Copying: Creativity Killer #10 - page 2 (back to page 1)

Marvin Bartel
, Ed.D.
Author BIO
2008 - August
  Art teachers may print one copy for their own use.

Questions I am asked by other teachers:
What should I do if a student can't remember what a landscape or a particular animal looks like? Could I permit kids to use photos as prompts from which to interpret? How do I deal with them wanting to draw what they can't recall or visualize? Do you always have them draw only what they see in front of them?

We can name a number of famous artists whose work is highly derivative. In some cases artists base their work on copies of other artists.  Doesn't that mean that copywork is a legitimate art form?

Doesn't the apprentice system employ a lot of copywork as the way to learn to be an artist? See Creativity Killer #10 for a discussion of a creative ways to learn in the apprentice system (return here with your browser BACK button).


Good art lessons are flying lessons for the mind. This flying clay chicken was made from observation and experience by a kindergarten child who was fascinated and inspired when a chicken flew out of its cage in the classroom while she was practicing blind contour drawings of the chicken.

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QUESTION - What can we do when a student wants to draw something outside of their view and they so not remember what it looks like? 

Before giving options, I will discuss the reasons that this tends to come up more for some art teachers. This situation can come up in any art class, but it is most common in an art studio class culture where students are accustomed to relying on prior artwork examples to get their subject matter ideas. When art class projects begin with other idea generation practices, the situations that seem to require copywork are less common. Copying something or showing them how I draw something does not constitute a problem to solve. It presents an answer to copy.

I know that many students wish to be able draw everything without having to learn to draw anything. I know they could fake it by copying the images instead of learning another method. Ultimately, I believe that students will take more pride in what is learned rather than what is copied. If we have a culture of creativity in the studio art class, students will understand the reasons for not copying and they will accept the reasons why they cannot get class credit for copywork.

In imagining an art studio class with a culture of creativity, students have frequent idea generation practice as part of every project. Would we expect these students to want to produce subject matter that is strange and unfamiliar to them? We imagine that these students expect to generate their own ideas. They have learned by experience that artists work with content that is a apart of their own questions and concerns, their own environments, their own experiences, their own experiments, their own dreams, their own imaginations and so on. They are not apt to feel a need to produce romanticized "calendar art" landscapes, cute animals, typical decorative motifs (popular art), or other stereotype images.

When I stopped showing prior examples in my explanation of an assignment, I found that I had to rethink my practices. I looked for ways for students to come up with their own authentic ideas for their work. When not showing examples, I find that it helps to stop giving instructions and start asking more questions.  My instructions make good sense to me, but students often cannot understand what I mean because they had not done it before. They want me to show them an example.

I had often used questions to help students enrich and elaborate on their work--especially when they asked for suggestions to make improvements or when they asked if the work was finished? I find that questions can also be better than instructions when giving an assignment.  ^^^

As I worked at changing my teaching, I noticed that I was looking at art differently. I was no longer considering other artist's work as something to replicate or to copy. I noticed that I was looking at artwork for what it could tell me about the artist's thinking process. In a museum, I was now speculating on the thought process of the artists. Why do I suppose that did she do this? What skills did she need to practice? What were the questions she was dealing with? Where did she select this subject matter? Why did she use these colors? Does it look like she was being impulsive of deliberate? Did she break boundaries or invent something? How might that have happened? What kind of experiments do I think she must have done? Why did she put that strange part there? What makes the work so compelling? How do I think she thought of that?

I know that I am a totally different person living in a different time and place with totally different life experiences. So what might I do as an artist if I respond to some of the same issues and questions? I am pleasantly surprised to find how this process gives me great classroom motivational questions and practice routines that can foster a very healthy and creative studio art culture.

In teaching artistic thinking and behavior I need questions that students can answer visually. Ironically, when I stopped showing artwork examples because I did not want students to replicate them, I found that I began to take a new interest in artwork examples. I needed the examples to teach me about the questions artists are asking as they work.

