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Lago Arthur/Photo by Kira Clark

Learning by copying

Lifestyle | Mimicking the masters, professional artists at the National Gallery of Art gain 'tools of creation'

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

In the quiet of a rainy Thursday afternoon, Lago Arthur paints. Resting her forearm on a dowel supported by an easel, Arthur's brush glides down her canvas capturing the gentle flow of a nun's habit. Arthur steadies her hand, reexamines her work, and mixes red browns and warm blacks in her pallet. After each stroke, Arthur's eyes dart from her work to her subject. Instead of copying from a photograph or model, Arthur, a classically trained portrait artist, is copying a painting, "Elizabeth Throckmorton," by Nicolas de Largilliere at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In nearly every major exhibit of the gallery stands an easel and drop cloth. Each weekday professional artists, called copyists, come to the museum to study the great masters. Since its opening in March 1941, the National Gallery has invited more than 7,000 promising artists to set up makeshift studios in the museum galleries to learn style and technique through imitation. By studying old masters, imitators gain "tools of creation" they use to fashion their own works of art.

According to Arthur, Largilliere's masterly use of light and dark creates depth and dimension, a technique she wishes to learn. In the painting, the cool dark line of the nun's habit emphasizes the radiance of her round eyes. The nun's curved white figure, accentuated by a warm brown background, seems to sit forward and invite the viewer to gaze. "That is what I am trying to learn," Arthur said.

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In another exhibit hangs the "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" by American-born French impressionist Mary Cassatt. The content is nothing special, yet crowds of tourists jockey to get close to Cassatt's depiction of a pensive little girl slouched down in a comfy sofa. With hair toussled and legs splayed, the little girl's careless body glows.

If you stand on the marble floor of the gallery, six inches from the painting, you can see how the terrain of the canvas varies. Thick lumps of paint give the sofa texture, but the paint on the skin and hair of the child is smooth. If you take a step back, the colors, textures, and lines blend. A reproduction does not capture those nuances. Michael Wiess of the Maryland Institute College of Art says studying original masterpieces enables careful students to "get inside the mind of the artist" in a way that is difficult with a reproduction.

In a gallery that displays Baroque era art, Pam Jarrett mixes blues and greens. Hands smudged and her eyes focused, Jarrett copies "The Mill" by Rembrandt van Rijn to learn about atmosphere. Using her iPod to block out the commotion of energetic fourth graders, Jarrett, a Florentine trained artist, stands and gazes into the emotional energy of a brooding storm in the Dutch countryside. The strength and size of the mill seem to tower above ant-like people in the foreground, but in the background a gorge and an ominous black and blue sky make the mill seem flimsy.

Rembrandt completed "The Mill" in 1648, the same year the Dutch received independence from Spain. Just like a young nation, the mill stands resolute and determined amid the menacing storms of international political pressures. Jarrett says that through concentrating light and dark, and choosing scenes carefully, Rembrandt-using paint and brushes on a piece of stiff linen stretched across a wooden frame-captured emotional ethos.

Some people say artists should work out of their imaginations and not work on technique, which can get in the way, but Brian Yoder of the Art Renewal Center says the key to becoming a great artist is learning great technique. Technique gives the tools to communicate, and "Real creativity consists of discovering effective ways of using these tools," Yoder says. Renaissance artist Cennino d'Andrea Cennini put it poetically in 1437: By copying, "You will eventually acquire a style individual to yourself, and it cannot help being good because your hand and mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pick thorns."

Creature comforts

By Deena C. Bouknight

Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In the 13th century Marco Polo observed nomadic people of Mongolia living in sturdy, round structures made of a collapsible trellis and covered in felt. Today parks nationwide are erecting yurts-now wrapped in heavy-duty canvas-as an upscale alternative to tent camping. Even the word "yurt" has been Americanized into an acronym for "Year-round Universal Recreational Tent."

Five of Washington state's parks have yurts. A customer service specialist with the state's park system said offering yurts follows a trend in convenience camping that pulls in business for parks year round. DeGray Lake in Arkansas has three yurts that are booked through spring and summer. Yurts attract "glampers"-glamorous campers who want to experience the outdoors without sleeping on the ground.

Yurts often have electricity, full-size beds, coffee makers, ceiling fans, small refrigerators, and heating units. Prices tend to range from $30 to $70 a night. Some yurts have small kitchens, and posh yurts have polished knotty pine floors with area rugs, skylights, decks, and covered porches.

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