Copying photographs

Is copying photographs cheating?

I have met many people who think that copying photographs is somehow cheating. Certainly it can be used as an easy way of sidestepping the challenges (and opportunities) provided by copying directly from nature. But this does not mean that it can never be justified.

The main purpose of this Post is to publish Chapter 7 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of copying small, static, two-dimensional photographic images, as compared with confronting the full force of nature, in all its dimensions. Its conclusion is that both possibilities have their place. Rather than condemning the practice of copying photographs out of hand, artists might be well advised to work out what is the best option in the circumstances of the moment.

The chapter also considers an earlier and, for many years, much used memory-based alternative to copying photographic images.



Photos and additional material

The remainder of this Post is given over to:

  • Two double images showing famous artists using photographs.
  • An introduction to: (a) the memory-based method of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran; (b) his ideas about its value for personal creativity; and (c) its subsequent use for producing “snapshots” of complex scenes.
  • Images of five paintings done from memory that could well have been influenced by the Lecoq Boisbaudran’s ideas on memory as a channel to creativity, accompanied by relevant quotations from the artists.
  • A series of five drawings from the same photograph which I made to illustrate a magazine article that argued that copying photographs is not without creative possibilities.

Two famous artists who chose to copy photographs

How can a practice be condemned that has been made use of by so many famous artists? And, if it suited their purposes to do so, why shouldn’t they? Figure 1 and Figure 2 provide two examples of a photograph and a copy made from them. It is left to us to speculate as to why the artists concerned thought it a good idea. My guess is that:

  • Edgar Degas wanted to paint his models in active poses that would be difficult for them to sustain.
  • Paul Cézanne saw the photograph as a way of bypassing the problem of finding a young male model in the South of France.

Both perfectly good reasons.  Chapter 7, lists a number of other possibilities.

The photograph used as a model for the painting by Edgar Degas reproduced on the right.


The photograph used by Cézanne, as a means of getting around the problem of finding an appropriate model.

The memory-based method

The earlier method of making accurate copies of nature mentioned above, which achieved a degree of popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, involved a rigourous training of the memory. It was pioneered, in the middle of the nineteenth century by Elizabeth Cavé (with the support of Eugene Delacroix) and Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. The latter’s way of testing whether students had reached the required level was to send them to the Louvre, where they were asked to memorise a painting of their choice. After returning to the studio, they were then expected to reproduce it accurately, from memory.

An example of the successful use of the method comes from an anecdote concerning James McNeil Whistler, who had learned it from Alphonse Legros (Lecoq Boisbaudran’s star student). The story goes that a friend refused to believe it possible to memorise entire scenes up to the required level.  To convince the doubter, Whistler proposed a three stage demonstration, which he set about implementing, while his friend was watching:

  • First he spent time looking looking intently at the landscape in question.
  • Second, he turned turned his back on it.
  • Finally, without looking round, he painted what his friend asserted to be an accurate rendering of it.

The friend was amazed and declared himself satisfied with this proof.

Lecoq Boisbaudran’s reason for developing his method

However, even if Lecoq Boisbaudran’s memory training method could enable accurate reproduction, it was far from being its goal.  Rather, he saw it as providing a means of opening up pathways to personal expression, an objective that logically requires departures from accuracy. His idea was that drawings and paintings channeled though the memory would inevitably reflect its contents. Accordingly, since the contents of each person’s memory is determined by a unique lifetime’s experience, his method should ensure personalised novelty.

The conception of the memory as a conduit to creativity had important repercussions in the work of many Modernist painters. Among these were Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Bonnard.  As illustrated both in Figures 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 and in the quotations beneath, each artist had a different idea of the degree to which personal expression involved departing from slavish accuracy.

Paintings with quotations by the artists

Figure 3 : Degas – ballet dancers.


  • Edgar Degas: “It is always very well to copy what you see, but much better to draw what only the memory sees. Then you get a transformation, in which imagination works hand in hand with the memory and you reproduce only what has particularly struck you.”


Figure 4 : Vincent van Gogh – Starry night.


