"Don't just copy the artwork" they say. What does that mean?


Júlio Rodrigues ·

It's a common piece of advice in art education to avoid "just" copying artwork. And yet, you hear over and over again people telling you to not draw without reference. What are we doing with a reference if we can't copy it? Using it as a purely inspirational device? Instinctively you know that it isn't enough, certainly not educational if you're training to be a realist artist.

It took me a long time to understand what they are trying to say with this. For me, at least, the message is that there's a difference between copying lines and values blindly and drawing with understanding. When you're just getting started in drawing it's a common practice to copy plaster cast drawings, these exercises will teach you the most elementary constructs of the drawing language and, as a bonus, you'll end up with lots of beautiful fully rendered drawings in hands. But deep inside you know that you have no idea of what you're doing and you start to wonder how you can actually learn how to draw with freedom. Draw from imagination, draw combining references and in various styles.

That's when the advice probably started to kick in your life as an artist.

Cool, I don't want to rely solely on copying, I want to create too, what can I do?

That's a key moment in the beginning of your journey as a draftsman. When you're drawing without copying you're drawing to understand, you're observing, analyzing, simplifying and marking down on the paper what you got from this process. Drawing this way is really hard in the beginning since the apparent quality of your drawing will degrade — but fear not, since this a drawing that comes from understanding you have a way higher chance of getting the most important aspects of your subject in your drawing in a convincing way.

This advice doesn't apply to "atelier artists" where their technique is much more optical than to artists that are trying to create things "out of thin air". I enjoy seeing the work of both art disciplines, but they are really different in the way they are conceived.

The fun starts now. Drawing becomes a subject in which you can accumulate knowledge in. It's not the black magic it was when you were just copying. You'll start learning about representation strategies, you'll start to learn how each fundamental should be used to reinforce a main idea — from studying other artists work, you will develop good ways to understand and simplify the form of your subjects of interest. You're ready now to start studying perspective, light and shadow, figure drawing, anatomy, composition, whatever you want. But without realizing that you're not merely copying but trying to develop an understanding of the world around you it's very hard to mature as a visual artist.

This is a Bargues' study I've done in the beginning of my art training using the "atelier" method. Took me several days to complete.
A Dean Cornwell study I've done recently using the construction method. One hour of pure fun.

Is this the only way to draw? Of course not, but if you're in this blog you probably would like to create games, and in my view, this is the only way to do it. You gotta be able to create those unique giant monsters and environments for your game from your head. Not that copying doesn't have its role. Of course it does, some patterns might be learned by repetition and tracing, some rendering techniques as well, and in the trenches, it might be the only way to finish the job in time.

Excellent, I'm in. I want to start drawing this way, what can I do? How can I start?

The way I see it is that you should try to come up with shapes and forms that best describe something without it being too complicated to control. This is, in a sense, a rationalization of art. You want to make sense of things. If your basic shape is too complex, full of curves and sides you'll have a hard time manipulating this object, harming the whole process. At the same time, you don't want to conceive something so simple that it's barely descriptive enough, in the words of the world famous artist and educator Steve Huston:

Simple yet characteristic.

That's what we should always try to do. If we would like to think of an example, think of drawing the head. You could try simplifying it to a ball, a ball is definitely simple, but is it characteristic enough? If you ever tried to draw a head using solely a sphere as your starting point you know how hard it is, how much work you'll need to do after drawing this sphere to refine it to the point it looks like a head. What about a cylinder? A box combined with a sphere? Those are still simple forms yet way more characteristic. That's what we want.

Too much work to carve out a head out of a sphere
A head emerges naturally from a box in some angles. This is not Donald Trump.

Do master studies, try to extrapolate from their drawings what could they be using as a basis of their work. Using sketches is particularly good for that since rendering tends to hide these basic constructions. Experiment using different basic forms for the subject you're trying to draw. Use a box, use a tube, see what fits best, use a combination of the two. See, observe, abstract, draw and check if what you drew is helping you capture the essence of the subject or not. If not, simply try again.

As a sample exercise try drawing an apple starting from a sphere and then another one starting from a box, even though it seems absurd to draw an apple from a box you'll notice that when using a box perspective will be more prominent.

Draw using the construction method if you want freedom from reference. Prepare to study a lot since you’ll need to understand how things work and how they are “glued” together. The end result is a drawing full of intention and design, which for me, is the whole point of art.

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