus on translating the brushwork from the master copy into your original.
For this original piece I created following my Sargent master copy (photo reference courtesy of Howard Lyon), I focused primarily on learning about the color relationships from Sargent’s piece, and intentionally sought out a reference that captured similar color and light.
While this painting was a joy to make, it is essential to remember that the process of translating a copy’s information to your own work is one that requires iteration. This is especially true if your master copies are turning out successful, but your original works are falling short.
In this piece I was thrilled with what I achieved in terms of color, but felt there was more room to loosen up my brushwork and bring it closer to Sargent’s approach, so I will explore that over several more paintings to give myself the time and space to achieve that particular goal.
So, if your first attempt doesn’t hit the mark, stay the course. Each master copy you paint is an exercise meant to strengthen and inform your process. Be patient with your learning as you mimic your favorite masters!
Chelsea Lang is an alla prima painter specializing in portraiture and helping alla prima painters to reach their goals. To watch the full-length process of creating this Sargent master copy and the original, you can visit her YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/GEih2sqHinI