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Copy Famous Paintings Become a Better Artist

Copy Famous Paintings to Become a Better Artist |

Since there is a long history of artists learning from the Masters by copying their works let’s try it.  We’re not talking about making a living as a forger either.  We are talking about copying a famous painting to improve our skills as an artist.  Therefore let’s make a few fakes.  You may just surprise yourself and learn something that could improve your art in a significant way.

Why should you copy famous paintings?

Here’s how I did a copy and more importantly what I learned from it.  “Sleepy Baby” is a famous painting by Mary Cassatt and it is one of my most favorite paintings of all time.

Here’s what inspires me about it…

First of all, the strokes of the soft pastel intertwine.  The colors entangle as they create other subtle interesting colors by mixing directly on the canvas.  This sense of movement and emotion in her painting is just like the relationship between this mother and her child.  The colors on the canvas are in a relationship.  They wind and weave around each other in a subtle but intentional way.  That’s what I believe makes it work!

So let’s fake this incredible masterpiece…

It speaks to me.  Choose a famous painting that you love because if you come out just a little bit better as an artist for the practice it is worth it…right?

Copying a famous painting makes me feel a little rebellious too like I’m learning someone’s secret code.  As a result of my rebellious kick and dissecting this masterpiece, I can learn about tones, range and where I need to improve my own work as an artist.  

Seems like most things have already been done and done and redone again as Pablo Picasso said.  He’s not talking about just copying to copy…he’s talking about copying to learn and apply those newfound skills to your own art instead of simply copying and forgetting!  

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”


Here’s what I learned and here’s what I’m “stealing” from my copy of Cassatt’s famous painting:

  • I love the light!  Even my photography images are happy, light and bright.  So to stretch myself, I need to try out some darker more moody images.
  • The depth in transitions of Cassatt’s work is phenomenal and maybe this is something that I need to really work on.  There are many more strokes in her version than in mine…I am impatient.
  • She uses subtle and dramatic strokes based on light, movement, and feeling.  Because she was an impressionist painter her colors reflect how light effects and changes the colors in the skin and hair.  I really love that…maybe being less rigid and less of a perfectionist in my work would free me to see color in a more abstract fragmented way!
  • The painting appears to have been painted on a white paper.  However, mine is painted on a tan sanded paper.  I want to try out toning the paper beforehand…maybe a burnt umber undertone wash of color or a complementary underpainting.  This does not appear to be something that she did but after copying this painting it’s something I would like to experiment with.
  • I want to also “steal” the emotion that she captures…this will be hard to “steal”.  It’s a goal that I can work towards in my work.  The emotions relate many times to the subjects as a result of the way she uses her colors on the canvas.

How do you start to copy famous paintings?

First, find an inspiring masterpiece to copy.  

The hardest part is narrowing down to a piece that inspires you and then finding a great image to use. You may want to look for a book of paintings or a book on your favorite artist.  Try to print the image out if you find one online.  It is difficult to see the fine details on a screen maybe that’s just me but try to look for lower contrast images.  Or use an app to make an image a little less contrasty so you can see the smaller details.  And remember most of the old Masters did not make high contrast work as we view on our Ipads and computers.

Second study the piece look close at the details and gather your supplies.

  • How are the strokes made?
  • Did the artist use a special technique?
  • Or maybe a special medium to paint with?
  • Does the original have a color layer underneath that aided in the painting of it (an underpainting)?
  • What did this artist typically paint on?
  • Do a little research on your artist to see if there are some things you can learn before you start the piece about the materials they used or how they painted.

Third paint!

Just give it a try!  It’s just paint and sometimes the hardest part is actually putting that first stroke on the canvas.  Most of all don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  Those “mistakes” may end up helping you see something that will be amazing or provide a different perspective that you can work out.  I learn something new every time I paint a copy of a famous painting through my mistakes!

Copy Famous Paintings to Become a Better Artist — this is the original Mary Cassatt "Sleepy Baby" see the full article for my version and tips to copy famous works to improve your own |
Copy Famous Paintings to Become a Better Artist — this is my painted version of Mary Cassatt "Sleepy Baby" see the full article for my version and tips to copy famous works to improve your own |

Here is the original (top obviously 🙂  and here is my copy (bottom)…

Just like a remake of an old movie, the original always seems best!  But have you ever heard a singer remake a song and you still really love it?  The same is true here!  I really enjoyed painting this and learned so much about myself in the process.  So to me, that is a successful remake, fake, forgery or copy…whatever you want to call it.

Finally, most successful creative artists emulate someone that inspires them but they also apply what they learn from those they admire.

If you love Mary Cassatt’s work, check out this website for a complete list of her work and be inspired.  Click here to see her work.

Ok so who speaks to you?  Maybe there is a famous painting you would love to copy?  Now go make your fake and learn from it!

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