  • “Van Gogh: One begins by plaguing oneself to no purpose in order to be true to nature, and one concludes by working quietly from one’s own palette, and nature is the result.”


Figure 5 : Toulouse-Lautrec – from circus paintings series.


  • Toulouse Lautrec (the master of experiments in distortion): “I paint things as they are. I don’t comment.”
Figure 6 : Paul Gauguin – Nevermore.


  • Paul Gauguin: “It is better to paint from memory, for thus your work will be your own…”


Figure 7 : Pierre Bonnard – The studio at Le Cannet with Mimosa.


  • Pierre Bonnard (who wanted to capture the essence of his experience when he first confronted a scene) : “Get away from nature as quick as possible.”

Five ways of responding to the same photograph

In the context of this Post, it is worth noticing that the paintings in the Louvre copied by Lecoq Boisbaudran’s students were static images. In this respect, they were like photographs, even if they were a lot bigger. It follows that, although the purpose of the training was to encourage artistic creativity when working from nature, it could just as easily encourage it when copying photographs. To illustrate this possibility and to complete this Post, I offer five charcoal drawings of a reclining nude woman derived from the same photograph (unfortunately lost). Their purpose here is to illustrate the value of deviations from accuracy and to suggest that photographs do not necessarily cramp creativity. It should be emphasised that these were thought of as the beginning of a process.

Figure 8 : First approach: an attempt at literal accuracy in both shape and shading.



Figure 9 : Second approach: enjoying whole-field colour relations and mark-making potentials.



Figure 10 :Third approach: playing with arabesques.



Figure 11 : Fourth approach: an emphasis on mark making.



Figure 11 : Fifth approach:  figure set against flat black and flat white rectangles.



Other posts including chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”.

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CLAM as a teaching method

CLAM explained

CLAM is an acronym forcontinuously looking at the model. It describes a teaching method, suggested by Kimon Nicolaїdes and popularised by Betty Edwards. However, they describe it as “contour drawing”. Since 1941, when Nicolaїdes‘ book “The Natural Way to Draw” was published posthumously and started its life as the most influential book on drawing published in the twentieth century, his method has proved its value as a powerful teaching tool. However, in addition to its well established advantages, it has significant disadvantages. Chapter 6 in my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”  explains both its strengths and its limitations.



Three example of drawings using CLAM


1: A pure CLAM drawing: Within the confusion, a great deal of useful information is to be found


2: Drawing by Rodin using a lot of CLAM, made long before Nicolaїdes used it as a teaching tool.


clam: Some important errors, but other qualties compensate.
3: A drawing by Francis Pratt using modified CLAM. I hope you will agree that, as with the Rodin drawing, the effect of the whole is not too much spoiled by a few serious inaccuracies.

Links to chapters from “Drawing on Both sides of the Brain” that have already been published on this Posts Page

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Negative spaces

Why avoid talking of “negative spaces ” or “negative shapes”?

The title of Chapter 6 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” is “Negative Shapes”. Some people may be surprised to find that I question the widespread use by art teachers of the phrase “negative shapes” and of its equivalent, “negative spaces“. After explaining the reasons for the popularity of its use as a means of bypassing the problems due to familiarity, I argue that it has significant shortcomings. In the light of these, I suggest that there are alternatives which avoid its disadvantages without relinquishing any of its advantages. Perhaps more importantly, these provides better ways of using drawing from observation as a tool for discovering the unique characteristics of objects in the world around us.


Examples of negative shapes

negative spaces
Figure 1 : The face/vase illusion



negative shapes
Figure 2 : A drawing of a  chair and copy  from Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, used to illustrate the use of negative spaces


In the illustrations above, Figure 1 shows the famous face/vase illusion in which either the faces or the vase can be seen positively, but only alternately.  Figure 2, shows a drawing of a chair (on the left) and a drawing made from it (on the right), using the existing “negative spaces” method. Although it comes originally from Betty Edwards, I found it on a website that discusses negative shapes and spaces, using the terms in their established meaning.


