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Painting a Master Copy at the National Gallery

Daniel James Yeomans / fine art commissions  / Painting a Master Copy at the National Gallery
painting a master copy of Lady Agnew in the National gallery

Painting a Master Copy at the National Gallery

This is a really useful practice for any artists to consider doing, no matter what you are copying. Here I’ll share my process of how to paint a master copy and some extra info along the way. I did a Master Copy of a Charcoal work many years ago, but this time I went painting inside a National Gallery in Edinburgh. I felt both privileged and a little aprehensive about painting with a constant audience but overall it was fine. The room (no.18) I was painting in, upstairs at the National Scottish Gallery was open to the public for the entire time. I’d quite often find a good sized group of visitors accumulating behind me, in some cases staying for hours. So do be prepared to have an audience watching you the entire time. I’ve wanted to make this particular for many years, after discovering it just after my studies in Florence I was instantly fascinated. Somehow it took me about 5 years to get around to actually doing it but here we are.

Why make a Copy?

The study and copying of other artists has long been the standard practice by artists during their studies. With the prevelance of the digital age it may have taken a back a little. We can also now easily rely on a good print to make a copy from. This might help in many ways, but I do recommend trying to copy the real thing if possible. You can get up close, see the layers of paint, in parts sometimes canvas. There is a lot of information regarding the artists method that is quite simply lost in a print. Apart from all those reasons, there is the pure joy of seeing the real artworks and to paint alongside them.

Artist History; John Singer Sargent

Firstly you need to choose the artist you want to copy. Contact any of the galleries which let people in to make copies and see what they have available. In my case this artist was John Singer Sargent. Sargent was an American expatriate artist, considered to be the leading portraitist of his time, Born in Florence 1856 and Created a staggering nine hundred oil paintings during his career, many of these commissions. His work is remarkable, and well known for the ease in which he makes the painting appear on the canvas. That is to say, that paint seems to be applied effortlessly, and placed perfectly each time. However, if you read the accounts written by many sitters we discover that he often applied a quite labourious process of wiping off un satisfactory parts and re-painting them. Also well known for the Madame X painting submitted to the salon in the 1880’s, which at the time caused quite the Scandal. Interestingly Sargent also accounts in writing somewhere that he made master copies of paintings by Franz Halz and Velasquez.

The Process; how to paint a Master Copy

Before starting it helps to try and find some information about how your chosen artist worked/works. You can also discover a lot from just looking at a painting. Often parts of the canvas will show through, revealing how coarse it is and what colour the canvas is primed with. Sometimes you can see whether the artist let the paint dry before going to the next layer.. Things like this will help you determine how long you need to make the copy. In my case I was extending a holiday and only had 4 days. Although this portrait probably took Sargent more than four days he did paint fast. This means that I should be able to replicate the majority of it easily enough ‘Alla Prima’.

Quick Tips:

– One thing to consider is transporting your materials. Most galleries require you to set up your equipment each morning and take it away each evening.

– It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to study the painting and make sure you have all the colours you think you will need.

– Take a look at the painting up close and guess what sort of brushes are being used. Hog hair or softer? Square, rounded? etc.

Next think about your goals. Are you copying the painting because you like the composition and colours? Or are you studying a method in which the artist worked? If you decide on your goal beforehand it will help you focus on what you want to get out of it.

Day 1 & 2

Personally I’m most interested in the way that Sargent applied his paint. I wanted to be up close to see if the paint was smooth, thick, thin and also how it’s applied. Knowing that I only have 4 days I’m going to sacrifice the perfection of the facial expression and accuracy of the proportions but that’s ok. To start with I make a rough drawing in paint marking the layout on the canvas. Following the rules of making a Master Copy my canvas is also a slightly different size to the original.

By the end of day 1 you can see (from the images above) I have started to put some colour down. The colours and tones all effect each other so the sooner I add colour the faster I will be able to correct any mistakes. I’m mostly working the half tones in the face and leaving the accents for the next day. The photos above and below are in chronological order and show the development throughout the 4 days. I actually stopped at 3 and a half because I was getting tempted to fiddle with the accuracy of details which was not one of my focus points.

The finished master copy of Lady Agnew, by John Singer Sargent

Above you can see the finished version of my copy in the gallery. I was unable to get close up to the details of the face, so I’ll adjust it when I’m back in the studio. Overall I’m really happy with the result and I learned a great deal about the painting process. All the staff at the Gallery were extremely helpful and friendly during the whole process, so a huge thanks to them! If you have any questions about how to paint a master copy please leave them in the comments section below.

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  • Cynthia Defago
    September 22nd, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    Fascinating process, thank you Dan for sharing your time copying the portrait of Lady Agnew.

  • Susan Sell
    October 19th, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Dan, I have really enjoyed reading about your experience. I think you are very brave working with all those people watching, no sure I could do that. It’s a remarkable copy, congratulations. I’m glad it was a positive experience for you. All the best, Sue x

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