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 Γ  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 πŸ™‚

Two Reasons Why Making Studies Of Old Paintings Can Be A Good Idea (When You’re Uninspired)

Well, as a way of gradually getting out of the uninspired phase I seem to be going through at the time of writing, I decided to make some studies of old out-of copyright paintings. This is something that I do every now and then, and it’s certainly worth trying for a variety of reasons.

And, yes, I’ve probably said all or most of this stuff before. But, it’s worth repeating!

1) It still gives your imagination some exercise: Although the idea of copying an old painting might seem like an “unimaginative” way to make art when you’re uninspired, it still involves a fair amount of imagination and creativity.

But, thanks to the fact that you have something to copy, there’s no pressure to come up with entirely new ideas. So, you can give your imagination a bit of exercise without stressing out about the fact that you can’t think of any totally new ideas.

Even so, you actually have to find an interesting painting that is no longer in copyright. Although sites like Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons contain plenty of public domain paintings, you still actually have to look for them (and check their copyright status) yourself.

Still, looking at lots of art isn’t exactly a waste of time – since it will help to remind you how awesome art can be (which can help you feel more inspired). Not only that, you might even end up discovering a few interesting artists that you’ve never heard of before.

And, no, not all out-of-copyright paintings are boring. In fact, if you’re willing to search, you can find some really cool ones. For example, the painting I used in my study was this rather gothic-looking late 19th/early 20th century painting called “Lady With Cigarette” by Oskar Zwintscher (1870-1916):

“Lady With Cigarette” by Oskar Zwintscher (Via Wikipedia)

Not only does this painting contain some brilliantly gloomy lighting and an ominously ornate background, but it also has something of a timeless quality to it too. Needless to say, I was eager to make my own version of it.

But, like any cover version of something else, I realised that I’d have to put my own spin on it. Initially, I thought about going in a minimalist direction and just painting the lady’s face and hands (and using a solid black background for the rest of the picture). But, this seemed a little bit too lazy.

So, I eventually just decided to make the painting in the same way that I would if I was making an original painting. In other words, I used my usual cartoonish style, slightly limited palette, mixture of traditional and digital tools, high-contrast approach to lighting etc…

I also simplified a few things and changed the picture from a portrait painting to a square painting (with film-style letterboxing bars too). In addition to this, I also took inspiration from a mixture of other things that have inspired me in the past (eg: heavy metal album covers, old computer games etc..). So, my imagination still got a bit of exercise, but without the pressure of having to think of a totally new idea for a painting.

Here’s a small preview of my finished study of Zwintscher’s painting. The full-size version of it will be posted here next month:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full painting will appear here on the 4th May.

So, yes, making a study of an old painting doesn’t have to be a boring exercise in copying something verbatim. In fact, using your imagination a little bit (in a low-pressure situation like this) can help to remind you of how much fun it is to be creative. Best of all, since you’re already copying a pre-existing thing, inspiration is much less of an issue too.

2) It reminds you of what making good art feels like: Although there’s certainly something to be said for just pressing on and making crappy paintings until you feel inspired again, this approach doesn’t always work. Especially when you’re producing original art that looks a bit like this…

This is a reduced-size preview, the full painting will appear here on the 3rd May.

Whilst, during more inspired times, your original art looks more like this…

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

If you’ve been experiencing severe uninspiration (and are producing very low-quality art very slowly as a result), then seeing yet another low-quality painting can end up sapping your self-confidence rather than making you think “Yes! I made some art! Even though I wasn’t inspired, I made some art!

So, making a study of a good (out-of-copyright!) painting by someone else can be an easy way to experience the feeling of making good art. And, yes, it is a feeling. It’s a focused feeling of purpose, of pride in your work and of complete and utter immersion in the process of making art. It feels like the literal opposite of feeling uninspired.

Feeling that “making good art” feeling once again can remind you of why you became an artist in the first place. It can distract you from the emotions that being uninspired provokes in you. It can make you feel proud of producing a piece of art that you gladly want to show off to other people. It can remind you of how unique your own way of making art is (if you compare your study to the original) and how it’s worth continuing to develop your own art style.

