Copying at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Copy of Nicolas de Largillière's "Canoness" at the National Gallery of Art.

Copy of Nicolas de Largillière's "Canoness" at the National Gallery of Art.

One of the best perks about being an artist and living in the Washington DC area is the opportunity to become part of the "copyist program" at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). The copyist program, run by the Registrars Office, allows artists to apply for the privilege of painting directly from the permanent collection. I am happy to say I am one of the copyists at the NGA and you can find me painting there weekly. Painting at the NGA is a thrill for an artist but is also very challenging and in my opinion extremely humbling. After all, they don't call the artwork hanging on its walls "masterpieces" for nothing.

There are of course some constraints/factors an artist must observe when painting which include the maximum size a copy can be, proper handling and disposal of materials, dealing with variable ambient lighting (due to the large covered sky lights) and regular interruptions from well meaning, curious visitors to the gallery. Here are some of the amusing comments I hear most often while copying, along with my typical answers:

  • "Are you a student?". I am an artist who is working to improve her technique. Painting from masterpieces is one of the best ways to do that.

  • "How many hours have you been working on this". I have lost count but I paint almost every week for 2 - 3 hours at a time.

  • "Why are some of your colors different?". I strive to match the colors as best I can but my paint formulations are more modern & the lighting changes within the gallery which impacts how I mix color.

  • "Something is wrong with x, y or z...". Painting is a process, there are always areas that need refinement.

  • "I like your painting better". Thank you? (I never really know how to respond to that). But my goal is to copy as accurately as I can.

Another interesting aspect about copying is that there are always people taking your picture, and some even ask to pose with you! Personally I think the fascination stems from the perceived mystery around art making. People assume proficiency in painting is unattainable for the average person--it is not if you work hard enough at it. I tell visitors all the time that if I worked as hard on my golf game as I do on my painting, I would be a tremendous golfer. But my favorite aspect by far of copying at the NGA is watching the faces of the littlest visitors light up with amazement when they see me in action. I make sure to stop whatever I am doing to answer their questions and tell them with a smile, "you too can do this one day. Just make sure you never stop drawing".

Interested in applying to the copyist's program at the NGA? Click on this link for more details (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

Close up of my copy of Nicolas de Largillière's "Canoness". About 65-70% complete.

Close up of my copy of Nicolas de Largillière's "Canoness". About 65-70% complete.