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Can you learn to Draw by Copying?

This is one of those questions many people ask to themselves when they are trying to figure it out which is the best way to learn how to draw. If you ask around, most probably you will find different opinions across the board. Some artist will tell you to always try to draw from your own imagination, meanwhile, others will tell you totally the opposite.

In this article, I will try to give you a clear answer on whether you can learn to draw by copying or not, and also if it is beneficial for your art and how you should do it.

So Can you learn to Draw by Copying?

The answer is YES. In fact, when you are learning to draw you must try imitate nature in order to learn how to represent people, animals, and real-life objects in a 2D surface( like paper or a canvas ), in a believable manner.

In reality, the right question will be “how to copy properly” and how to use visual references in order to become better in your craft. We will try to answer this and many other related questions in this article.

How do I know “copying” is the best way to go

I´ve been working as a professional concept artist and illustrator for the last 10 years. almost 13 years ago I decided to take my drawing passion to the next level and try to make a living out of it.

During the process, I learned the importance of visual references ( posing models, photographies and even 3D Scans ) in order to understand how volume, light and texture work in nature.

How to “Copy” properly

OK, first of all, we need to understand when I´m speaking about copying, I´m referring to how to interpret a visual reference and how you are representing it on a canvas.

If you are using pencil and paper, for example, you need to understand the advantages and limitations those tools offer, and how to use them to represent properly your reference. The grain of the paper and the softness or hardness of the pencil can give to your strokes different looks. You can use this to create different effects like volume, depth, light, shadow, texture, etc…

In the photo below I´m in the middle of the process of drawing a portrait of my girlfriend ( For this one I was using photos of her as a reference ). I´m using the paper grain to create texture when shading and different tones of grey to create volume. Basically the principles I was speaking about on the paragraph above.

Should you use photos or real life models?

Drawing using real-life models is always the best way to go. Having a three-dimensional real life model will give you a better understanding of depth, light and volume compared to a 2D image like a photo. With a real life object you can look the model from different angles and have a better understanding of it.

With that being said, we can´t have real-life models of the time. Photos are a good alternative, but you gotta understand that you are using another 2D image as reference for your own 2D representation. If you don´t have an already trained eye, and never drawn before using real-life models, you will lack the information the photo is not showing you. You can´t rotate around the photo, you can´t see the whole set up of the scene. This can translate into a final art that can look flat or lifeless.

Remember I told you about how an artist doesn´t copy the reference, instead the artist interprets what is in front of his or her eyes. When using photos, the artist doesn’t have the full information and is forced to fill those gaps of information whoever he or she feels is the right way. A seasoned artist with experience drawing real-life models will fill those gaps with no problem. An inexperienced artist will fail because of the lack of information. It is very important for a new artist to practice their drawing skills using real-life models.

In the image below you can see how I used a photo image as a reference for my painting on the right. Of course, is not a copycat, I tried to interpret the photo using some of the information in it for creating my own image.

What about 3D Scans as references for artist

In my opinion, 3D scans are a great tool, especially if the software you are using allows you to use different light sets and rotate the model.

I will advise to newbie artist to try to practice their drawing skills with real-life models, I think this is must be the foundation of your training as an artist. With time, once the artist reaches a decent level, he or she can start using 3D scans and photos.

What about copying another artist work?

I wanna be very cautious when answering this question. The reason is that personally, I´m not a big proponent. By solely copying someone else’s drawings and paintings, you will run into the same pitfalls as if you were drawing from photos. After all, drawings are flat images, and you have to develop a three-dimensional way of thinking in constructive drawing.

Also, it can be a little bit frustraiting for the artist copying because he or she can easaly found themselves trying to reproduce another artist style using his or her own ways of working. The final result commonly becomes a lower quality version of the original. Mostly because every artist has his or her own personal way to interpret reallity.

In my opinion, you should study the Old Master Painters, trying to understand how they perform certain techniques and their use of light and color. You should do exercises and get familiar with their techniques and tricks. Once you are familiar with them, you can start applying them on your art giving them your own twist.

Can you Draw without references?

Of course, you can. You can do it at any time. The real question is Can you do it successfully?

Successfully drawing without references requires a good understanding and mastery of drawing fundamentals. If you like to draw characters you should know very well human anatomy. Also, you should have a great understanding of how the physics of clothing work ( wrinkles, foldings, etc..).

If you like to draw landscape and scenery, your perspective skills should be impeccable.

Author: Toni Justamante Jacobs, Concept artist and illustrator.

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