In other words, it’s a way to feel like you’re more inspired. And, when you’re feeling inspired, then you are much more likely to get inspired again.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Four Tips For Remaking Famous Old Paintings In Your Own Style


As long-time readers of this blog probably know, I had an interesting request to remake Van Gogh’s “Bedroom In Arles” in my own style last autumn. Although it had been a while since I’d done this with an old painting, it was a lot of fun. First of all, here’s Van Gogh’s original painting:

"Bedroom In Arles" By Vincent Van Gogh (Via Wikipedia/Google Art Project)

“Bedroom In Arles” By Vincent Van Gogh (Via Wikipedia/Google Art Project)

And here’s the remake, in my own style, that I originally posted here last November. Although I’d originally planned to stay faithful to the original, I felt that the room looked a bit “empty” and, as soon as I started adding stuff, the picture went in more of a gothic horror/ 1980s cyberpunk kind of direction:

"Another Bedroom In Arles (After Van Gogh)" By C. A. Brown

“Another Bedroom In Arles (After Van Gogh)” By C. A. Brown

So, for today, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to remake famous old paintings in your own style:

1) Legalities and Formalities: I’m not a copyright lawyer but, whilst making non-commercial fan art based on other media like TV shows, videogames etc.. is generally tolerated by the original creators (if theoretically against the rules), making a copy/remake of a modern painting is something a bit different.

Given that you’re working in the same medium (or a similar one), there are more likely to be copyright complaints if you remake a copyrighted modern painting or drawing. So, either seek permission or – more sensibly – only remake paintings whose copyright has expired. But, if you’re making a parody of a modern painting, then some copyright laws contain an exemption for this sort of thing.

So, do your research. Copyright law varies from area to area. In most European countries (including the UK), the general rule is that copyright on an artistic work expires seventy years after the artist who made it has died. Yes, this is ridiculously long, but it’s something you should be aware of.

However, copyright rules between the US and Europe vary slightly. For example, all of Henri Matisse’s paintings are still copyrighted in Europe (since he died in 1954), but quite a few of them aren’t in the US (since, in America, all works published before 1923 are automatically out of copyright). On the other hand, the time limit for copyright in the US is ninety-five years post mortem! And even longer for some types of works.

So, make sure that the paintings you are remaking are old enough to be out of copyright (both in your country and, if you’re posting it online, in the country where the website is based too).

For example, Van Gogh lived until 1890. 1890 + 70 = 1960. So, his paintings have been out of copyright in Europe since 1960/1961 (they are also out-of-copyright in the US too by virtue of both the “1923” rule, and the current American “95 years” rule). The longest copyright limit I’ve heard of is 120 years (for corporate works in the US), and it would even be exempt under that rule too (even though it doesn’t apply to Van Gogh).

Likewise, it is both traditional and polite to add “After [the original artist]” to your remake. Not only does it show that you’re paying tribute to a great artist, but it also means that – if your remake is good enough – no-one can accuse you of plagiarism and/or art forgery, since you aren’t trying to pass a copy off as an original.

2) Make lots of original art first: If you are going to remake an old painting in your own style, then you actually need to know what your own style looks like. You can learn this by making lots of original art first. In other words, the only way that you are going to learn what sets your style apart from everyone else’s is to practice.

Whilst you’re practicing, you should obviously take inspiration (but, make sure to do it properly!)from anything that inspires you. This will all help to shape your art style. Likewise, if you see another art style that you really like, then try to work out what general techniques the artist used and then add these to the techniques that you already know. Then practice them a lot.

When you have a fairly solid understanding of your own art style (eg: how you use colours, what types of lighting you like, how you draw people, the general themes of your art etc..), then you are almost ready to remake an old painting. But, you need to learn another skill first.

3) Copying by sight: Yes, it might not be as ultra-precise as tracing, but copying things the old fashioned way is so much better for so many reasons.

Yes, it can take a bit of practice to get right. Yes, you’ll have to learn how to “see” paintings that look 3D as being the 2D images that they actually are. But, despite the extra effort, it’s an essential skill to learn if you want to remake things in your own style.

Why? Well, first of all, it makes your copy look just a little bit different. The slight imprecision of copying by sight gives your painting more individuality than a simple mechanical tracing will ever do. This also gives you a lot more opportunities for the individual quirks of your personal art style to emerge too, when compared to a strictly similar tracing.

But, most importantly, it allows you to change things much more easily! Since you’re creating your sight copy in a similar way to how you would sketch an original painting, you can easily alter things whilst you’re copying. Although you can still obviously alter tracings too, the fact that you’re drawing a sight copy without guidelines means that your changes can be a lot more seamless.

