Three Times To Paint Copies Of Old Out-Of-Copyright Paintings

Well, since I’m still preparing a series of studies of old out-of-copyright paintings that I’ll post here in early May, I thought that I’d write yet another blog article about this subject. But, first, here’s a preview of the latest one – which is a very stylised/cartoonish and gothic version of Berthe Morisot’s “Femme à l’éventail” (1876):

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 7th May.

Anyway, I’ll be talking about when you should make studies of old paintings (whose copyright has expired). For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you already know how to copy from sight alone.

But, if you’ve never done this before, then just be sure to pay close attention to both the exact outlines of everything in the painting (things can be a different shape to what you might expect) and to the size of everything in the painting in relation to everything else in the painting. And practice a lot. You probably won’t get it right the first time, but you might start to get it right after a few attempts.

So, when should you make studies of out-of-copyright paintings?

1) When your artistic self-confidence is low: If you know how to copy from sight, then making a study of an out-of-copyright painting can be a quick way to give yourself a real confidence boost!

This can come in handy when you’ve been going through one of those crappy uninspired phases where, however hard you try, you just can’t seem to produce any good original art.

Making a study of one or more old out-of-copyright paintings allows you to make good-looking art relatively quickly. It can even sometimes allow you to make art that looks at least twice as good as your “ordinary” original art. Like this study I made of an old Gustave Courbet painting from 1843:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

And this can be a real confidence-booster, since it can remind you of what making good art feels like. It can also show you that even if your imagination isn’t running at 100%, you are still capable of producing good art.

2) When you need to show off: Following on from everything I’ve said, if you really want to show off – then making a study of an old out-of-copyright painting can be a great way to really impress people.

Yes, it won’t be your original work. But, this doesn’t matter as much as you think. For starters, although I’m not a lawyer (and this should not be considered proper legal advice!), even some basic legal research will show you that as long as you remember two important things, then you’ll probably be ok legally.

Firstly, make sure that you’ve checked that the source painting is no longer copyrighted. If you are posting your study online, it is probably a good idea to make sure that the source painting is out-of-copyright in both your own country and in the country where the website you’re posting it to is based.

Secondly, make sure that you make it VERY clear that your study is a copy that you painted (since you may possibly fall foul of fraud and/or forgery laws if you try to pass a modern copy off as an authentic work by the original artist).

On a more social level, showing that you know enough about art history to make studies of historical paintings will make you seem cultured and sophisticated (even if you just found the source paintings by trawling through Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons etc.. at random until you found something that looked cool and wasn’t copyrighted).

Plus, making studies of old paintings is something that “serious” artists tend to do as an educational exercise too. So, it’s perfectly respectable.

But, if anyone questions the imaginativeness of making studies of old paintings, just show them a side-by-side comparison of the original and your study and point out that you made the study as an exercise to test your current skill level. If your study looks even half as good as the original, it might impress them. If it doesn’t (and they aren’t artists, influential critics, gallery directors, renowned academics etc..), just sarcastically ask them if they can do any better.

3) When you just want to have fun: Finally, making studies of out-of-copyright paintings is wonderfully relaxing. Since another artist has already done all of the really hard work of coming up with a new idea, coming up with an interesting composition etc… you can just sit back and have fun.

Not only that, you can also use a bit of artistic licence (like I’ve done in the examples earlier in this article) to add a bit of your own style and/or personality to the copies that you make. Not only does this allow you to use your imagination in a low-pressure way, but it also means that you can make your study look a bit more distinctive than an “ordinary” copy would be. Plus, it’s kind of like modding a computer game- but with art!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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