Although I’ve already written about how to copy things by sight alone (eg: without tracing anything) before, I thought that I’d look at whether this is always a good way to learn how to draw or not.
If you haven’t already learnt how to copy from sight, then it’s a skill that’s worth learning for a whole host of reasons that are too long to list here.
There are plenty of ways to learn this skill, such as repeated practice, reading about how to do it (a good book to start with would be “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” by Betty Edwards, which will teach you how to “see” things in a more technical way) and/or following step-by-step drawing guides until you’re able to work out how to copy new things on your own.
But, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you already know how to do this.
Anyway, I started thinking about whether copying is always a good way to learn after a recent experience that I had. I’d seen a really cool old drawing of a dancing skeleton in a magazine and, when I mentioned this to someone, they suggested that I tried to draw a copy of it. This is what the original drawing looked like ( image from this site):
And here’s what my attempt at copying it looked like:
It was incredibly good fun, and a little bit of a challenge, to make a copy of this picture just from looking at it. But, at the same time, I didn’t really feel like I’d learnt anything new.
Yes, I’d made a cool drawing of a skeleton, but if I had to draw another one from memory, then I probably couldn’t. Or, if I had to draw the skeleton in a different pose, then I’d find this incredibly difficult.
If anything, it was nothing more than a fun drawing practice exercise. It reminded me of the fact that I was reasonably good at copying things from sight, but it didn’t really teach me a huge amount.
Even so, I have to admit that I have learnt quite a bit from copying things in the past – I’ve learnt techniques to make my drawings and paintings look more realistic, I’ve been able to shape my own unique art style by borrowing techniques from other styles and I’ve also learnt how to draw things that I didn’t know how to draw before (just from looking at photos of them).
But, this didn’t happen when I drew the skeleton – and I think that I know why. Being able to draw something that realistic from my imagination alone is still way above my current skill level, even if copying it isn’t.
In order to draw something like that from my own imagination, I’d have had to have studied quite a few pictures of skeletons until I’d essentially built up a “3D model” of a skeleton in my mind. I’d have to know the “mechanics” of a skeleton and what it would look like from a variety of different angles. Without this knowledge, I can only draw unrealistic skeletons and copies of pictures of realistic skeletons.
And, this, I think is why copying isn’t always a good way to learn how to draw. Yes, it can be very useful, but unless you’ve carefully studied and/or copied something enough times to be able to visualise it clearly, then you haven’t truly learnt how to draw something. At best, you might just memorise how to copy something. Usually, this can be good enough – but it can also place limitations on what kind of art you can make.
Although all of this might sound difficult, it really isn’t. I mean, if you’ve been drawing for a while, then you can probably draw all manner of everyday items without even really thinking too much about it.
How did you learn how to do this? Simple, you’ve seen these items so many times in your everyday life that you have a fairly good knowledge of what they look like from different angles, how large they are, what their outlines look like etc….
In other words, this sort of thing only really seems like a challenge when you’re learning how to draw things that you haven’t actually seen that often before.
So, although copying can be a useful learning tool – don’t forget that you also have to study things too.
Anyway, I hope that this