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Modernist teaching methods

A paradigm shift

The chapter featured in this Post is about the paradigm shift in artists thought that took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and some of its consequences in terms of the Modernist teaching methods that were to emerge in the twentieth century.

CHPT 3 – Arrival of Modernism

modernist teaching
Berthe Morisot: Young woman on a couch showing a revolution in the use of feeling based brushwork.


Modernist teaching
One of Edgar Degas most revealing Modernist pronouncements was that: “it is always very well to copy what you see, but much better to draw what only the memory sees. Then you get a transformation, in which imagination works hand in hand with the memory and you reproduce only what has particularly struck you.”


Other background reading for Modernist teaching

It will help to have read the previous chapter, which has already been published as a Post, since this describes the context from which Modernist teaching emerged, not only in terms of specific traditional practices but also in terms of the academic system as a whole, against which the young Modernist Painters set their face.

Chapter 2: Traditional artistic practices

At the same time as publishing Chapter 3, I will be making Chapter 4 available as a separate Post. Its title is “The sketch and the feel system”. This builds on Chapter 3 by focusing on the sketch as a link between old and new ways. Also, the fact that making sketches involves sensing relations between elements provides the opportunity to define and explain what I mean by the “Feel-System”. Doing so is of importance, because it plays such key role in subsequent chapters and because it helps to explain the title, “Drawing with Feeling”, which I chose for the book as a whole.



This Post is the first of two that I will be publishing in time for the July 22 – August 5 session of the Painting School of Montmiral. In this way it will also be ready for my experimental “Life Drawing” week in Norfolk, which is scheduled for later in August. As it is holiday time, I will be taking a break from Posts during August and will not start again until some time after 7th September, which will be my 80th birthday.


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Feeling as a guide to mark-making

Feeling and the sketch

The chapter featured in this Post tells how, over the centuries, artists changed the way they conceived the function of the sketch. From being a step in the Academic method, by which predetermined elements were organised into a composition, it was used in more open-ended essentially Modernist ways. This chapter also explains what I mean by drawing with the “feel-system” and, in doing so, prepares readers for the crucial role it plays in later chapters. For this reason it is key to the ideas developed in my book.

Chapter 4 – The sketch and the feel system 


Related chapters

Chapters 1, 2 & 3 have already been published as Posts. Since together they provide a useful introduction for Chapter 4, they are made easily available as links below:

Chapter 1: Accuracy versus expression

Chapter 2: Traditional artistic practices

Chapter 3: Modernist teaching methods


Feeling-guided sketches by Michelangelo and Matisse.

A foretaste of the illustrations found in Chapter 4 are included below. The first of these is by Michelangelo, a Renaissance artist, and the other by Matisse, a Modernist one. The difference between them reflects both similarities and changes that had taken place in the way artists approached their work.

sketch by Michelangelo in preparation for a presentation drawing “The fall of Phaeton”


A sketch by Matisse showing his visual thinking processes


This Post is the second of two that I will be publishing in time for the July 22 – August 5 session of the Painting School of Montmiral. In this way it will also be ready for my experimental “Life Drawing” week in Norfolk, which is scheduled for later in August. As it is holiday time, I will be taking a break from Posts during August and will not start again until some time after 7th September, which will be my 80th birthday.


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Traditional artistic practices

In furtherance of my project publishing chapters from my books, we now come to a chapter on traditional artistic practices. Its title is “The Renaissance and the Academic Method”. To understand how it fits into the structure of “Drawing with Both Sides of the Brain”, please go to the POSTSCRIPT below. To read the chapter just click on “TRADITIONAL PRACTICES” on the line below.


Some illustrations of traditional artistic practices

As you will see the chapter is richly illustrated: The four images below show either the traditional artistic practices in action or their fruits. The first two give a foretaste of the use of essentially mechanical devices, while the second two illustrate the advantage of a having a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy and linear perspective respectively.


traditional artistic practices
Woodcut by Albrecht Durer showing a device for making an accurate drawing of a lute.


traditional artistic practices
A print from 1887 showing a camera obscura


traditional artistic practices
Anatomical drawing by Leonardo da Vinci


traditional artistic practices
The flagellation of Christ by Piero della Franscesca



This chapter is from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which is divided into two BOOKS.

