An Approach to Master Copies

Artists throughout history have studied the works of earlier masters in order to improve their technique. The best means of doing this is by making copies. In this demonstration I show you one approach to making copies. I have chosen to copy John Singer Sargent’s painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.

Stage 1: choosing your reference

The simplest approach to doing master copies is to print a high quality reference at the same size as your canvas. This allows you to step back and make comparisons using the sight-size technique. You can even take measurements directly from the photograph if you really get stuck, but it is always best to try to make them by ‘eye’ first. You can refer to electronic copies but it is much more difficult to be certain about your colour mixes if you do.

I wanted to focus, in particular, on Sargent’s paint handling, colour and brushwork. On this occasion I decided to crop the painting slightly, since the original has a large quantity of dress and background that I did not feel was particularly crucial to understanding these aspects. I found the best reference I could and had it printed the same size as my canvas.

Stage 2: colour study

In order to allow myself to work as freely as possible on the final copy, I decided to make a colour study of the original, which enabled me to get a feel for the colour combinations Sargent used.

There are different levels of analysis you can take things to when doing a master copy. At the most involved, you can carry out historical research on the precise pigments used and purchase them in dry or tubed form, or you can approximate them using modern substitutes. Given the wide range of colours Sargent employed I decided to opt for the second approach and used a modern ‘double primary’ palette of Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Raw Umber, Ivory Black and Cremnitz White. Essentially this amounts to a warm and cool variety of each of the primary colours, plus three others which are used to modify values and saturation. This gives an extremely wide range of options for colour mixing, which was appropriate for a copy of this kind where I wanted to explore the use of colour.

The image above is a simplified version of the overall shapes, done on a small canvas board with a red chalk pencil.

Stage 2 continued: colour study

To complete the colour study I ignored all of the details and subtle modelling and simply tried to isolate around a dozen colour mixes. I mixed each on my palette and held my palette knife up to the original to ascertain when I was getting close, modifying until I could not get any closer with my chosen palette. I added a very small quantity of mineral spirits to add a little fluidity to the paint. Unless you are working in a museum it is almost impossible to be certain that your mixes match the original. Having found the best image I possibly could of the original, my intention here was, rather, to match the overall impression of the reproduction as closely as I could.

After covering the canvas with patches of colour mixed in a piecemeal way, it is important to step back and reassess whether those mixes are working together as a coherent whole and match the overall impression of the reference. Several of mine required modification at this stage, but I remained open to reassessing the mixes further as the final painting developed.

Stage 3: starting the final painting

Images of Sargent’s unfinished work reveal that he frequently began his paintings with a wash of diluted paint and I decided to adopt this approach myself. However, before doing so I felt it would be helpful to give myself the opportunity of placing the image on the canvas and getting some key compositional elements down to provide a structure for future work. This can be done using Raw Umber diluted with mineral spirits, or (as on this occasion) rapidly with charcoal, sprayed with fixative.

Knowing I would be working back into the painting, my focus was not so much to achieve a facial likeness at this point, but to divide up my canvas in order to allow myself to mimic Sargent’s bold brushwork in the dress and background without risking the need to make major revisions to placements later on.

Stage 4: washing in the values

With the major shapes placed in charcoal, I begin massing in values in a monochomatic wash. I used predominantly Raw Umber and White, tempered with a little Ivory Black. My focus was to establish the major value shifts across the image and ensure the mass of the head and shoulders were conveying the same gestural impression as the original. I also used this stage to foreshadow a sense of the brushwork that would come later, by isolating the location of some of the key brush marks that lend such a vibrant impression to the Sargent’s painting.

Stage 5: first pass in solid colour

The importance of the preparatory stages leading up to this point now begin to show. With the composition satisfactorily placed on the canvas, and my mixes more or less worked out by means of the colour study, the painting has progressed rapidly. In a single painting session I cover the canvas entirely and having noted their location in the earlier stages, I can even begin to place some of the bravura brushmarks. At this point, however, I am beginning to think about how Sargent has built up his final paint layer. Some of his marks are clearly placed over the top of others and I am careful not to cause problems for myself by failing to be aware of these factors. For this reason I am not placing any marks so thickly that they cannot be easily painted over. For example, the collar of the dress is thinly painted and the highlights on the chair are omitted completely. I have also kept the face relatively generic, knowing that I will work on this during the next stages, going so far as to remove the eyes altogether and just painting in the eye sockets.

I am using paint thinned with mineral spirits and a few drops of refined linseed oil to lend fluidity, which dries fairly quickly.

Stage 6: refining the details

Although the last stage seemed to bring the painting on a great deal, I spent by far the bulk of my time at this stage. The face has been worked up to better likeness and I have carefully modified the dress in order to convey the transparency of the material. I also develop the anatomy of the neck, and some of additional detail in the chair (including adding the highlights on the fabric). Having reached this stage it became apparent that the mix I had used for the wallpaper background in a previous stage was not matching the overall impression of the original reference, so it was repainted. I knew that it would be necessary to check this towards the end, so I had taken the precaution of omitting the markings on the wallpaper to avoid repainting them later on.

Stage 7: finishing

In the final stages I continue adjusting the overall colour impression where necessary and making corrections to aspects of the drawing. My focus in this copy was to explore Sargent’s use of colour and brushwork. Once I am happy that the overall colour impression is as close as I can achieve to my reference photograph, I reinstate several of the important brush marks and add the Chinese characters to the background. Having worked relatively thinly in many of the areas of the dress and face, I can continue working on the likeness and exploring the brushwork further in order to bring the copy to a finish.

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