copy of painting by Rubens the four continents by Julius learning to draw and paint showing god of the nile embracing africa.

Copy of Rubens' The four continents showing the God of the Nile embracing Africa, 2005, chalk, acrylic and oil on canvas, 75 x 61 cm

Value of original: 260.00.
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Learning to draw by copying the old masters

This is the first picture of a set of twenty or more copies of pictures by Rubens I am in the process of producing. The aim is to develop my figure drawing. Copying from the greats is a venerable and respected way of going about it. All the major artists of the past copied and reworked the masters.

The copies will be shown at the Gasyard in Derry, Northern Ireland. The exhibition will hopefully sell a few pictures and serve as a manifesto of where I am going - back to classic painting - il faut reculer pour mieux sauter.

Why does copying figures from paintings by the masters improve one's ability to draw figures?

  • Painters like Rubens know the structure of the human body and how to render it.

  • They show all the muscles in all the apparently right places

  • They draw the muscles clearly and seemingly identifiably and include points of reference on the body that facilitate identifying the bones and muscles, e.g. the seventh vertebra

  • Pictures of the human body in anatomy books are very hard to interpret correctly. It is difficult to visualise how the muscles manifest themselves under the skin. Also, the forms of the body, for instance the trunk or the neck or the arms change dramatically as they are moved: rotated, extended or flexed.

  • Bodies vary greatly, not just in terms of muscular development but also in muscle definition and fat. So even if one had a model, it would be rare to have one so nicely muscular as to show all the muscles.

  • Most photos of nudes tend to suffer from the main fault of photography, that of being deceptive or poor at depicting the precise 3d shape of an object. Also the models tend to have non-muscular bodies. It is not that one should not know how to draw smooth bodies but this still requires one to know where these non muscular muscles are.

    Muscle building and Health & Fitness books and magazines are at the other extreme and are very useful. However, the muscles tend to be so huge that the bodies become distorted to the point of making it difficult to determine which muscle is which. Nevertheless they can be very good.

  • Books on drawing the human body are very useful but often leave a great number of questions unanswered, questions that need answering by reference to an appropriate model. A major exception to this is Vanderpoel's book The Human Figure.

  • Skeletons are not readily available to draw from - they cost a lot to purchase - even plastic ones. A classical way of using a skeleton was to start with the skeleton in pieces and draw each bone individually from every angle. Then one would start putting the bones together and drawing the assemblies, ending finally with the completed skeleton.

    Drawing the skeleton from memory would be an important exercise, especially in the act of doing things, like running, or digging, or leaning against something. In some schools in eastern Europe the art anatomy exam requires students to draw life-size skeletons with chalk on a blackboard. The poses are unknown prior to the exam. Then once the skeleton has been drawn the student is required to provide the body outline which requires knowing where the muscles are.

    The business of adding muscles to the bones is much aided by one's knowledge of the bones and the muscle insertion points. One good exercise favoured by Degas is to make clay models of bone and muscle assemblies. Note also that Tintoretto used to model his figures in wax before experimenting with them to obtain dramatic lighting effects.

  • Statuettes, especially statuettes of classical sculptures are a good source of information. Unfortunately they can cost money.

  • It appears that during the renaissance one of the ways in which apprentices learnt the rudiments of figure drawing, was by copying from pattern books which contained pages of noses, of lips, of arms, of feet etc. e.g. see Wetering: Rembrandt, The Painter at Work, pages 50-53

    It is this which Rubens and the masters have become for me: my copying book. I will copy how they draw a hand in this position or that position. What will happen over time is that I will learn the strokes of the pen that create the form. The movements will become automatic. I will think "hand in this position" or rather "male hand in this position" or "female hand in that position" and suddenly it will be there, my hand will have drawn it. It is magic. And there is always a feeling which accompanies the practical rendition of a form. The feeling of this kind of hand in that kind of position.

Learning to understand what one is drawing

It is one of the great truths of painting that you paint what you know, not what you see. To put it another way, you paint what you understand. If you don't understand it you can't paint it. So if painting a landscape, you paint what you understand of that landscape. If painting the human figure you paint what you understand of that figure.

One way of learning to draw is by the process of close observation. In this you try to disassociate yourself from the identity of the object you are drawing. That is you try to forget whether you are drawing a body or a piece of coal, or an engine, and try to look at it purely in terms of its 3D shape and describe that shape as accurately as possible.

There are a number of characteristics of this process and of the things being drawn that make it a useful exercise.

  • Things that are easy to identify are easily represented in 3D, i.e. the viewer will more readily identify what they are looking at in the picture and which bits are to the front and which to the back.

