How-to-books for budding artists frequently warn against the dangers of copying. This is not good advice, regardless of how consistent it may be with a view of art that sees creativity and novelty as being much the same. All of the great Masters learned by copying, and this didn’t stifle their individuality. Who could mistake a Raphael painting for one by Botticelli or Fra Lippo Lippi?
The pitfalls and virtues of copying can be illustrated by looking at art forgery. In fact, the title of this article (“Copies, Facsimiles, and Other Bothersome Matters”) is taken from one section of the classic commentary on prints, How Prints Look, by William M. Ivins, Jr. In discussing a sixteenth century forgery of a woodcut, Ivins says, “In this original, the lines have intention and meaning. In the copy . . . the lines have lost their intention.” In other words, lines are being put into the copy only because there were lines at this place in the original . . . not because a certain effect is being strived for. Commenting on another aspect of this flaw, A. Hyatt Mayor remarks, “when trying to distinguish an original print from a copy, look for misunderstood details in the marginal litter (pebbles, twigs), where the copyist takes less care than with the central hands and faces.”
This is related to the problem faced by anyone who draws or paints on location. If you are painting the clutter on the deck of a fishing boat, you may not be able to see what that clutter is, or how any parts of it are connected. But there the parallel ends, for when you paint, you make marks intended to represent the clutter as you see it; the copyist, on the other hand, can clearly see the marks he is copying, but has no strong feeling for why they are where they are.
To see how important copying is to the creation of significant art, we can turn to a fascinating book by the forger, Eric Hebborn. Hebborn was murdered in Rome in 1996, just a few weeks after he published The Art Forger’s Handbook. His successful career as a forger had been revealed in 1978, but he seemed to thrive on the celebrity and vowed that he would flood the Old Master print market with 500 new prints. Everyone who is deeply interested in drawing and painting should have a copy of his book for at least three reasons: he can teach you a great deal about the materials and techniques used in the past; he had an extraordinary understanding of the qualities that made the Masters great; and he is just plain fun to read.
Did the great Masters make copies? Hebborn says that Turner, Goya, David, Ingres, and William Blake (among others) all made copies; that there are about a hundred surviving copies by Delacroix of Rubens’ and Raphael’s work; and that there are at least 740 existing copies by Degas. The extent and significance of such copying is made clear by his discussion of Rembrandt’s picture of Lot being led from Sodom by angels:
“Rembrandt knew the design from a copy of an engraving made after Rubens’ original painting by Lucas Vosterman (1595-1675). Thus, Rembrandt was working from a copy of a copy, getting his impulse third-hand. Nor was Rubens being original, and the figure of the woman carrying the bundle is, in fact, derived from an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi (1520-82), after a composition by Francesco de’Rossi Salviati (1510-53), who may have taken it from Botticelli (1445-1510).”
As you can see from this quotation, a really successful forger must be a sort of art historian.
But Hebborn was also an excellent artist and that comes out in his extraordinary analysis of Rembrandt’s drawing, Saskia Carrying Rumbartus Downstairs. He begins with the Greek origins of the motif of a female figure whose garments reveal the movement of her body. From there he goes on to a drawing of a woman by Hans Leonard Schaufelein (c.1485-1538), and from that to a similar drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), who may have had the Schaufelein drawing in mind. The Holbein drawing was actually owned by Rembrandt and is listed in an inventory in 1656. Rembrandt made a copy of this, and as Hebborn puts it “once having copied it, the forms became part of his store of images that he could draw from freely using his memory alone.”
He goes on to demonstrate that the drawing of Saskia cannot be from life because she is cradling Rumbartus in her arms while in the act of descending the stairs, and her clothes are in motion. He points out that the tassel hanging from her belt (an echo of Holbein) implies downward motion and also explains the shift from one foot to the other as she walks. What we have, as Hebborn says, is “a stupendous feat of visual memory combined with a vast knowledge of art in an inseparable, seamless unity.” One might say almost the same thing about Hebborn’s forgeries.
Of course, Hebborn didn’t usually make copies of known works. He generally used his knowledge of styles and techniques to create new works that bore all of the earmarks of a known artist. On the other hand, he does show how a copy that he made of Turner’s The Fighting Téméraire might be passed off as a copy made by William Etty, a well-known painter of the early nineteenth century. Etty was known to have been influenced by Turner, and a “discrete inscription” on the back of the canvas attributing it to Etty just might—Hebborn surmises—turn the trick. While it is amusing to read about such ingenious plots (just as it is interesting to read a mystery novel), we shouldn’t forget that they describe a kind of vandalism. It is clear that Hebborn loved the Old Masters, but he didn’t care how much difficulty he created for those who were trying to understand the record of the past created by their surviving works. (For further development of this point, I recommend the article by Denis Dutton listed below.)
