Should we copy to learn to draw and paint?

This watercolor painting of a piece of turf shows how far we can go if we want to understand something fully. Dürer – sometimes known as the Leonardo da Vinci of the North – cared about every blade of grass and painted them with the highest accuracy.

Today, we would simply grab a camera and take a snap to get an accurate representation of the turf. It just takes a few seconds. But if we really want to understand something, it is not enough to let a device make a copy. We have to be curious, and we have to spend the time to do the copy for ourselves. At least, that’s what Dürer did.

Even if your final works should not look like photo realistic painting, copying exactly what you see is a great way to see accurately and to control your tools. If you can do that, then you can start pushing your colors, proportions, texture and so on. 

What beginners often do is to imitate a certain drawing or painting style without understanding the underlying thought process. It is like driving a car without knowing how it works. You can use it, but when it’s broken, you are not able to repair it. For me personally, I like to work from a position of strength. Meaning, I have a deep understanding of the fundamentals and can develop my paintings process and make my stylistic decisions consciously.