A trio of painters engaged in a lively panel discussion last Saturday at the Delaplaine Arts Center. Their show, “The Art of Copying,” runs through March 1.
The panelists agreed that copying classic paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is an ideal way to pick up skills and insights and to hone their powers of observation. They also believe that the practice influences and improves their original work. That’s how the old masters learned. Later on, painters like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali spent time as copyists at the Louvre.
“It’s beyond an honor,” said Silver Spring artist, Bruce Campbell, who has been a master copyist at the National Gallery since 1995.
Frederick’s Christopher Madden agreed.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to work in that shrine to art,” he said.
The recently retired chief engraver for the Treasury also remarked that guards are always on the lookout for visitors who get too close to the art. While copyists can’t touch the paintings, they can stand next to a Rembrandt while holding a “fully-loaded paintbrush.”
Gillian Collins is an associate member of TAG/The Artists Gallery where her usual subjects are mechanical items. A color enthusiast, she concentrates on more modern artists — often the Impressionists — when working at the National Gallery.
Collins compares the process of becoming a copyist to a college application on steroids. To apply for one of the coveted yearlong permits, the artist must provide two personal references, two professional references, samples of their work and an essay. There is also a personal interview and a background check. You can’t be too careful when artists are wielding the aforementioned loaded paintbrushes.
The happy few who are chosen have time limitations. They may work from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. one day a week, Monday through Friday. When Campbell was working full-time, he was able to go in once a week because he often took Fridays off. Sometimes he was able to schedule an extended lunch break in order to get in a few hours of painting at the museum.
Master copyists should be comfortable interacting with the public. If you must be free of distractions to paint, the National Gallery is not the right place for you.
Campbell recalls a day that a guard called him an ambassador. That’s when he learned that he had carried on a conversation with a group of foreign diplomats without knowing who they were.
Madden compares the museum to a showroom full of cars and he says it’s natural for visitors to want the copyists to share their secrets about “what’s under the hood.”
Some are surprised that the artists aren’t necessarily trying to create exact copies of the masterworks. A painting might only show a small detail of the original. Other changes are even more dramatic. Collins altered the background of a Degas and changed the color of the dancers’ tutus. Madden added a distant McDonalds restaurant to the painting he is currently working on.
Even if a faithful reproduction is attempted, there are limits. Over the years, varnish yellows the painting and the copyist must guess the artist’s intent. Collins says that when visitors tell her that they like her painting more than the original, she reminds them that pigments fade.
She says, “If I were over 100 years old, I’d be grayer, too.”