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Definition of Copying | In art education | In eastern society | In Western society

The tradition of Copying in China, Japan and Iran

Historically, in Chinese painting imitation is the first step taken in the process of
learning to paint, for both folk and elite artists alike. The necessity to copy, as a
discipline, is linked to the artist's dependence on developing the necessary proficiency
in the handling of the Chinese paintbrush. In Chinese painting, artists, copying from
masters' demonstrations of brushstrokes, are challenged to create an infinite variety 
of forms with the same brush. To the Chinese, this is the only way to train the hand 
to skillfully handle the brush. According to Yi-yu Cho Woo (1986), mastery in Chinese
painting requires long periods of copying exercises because "each masterpiece/model
demonstrates what a master artist has been able to arrive at with his or her brush 
and a heritage of brushwork for over two thousand years" (p.61).

In traditional Chinese painting, the first rule obeyed by all learners is imitation before
innovation. The aim is not only to learn the brushwork in the model, but to learn about
the composition, the feeling and thought expressed in it and the characteristics that
make it an outstanding work. In the training of Ch'i Pai-shih (1864- 1957), a
well-known and popular Chinese artist of the 20th century, Yi-yu Cho Woo writes that
as a child, Ch'i Pai-shih would copy drawings of the God of Thunder because he liked
the stories about supernatural beings. At nineteen, he discovered the Mustard Seed
Garden Manual of Painting, an 18th century textbook showing step-by-step
easy-to-follow illustrated instructions on how flower, trees and landscapes are to 
be painted. 

Repeated copying from the manual for many years motivated Ch'i Pai-shih to seriously
study Chinese painting under two masters by the age of 27. He continued to copy from
models created by his teachers, and later from masterpieces of other artists, whose
painting careers had also begun with copying. Even as an accomplished artist, he
continued to imitate successful models by looking at them or by copying them from
memory. The innovation in his work only began when he consciously abandoned earlier
models and observed nature for inspiration and began to follow his own approaches
(Yi-yu Cho Woo, 1986, p.63). 

In Japan, during the Meiji period (1868-1912), two to three years was required to
complete art school and training programs which embraced copying (ISHA, mitori),
tracing (MOSHA, tsuki-utsushi), reducing (SHUKUZU, chijimeru), and composing (SHIKO,
tsukuri kata). Henry P. Bowie, in his book, On The laws of Japanese Painting (1952),
describes the process of copying. A teacher paints a specific subject. The student then
reproduces the painting under the teacher's supervision. To raise their confidence,
students are required to reproduce the copied image later from memory (AN KI). Bowie
writes, "The correct sequence of the lines and parts of a painting is of the highest
importance to its artistic effect" (p.13). Therefore, in the process of tracing, outlines
(RIN KAKU) are traced according to the exact order in which the original subject was
rendered. This process is done on a thin paper placed over the picture. The student
must draw the lines in exact sequence established by rule. By doing so, the student
will acquire the proper style and brush habit. 

The process of reducing is intended to thoroughly study the laws of proportion.
Composing can only begin once a student has gained the necessary skills and
knowledge acquired from the three previous faculties. At this point, a student may
begin to sketch everything that has form or shape. These sketches are intended to
develop the imaginative faculties (SOZO). After completing all the required training, a
student is then qualified to work under the supervision of a master as an apprentice.

In Iran, training of a traditional painter begins early and is extremely thorough.
Students begin training as young children copying their master's drawings of dragons,
mythical birds, princesses, flowers, trees, animals, warriors, etc...endlessly. They focus
on the characteristic elements in Iranian painting such as the use of arabesque and
ornament within the rhythmic design of flowering vines. From making brushes and
grinding colors to the execution of a complete work, students learn the trade secrets 
of their atelier as apprentices. A more advanced student is given the opportunity to
contribute to the painting by completing the decorative borders that surround a
miniature painting done by a master. The able disciple may also be given the task of
coloring a whole miniature designed by the master or doing the outlining after the
colors have been applied (GALAMGIRY). Within this tradition, a novice becomes a
master and then must take on the task of training future generations of artists. 

The finest miniatures, especially those of the 14th century Safavid period, inspired
artists. Artists would repeat the composition with the aid of pounces and sketches 
or by directly copying the original. When artists moved from place to place and took
with them choice manuscripts to copy and work from, and over time, this led to a
pattern of similarity of details and qualities of miniature paintings from different regions
in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Titley (1983) writes, "artists who were persuaded
to go to India from Tabriz by the Mughal Emperor Humayun in the mid-16th century
would have taken examples of Persian works with them as well as pounces and
sketches" (p.224) thereby influencing Indian and Mughal miniatures through Persian
works. Similarly, in the 13th century, Iranian artists borrowed from Chinese art and
implied some of their imageries into their own such as dragons, kilins, mythical birds
and ribbon clouds (p.226).

In China, Japan and Iran, copying has been an integral part of the process of learning
the traditional art. Imitating earlier masterpieces has offered excellent examples and
solutions for those who wanted to create an artistic statement of their own. They
believe that innovation can emerge only after imitation, adaptation, expanded visual
inventory and technical skills have been developed...


Bowie, H. P. (1952). On the laws of Japanese painting. New York: 
Dover Publications, Inc. 

Titley, N. M. (1983). Persian miniature painting. London: 
The British Library, Reference Division Publication.

The drawing of young people. Art Education, 30 (1), 5-11.

Yi-Yu Cho Woo, C. (1986). Chinese aesthetics and Ch'i Pai- Shih. Hong
Kong: Joint Publishing Co.