4) Use your imagination: A good art remake is like a good cover version of a song. It keeps enough of the original to be recognisable, but it also tries to improve the original in a unique way. In other words, it’s someone’s interpretation of something else, rather than just someone copying something else verbatim.

So, don’t be afraid to change things. Don’t be afraid to add elements from your favourite genres of art. Don’t be afraid to use different colours. As long as you think that it improves the original painting in some way, then make the changes!

For example, in the Van Gogh remake that I showed you earlier, I noticed that the room in the painting looked a bit “empty”. So, I began to add more stuff. Since I’m also a fan of the cyberpunk genre (and have had a lot of practice making 1980s-90s style cyberpunk art), I thought that I could make the painting look more interesting if I included elements from this genre in the painting.

At the moment, my favourite colour palette is a red, yellow, blue, green, purple and black one. So, these were the only watercolour pencils that I used when adding colour to the painting. Likewise, there are a few digital editing techniques that I really like to use, so these got added to the painting after I scanned it.

Likewise, my absolute favourite lighting style is ambient lighting in gloomy locations- so, I set the painting at night and added several orange, blue and green light sources to the painting (the green one is slightly in front of the area shown in the painting).

Yes, whether you think that all of this is an “improvement” is up to you. But, it’s my own personal interpretation of how I would “improve” the original painting. And, well, isn’t personal interpretation the whole point of remaking old paintings in your own style?


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

One Cool Thing About Making Parody Art

Unfortunately, you don't :(

Unfortunately, you don’t 😦

Well, one of the things that I seem to have got back into recently is copying old paintings – this is both for art practice and because I’m just curious to see what my favourite old paintings look like in my own art style.

However, I’ll sometimes end up turning my copies into parodies because I’ll think of a really funny idea either before I start copying or just afterwards. In fact, this happened with tonight’s painting (which is based on “God Speed!” By Edmund Leighton) – here’s a preview of the lineart for it:

[Click For Larger Image] "Apologies To Leighton (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

[Click For Larger Image]
“Apologies To Leighton (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

I don’t know, there’s something about both the serious and/or timeless nature of old art that lends itself so well to parody. Not to mention that most old paintings are either based on stories or they tell such a clear story (that can easily be changed into something more amusing).

In addition to this, the people in these paintings usually display a timeless range of emotions, sometimes in a rather theatrical way, and it’s often just a case of changing the thing they’re reacting to into something unexpected. Like with my parody of this J.W.Waterhouse painting:

"Apologies To Waterhouse" By C. A. Brown

“Apologies To Waterhouse” By C. A. Brown

Anyway, all of this made me think about the whole subject of making parody art and I realised something really cool about making parody art – it doesn’t matter how much of an artist you are, you can still make parody art. Literally anyone can make parody art. And people will still like it.

Yes, it’s nice to have high-quality art, but it doesn’t really matter in a parody. All that really matters is that the characters are recognisable and the joke is funny.

Everything else is secondary. Even if you can only draw very simple cartoons, you can still make parody art that people will find funny. The most important thing about parody art is that it is funny – in fact, it’s more about writing and imagination than it is about artistic prowess.

If you don’t believe me, then check out the editorial cartoons in your local newspaper or check out one of the many parody cartoons on the internet (like this hilarious cartoon [Mildly NSFW] from Kate Beaton’s excellent “Hark! A Vagrant” webcomic).

Most of the art in these parodies isn’t really “high art” or anything like that, in fact – the simpler and more cartoonish the art in a parody is, the funnier it can be. In other words, a parody is just an illustrated joke. The pictures can support the joke, but the joke itself can usually work just as well if there were no pictures and just a written description.

So, although it’s still a good idea to practice your art regularly and to try to improve, don’t let a lack of practice put you off from making parody art. It’s the joke that matters.


Sorry that this article was so short, but I hope it was interesting πŸ™‚

Four Secret Reasons Why It’s A Good Idea To Learn How To Copy Old Paintings

A detail from a copy/parody I made of Francesco Hayez's "Odalisque With Book" [Ok, I've resized and self-censored this image slightly. Since it was WAY too large and I'm not sure if the original image fitted into WordPress's rules about nudity - I mean, it didn't actually show anything, so I'm probably just being paranoid here...]

