Several weeks ago I had a free afternoon, so I went to the MFAH to wander around their European art collection. I hadn't visited this part of the museum in over a year. They have two paintings by Bouguereau (deux Bouguereaux?). Bouguereau never fails to inspire me, and at the same time makes me feel as clumsy as a child daubing in finger-paints.
One can learn a lot by looking at a work of art in person. The colors and texture never truly translate in a print. But Bouguereau's brushwork is so smooth I have to get creepy-close to the canvas before I can see his layers of paint. I'm sure I make the guards nervous whenever I put my nose too near a priceless work of art. (Last year I got told off for putting my finger too close to a Sargent watercolor. No, I wasn't trying to touch it! I was pointing out some details to my father.)
Note: this is not an accurate representation of the size of these paintings. 'The Elder Sister' is about 4' tall, and I estimate that 'Our Lady of the Angels' is over 10' tall.
Both pieces have clouds in the background, and as I sketched the cloud-shapes, I noticed something. Something I would never have realized if I had not been trying to make my pencil follow Bouguereau's shapes and composition, because he does it so subtly and naturally:
He uses the shape of the clouds to guide the viewer's eye where he wants them to focus: right in the center, on the Most Important Object. James Gurney has written numerous posts on composition on his blog, and my other teachers have tried to drill this "guiding the eye" into my head. I know the theory, but my own attempts feel like I'm hanging blinking neon signs shouting "LOOK HERE! LOOK HERE!" And I still don't do it quite right.
Bouguereau does it so subtly, so gently, that your eyes follow his guidance without ever knowing they are being led.
This is why master copies are important. Some things you can only learn by following in the footsteps of those who knew the dance best.