  • Things that are easy to identify are easy to represent badly, i.e if you turn the picture upside down, you will frequently see that what you thought was coming towards you is actually going away from you.

  • Things that are difficult to identify, such as bits of driftwood or pieces of coal, are difficult to represent. That is why they are good practice to draw. You can learn good notational techniques by drawing such things.

By corollary, the more of the identifying characteristics of the object that you represent, the easier is it for the viewer to determine the 3D shape of the thing being drawn. But that is only true with respect to some features. This is because some types of identifying features, for instance surface tone or colour can completely subvert your ability to see the form and to represent it with the drawing technique you are using.

This is why in the academies students were often asked to draw white plaster casts of classical sculptures. Over time studio dust darkens the places where the hilights would normally be and keeps as bright white the places where there would normally be the darkest shadow. The dust makes the cast into a photographic negative. This is where chiaroscuro is a poor technique if you do not ignore actual surface colouration. The use of lines which delineate the surface is easier because these ignore the tonalities.

The drawing of the human figure is interesting from this point of view. If one does not understand the structure of the human body then one is forced to draw it by close observation. However, it is difficult to treat the body as if it were a piece of coal because it is hard to shake off the conviction that one "knows" what all its parts are - so its hard to maintain the required dispassionate objectivity. On the other hand if one does manage dispassionate objectivity then one can emphasise aspects of the form which make it look different to a human body. And this, in turn can lead one to reject the results precisely because they look nothing like a human body, and this inspite of the drawing actually being an accurate representation of the object. This should alert us to there being more to the business of drawing than so to speak, meets the eye

But then if you do not follow close observation , then because you do not understand what it is you are drawing, your picture will look clumsy, distorted, lumpy. Sometimes it is possible to disguise this through the use of stylistic devices such as peculiar ways of stroke making, fancy shading, peculiar backgrounds and other fripperies. This is not good practice because it does not advance one's understanding.

This said I have met a few people who despite having no more than a rudimentary understanding of body structure are able to represent it very well indeed. These few are those lucky enough to be caricaturists. Ah, caricature! This is a magic transcendental aspect of drawing. Many of the greatest artists had this gift. It is like mimicry - the impersonation of how a person speaks or how they move. And the great artists were frequently great caricaturists also. Picasso was one. Egon Schiele was fantastic. But I also suspect that the gifts of the caricaturist are not wholly innate. I believe most had spent years working from pattern books - copying from comic books and drawing their own.

Caricature is something I have not tried yet and must soon. In part it is like that feeling which accompanies the drawing of a hand after one has practiced the ways to do it. It is what in the past been referred to as capturing the "essence" of the thing portrayed. To date I have largely repressed occasional inclinations to indulge in caricature because I thought it would interfere with my ability to paint from close observation. Now since begining to draw things from my own imagination, as in Bella's Dream and the Lincoln Court Mural the desire to indulge this aspect of drawing has grown but I'm still going to hold off untill I have anatomy under reasonable control

Benefits of understanding anatomy

But what if you do understand what you are seeing and drawing? If you have the means by which to express that understanding then you will be able to represent it well and there is a bonus. It becomes much easier for you to draw the body from your own head. That is the ability to do magic and that is what I am after and that is where I think the old masters got their kicks. There is such a joy and wonderment in those old master paintings that to my mind comes straight out of the ability to create new and tangible worlds. It is wonderful to produce a picture that is an exemplary piece of close observation but it is close to a miracle to be able to create a new world inhabited by beings of your own making.

Out of your head comes the composition with all its figures and only then bring in the model to ensure you get the details right. And being able to draw things from your own imagination has a reciprocal bonus when it comes to drawing from nature. It is that you no longer need to remember the exact shape of the person, the precise shape of the left side of the arm and then of the right side of the arm. You just need to note where the arm is and you can draw it because you know what it ought to look like and in your quick glance you will note its thickness and muscularity and thus be able to depict it reasonably accurately. In fact you will note not only the arm but the whole body and that is to enter skill level 6.

Cartoonists and the drawers of comic strips can be great at this. It is in their art that the skills of the past have been retained, as also in the schools of eastern Europe, the academia where you start by drawing the bones and then adding the muscles. But to get to that skill level by yourself, without tuition, is hard - practice and copy and keep trying to draw your own figures - this tells you what you don't know, don't understand and that's where the copying of this Rubens comes in "the four continents".

The copying of this picture is the first of the series.

The aim here is first and foremost to establish a suitable method of working.

