You are What you Copy

by F.

One of my favorite drawing books is almost 100 years old. It is Harold Speed’s The Practice and Science of Drawing. The book is now in the public domain and can be found at Project Gutenberg. You can download a full HTML version, with the reproductions. It’s wicked cool.


Of the many pieces of wisdom Speed dispenses, one is particularly important: before you begin your drawing, you need to have some idea of what you want it to look like. In other words, you need a goal—a model, an island toward which you are navigating.

I think this is necessary for any creative activity, actually.

One way to develop this is to copy. But not just anything. Copy what you love. What moves you. What gives you chills. When you copy, you really see how the artist did what they did. You are practically reliving what they did, stroke by stroke. It’s an amazing experience to copy a fine drawing, and it has always been a large part of art education. At times, too large a part, I think, but it has a role to play.

I love to copy stuff. But only good stuff, by which I mean “stuff I think is good.” You may think Cy Twombly is an amazing draftsman. I don’t. I think he’s a joke. But there’s no right answer, really.

112604 Cy Twombly

I like to go back to the 1800’s. Further back, and things start to look a bit stylized. But in the 19th Century you get Ingres, early Degas—those dudes. Currently, I’m copying Sargent’s graphite drawings. Here an example, which took a little under 2 hours. I did 1 hour one night, 1 hour the next. Of this time, about 60% was spent blocking and getting the proportions right; the remainder was spent getting the values approximately right. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.


What is funny is that at one time in my life, I abjured copying. How could I be “original” if I copied anything? I still hear people say this. It was an unbelievably stupid way to think—because, whether I knew it or not, I was copying anyway. I was just doing it unconsciously. We are all copyists. Creativity is incremental extension of the known. It is not mere novelty. Novelty is cheap and easy.

Posted on my wall is a quote from playwright Tom Stoppard that captures this sentiment nicely: “Skill without imagination,” Stoppard writes, “is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

Speed writes (around 1907, I think, though I don’t have the exact date for the first edition of the book) that reproductions are “abundant” and every visual artists should collect his or her own set of beloved works. Fast forward 100 years, and what Speed says is even more true. How many drawings can one fit on his or her Mac? A lot.

My current favorite trove is the Sargent collection at Harvard, which is on-line, huge, and searchable. It’s a feast. Motherfucking incredible. The scans are large enough to be printed out for further study. Speed’s monocle would explode were he alive to see it.