Copying extant works from master artists is an ancient practice. It was done in India, Egypt, Greece (and maybe the far east), up through Europe and the Americas in the west. A vocation was usually a lifelong engagement. Apprentices would work for years learning every aspect of the trade. They would make all the materials by hand, and then slowly they were allowed to actually start using them.
Most of the major museums of the world have programs whereby artists can apply to copy works in their collections, often with certain restrictions. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a generous program. There are about 40 copyists practicing now and some of us have formed a group to show our work. We had a beautiful show early in 2018 at the Arts Club of Washington, who in 2016 celebrated their 100 year anniversary. Explore the Master Art Copyists website for more information on the copyist program at the National Gallery of Art, and on those who are showing their work as a group.
Leonardo is by far the painter I would want as my teacher. The National Gallery is fortunate enough to have one of his paintings, the only one in America. Even though his Ginevra de’Benci is off limits for us in the copyist program, I did do it on my own from notes and photos. When I started the program, I decided that I would look to his students and contemporaries for my first paintings to copy.
I chose Portrait of a Youth by Giovanni Boltraffio as he worked in Leonardo’s studio. I find it a beautiful portrait of a youth, who is not a child and also not quite a young man. He is poised on a cusp in his evolution. His expression of relaxed attention, his longish hair, and the rich red of his over shirt evoked something very familiar and soothing to me. His appearance is not unlike many of the guys I grew up around in the 60s and 70s (except maybe the togs), so I was very happy to spend lots of time with his image. Boltraffio used the technique of the day, basically doing an underpainting of grisaille and then glazes on top of that. It was incredibly challenging and equally fun to do.
When I was approaching the end of copying the Boltraffio I started to ponder what painting I would do next. Every time I went to paint the Portrait of a Youth, I had to pass through a gallery that holds a number of Raphaels. I knew that Raphael is one of the most beloved painters of the high Renaissance but for some reason I never paid him much attention. There was a portrait in that gallery, however, that started to catch my eye – that of Bindo Altoviti. I took a closer look and discovered such a magnificent and gentle face, again embodying something familiar. I had no interest in the religious art filling the room, just that lovely man staring back at me. When it came time to inquire if it was available I couldn’t believe my good fortune that no one else was copying it so I leapt at the opportunity. This is also the first frame that I gilded for a show.
Watch Tanya’s canvas evolve layer by layer as she copies a master painting. 00:01:21
“I gave a zoom talk accompanying an exhibit, ‘Timeless Tradition’, at the Athenaeum Gallery (May/June, 2021) in Alexandria, Va. recently. I’m speaking a little about the history of copying, a bit of my own journey with it, resulting in my copying practice at the National Gallery of Art and this exhibit.” 01:13:27