Joanna A. McKethan’s copy of Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Peter Paul Rubens

As an artist taught in old masters’ oil techniques in Munich, Germany, by a master (Bergheim), in watercolor by a University of Munich master (Jonczyk), and in the states in masters’ oils by Thomas Buechner, I think I have brought skills to bear which distinguish my current painted-in-oils copy of Daniel in the Lions’ Den in the great tradition of the copyists.

My beloved teacher, Herr Bergheim from Munich, taught, critiqued, gave histories, and cajoled me into the wonderful world of Old Masters’ paintings. And yes, it was done through the disciplined approach of painting copies. Not just one copy, will you, but two—and he kept the best one for himself. That meant none of us slacked on his or her painting attempts.

What this did for an artist I will try to explain.

Buying the concept was the first step, and for this, Herr Bergheim held up a black background with a butterfly attached and asked us all to confirm this was a butterfly, which we did. Next he held up a similar picture. Is this a butterfly? he asked.

“No, it’s half a butterfly and half a text-book reproduction of a butterfly wing.”

He pulled out yet a third card. “And this?”

“A butterfly,” we answered.

“Ah, but it isn’t,” he exclaimed in glee. “This is half a real butterfly’s wing and half an artist rendering of the wing done in Old Master’s style which is achieved through the eyes of Impressionism.”

What? We couldn’t believe it. All gathered round to pull the image closer to view, and in every differing angle, the piece worked as a whole butterfly.

“No one knows how the masters achieved their effects,” he went on to teach us, explaining that none had written books detailing their strokes and work. What we must do, then, is use the eyes of the Impressionist painter, the strokes of the Master painter. To see like an impressionist, one needed to squint to perceive the relative lights and darks in the painting, and the positional relationships. Absolute concepts like black or white did not matter, only the relative concepts of 3rd level tone of grey, 7th degree of darkness on a scale from 1 to 10, mattered. And so our indoctrination began.

Now the strokes of the Impressionist we would ditch in favor of the seamless passages of paint represented by the masters with the occasional three-dimensional glint of a jewel on a ring, perhaps, or by the scumbled-on raised edge on the top of a collar.

Thus we began our journey into the world of copying, and began learning all the painting techniques which built onto and into this system: techniques of aging, fogging, blending, adding highlights and accents, softening edges, turning edges, and a myriad of other high-classed technical effects used by copyists; some, as the stories go in the days Herr Bergheim entertained us with these tales, were stories of copyists whose works transcended and outshone the works of the original painter-artist.

One such painter was Henricus Antonius van Meegeren, born 1889, died 1947. Known as Ken Perenyi, history considers him a top art forger of the 20th century. One has to admire his chutzpah, if not his morals. His forgeries of famous works passed through major auction houses and galleries for years undetected by the masters of fraud detection.

Dutch masters inspired Ken as a child to become an artist.

Art critics slammed his original work as ‘derivative’ and van Meegeren thought they had ruined his career.

In anger perhaps, but for sure to prove them wrong, he began copying the world’s most famous artists, artists such as Frans Hals and Vermeer (which this artist has admired in museums in Europe personally). He copied their styles and colors so well that the best experts of his day passed on his paintings as genuine. His painting, for instance, of Supper at Emmaus was hailed by critics as the ‘finest Vermeer they had ever seen.’

His misdeeds came to light only when a fake Vermeer of his turned up in the collection of a Hitler official, and van Meegeren was arrested for treason for having sold cultural property to the Nazis—at which point, he copped to the lesser plea of forgery and was condemned to a year of prison. His lifetime gain ranged to double-digit millions.

So much for the conceit of the critique that copyists are not artists.

What is my point? Crime pays?

No, that copying assiduously produces learning and top quality art. Just try getting atmospheric effects, for instance. One must use all sorts of techniques, experimenting, comparing, and refining one’s next attempts based on knowledge gained from failed attempts, to getting knowledge from one’s forerunners, the masters.

Copying a master like Peter Paul Rubens caused me to admire his work and style even more after finishing my copy than I did before.

And Rubens ‘copied’ real lions—a breed of African lion that is now extinct—kept in a nearby zoo.

I have coined a new term for us classical realists. We are not ‘copyists,’ but rather ‘information-ists.’ We go back to the original for new information. How does the light hit when at this angle or that? How does it hug a human or animal form? What colors reside in a shadow to make it warm or cool? We study the original—whether of painting or creature or still—for information that takes us past dilettantism.

Small wonder this tradition has so little respect in today’s thinking.

We want only what is new, original in concept. We flip off past generations with a sneer. We think we invented originality just like we think we invented sex. We exult in walls of hair, miles of fabric, empty space, blood and gore, dirt and crumbs, watching a dog starve to death in a cage—yes, actual examples of ‘art’— installations from incredible to dubious to mean.

And that is superior to using centuries-old techniques of painting—how?

Believe me, every art concept—composition, negative space, modeling, how to create hair, the effects of light—were worked to the maximum in producing my copy of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. How Peter Paul Rubens got his lions into such a framework while they roamed a zoo, how he posed his human in this position with light drenching one side of his body, is marvelous, but I can bet one thing. It didn’t come out of his head, as some educators might maintain, from a magical, art-induced, inner stupor, but resulted from a practiced eye which can distinguish the real in holographic detail.

Nothing creates more boring paintings than a lazy eye.

Concept pieces are just a form of copying poorly, using the left brain to paint from fading memory. Painting from memory involves using symbol, reality reduction, immediately creating an immature look of 3-5 years below seeing capabilities.

One of the most important habits of painting comes from copying: total focus. Lose oneself in the reality to be painted in a trance-like, non-verbal state. Look back and forth from subject to what’s painted—compare, contrast, correct. Look again, and always, always, inform the eye. Intelligent, informed creativity equals artistry.

My German mentor taught us to sign the artist’s name, use a slash, and follow it with your own name, so ‘copy’ does not turn into ‘forgery.’ Thanks for the lessons, Peter Paul, and Herr Bergheim. We artists should be so lucky as to have someone care that we credited the original artist. If they care, it means our work is good.

Read The whole story: Phase 1, I Begin the Journey 

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