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Learning to Draw Through Copying. Is it Bad?

You sit down with your sketchbook and you’re lost. Maybe you want to draw an elephant but aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you’ve been admiring a new artist and want to emulate their techniques. What do you do? Can you copy their work? Will copying help you improve your drawing skills?

You can learn to draw through copying since it can help you improve your drawing skills. When you copy, you have the chance to experiment with new techniques, think critically about the choices the artist made, and practice your fundamental drawing skills without the stress of needing to create a new and novel piece of art.

Encouraging artists to copy the work of others isn’t a popular opinion. Of course, copied work shouldn’t be sold or displayed as one’s own. That said, copying can be a valuable part of the drawing learning process. Let’s dive into why you should embrace copying when you sit down to practice your drawing skills.

The Etiquette of Copying Art

Plagiarism is bad. By no means should you ever copy someone’s work and call it your own. Unfortunately, technology today has made plagiarism easier than ever. With one simple click, someone can save an image of your art that you Posted on Instagram and sell it on a mug or post it on their own Instagram with their own signature. This kind of copying is never appropriate.

The problem is that plagiarism has become such a big issue that we’re all scared of being accused of it, even if we’ve done nothing wrong. “Oh, no! I traced that drawing, I better go burn it in the backyard before the plagiarism police raid my house!” Yes, plagiarism is bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use copying as a learning tool to grow your own skills. 

If you copy a drawing and never have any intention to sell it, show it, or call it your own, stop worrying. Remember that copying is how most of us learned to draw as kids.

It was a fun way to understand how shapes worked and how we could put them together to create characters, buildings, and fantastical scenes. I don’t know about you, but no one in my elementary art class was carted off to plagiarism jail. 

Copying can be a great way to learn the 5 basic skills of drawing and really cement them into your muscle memory.

Shed your belief that copying is bad. If solely used to learn how to draw and improve your skills, you’re fine. In fact, you should embrace copying as a valuable technique to add to your educational artist’s toolbox. Here’s why.

Copying Helps You See From the Artist’s Perspective

When you sit down with the goal of copying a piece of art pencil line by pencil line, you have to get to know it very well. You have to look at every single stroke and ask when, why, and how it was done. If you can’t figure out the nuances of what you’re looking at, you won’t be successful in copying it. 

Take a look at this drawing of an umbrella. To copy it, we need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • what angle is the umbrella laying at?
  • how does the foreshortening work so that the front of the umbrella looks closer to us and the back looks farther away? How do you draw the circle of the umbrella to achieve that?
  • how do the angles of the inner spokes of the umbrella differ from the outer spokes?
  • why is there more shading on the front of the umbrella than on the back? What does that tell us about the lighting?
umbrella pencil drawing

When you copy a piece of art, you need to think through all of the steps the artist took to achieve the shapes, shadows, and angles they achieved. How did they get that shadow just right and what do you need to do to make it look the same way?

This deep dive into the artistic process can teach you a lot about new techniques and ways of understanding art. By copying, you’re basically giving yourself an art lesson. 

Copying is also a great way to feel more connected to your favorite artists and get a deeper understanding of their work. It’s an intimate process to take a piece of art and break it down to its bare bone components of pencil strokes and shading gradients. Use this time as a way to appreciate the art and celebrate the artists you love.

Copying Shows You Skills You Need to Work On

Let’s say you’re copying the picture of the umbrella and you just can’t figure out how to shape the circle so that it looks like an umbrella and not a misshapen pancake. As you struggle and struggle, you realize that you haven’t spent much time working on your skills with drawing in perspective.

You take a break from your umbrella and brush up on your perspective drawing before diving back in again.

When left to our own devices, we often create art that’s in our comfort zones. Heck, it’s more fun to create art that we’re good at! When you copy something, you’re forced to expand your skills and do whatever is necessary to replicate the techniques that are displayed in that piece of art. 

The whole purpose of copying is to learn. Learning what you need to learn is a key aspect of that. As you work on your project, take your time to analyze the steps that are causing you problems and what skills those are associated with. Make a list of some of the skills you need to brush up on and seek out future copying projects that force you to refine those skills.

Copying Can Give You Confidence

In the same way that copying can point out deficits in your artistic skills, it can also point out skills you didn’t know you had. I remember the first time I ever tried to draw a realistic portrait. No, it wasn’t great, but I was surprised by how natural the shading felt. As I fell into an artistic flow, I was able to mindlessly shade the portrait without stressing out about the outcome.

As it turns out, shading is one of my strengths. 

It was fun to find art to copy that would challenge my skills with shading. How did they get that shadow? Where is the light coming from to make it look like that? What kind of pencil did I need to achieve a shadow that was so rich and saturated?

Use copying as a way to discover your artistic talents. Once you discover them, find art references that challenge your skills and take them to the next level.

Copying Is Fun

I don’t know about you, but I can get serious artist’s block. I don’t know if it’s my perfectionism or my lack of creativity after a long day, but there are times when I just can’t come up with a good idea for a piece of art to save my life. During times like these, I like to grab a great piece of reference art and just roll with it. I mean, art is meant to be enjoyed, right? 

There are times when we want to take the time and attention to create a novel, unique, and beautiful piece of art that we can display or sell. Other times, we just want to enjoy art. Copying is a great way to put the creative strain aside and simply draw. 

If you draw every day, you can improve your drawing skills. Copying can just be one of the many techniques you try in your regular drawing routine.

How to Copy Art When Drawing

When I work on a copying project, I like to have the piece of reference art on my iPad. That way, I can zoom in to see as much detail as possible. I also like that I can rotate the image and get a new view if I’m feeling mentally stuck about how a piece of work should come together. 

can i learn to be an artist if i have no talent
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The other benefit of using an iPad for your reference work is that you can easily pop over to Instagram or Google to explore the artist’s other work. A lot of artists adopt consistent themes and techniques. If you’re stuck trying to figure out how an artist achieved a certain effect, look at some of their other pieces and see if you can get any clues.

When things really get desperate, I pull out my light box. When I’m really trying to learn from my copying projects, I don’t like to pull out my light box because it lessens the challenge. There’s a lot of benefit from struggling through an artistic problem that gets washed away by a light box that simply gives you the answers and doesn’t make you think through the mechanics. 

But, sometimes you’re REALLY stuck and just need some clues. A light box can be a great tool for getting over the hurdle of a challenge you’re having with copying a piece of art and move on to other aspects. I love grabbing my light box when I need it!

Even though copying gets a bad rap, it can be an important way to improve your drawing skills and take your art to the next level. Copying can also be a great way to relax and simply have fun with your art, which is something we’re all looking for!

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