Updated: Oct 2, 2022
Almost every art class I’ve ever been in has involved the task of copying something (and ideally some techniques to help us with the task). Here’s a photo, or an object, or a person - copy it. Why? Why would you want to do that? What will it achieve?
I can’t say those questions ever entered my head at the time - I was just pleased to get stuck in. I would guess that most people in the class were also fixated on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’.
But thinking about it now, there were many benefits. Here are 5 possibilities:
Sketching things over and over will give us a unique understanding of the forms of those objects so it will ultimately become easier to draw them and then we can perhaps draw from imagination one day. I have heard that this is exactly how Quentin Blake achieved what he did - he attended life drawing classes for 2 years and would return home and try to redraw what he had observed in the classes from memory .
Nature sorts out the interesting composition for us so copying something natural will make a visually pleasing piece. We generally find natural objects more appealing than man-made - faces, animals, scenery, flowers. Why? Because nature has done the hard work for us. It's sorted a colour palette and an arrangement of shapes and values that is already visually pleasing. We just have to copy it. When was the last time you felt like drawing a child's plastic toy or an MDF bookcase? Look to nature for ideas and for shapes to copy, if you find a composition visually appealing, someone else will too.
We may be attracted to drawing natural things because it helps us be more in tune with the things around us, and we feel more at ease when we are working in harmony with nature rather than against it. Drawing natural things will help us have better knowledge and understanding of what is around us, this is a way to explore the natural curiosity we have about our world (who said artists and scientists have different interests?).
It retrains our brains to see things as they are instead of how our brains perceive them (e.g. by looking, we will see that the eyes are actually halfway down the face rather than up at the top as we naturally assume) and this also affects our understanding of the world.
We have an innate tendency to copy as human beings. It’s how we learn and it’s one of the things that distinguishes us from other animals . We don't just copy as children, we do it as adults. When we are in an unfamiliar situation, we wait and see what everyone else does first (have you ever been at a wedding where the buffet is ready and no one knows if the tables have to go up in a particular order?) So if we are going to make some marks somewhere, it’s natural to start by copying something around us. And it’s natural to be impressed by another human’s skills at copying.
But just as children do, we eventually have to move away from copying and start to do things our own way. When I left classes behind,I gradually became less and less motivated with the idea of producing an exact copy of a photo with my own work, and more excited by the idea of making it a piece of art in its own right. Does every artist go through that process?
Williams WH. BBC Documentary About Quentin Blake. Available at: https://sandrahelenwilliams.wordpress.com/2022/01/09/bbc-documentary-about-quentin-blake/ [Accessed July 2022].
Dutton D. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2009.