What kind of copies, then, should the budding artist make, and what rules should she follow? The first important point is that you should make it clear that the image doesn’t originate with you; for example, you might paint a copy of a Turner seascape, putting your name on it with the words, “copy of a Turner” or “after Turner.” The title might be “Seascape (after Turner).” And you should also make your drawing or painting different in size from the original you are copying. This brings us to the second point. If you do these things, you can fairly copy any image but you cannot display it or sell it unless it is out-of-copyright.
(The American copyright convention automatically assigns copyright to the creator at the moment the work is finished, and in general, the copyright outlives the creator by seventy years. (I use one hundred years.) Please note that this applies only to creations by Americans. European rules are frequently more stringent. (And you should check this all out for yourself—I am not a law expert.) As mentioned above, you cannot legally copy and make public—that is what “publish” means—an image by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) or Norman Rockwell (1884 -1978) This applies without regard to how scrupulous you are about identifying the originator of the image. You can copy them to your heart’s content for practice—but not for publication which includes display! (A copy is included on this site with the essay on “silverpoint,” and it is legitimate because Raphael has been dead for 488 years.)
We have been discussing “exact” copies (at least we hoped they were exact), but there is another useful approach to copying, and this is to make a “translation.” Translations are bound by the same rules as exact copies, but they differ in that a different medium is used, or the same medium is used but in a very different way. (In fact, the craftsman-copyists of the past, people who made etchings, wood engravings and other reproductions for newspapers and books, liked to be called “translators.”) In your own turn, you might make an ink and wash drawing of a watercolor, or an oil painting of a pastel. Or you might transform an alla prima portrait into one done in a heavy impasto. Once again, you are bound by the rules discussed above, since the rights to the image belong to its creator. (This also means that you cannot legally publish a photograph of a drawing, painting, or photograph which you have purchased unless that work is out-of-copyright. You need the artist’s permission.)
Whatever method is chosen, the benefits to the copyist are real, and they are different in each case. If you make an exact copy, you will probably be trying to reproduce a technique . . . to master it. In a translation, the problems of composition, distribution of values, etc. are largely solved for you, and you are free to concentrate on color, or line, or on any technique or medium that interests you. I said that some problems are “largely” solved because you might want to experiment with these problems, themselves. You might, for example choose to change the lighting so that it comes from the left rather than the right, you might want to make a nocturne of a painting that was made at mid-day, or you might want to change the composition, darkening the sky and adding a brightly colored buoy to a “dead” area of a harbor scene. All of these exercises may be very fruitful.
In the eighteenth century, there was no other way to reproduce drawings and paintings, except by making woodcuts, engravings, etchings, drypoint, wood engravings, and later, lithographs. But with the advances in reproduction technology, “facsimiles” are no longer made by artist-craftsmen at all. Nonetheless, this leaves us with some “bothersome matters” related to copies, particularly the question of limited edition reproductions which are often, misleadingly, called “prints.”
To make this issue clear, we must begin by defining “fine art prints,” the only kind of prints regarded as original art. Fine art printmaking originated in woodcuts and the other processes mentioned above. They were a means of mass-production, but they were also a medium for artistic expression. As a result, we have prints made by Rembrandt, Whistler, Durer, Brueghel, Fuseli, Delacroix, Turner, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Munch, Hopper, and many others.
Let’s look at drypoint to see what is involved in such processes. A copper plate is drawn upon with a sharp stylus that functions rather like a plow in a field. On one or both sides of the furrow made by the point, a ridge of metal is thrown up. The plate is then inked with a pad of cloth and the surface is wiped clean, leaving only the ink caught in the furrow and on the raised berm. (A slight film of ink may also be left in some places on the surface of the plate where a delicate tone is wanted.) Finally, a sheet of paper is placed on the inked plate and this sandwich is passed through an etching press so that the pressure will push the paper into the furrow, transferring the ink to it. The pressure also presses down the berm of thrown-up metal which holds much of the ink; this inevitably damages the fragile berm so that only a few good prints can be made, perhaps a dozen, and there may be noticeable differences between them. These are drypoint prints, a close relative of etchings and engravings.
What makes these prints original works of art emerges directly from the nature of printmaking itself. In every case, the artist prepares a “manifold” to make the prints from (in this example, the copper plate), but the manifold, itself, is not a work of art. No “work of art” exists until a print is made, so every print is an “original.” The printmaker is the artist who makes these original prints, and printmaking is a special creative art that requires extraordinary control of line, tone, and color. In the case of “limited edition prints” (reproductions), on the other hand, the original is the drawing or painting that is scanned digitally, and no printmaker is involved—there is only the person who runs the machines. (This isn’t to say that this person doesn’t take great care to reproduce the original well—but that is exactly the point: the original is the painting or drawing from which such reproductions are being made, not the reproductions themselves.)
