Licensed reproduction At the BMA, students learn from the masters by reproducing their work - stroke by stroke.

July 12, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun staff

Glen Kessler, a 22-year-old art student, squints at a landscape by Corot at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Beside him stands an easel, and on the easel sits a freshly painted canvas that looks amazingly like the French master's 1872 "Shepherds of Arcadia," except smaller.

"There are three Corots in the museum," says Kessler, a lithe young man with close-cropped hair, paint-smeared T-shirt and a single earring. "I chose this one to copy because you can see the most layers of paint."

Kessler is one of 16 American and Israeli art students who have been copying Old Masters' paintings at the BMA and the Walters Art Gallery this summer. It is an exercise young painters have practiced since the Renaissance in order to learn their craft.

"All the great masters learned by copying," says Sona Johnston, the BMA's curator for painting before 1900. "For example, Rembrandt copied Titian. From what I've seen this summer, a lot of these young people are obviously very talented."

So talented, in fact, that the museum has had to take precautions against anyone mistaking the students' handiwork for the real thing.

For example, though the artists are free to render their copies as exactly as they wish, museum officials won't allow any copies to be made less than 2 inches larger or smaller than the original.

In addition, the museum registers and stamps each student's canvas with a label indicating it's a copy. It also requires copyists to comply with the museum's elaborate security procedures on entering and leaving.

"No matter how good a copy is, it's basically not worth anything unless the copyist goes on to become a famous painter in his own right later in his career," Johnston says. "Still, we have to be careful."

As it turns out, copying an Old Master isn't a piece of cake.

"It's incredibly hard work," says Heddy Abramowitz, an American-born Israeli who is at the BMA this summer under the auspices of the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel, which specializes in teaching the techniques of the Old Masters.

Abramowitz, a former lawyer who moved with her husband and family to Israel during the 1980s, is copying another of the museum's Corots, "The Crown of Flowers."

"I have been painting for years," said Abramowitz, "but I felt I needed this kind of training. I wanted to feel comfortable expressing myself in any style."

"To copy a painting, you really have to study it, so you learn to look in a different way," says Israel Hershberg of the Jerusalem Studio School, who is leading this year's copying program. Currently, the program has eight American students from the Maryland Institute, College of Art and eight students from the studio school in Israel.

Hershberg, a bearded, wiry 50-year-old, is a man of eclectic taste. Born to Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons' camp in Austria in 1948, he and his family emigrated first to Israel, then, in 1958, to the United States. After completing his studies at Pratt Institute in New York, he taught at the Maryland Institute from 1973 to 1984, then returned to Israel with his wife and children.

"Israel has its own, very different art scene, and the idea of figurative art is not a very developed thing there," he says. "So I decided to found this school. What I've found is that there is more interest in figurative painting among young people today than ever."

Hershberg attributes this to renewed interest in the values figurative art expresses.

"The 20th century for the most part has been one where there has been an awareness that we were about to enter something called the future," Hershberg says. "But now we are in that future, which is a mechanized information age, and I think people really desire contact with a world where the hand and eye still have something to say."

Hershberg says that students making copies in museums have become common again, after many years during which the older skills seemingly had fallen into disuse.

"You go to a museum today, you almost always see students drawing," he says. "The main reason for doing it is simply to learn. It changes the way you look at the painting, because in order to copy it you have to reconstruct it. Once you've done that, you never look at any painting the same way, you always look as if you're about to copy it. And that's just a much deeper way of looking."

Kessler, for example, has been trying to figure out how Corot created the incredibly subtle color scheme in his seemingly simple rustic scene.

"Most of what we get taught at MICA is very direct painting, which just involves seeing a color in nature, mixing it directly on the palette and applying it to the canvas," he said.

"But Corot painted indirectly; his process is more like a formula. You start with a tonal study, mapping out the composition, getting your lights and darks. Then you bring color into it later, just like the figures here came last."

As Kessler worked on his copy, however, he found the master playing tricks on him.

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