Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s father sent him for formal schooling, but Michelangelo preferred copying paintings in churches. He later befriended arts and studied with some of the great painter and sculptors of his time. But he thought that he could learn more by copying the masters.
In museums around the world, you can see artists creating copies paintings. In Louvre in Paris, you can see a stream of artists copying their great paintings. Copying masterpieces has been a cornerstone of traditional art education for a long time. In fact, one art course you can take at The New York Academy of Art in New York City, NY, USA consists of students walking a few blocks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) and copying paintings. That is the course!
I have done copies of paintings at MMA New York City of oil paintings by Theodore Gericault (French Romantic Painter, 1791-1824) and Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (Spanish Baroque Era Painter, 1599 – 1660).
Artists at MMA who want to make copies make a request to MMA’s Education Department. The Museum allows artists to get exclusive use for a month to one room or gallery in the museum to do a copy of a specific painting. The public still has access, but only one artist is allowed to copy in that gallery. I highly recommend your doing the same.
Museums vary in permitting artists to do copies. In New York City, USA, the MMA does, but the Frick Collection and the Museum of Modern Art do not. Check with your museum.
How it works varies from museum to museum, but generally, you apply, get permission and follow that museum’s rules. For example, in the Louvre, and other museums, painters are not supposed to use the same size canvas as the original. You can’t eat or drink in the museum, must use a canvas drop cloth on the floor where you paint on an easel and you must clean up thoroughly after every session. Some museums offer copyists locker space to leave their paintings and gear at the museum instead of bringing everything back and forth each day you want to copy during your month access to a painting gallery.
If you can’t afford to go to an art school because of time and/or money, learn from the masters. If you can’t get to a museum, copy the great paintings from reproductions. If you can’t get reproductions, you can find them in library books or on the web.
What you can learn from copying the masters? Everyone is different in their ability to extract information from art instruction textbooks, videos or art classes. By copying a masterwork, you can learn something about the artist’s technique, handling of paint, use of color, composition, form, drawing and so on.
Can you learn from copying great paintings? Michelangelo thought so.