The method needs to allow me to draw on canvass in much the same way as I would with pencil on paper, or rather with what is now my preferred medium red and green coloured pencils, i.e. crayons. It then needs to allow me to move without drama into blocking in the colours. Having for years worked with pen and ink I am not much used these days to rubbing things out, nevertheless, the ability occasionally to do so, but without wholly obliterating what was there before, is always an advantage.

I took to using red and green crayons for a number of reasons.

  • When drawing muscles I kept getting things wrong. Red crayon allows me to change the position of my lines much more frequently than pencil. Pencil blackens the surface very quickly, no matter whether I use hard or soft pencils. One gets to the point of maximum blackness very quickly. With crayon one is able to keep working much longer.

  • Green makes a good contrast with red and allows one to do two things well. The first is that green being a naturally cool colour, is ideal to for drawing shadows, which facilitates use of chiaroscuro for showing the form of the muscles. The second is that green being a much darker colour than the red, allows one to continue with the exploratory sketching process after the red has ceased to be usable. And third, if one has decided on the placement of the lines then green can be used to emphasise them.

  • Red and green were a favourite drawing medium of many old masters and I wanted to see why this might have been. In my view they used it because of the lovely contrast between the warm of the red and the cool green, and the very light and airy feeling that accompanies drawings done this way.

  • Starting with crayons allows me then to extend the drawing into other colours, e.g. blues, yellows, as well as being able to move into using pen and ink. To start colouring a pencil drawing always runs the risk of introducing smears of graphite into the picture, especially with the yellows, which when it happens is distressing in the extreme.

  • I can rub out the red but it always leaves a good trace that allows one to build on.

The method I finally worked out to use here was as follows.

  • Start with a red-brown stick of a hard pastel. This can be rubbed out, and painted over either in watercolour, acrylic or oil as one might wish. I would have liked to use crayon but on canvass it is not ideal because it always seems to lift up and make a nasty mess with whatever I'm painting on top of it. This happens both with wax, or oil, or petroleum jelly based crayons and the watercolour soluble crayons, no matter if I use water colour based or oil paints.

    I wanted to avoid squaring up as a method of copying the forms in the original, on the page of a book, onto the much larger canvass. Squaring up is a good way of enlargement because doing it freehand never seems sufficiently accurate - in fact for me it tends to be wildly inaccurate. However, the reason I did not want to use it here was that the whole point of the exercise wasn't that of "copying" i.e. of producing a reproduction of the original but rather of using it as my model from which to produce a work that involved my own understanding of what I was trying to represent. True, getting the positions of the picture elements right would perhaps lead to fewer distractions and repairs but would simultaneously remove the need for understanding.

  • Once happy with the chalk drawing I enhanced it with lines drawn in watery red acrylic.

  • These i then enhanced with watery green acrylic.

  • I then blocked in areas of solid colour with thick washes of blue and blue-black.

    Excepting the blocking in, all the drawing involved the use of lines of "shading" which describe the shape of the surface. This technique is best exemplified in Leonardo who uses it in conjuction with chiaroscuro. Typically he overlays one set of lines describing the overall shape of the object over a set of lines describing the shapes of the objects within that larger object. He places the lines describing the component objects in the shadow areas. The effect is to make the method wholly non-evident to the viewer so the technique does not intrude into the perception of what is being depicted. Its clever stuff. (Note, the paragraph needs rewriting. I went to check the veracity of this by looking at pictures on the web and failed to find ANY examples!. My memory seems to be playing me false.)

  • I next put in glazes of umber and burnt sienna over the shadows and blocked in an area of red cloth.

    I took a look at the figure and saw I had got the proportions all wrong so I redrew lots of it.

    It was now looking better but was not exhibitable because very scratchy and undefined.

  • I blocked in the main flesh tones in acrylic.

    The result was ok but failed to render the form properly.

  • I switched to oils.

  • Kitty suggested I write this all down. That is where I am now.

Please send me your comments

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Page last modified: 18:36 Monday 13th. May 2013

Julius Guzy

Paintings & Drawings

  • Link to View at Bogay near Derry (river Foyle in distance)

Drawings From Rubens

  • Link to drawing made from painting by Rubens of the four continents
  • painting after Leonardo Da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari
  • Link to drawing made from painting by Rubens of Venus in Front of Her Mirror
  • Link to drawing made from painting by Rubens of the Feast of Venus
  • Link to drawing made from painting by Rubens of the Massacre of the Innocents
  • Link to drawing of mourners from painting by Rubens of the Assumption of the Virgin
  • Link to make poverty history drawing of dancers and musicians on derry's walls -