In art making, it is expected for students who are classically trained to study and make copies of masterworks. In fact, Cennini, in his 15th-century guide called Il Libro dell’Arte, encourages students to “take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hand of great masters.” He advises to carefully select the master with the greatest reputation and to study their work with diligence. He further states that switching between masters would be “distracting [to] the mind.” But what’s the value of copying in drawing?
Drawing is learning to see. And the benefit of copying only reveals itself to those trained in drawing. Nowadays, the word “copy” can hold a negative connotation. So I want to be clear. I’m not referring to “copy-and-paste.” I’m talking about “copy-and-learn.” The process of reverse engineering allows us, as students, to get behind the intention of the original designer. It raises the sensitivity of our own visual perception of proportion, value, and composition and enhances the delicate qualities in the movement of our hands.
A Pleasant Surprise
I recently discovered that the French painter Georges Pierre Seurat was so dedicated to the work of Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The young Seurat made more drawings after Ingres than any other artistic source.” In my view, Ingres’ designs are not only exquisite but sublime. It is not a mystery why a young Seurat would choose any of Ingres’s paintings for study but his devotion was previously unknown to me. Seurat chose Ingres’ painting titled “Apotheosis of Homer” for this specific study. It’s where he decided to focus that intrigued me.
At 16 years old, Seurat decided to focus on the hand of the painter Nicolas Poussin indicated by the circle below in Figure 1. If you look into Seurat’s later work you will find him gradually developing his own voice which would eventually be recognized as Pointillism. It’s quite different from the work of Poussin and Ingres. But why did he decide to focus solely on the hand of Poussin, the seventeenth-century founder of French classical tradition?
The Result at Hand
Here is the result of his hand study which he made with graphite. I could dive deeper into the quality of this study but maybe that’s for another essay. But let’s look closer.
If you draw your attention to the bottom right, indicated by the A, Seurat makes an inscription below his drawing notes perhaps as a note to self—or perhaps a clue?
It reads “voila le génie” (there is the genius).
Great read. The smallest details make the biggest impact. Thanks for sharing.