Copying a Copy

Last week,  I sat down to come up with a simple image for the classes I teach.  One of the perks of working for the organization is that you can submit paintings to their database that any teacher in the company can use to guide classes.  Well, that is, if they like them.

I thought long about what to make—the popular ones are usually stylized nature scenes or sunsets, maybe a still life or flowers, wine glasses, sometimes cityscapes.    I thought back to when I became serious about painting.  I taught myself by setting up still lifes in my parent’s living room.  I tried to paint what I saw the masters had done in museums.

It seemed natural to teach still life to beginners.  I secretly wanted to take actual fruit and ceramics to a class and have them paint from life so that we all didn’t have the same painting but I quickly reminded myself that this is not a traditional art class. This is a fun night out with the girls- at a restaurant- with wine! and painting!!  It is fun,  there’s no judgement- it’s about the experience- as art should be.  It’s about getting your brush wet and being creative. 

It’s hard to shake the intuitive sense I get that people have more talent than they realize and I wish I could challenge them more.  When handed a set of tools and guidance I always see the spark of learning in them.  It’s amazing to watch people create something they never thought they could.  The sense of collective empowerment and accomplishment in the room is refreshing.  So, I set out to create an original still life for them to copy with the intention of encouraging them to: “Yes! please try this at home folks- by building your own real still life!”

So I began to compose a vase and some fruit and flowers on my canvas, and I quickly got discouraged.

This needs to be really good if I actually want to teach people how to paint a copy of my own painting, I thought.  

The same insecurity showed up that I get every single time I make something.  Annoying.   How egotistical of me to have an entire room full of people paint my painting, I thought.  I pushed past the silly voice in my head and continued — but it wasn’t working—I needed help.  The frustration was dense, a good composition eluded me.  So, naturally, I turned to google for answers.   I searched “still life by masters” and started to look through endless gorgeous paintings with exquisite color and composition.  I looked through them, got some  inspiration and started to compose again.  Then the internal dialogue came back —Why would I teach people who wanted to learn painting from my own work when I could teach them from a master painting?  The really old stuff is all in the public domain—it’s fine as long as I don’t try to say I made it.

So, that’s what I did.  I blatantly copied a Van Gogh to teach from.  I wrote down the exact steps of how I built it from a blank canvas to a pretty Van Gogh-esk painting and I feel surprisingly good  about it.  I listened to the voice that stopped me from creating my own thing and I still wonder about my real motives.   I thought I might feel slightly bad about it but I don’t because my justification is so valid.  If I can help put more still lifes with Van Gogh’s colors and composition in the world and show people how they are made as they learn to paint—that can’t be a bad thing.

A tiny part of me  wonders if my justification for copying this master painting is my mind’s creative way of avoiding rejection by not putting my own original work out there.  If no one likes it, I can always remind myself that I didn’t really paint it.   They aren’t really rejecting me– they are rejecting Van Gogh.

Either that or I was just being lazy.  I’m not sure which is worse.   Now I know l have to come up with an original creation for the website just to see if it feels different. . . . . and better. . . .




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