Faithfully copying Old Master drawings and sketches is a time-honored tradition amongst artists.
It’s universally considered one of the more reliable ways of learning to draw and has been a popular practice for centuries. I personally used copying Old Master drawings (and ancient statuary) as a sort of art school for the better part of 5 years in my 30’s and probably learned more about drawing than anyone could have taught me; so I’ll attest personally to the validity of the copyist-as-student experience. There’s a process of osmosis where you can’t help but absorb some of the tricks and solutions the Masters employ, when you turn to your own drawings, later on.
Being reliant upon copying in my own education I was intrigued with the modern advent of tablet-screens, which allow artists to not just copy Old Master drawings, but easily magnify, trace, and duplicate those works directly on the monitor. What might we learn by using a modern tablet to make line-for-line copies of Old Master sketches? Did they use "their own" distinctive lines? Do Durer's lines look different than Michelangelo's? What constitutes individual style? Are there any universal traits which all Old Master drawings share? If so could I apply them to my own drawing? What more can we learn about the thinking and psychology of these artists, in their moments and rituals of actual creation/creativity, by physically duplicating their drawings… line for line? I'm on a quest to answer these questions, and others…
Leonardo da Vinci:
I randomly chose this sketch of Leonardo’s as my starting point for this exercise. While scrolling through Leonardo drawings online it struck me as typical of his style, which was my sole criteria. It’s elegant and sophisticated, anatomically accurate and expertly rendered; idealized but believable.
As this was my first line-for-line copy I was just feeling my way around the technology. Discovering I could enlarge it and ‘really’ capture the minutia, unfortunately, was a revelation I had rather late in the process. But I still managed to come away with a few notes…
I've realized having completed a couple of more of these, that Leonardo used at least two layers of ink wash in addition to his quill drawing. The neck and the hand are both knocked back with a light wash the way an oil painter would use gray to knock back areas which appear too pronounced.
What follows aren’t a scientific analysis but my subjective thoughts and impressions of the lines and rhythms of the drawing.
Important to note is that Leonardo was famously left handed, and I am not. It occurred to me (too late) how I might remedy my right-handedness and more faithfully duplicate his linework if I were to "flip" the drawing as if it were drawn (albeit facing the opposite way) by a right handed Leonardo and then copied it, giving it one last flip when it was done so it was facing the proper way again. I'll use this method when I do another Leonardo.