As an artist, I find that part of my choice of subject (unless I am working for a demanding client or employer) is based on what I know and/or can see, invent, design, imagine, dream, or remember.  As an artist, I have self-screened my creative work so that am simultaneously challenged while having a chance to succeed with integrity.  Likewise, as a teacher, I want assignments that match abilities in ways that provide challenges (growth) while offering a good chance of success (growth).  As a teacher, I do not wish to be the client that gives assignments that do not allow for observation, remembering, or imagining. As a teacher, I try to make it easy enough to avoid frustration, but hard enough to be challenging and insure that some new learning happens.

As a teacher, I would explain from the start that copying as classwork does not get credit. In a similar assumption and policy, it is not my method to draw for them to show them how things look (even though I have this ability and I love to draw).

I need to need to coach them in ways to learn the processes of looking at things, processes of designing and composing things,  processes and reasons to invent & abstract, ways to experiment & play around, invent personal styles, and so on.

One example of learning to look at things is a practice routine where I ask students to use a lightly drawn pencil line to draw the shape of the reflected highlight that they see at on a piece of fruit. This shape will depend on the shape of the light source.  Its location will be different for every student because the angles of reflection. The softness or hardness of the reflected spot will depend on the smoothness of the surface and the kind of lighting.

While painting the fruit, they are asked not to put any color on this bright spot, but blend the edges if they see blended edges.  After the paint is dry they are asked erase the pencil line. Without this practice routine, the majority of young art students and even many college students would not notice highlights.

There are a whole series of things that are often overlooked that can be noticed with practice.

Once students learn to see a highlight, they look around and realize that a reflected bright spot is part of many forms in the environment. Once students learn to notice all the aspects of rendering what they see, they can also do a much more convincing job of drawing an invented or imagined form.  There are a whole list of similar awareness skills that need to be learned. I have a page called: What Skills are Needed to Draw Everything. The page describes a list of drawing skills. When the skills are learned we substantially reduce the need to copy. The skills are not learned very well by copying. They are learned by observation with the help of a teacher that knows what questions are needed to make students aware of the what can be observed.

For several years now I have been driving a car with a GPS (global positioning system) navigator. When going to a new place the navigator recites every turn as we approach it. We get to our destination just fine, but I do not learn very much about important landmarks, street names, and so on. I do not need to pay nearly as much attention to the route to get to a destination. My navigator has become a crutch. By learning on it, my mind can be on other things. If I have to study and use a map, I have to watch road signs more. It is harder to find my way. However, I become more visually aware of where I am and how I got there. If I had to go again without and directions, I would have a better chance of finding my way. ^^^


Having learned to draw by looking and learning to see things, I find that even imaginary and fantasy content becomes easier to draw. Original ideas for jewelry, sculpture, clay piece or architectural proposals are easier to draw. Copying is more like driving to a new place with GPS navigator. It is not as apt to develop innate awareness we need to render invented images as convincingly and consistently.  Learning to observe rather than copy under the guidance of a teacher is more like learning to self-navigate.

The following links describe and illustrate other learning-to-draw methods and classes.  Return here with your browser BACK button or arrow.
A blind contour lesson - grades 3 to 6
How to teach drawing to children
A lesson with blinders, live animal, & art history
Inside-out gesture drawing and other drawing ideas
Skills sets needed to draw anything

In November, 2007, I saw these diligent teens learning to draw by observation from classical plaster casts in a Saturday art class in Shanghai, China.

Unlike copywork, this observation practice builds ability and confidence to read the environment and to draw anything.

How do we respond to students who want to draw things they cannot observe?

In the classroom, if students want to draw something and there is nothing real or live to learn from, we have several options. We can change the subject matter, or we can move to one of the other ways of creating (design, invent, recall, experiment, play around, abstract, imagine, and so on). The third option is to copy. The choice for me depends on whether I want a product centered studio class or a learning centered studio art class.

