Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cheating, Copying & Learning

I just read a review of a new book, Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi.  Perenyi was a talented fine art forger, who went legit, and thanks to the statute of limitations, is telling all.  The book sounds like a wonderful read, and Mr. Perenyi sounds like a technical genius, but I’d like to go off on a tangent (as I always do). 

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal” –Pablo Picasso (possibly)

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

Forgery is wrong, because you are attributing your work to a famous artist so as to cheat a buyer.  That the buyer wants the painting only for the name is silly, but that is the way the game is played these days.  In fact people sometimes seem to want to be lied to.  In the field of antique armor a good story regarding the history of a suit of armor (read lie) normally makes the buyer pay more and leave happier. 
Copying on the other hand, is good, because it makes the artist follow closely the master’s work, and thereby learn and assimilate the master’s genius.  That the copy could conceivably be sold as the original is, shall we say “caveat emptor” territory.  Further, the mere act of copying does not guarantee that you will become the master you are copying; genius and mastery are two separate things, as are technique and artistry.

Cheating is wrong, but, in the arts is an acceptable business.  I don’t want to get into the morality or legality of the “extreme” copying otherwise known as forgery.  I do want to discuss and illustrate the artistic cheating that starts via copying. 

To learn from another is part of our human makeup.  I have never met a masterful professional who was unwilling to give a student advice.  And we all, no matter how old and experienced, can learn something new by just looking around.  The following images are examples of my own “copy-learning”.
House El Even Odd by Peter Eisenman

When I was in architecture school all of the students in my class fell in love with isometric and axonometric drawings.  They were the cheap and easy alternatives to creating an aerial perspective or a model.  Some years after graduating, the isometric was being used to generate abstract art that furnished little or no practical information.  I took the elegant abstraction idea and produced the following drawing of a project on the boards at the time. 

Occasionally I play with oils, copying some painting I find intriguing.  Below is a portrait by Anders Zorn which caught my eye.  Zorn (1860 to 1920) was a Swedish artist with an amazingly sure hand, and a wonderful eye for color. 

The copy is small and crude, but was a good lesson in color and the difficulty in producing seemingly simple effects.

Below is another painting whose color combination was amazing to me.  It is a preliminary painting of the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Disney.

Again, I found reproducing the effect was harder than I expected.  Since I did not have access to the original I could not be sure of the media used.  Whatever it was, my copy was oil on canvas.

One of my favorite artists is John Stobart, who specializes in marine subjects, ships and harbor scenes.  He is especially good at moon light views of 19th century harbors such as the painting below. 
Long Wharf by Moolight in 1865

I seem to have captured the subtle effects in this oil sketch; at least it worked better than Zorn or the White Rabbit.  Perhaps the success is due to my interest in architecture and landscape subjects, as well as my love of artificial lighting and unusual times of the day.  At any rate it was fun doing this one, and I learned a lot.  Perhaps the take-away is to concentrate on subjects that interest you.

Below is a watercolor featuring a dull red-orange spot in a winter landscape.  (There seems to be an unintended pattern going on here; how to handle red perhaps?)  The rule breaking decision to place the horizon at midpoint peeked my interest .
Winter Valley by P. Austin

I tried simplifying this painting on my computer tablet.  I found matching color was easier, and the final art appears more exact due to the elimination of the scanning process.  Since my interest was in the unusual composition I kept the copy fairly loose.

The following rendering by Jane Grealy is both an accurate view and an abstract composition…
Business Facility Building by Peddle Thorpe

…which I tried to reduce to its basic components. 

This famous view of Rockefeller Center by John Wenrich has always fascinated me.  Wenrich was a watercolorist from Rochester, New York, who did renderings of many Manhattan high-rise towers in the 1930’s.  He was a contemporary of Hugh Ferriss, but had a completely different process to get similarly dramatic results.

The following rendering of the Port Authority building in New York City does not reproduce the light conditions of the Wenrich painting, but does try to emulate the effect of rear lighting, and dark on light composition.

Edward Redfield’s view of lower New York, circa 1910 has a romantic palette that I loved at first sight.  The sense of mystery and energy are something I attempt to capture in my own renderings.

This sketch of a proposed tower in Tampa by Cesar Pelli, copies the Redfield palette and reinterprets it in a vertical composition.  It is a good example of copying in the best sense: learning by reapplying an idea in a new context, format or style.

So go ahead and copy.  Just don't sell under the original artist's name... or wait 10 years before admitting it (per Mr. Perenyi's lead).

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