  • BOOK ONEDrawing with Feeling” and
  • BOOK TWO, “Drawing with Knowledge“.

Each book is divided into several parts. Thus BOOK ONE, to which contains the chapter to which this post is devoted, is divided into three parts:

  • Part 1, “Objectives“.
  • Part 2, “Established practices“.
  • Part 3The new drawing lesson“.

The Chapter found in this post is BOOK ONE, Part 2, Chapter 2. It follows the sole chapter from Part 1 which has already been posted and can be obtained by clicking on its title below:

In the coming weeks and months other chapters from BOOK ONE, Part 2 will be posted as .PDF files.

  • Chapter 3: The arrival of Modernist teaching methods,
  • Chapter 4: The sketch as a link between old ways and new.
  • Chapter 5: Negative shapes.
  • Chapter 6: Contour drawing.
  • Chapter 7: Photographs.
  • Chapter 8: Movement, speed and memory.

Following these chapters, comes  PAR T 3, which can be described as “the hub of the book”. It consists of three chapters devoted to my  “feeling based drawing lesson“.  These describe the drawing process in considerable depth, before embarking on my drawing lesson with its host of innovatory suggestions.

Also, I will be posting other chapters and extracts on the theme of drawing. These are from BOOK 2, “Drawing with Knowledge” and they will provide a raft of new perspectives on linear perspective and human anatomy.


List of Posts relating to “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”


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My books on drawing and painting

Why my books are needed?

Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).

traditional practices
Ian McCowan presenting his drawing of the butcher’s shop to the butcher


Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments” page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page

The limitations of existing books

At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that most of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.

An opportunity to learn more

At the University of Stirling, I found myself gifted with the opportunity to do ten years of fundamental research into different aspects of how artists use their eyes when drawing and painting, It was during this time that, with the invaluable encouragement and help from colleagues, I was able to find convincing answers, not only to most of the questions I had brought with me but also to many others that emerged with the passage of time. In the process, I learnt a lot about reasons for the strengths and limitations of practices that are routinely recommended in how-to-do it painting and drawing books. Evidently, my new knowledge indicated a need for updating or replacing a surprising number of ideas that had previously been taken as fundamental truths. An additional, and quite unexpected spin-off of the research was the discovery of a rich vein of information relating to the birth and early development of Modernism in Painting.

In short, for a whole bunch of reasons, while at Stirling, I found myself being more and more excited by what I came to experience as a bubbling fountain of new ideas. So confident was I that I took the step of setting up my summer school in S.W. France as a way of both sharing and testing them. When it came to teaching students, the use of the new knowledge both confirmed its validity and enabled me to expand it further. I must admit that I felt exhilarated by how well everything seemed to be going in both practice and theory. The subject matter that was later to provide the substance of my books was accumulating.

A lone voice finds a soul mate

The only problem was that, when I looked at what other people had written on the theory and practice of drawing and painting, I had to face the fact that I had was a lone voice crying in a wilderness: I found myself wanting to point out shortcomings in every book I read. Nor did anything change very much  for a long time. Indeed it was to be more than twenty-five years before, totally unexpectedly, I came across intriguing references to the nineteenth century teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran (1802-1897), formerly Director of  the “École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques” in Paris.

Rodin fast drawings for my books
Two fast drawings by Auguste Rodin


What led me to this little known, but hugely influential figure was the discovery that Auguste Rodin, whose rapid and expressive drawings I had for long admired, was one of his students and a lifelong advocate of his ideas.* I also learnt that Lecoq Boisbaudran was a hard taskmaster. Later, when at last I came across his writings. I was amazed at how much there was in common between his attitudes, ideas and teaching methods and mine.

How Lecoq Boisbaudran came to write his book

One of the things we had in common was that both of us hesitated before committing ourselves to the task of writing our books. Another was that we were both were urged on by our students. in a Preface to one of his writings Lecoq Boisbaudran recounted how his ones had prevailed on him to set down his ideas . He told how when they put pressure on him to publish what they described as his “true method”, his first response focused on the word “true”:

“The ‘true’ one! That is far too exclusive a word. There is not and can never be only one method. Every sensible teacher should have full liberty to construct his own method, provided always that he bases it on upon true principles and rational deductions.”

