The Copyist

I have had a very exciting weekend in various galleries with stunning contemporary paintings for company. I was especially impressed with a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek painting, "Art Work" featuring a picture in a picture in a picture, by Australian artist Tony Irving. (  It depicts " The Banquet of Cleopatra" (Tiepolo.  NGV) complete with craquelure and a copyist standing at his easel.

Art Work Tony Irving 2010 oil on linen 122 x 122 cm

It was a weekend of serendipity as we discovered another contemporary Australian artist, more in the surrealist genre, Tom Alberts, who has, himself, been a copyist at the Louvre. He gave an interview to the daily review in which he describes the experience.  

Bedland   Tom Alberts   2012 oil on linen, 76.00 x 91.00

Being allowed to copy a work in the Louvre is a rare privilege, and one granted only to established artists. After an interview, submission of a CV, images of works and a letter explaining why he wanted to make a copy, Tom received permission.

There are strict rules about copy painting;  His canvas had to be 5cm larger or smaller than the original, placement of the easel & materials was limited, and public safety requirements had to be observed. He was not permitted to leave his easel except for toilet breaks. He worked 4-5 hours, 4 days a week alongside several other copyists.  Interestingly, the Louvre administration did not critique the work. Visitors to the Louvre were able to watch the process. He got to keep his copy and has hung it in his home.  

Chardin, an 18th century French painter established and formalised the system of copying paintings in the Louvre with a limited number of easels available.  Each copy is assigned a number and entered into an official registry  - quite an honour for those awarded access.  Interestingly Tom chose a Chardin painting to copy.

Clearly, reproduction of another's image outside of the formal "copyist" genre is plagiarism, the scourge of art.  To copy a painting requires substantial painting prowess and plenty of time.  On the surface, it may seem different for photographers since some think we simply push a button.  Obviously, there is a lot more to it than that!  

However, one of the most enjoyable and informative ways to learn photographic lighting techniques is to try to copy the work of others. With the understanding of how the quality, intensity, colour, and direction of light contributes to the image, we are better able to develop a personal style and adapt lighting techniques to re-interpret the world through the lens.  "Learning by doing" in this way is a powerful tool.

Perhaps we should take a leaf from the canvasses of our painterly colleagues and formalise the copy process - what's good for the goose.............. and a trip in the footsteps of the photographic masters would not go astray!

Tom Albers copies Chardin at the Louvre   from Daily Review March 10 2015