From Precedents to Master Copying

One method of learning from the great minds of the past is to study precedents (those works which precede our own). When I first entered architecture school, we had to study case studies by reproducing a building’s floor plans, elevations, and sections by hand. This was not only a valuable exercise of getting into the mind of a great architect, but I also gained a muscular, mental, and visual memory of the particular building I was studying. By copying a master’s work, I was gaining an in-depth knowledge and intimacy with their work by (re)creating their work myself.

Classical artists follow a similar technique to study the work of the great masters. Master copy drawing or painting is when an artist replicates a piece of artwork by one of the great masters. For them, it is a valuable tool to likewise get into the mind of the original artist to see things from their perspective while also learning their unique style or technique.

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“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601–1602 (42 × 57 in, oil)

I chose to explore this technique by creating a master copy drawing of the painting “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by the Italian baroque master Caravaggio. In re-drawing this piece with the chiaroscuro technique, I chose to keep the figures lighter than the original. I also entertained a few additional interpretive details, such as the number of wounds in the resurrected Christ’s hands and the aureole radiating around his head.

Doubting Thomas_BRO

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Brandon Ro, 2018 (8.5 × 11 in, pencil and charcoal)

This experience has given me new insights about Caravaggio’s perspective on how he imagined Saint Thomas when he visually encountered and then physically handled the flesh and wounds of Jesus. Just as he gained a sure knowledge of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection to overcome temporal death, I too feel that I have gained something tangible by copying the work of this great master. I believe it has given me a muscular, mental, and visual memory of this important scene from the New Testament.

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