The practice of signing fine art prints is analogous to the signing of original paintings. Numbering them tells the buyer how many were printed before the manifold was destroyed, and it may also establish the sequence in which they were made, although this is not a fixed convention. Limited edition “prints” (reproductions), which are really glorified photocopies of drawings or paintings, imitate the signing and numbering of fine art prints in a way that is deceptive. Since the work of art already exists in the painting, these are merely copies, not originals at all. There is no fixed convention governing the number of copies that can be made, as there is with fine arts prints, and the number is potentially unlimited . . . though the artists sometimes say that they won’t make any more “prints” in exactly the same size! Fifteen years ago, the spokesperson for one printing company said that a reasonable charge for a medium-sized reproduction, excluding the frame, would be about forty dollars, but in frame shops and galleries they were sold for many times this amount, as they are now.
It’s easy to see why artists participate in this practice—it is hard to make a living as an artist—but to do so hurts fellow artists, the printmakers who make genuine fine art prints. The practice also preys upon confusion in the mind of the purchaser who has heard prints referred to as valuable collectibles. If an artist chooses to do this, he should label it something like this: “Limited edition reproduction 7/ 120.” This identifies the work as a copy, and says that this is the seventh to be numbered out of a total of 120. If this is done, the buyer will know that she is not buying an original work of art, a fine arts print, but it also tells her that only 120 will be made.
But artists should think twice before making such copies. This trend is bad for the arts in general. The people most likely to buy such reproductions have limited art budgets. If ten percent of all artists had reproductions made of their works, and if shops and galleries stocked them, the market for original drawings and paintings would be seriously eroded. The original work—one of a kind—bearing the imprint of the artist’s hand—would be lost among copies, both cheap and expensive, reproduced by the hundreds, and these would all be called “prints” as well . This market would be saturated to the extent that there wouldn’t be room for others to enter it. Moreover, it seems likely that any “shakeout” would favor the lowest common denominator: the saccharine, the clichéd, the sentimental, and the merely decorative. We are well on the way to all this happening.
All printmakers—and many observers who are simply concerned with the well-being of the arts—agree with these points. Consider the following comments:
“There is much confusion, even among knowledgeable artists, when it comes to defining “prints” and various reproduction processes. The problem is compounded by publishers who promote what they call “Limited Edition” prints, which are, in fact, mass-produced printed reproductions. Such products, even when personally signed by the artist who created the original picture, are not true prints, and they cannot be considered original art. They are, and should be called, ‘reproductions.'”
Fritiz Henning, former president of the Famous Artists School, Drawing & Painting with Ink.
“One of the greatest sources of confusion is that photomechanical reproductions are very often loosely labeled as prints. They are prints, to be sure, in that they are printed, but they are not fine or original prints, made by the artist’s own hand. If they appear and are sold with the artist’s signature in pencil, either forged or genuine, they are nonetheless mechanical mass productions with no aesthetic value and with little monetary worth, except insofar as an artist’s autograph, if genuine, has value.
. . . it would be improper . . . for the artist to sign a reproduction, unless it is clearly marked as such.
Carl Zigrosser and Christa M. Gaehde, A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints.
“There are many scams on the market that the consumer needs to be aware of. . . . Many limited-edition prints start life as watercolours or oil paintings and are merely reproduced by a commercial printer. The prints are given an edition number and signed by the artist, making it look for all the world like an original print; but these reproductions have no actual value in terms of printmaking. The editions are often not very limited at all, sometimes numbering thousands, and, apart from being autographed by someone who is possibly quite famous, are worth little more than that of the autograph.”
Jane Stobart, Printmaking for Beginners.
“As the art reproductions and multiples market has grown more and more in a world already overloaded with images, there is a declining need for the original work of art, much less its creator.”
Daniel Grant, contributing editor, Art and Artist.
Many more such comments could be given, since the only people who defend this practice are the people who benefit from it. Unfortunately, there are many of them and their numbers are growing.
There is one other “bothersome matter” for us to look at. What about the process of taking a photograph, projecting the image, and copying that. This is vexing because it is wide-spread, and there is a sort of (phony) precedent in the work of the Masters.
When perspective was discovered (and it is amazing that people must learn to see!), it fascinated Renaissance artists such as Durer who devised and illustrated various mechanisms by which a perspective view could be created from the scene the artist was looking at. David Hockney has argued that such a device, the camera lucida, allowed the Masters to draw with the remarkable precision they exhibit. Moreover, he treats this as some kind of lost “secret” which he has discovered for us. There is no reason to believe a word of this nonsense. The cumbersome devices of Durer and others simply illustrated the underlying principles of perspective (they are still useful for that) and were probably never used in serious painting. As for the camera lucida (which wasn’t patented until 1807!), Hockney found that his drawing is much more accurate when he is using one, but he is mistaken if he takes this as evidence that the Masters must have used them as well. They were—as we have known all along—great draftsmen, and that is all there is to it.
