I love learning from the masters of painting by doing painting studies — by re-making their masterpieces. For me, this process is nothing short of miraculous, because it “short-circuits” the conventional learning curve.
You might have heard about four stages of a learning process:
1. Unconscious ignorance: there is something you don’t know, and you don’t even know what you don’t know. There is no question in your mind to which this unknown knowledge would be the answer. That’s how children draw and paint — with complete innocence.
2. Conscious ignorance: there is still something you don’t know (and/or) don’t know how to do, but now you are aware of that. The question has emerged in your mind, but you don’t have the answer. In painting, you begin to notice, and become frustrated with, flaws that have never bothered you before (and that’s, by the way, how and why many people stop drawing and painting as they grow up).
3. Conscious competence: now you know the answers, but you have to pay conscious attention in order to put them into practice. For example, you would consciously recall some aspects of colour theory when you choose the colour for your next brushstroke, or you would measure proportions to make your drawing look realistic.
4. Unconscious competence: the answer is fully integrated into your brain’s neural machinery, so you don’t need to recall it consciously. You don’t think about how to choose your next colour — you just know. Your attention is freed for other, deeper, aspects of painting.
That’s how the process of learning unfolds normally. But a great painting embodies perfect (or near-perfect) answers to the questions I might have never even known how to ask. Re-making such a painting brings one from the realm of unconscious ignorance straight into the realm of unconscious knowledge of the deepest (and most sacred) secrets of painting. Your brush (re)creates an incredibly powerful composition without your mind being necessarily aware of how this happens. It doesn’t know how it learns, but it does.
This is what determines the huge potential for learning in the process of a painting study, and this is also the major source of joy in this process: the painting that emerges under your brush is more powerful than you know how to do, and you don’t really understand how. Some answers are given to you, and are now embodied in your painting, even though you didn’t ask the right questions. This creates a miracle-like experience, a sensation of magic happening on your own canvas.
But what about learning, then? Isn’t it the case that if you don’t understand what you are doing — if you miss the stages of conscious ignorance and conscious competence — then you haven’t really learned anything you could use in your own paintings later on?
Not necessarily. The truth is, there are lots of skills and knowledge that we acquire without the “conscious” stages involved at all. This is, for example, how we acquire our native languages just by listening and trying to talk — all the incredibly complicated analysis which goes into the process of “learning” a language happens unconsciously. Or, probably more to the point, that’s how we learn to interpret raw visual data to create a coherent picture of reality in front of us.
Something like this happens in painting studies, too (that’s why copying from masters has been such an essential part of artist’s training over centuries). There is a place for “conscious ignorance” and “conscious knowledge”, but a lot can be learned “without thinking”, without “learning the rules” and consciously applying them till they become ingrained. In the process of your painting study, you connect with a masterpiece with your eyes and heart, and your hand is re-creating it. The body, and the unconscious mind, are learning by doing — and this unconscious competence will stays with you, and participate in your future work.
Of course, some aspects of painting composition do rise to the level of conscious awareness — we often “notice”, consciously, how something works, and this is also a part of the learning process. Most often, this happens through making a mistake: you change something accidentally, and you see that your painting becomes weaker because of this change. This comparison helps the newly acquired knowledge to become better ingrained — and this is just one of the many reasons not to be afraid of mistakes in this process, but rather to welcome them — to accept their inevitability and to learn from them.
A word of caveat if you decide to try it for yourself. For this to work, the process of a painting study has to be very different from making a “handmade reproduction”. Rather, it is the process of re-making a painting. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this difference is to consider the approach to drawing in each case (“drawing” in its most basic sense: getting things to look like they do in the original, and putting them into the right spots on the canvas).
If one’s goal is to to make an exact reproduction, there can be nothing more natural (or even occasionally necessary) than to use some form of tracing, and/or precise measurements to reproduce all the shapes and lines as precisely as possible. After all, how the accuracy in reproduction is achieved is immaterial for the client — so the painter would be well advised to get these things right by any means available.
In the process of a painting study, it is often also essential to get the shapes and lines right, if only because the core assumption of such a study is that nothing is random in a masterpiece: if a line goes at a certain angle, there is a deep reason for that. But it would defy the purpose completely if we try to reproduce this angle by tracing, exact measurements, projections, or any other devices. This superficial, purely technical approach won’t ever allow you to understand, to feel it in your bones, why each line goes exactly as it does, why it is here and not there.
This deep understanding is not about being able to give a logical explanation of why it should be so, but about ingrained, sensual, embodied, unconscious knowledge that transforms you as an artist. The process of drawing a line “right” using your own eye-head-heart-hand does engender this learning transformation (even if the head alone could never know what actually happened), but the process of copying it by measuring all the distances exactly, or by tracing, doesn’t.
The same difference applies to all aspects of painting study, and can be best captured by the metaphor of surface versus depth. With a sufficient skill level, one can make a successful reproduction while staying completely on the surface of things — just as social skills would allow a person to have an “interesting” conversation without ever connecting deeply to its topic, nor listening deeply to others, or like a highway would allow a skilled driver to reach the other side of a forest without really seeing any single tree of it.
But for a successful painting study, one has to dive deeply into the painting’s essence, and re-create the painting from this depth. The essence of this process is not in making an exact copy. It is in what you experience and how you change in the process.
I have condensed all I know about this way of learning in this online course, “The Making of a Painting Masterpiece”. Please check it out if you are intrigued.