Copyist at the National Gallery of Art

In the grand tradition of learning by copying master paintings, the National Gallery of Art is one of the few remaining museums in the country which has a Copyist program. I applied for this months ago, knowing that we would be relocating to the DC area, and was accepted. I was able to begin my first master copy at the end of July.

I chose an East Coast landscape, something not far from my comfort zone but a challenge in that it's a studio work and the opposite coast from what I'm used to. Narragansett Bay in Massachusetts has a very different look and feel to Pacific coastline, so this was a good way to familiarize myself. Here's the original by William Stanley Haseltine, painted 1864:

Haseltine achieved fame for his "rock portraits", and the detail on this work is astonishing. I didn't aspire to replicate all the detail, but rather to ponder and learn from his decisions of color and composition. Copyists are not allowed to have the easel any closer than 4 feet from the painting, so our eyes are even further and much of the detail is lost anyway. We can walk up close to examine, but can't stay there to paint.

Being a Copyist is a lot like being an Artist in Residence, because a big part of what we do is interact with visitors and afford them the opportunity to see how a painting is constructed--something that is an unknown to most. I love talking with people from all over the world about art, art history, underpaintings, color palettes, and so forth. 

I started this just days after our plane landed in Maryland while our household goods were still in transit, so I had a field kit of shortened brushes, a handful of paint tubes, and a wooden palette. The National Gallery supplies the easel. I went to a Michael's craft store and bought a cheap 18 x 24 canvas, good to go. Of course that ended up increasing the challenge, because the proportions of that canvas are different from Haseltine's, and I didn't want to crop the image, so I decided to reformat the composition to fit my canvas. A supreme exercise.

Here is the first draft of the underpainting, after one 4-hour session.

And my setup in the National Gallery. Lots of visitors asking "why are you only using one color?" --teachable moments about underpaintings and layers. They appreciate the explanations and insights into a process that is mysterious to them. I would love to do this every day...but local resident Copyists are only given one day a week to work, between 10 am and 4 pm. There are about 30 of us, but I have yet to see another working the same day that I'm there.

The painting cannot leave the premises until the copy is done and documented, so it stays in a locker room set aside just for Copyists. After each session, I photographed the work in progress and used a printout of it to assess what I needed to change for the next session. And with the battle over proportion, there were a lot of changes.