The camera is a different matter. It was immediately embraced by many artists, including Degas, and it has been suggested (and I think rightly) that the camera image helped to bring about greater variety in composition. Nonetheless, there is a great difference between the acts of tracing a projected photographic image and using a reference photograph. I don’t believe that such tracing has any role in art because the painter who uses one is doing little more than applying color to the photographic image, just as the people who work for photographers do when they use paints for “photo-tinting.”
It has been said that every portrait is, to some degree, a self-portrait, and this is also true of every landscape and still-life. Artists reveal themselves when they paint. They paint their view of something, the way they conceive it to be—what they regard as its essence in some regard. (And, of course, they are also limited by their skills and judgment.) The person who is coloring a traced photographic image isn’t doing any such thing. This may be a useful exercise, just as copying a painting may be, and it does demonstrate the painter’s control of the brush and his color-sense—but that’s it. We might even say that people who make paintings this way—and who thereby compete with artists who are genuinely expressive—are truly revealing themselves.
Notes David Hockney has made extensive and unapologetic use of photographic images—and that may explain his desire to tar the Masters with a similar sort of practice. (In her book, Painting from Photographs, Diana Constance shows—without criticism—a revealing series of images that went into the making of Hockney’s painting, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy.) His arguments for the Masters’ use of a camera lucida simply don’t hold water. He has suggested, for example, that complicated patterns on the garments of Old Master paintings couldn’t have been painted except by using such a device. In fact, they could—but the use of a camera lucida would have made such work impossible! This is because such painting must be an act of observation, understanding, and memory since the fabric moves as the sitters do, and it lies differently at different sittings. The camera lucida is only useful for a still image, and the only reasonable use that I can imagine would be in drawing a botanical illustration, a task which requires exactness of proportion. The plant will not be jittering, talking, taking a break, etc. (I have one which I have used rarely, and only for this purpose.) He suggests that this technique was a closely-guarded secret, and that is why no one has “discovered” it until now. This, too, is nonsense. It is possible to have your own, personal formulation of a painting medium or varnish which will go to the grave with you—after all, you can prepare it by yourself in a locked room. But it isn’t possible for all of the great Masters to have independently used something like a camera lucida to make paintings—and to have kept it secret. The studios of people like Michelangelo, Rubens, and Raphael were crowded with a horde of apprentices and assistants who did the preparatory work, and visitors were often present, to say nothing of the subjects of the portraits themselves. His arguments are laughably trivial. It is interesting to note that Claude Harrison mentions the Camera Lucida and the Camera Obscura in his fine book, 'The Portrait Painter's Handbook,' which was published in 1968, and concludes that such aids are irrelevant. Derek Chittock takes this much further in his excellent book, 'Portrait Painting Techniques,' which was published in 1979. One chapter titled 'Portrait painting and photography' also mentions Varley's Graphic Telescope. He tells us that Canaletto is said to have used the camera obscura, that the arguments that Vemeer used one are not convincing, and that Joshua Reynolds owned one. It is clear that such devices did not allow artists to paint better than they could without it, that few painters even played with them, and there was no great secrecy about them. Death of A Forger by Dennis Dutton (on the website for “aesthetics”) is a brief account of Hebborn’s life with a fine assessment of the damage done by his “work.” The Art Forger’s Handbook by Eric Hebborn (New York: The Overlook Press, 2004) is the second book Hebborn wrote. The first was his autobiography, which is, among other things, an attack on the world of art dealers and collectors—with many names, named. Drawing and Painting with Ink by Fritz Henning (Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1986) This is one of the most informative books I have seen on working with ink. Henning has also written Concept and Composition, one of the few sensible books on the subject. How Prints Look by William M. Ivins, Jr. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1943) is a series of photographs of fine arts prints of all types with a brief commentary pointing out what can be learned from each example. There is no other book like it. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, by Ralph Mayer, 5th ed. revised and updated by Steven Sheehan (New York: Viking Books, 1981). This is probably the most useful reference volume work for practicing artists. Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) is a history of printmaking with reference to themes, styles, techniques, artists, etc. Printmaking for Beginners (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001) by Jane Stobart is a very good introduction to the printmaking processes, but you will also want a step-by step guide (or guides—the more the merrier) to the process(es) that interest you if you are serious about making prints. A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints, (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1965) by Carl Zigrosser and Christa M. Gaehde. This informative little book was sponsored by the Print Council of America.