I might ask the student to try several experimental preliminary sketches to see if she can invent a suitable image and composition. Often unexpected discoveries and ideas grow out of preliminary experiments. I might see ways that I would improve these sketches, but I would not do this. I would try to encourage, perhaps ask more questions. If I see distorted proportions, I might ask, If you could make this part longer or shorter, which might you do? I want to accept the work and the choices as hers, but I also want to coach her on what kind of choices she might consider.

I might ask her if she has ever considered exaggeration, abstraction, fantasy, or imaginary approaches to the subject. Abstraction and surrealism are valid art styles. In abstraction we see a lot of exaggeration, simplification, and so on to produce a more powerful, more formal, more gestural, more emotion, etc. expression.  Picasso claimed that art is the lie that tells the truth?  In surrealism we see very realistic content is very unreal juxtapositions to evoke responses--often much more artistic than copywork would have produced.

If a student is stuck and is asking to copy, it may be an opportunity for her to respond to my very detailed verbal description without her looking at pictures or illustrations. I stole this idea from Albrecht Durer. He produced a woodcut of a very imaginative and evocative rhino without ever seeing one.  It was based on a verbal description alone.

Durer's rhinoceros is obviously wrong in many ways, but it would still rate a high grade. It is more original and artistic than most copies of photographs. ^^^

Some artists have decided that their purpose (the basic concept underlying their art) is replication and copying of images originated by other artists or images that have previously been trivialized in popular culture. Copying and elevating it to the level of fine art is their art.

Fine. Should I be paid to teach my students how to do this? If my students choose to do this as artists, I am fairly confident that they can do it just as well without instruction from an art teacher. The genius of Andy Warhol is not that he was able to copy, or that he had a teacher that encouraged him to copy. He had the genius to know what to copy and he knew or felt the significance of the images he copied. His creativity was in his concepts and ideas. One could also argue that what he did could not have been recognized as art except for the small changes he introduced. In mass replication, he mocked mass replication.

Jeff Koons, when accused of copyright violation, claims his work is art because it is commenting on the banality of popular images. The fact that something is illegal is not my first reason to include or exclude something from art class learning objectives. I screen for what seems most worth learning in studio art class and for what most likely needs a teacher in order for it to be learned. It gets selected if it has to do with the ways that students learn to draw well, think about composition, develop new and relevant ideas, experiment, and so on. Even though some artists regularly copy for valid reasons, copywork falls through my screen for what we need to cover first in an art class.

If a creative student comes with her own innovative proposal to express an original art concept that can only state its own purpose through copying, I might very well approve. But at this time, I can see few other scenarios that would justify the use of school time.


To use the analogy from music, shouldn't notes be learned before students can reach mature expression?

Art and music are not the same, and while their are common issues, most music making is more reliant on some strict conventions.  But in both art and music, I believe it is important to keep both inspired creative expression and the practice of craft going simultaneously. Both creative expression and craft have offer intrinsic rewards.  To ignor one or the other, or to make one a requisite for the other can be be a big loss.  Sometimes my students who are studying art teaching methods come back from observing an art class and they ask me, "How do we motivate? We see these bored students sitting doing stuff for a teacher, but they have no desire to do it." I look for ways to promote creativity and expressive thinking to be part of every stage of learning--not only after a period of mindless practice.

As I observe the way children and adults function, I believe that students have a much greater need for teachers who can help them to remain curious self-learners and help them develop, retain and develop their ability to think creatively and divergently.


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These are some related links for those who are looking for learning methods that do not depend on copying.

Art Education HOME Page |  Original Idea Generation  |  Creativity Killers  |  Teaching Creativity
A blind contour drawing lesson - grades 3 to 6  - How to teach drawing to children |
A lesson with no copywork, with no prior examples, using blinders, live animal, & including art history
Inside-out gesture drawing and other drawing ideas  | 
Skills sets needed to draw anything


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