A detail from a copy/parody I made of Francesco Hayez’s “Odalisque With Book”
[Ok, I’ve resized and self-censored this image slightly. Since it was WAY too large and I’m not sure if the original image fitted into WordPress’s rules about nudity – I mean, it didn’t actually show anything, so I’m probably just being paranoid here…]

It’s a pretty well-known fact that one of the best ways to learn how to draw and/or paint is through lots of copying. Traditionally, students (whether they’re at an art school or, like me, teaching themselves) are told to copy old paintings.

This might all seem a like an old-fashioned and drearily formal way of learning how to draw or paint. But, I’ll let you in on a secret…

There’s much more to copying old paintings than just teaching yourself how to be an artist.

Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m obviously talking about copying pictures the old-fashioned way rather than just tracing them (because, as I’ve mentioned before, the only person you’re cheating when you trace something is yourself).

This also isn’t an article about how to copy things – it takes quite a bit of practice to learn how to do this. Plus, to paraphrase an excellent book called “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” by Betty Edwards, it also requires knowing how to look at things in the right way. Still, if you keep practising, then you will get better at it.

For example, here are two copies I made of Millais’ “The Eve Of St. Agnes” in 2013 and in 2014:

October 2013

October 2013

March 2014

March 2014

So, although I’m not going to tell you how to copy things here, I will give you four lesser-known reasons why you should practice copying old paintings.

1) You can show off: One of the great things about copying old paintings is that, at the end of it, you have something which looks very much like a famous old painting. And, best of all, you’ve painted or drawn it.

Since people are quite likely to recognise a more famous older painting than they are to recognise one of your original paintings or drawings, then you can impress people a lot more easily with a fairly average copy of an old painting than you can with a fairly average original drawing or painting.

Not only that, copying old paintings also makes you look surprisingly cultured too. It makes it look like you have a wide knowledge of art history and are a “serious” artist. Yes, you can just search for old paintings on Google or Wikipedia (preferably Wikipedia, since each image on there contains a listing of it’s copyright status too) and just copy anything that looks interesting enough – but you don’t need to tell anyone else that…..

2) You can change things: The coolest thing about copying old paintings is that you don’t have to be accurate if you don’t want to. If you’ve been practising drawing or painting for a while, then you can use these skills to make your copy into something which you think looks cooler or more interesting than the original.

For example, here’s a fairly cartoonish copy of the Mona Lisa I made in January which has a much darker and more gothic background than the original painting did:

"Mona At Sunset" By C. A. Brown

“Mona At Sunset” By C. A. Brown

Not only that, you can also make parodies of the original painting, you can make “modern” versions of it etc.. The possibilities are endless.

3) If you can copy them, you can copy anything: Painting from life or using reference photos can sometimes seem quite intimidating to inexperienced artists. After all, real life is an incredibly complex and detailed thing (in visual terms) and even the idea of copying this can sometimes seem almost impossible.

One of the great things about old paintings is that so many of them are almost photo-realistic. But, at the same time, they’re slightly simpler than the average photograph and they’re often staged/composed in a very dramatic way – with the most important parts of the painting in the foreground.

As such, they’re slightly easier to copy than photographs or real life and, more importantly, they’re a lot easier to simplify too.

Knowing how to simplify complex images (whilst still keeping the “essence” of the original image) is one of the most useful skills that any artist can learn. Once you know how to simplify things properly, then you can copy pretty much anything that you want to relatively easily.

4) You can flog them if you want to: As long as you don’t try to pass your copy off as an original (since this would be illegal forgery and/or fraud), then it’s perfectly legal and acceptable to sell your copies if you want to. In fact, some people even make a living from doing just this alone.

After all, old paintings aren’t covered by copyright (as long as the original painter died at least 70-100 years ago) -so you don’t have to pay any royalties or get permission from anyone.

As a general rule, if you’re going to sell a copy you’ve made – then you need to acknowledge the original painter. Although the original painter is dead, an acknowledgement makes it clear to everyone who sees your painting that it is a copy and not an original. So, at the very least, no-one can accuse you of art forgery.

The usual way to do this is just to add a small note to a corner of your copy which says “After [original artist]”. Even if you don’t plan on selling your copies, then it’s usually good manners to do this anyway.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