Learn painting by copying: do’s and don’ts


“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”
– Austin Kleon

Copying is an excellent exercise that will teach you to learn by doing. Here is a list of pro’s:

  • We efficiently develop hand to eye co-ordination.
  • Our brain compares composition, colors, hues, instead of being fully engaged by problem solving how to portray the subject matter.
  • Copying helps us learn painting technique more efficiently and we obtain better quality control of our painting in future.
  • By copying old masters we learn how to paint in different styles, we can see students make copies of old masters in every major museum.
  • We copy famous paintings to learn methods and develop our artistic skills.
  • While copying an old master, we learn to “see” through their eyes, to think like a master, focus on some aspects while ignoring others.
  • You will have a version of your favorite artist’s painting to decorate your room.

And these are only some of the benefits we get from copying other artists.


“Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean Picasso had a saying he said good artists copy great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

– Steve Jobs

Andy Warhol made screen prints of images stolen from magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. However, he got away with it because fine art does not infringe on image rights, and because the companies and celebrities whose images he used actually enjoyed the press coverage, and often even thanked him for it.

But we all want to be on the right side of copyright, right?

To avoid copyright infringement while creating your own artwork, when using reference materials other than your own sketches or photographs, follow these tips:

  • Use out-of-copyright materials. Learn the rules of copyright expiration and only use reference photos that are no longer protected.
  • Use public domain images. Websites such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, Pexels, Unsplash, Pixabay and others. It’s very important that you understand how Creative Commons (CC) works and that you read the fine print on every individual image or artwork you want to use.
  • Obtain permission to use an image. Write to the publisher, magazine, or website and simply ask permission, describe what do you intend to use the image for. The worst thing is they refuse to grant the permission, but sometimes they’ll be okay with it. In any case, make sure you are crediting your source.


Copying and selling another contemporary artist’s work as your own, without permission, is actually a crime and this is why will harm you:

  • Copying may compromise your growth as an artist. While on one hand copying others helps to develop technical skills, you may fall into habit of reproducing someone’s art and style. This also may result in your never developing a style of your own. To grow, you must challenge yourself and cultivate your own approach to painting.
  • It ruins your reputation of an artist. Today it is easier than ever to lose respect of other people and become known for stealing from someone else. This can be a shortcut to failure.
  • Your accounts will be shut down. Your accounts on Instagram, Esty, Zazzle or similar sites, will be shut down when they get complaints about you selling copied images.
  • It is illegal. If you are making counterfeit copies of another painter’s works to make quick money, you are violating copyright laws. Worst case scenario, you could be sued, and at best you would get very bad publicity from it.

No one wants this happen to their art career. That is why you need to be well informed on your own rights and also respect other artist’s rights. Read more about copyright infringement and fair use for artists, an article from Art business info website, a very useful resource for artists.


Get inspired! Yes, our end goal in copying is actually not to copy. We develop artistic taste and style, and interpret multiple sources by borrowing some elements, and completely changing, and rearranging others. So, this is how to get inspired without copying:

  • Use multiple sources for inspiration. Take pictures, scroll through photos online, visit museums and galleries, read magazines and build up your own visual library. This way, you can find the best elements from each work of art, combine them in your own unique way and make your own original work.
  • Train your memory. It is easier to work from reference material right in front of us. We can turn the reference material into a source of inspiration when we memorize different details that we liked about the piece, and keep them tucked away. When you start working on your own piece, you can rely on your memory to get inspired. And because the image is coming from your own mind, this also means that you are creating an image based on your own perception, and not based on the reference material. This is how you make an original artwork.
  • Look around more carefully. You can only find inspiration from other visual sourses than you normally do, not just paintings and photographs. Analyze some design works online. Go outside. Take a look around. Look at billboards and posters. There are plenty of ways to get inspired. You may not know it, but absorbing all sorts of different emotions, movement, lines, and colors around you is more than enough for you to make a great sketch. That little sketch may add something new to your work, something you can later use to create a beautiful painting.



At some point you will either stumble upon a copycat or somebody will send you a link to a profile where your works have been copied. Here is what you can do:

  • Contact the artist and let them know that you noticed many similarities between their work and yours. For most copycats that will be enough to make them realize that what they are doing infringes on your rights.
  • You can go public with the issue and teach a lesson. Lori McNee caught a copycat on Facebook who was copying her art and she wrote about it: How I stopped a copycat artist on Facebook. Her case is a great lesson on how to fight for your rights.
  • Alternately, you can consider that imitation is a form of flattery, and decide to not spend too much energy on trying to fix the issue. Publicize your art as much as you can, protect it by watermarks, and make it sure serious buyers and art galleries know that you are the author.
  • Stay ahead of the game. They can only copy your past work. And because you are the author of the original which was copied, you are one step ahead in your art journey. You have the creative energy, while they are just replicating an end product.




Leave a comment or find me on social media, if you have any questions about paintings, canvases, painting supplies, and art in general. I’m not selling anything, so my advice will not be affected by affiliation to any brand or store. In this post you can get a few ideas of how to improve your painting and start making quick progress. And if there is any additional information you need, I’d be happy to share, just let me know.

And, as one of the coolest painters said: “All you need to paint is a few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.”
Bob Ross