But these salutary words, with which I completely agree, did not deter his students who pushed their argument further, saying:

“If the poorness of contemporary teaching is due to a general ignorance of principles and if you believe yourself to possess the required principles, it is your duty to make them known, and to spread them abroad.”

My students likewise have encouraged me to publish my “true principles and rational deductions” and they have done so for much the same reasons as the students of Lecoq Boisbaudran. And, like him, I allowed myself to be convinced that I should “make known” and “spread abroad” the ideas I teach. In other words I was persuaded to write my books.

What we have in common

So what else do we have in common? At the general level, we share three priorities, namely to:

  • Help students develop their individuality.
  • Emphasise the importance of training the memory.
  • Explain why, contrary, not only to the beliefs of many but also to what might seem to be the dictates of logic, the aspiration to achieve accuracy in drawing from observation provides a particularly effective preparation for those who wish to free themselves from the straitjacket of habit and explore new ways of seeing and doing.

Also, there are many similarities in the details of our different methods . For example, we share a belief in the effectiveness of rigour as a learning tool.

Need to update

However there are also substantial differences in the details of the two methods and in their underpinning ideas-base. This is because in the more than one hundred and fifty years since Lecoq Boisbaudran published his first book, significant developments have taken place in the knowledge available both in the domains of visual perception and in the neurophysiology of eye/brain function. Because of these, there is a need to update the “true principles” and the “rational deductions” of which the pupils of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran spoke.

The purpose of my books is to meet this need for updating the contents of books on the practice of drawing and painting in the light of modern research. More specifically, it is to make use of the new knowledge to provide useful modifications and practical alternatives to widely taught artistic practices.

*His enthusiasm is evident from the letter to M Luard, the editor of a 2013 edition of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s writings. M Luard placed it on the first page after the title. In this letter Rodin wrote of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s teaching: “The greater part of what he taught me stays with me still. I very much wish that every young artist could profit from his teaching and I strongly advise you to circulate his ideas by means of a new edition of his writings.”

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“At last I don’t know how to draw” : Toulouse-Lautrec the first Modern Painter”

In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to  the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”.  In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click here for a .PDF copy of it.

Apologies for the poor quality of some of the illustrations. They will be better for the published version.

Toulouse-Lautrec drawing-5

Toulouse-Lautrec : Drawing of a woman from the “Artilleur et femme” series

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Accuracy versus expression

Are the accuracy and expression compatible?

I hope you enjoy the attachment below, which is about the accuracy versus expression debate. It is the first chapter of my book “Drawing on the right Side of the Brain“, in which I compare the expressive potential of searching for accuracy relative to that of other artistic goals that lead to different manifestations of inaccuracy,  whether it be in the guise of distortions, abstractions or any other kind of deviation from accuracy.  My conclusion is that not only art history but also the outcomes of my experience as a teacher, as illustrated by the work of my students, show that both have the potential to inspire artistic creativity. The drawing of Durer’s Mother below is one of the six illustrations in the chapter, three of which provide examples of the expressive potential of the search for accuracy, while the remainder provide examples of the expressive potential of researching deviations from it.


An illustration for the accuracy versus expression debate

Albrecht Durer: Portrait of his Mother

Contents list of available Posts

To make it easier to find the Post that interests you, I have created a contents list divided into five categories. Most of the material in the categories “drawing”, “painting” and “creativity” comes from my books on those subjects. In addition there are sections for “Painting School News” and “Miscellaneous”. As a Preface to these there is a Post that explains the need for the material that can be found in my books.

The contents list detailing five categories and the Posts to be found within each of them:







Your comments on the Contents List page.

I look forward to your comments in the section provided at the bottom of each Post. When you have made them, please leave your email address and tick the box “Notify me of new posts by email.”

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.Caladrius bird for the contents list