Sketching the Masters
Sketching the Masters
Making a quick oil sketch of an Old Master painting not only helps you understand techniques, but also teaches you a lot about yourself, as SARA LEE ROBERTS explains
When making quick oil sketches “after” the Masters, it is important to understand that the purpose is not to make a perfect copy. This article will not show you how to make copies using the same techniques as the Masters. This is a deliberate decision – by using modern oil colours and not using the complex layering technique used by many of the Masters, it is impossible to make a copy that would be indistinguishable from the original.

I am not even going to give you a list of suggested colours or types of brushes. This is because I want you, at all times, to take the suggestions as an approach rather than as a manual.

I assume that you have worked with oil paint and have your own preferred brushes. Obviously, it is sensible to have a range of colours to work with: some reds, blues, yellows, whites, browns and blacks. The approach to making quick oil sketches is similar to that of making thumbnail sketches. You start off looking first at the underlying form of the composition rather than at the details.

When looking through the images that are available to me, I have chosen paintings that suit my needs, looking for subjects and/or compositions that will be beneficial to me in my journey as an artist. Sometimes I have chosen to work from a portrait as I am interested in making contemporary portraits and learning from those made in the past seems to me to be a good idea.

At other times I have chosen to work from subjects that I know will challenge me, as it is only through overcoming obstacles and challenges that we can develop as artists.

It is for you to decide which paintings you would like to work from. I suggest that you settle down at your computer and spend time just looking at websites of museums and make a list of paintings that you like. If you choose to work from the same ones as I have, do not expect your results to look like mine. Copying my style is not the point of this article. As you will see, copying actually forces you to see in what way you are different from the original artist.

One of the benefits of spending time trawling through the thousands of images that are on museum websites is that it broadens your knowledge and understanding of the huge range of artistic styles and compositions that have been made and preserved from the past.

You might even find yourself thinking that some of the work is less good than others. The tendency to put paintings and drawings from the past on a pedestal and to then feel that you can never be as good an artist as the Old Masters were, is dispiriting and unhelpful. Becoming aware of the great range of styles and success of execution among the work of the Old Masters should encourage your own unique practice.


Before I show you a step-by-step example of making a quick oil sketch after the Masters, I want to illustrate to you how copying shows the copier how he or she is different from the artist who made the original work. This is one of the most useful results of copying.


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April 2020