Novus Art Challenge #14

Transcription Project

“Copier, c’a été l’éducation de presque tous les grands maîtres. […] On copiait tout ce qui nous tombait sous la main, d’œuvres d’artistes contemporains ou antérieurs”

[Copying was the education of virtually all the great masters…we copied everything that came our way, be it the work of contemporary artists or that of previous generations]

Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 20th January 1857

Yes, as Lockdown returns, so we are back with a new Challenge! This latest Challenge, now that we find ourselves once more confined to quarters, is in a slightly different format, and has no time limit – you can spend as long as you like on it. We are asking you to choose from the list of paintings that we will specify below and produce a piece of work based on it. You can of course do more than one!

The idea here, is for you to really engage with the work of art that you choose to work from, which means doing a bit of research about it and the artist who painted it, how was the picture painted with what medium, what was the story behind it, etc.

From the start, let us say do not be put off by the title. Transcription is something all of you do all the time, whether you are working from photos or reproductions of paintings. You are interpreting the paintings or photos you work from and are not making exact reproductions.

What does Transcription really mean? For our purposes here let us think of it as producing a “Transformation” of the image you are working from.

In the broadest terms we can think of transcription as a piece of music or text or other art work taken from one form and expressed in an equivalent way in another form. It is a process that may be carried out for a number of reasons: necessity, variety, interest or fun – as can be seen below with a mock up I did for a card for Val based on the celebrated Delacroix painting, with Val representing ‘Liberty’ referencing the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ and Brexit!

Delacroix-Liberty Leading The People, 1830
Brexit themed 'Liberty Leading The People'

The result of this process may be to enable a new insight into the subject depicted or let us see it in a new and different way. A readily understandable modern day example is the turning of pop songs into pieces of classical music – we recognise what the tune is but it is not the same, it is quite different and in the process has produced something new. Who can forget the two young boys in Italy during the first lockdown last year performing a Coldplay song with two violins.

Transcription may operate from one art form to another as was commonly done during the Renaissance in the interpretation of the classical texts. During this period there was a new awareness of the antique, and the Greek and Roman myths, as told by the likes of Homer and Ovid became as important a source for subject matter for artists as the Bible had been up until that point. Below are a series of depictions of the goddess of Love – Venus as depicted by Giorgione and Titian, with the pose composition by Goya, Manet and Cezanne for depictions of ‘Olympia’.

Giorgione - Sleeping Venus, 1510
Titian - Venus d'Urbino, 1534
Goya - Maja Desnuda, 1797
Manet - Olympia, 1863
Cézanne - A Modern Olympia, 1874

Throughout art history the copying or re-working of older works of art was seen until relatively recently as an essential part of the artist’s education. Not merely to produce exact replicas, but rather to learn how that artist worked – how they painted how they drew and how they organised the space on the picture’s surface, something that is absorbed far more deeply in this way than can ever be the case in just looking. Pablo Picasso famously said “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Beyond the purely educative purpose behind these re-workings many an artist, famous today, and even when at the height of their powers, chose to revisit older works of art and re-interpret them in a new and sometimes challenging way. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of such ‘borrowing’ was Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, which central composition was taken from a group of figures in the bottom right corner, in a now lost Raphael painting of the Judgement of Paris, known only through an engraving by Marcantonio Raimundi.

The idea of doing this Transcription Project is to show how art from the past can be a source of inspiration for the present and something we can learn from in making our own art, even if we ‘take’ just a part of the painting to use for our own purposes as Manet did, borrowing from the Raphael.

We shall see, by focusing on a selection of works of art, how the paintings were composed – how was the pictorial space organised, the role of colour and of light, to create contrast or impact, what were the literary sources if any [and how, if relevant could they be reinterpreted], in other words the many different aspects that together make up the particular work of art.

We have gathered together a selection of paintings and engravings for you to look at – choose one or several – or combine elements from a number of them and make your own painting. We have included details of the Breughel and Cézanne. The paintings are:

  1. Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1658
  2. Durer, Melancholia I, 1514
  3. Breughel, The Harvest, 1565
  4. Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Primroses, 1890
  5. Titian, The Death of Achtaeon, 1559

Rembrandt loved to dress up in his self-portraits and present himself in different roles and this late painting is no exception. Imagine a role you would like to play and dress up accordingly!

Durer’s Melancholia I might well sit very well in these troubled times. There is extensive information available about all the meanings and symbols used in this engraving online (click here for one such introduction). Update the symbols to make them perhaps more relevant to today – it doesn’t need to be so complicated.

The Titian references those classic authors we mentioned earlier. Why was this scene chosen, what was its meaning? Perhaps use another text, not just classical, and reinterpret that! The painting is in the National Gallery and you can read about it here.

The Breughel has very many elements, ideal for taking  apart and making a new painting out of that.

Cézanne was the master of the still life, painting numerous variations, even changing his viewpoint in the same picture. Think perhaps of taking  several photos of your own still life arrangement from different views and collage them together.

Your Choice of Pictures

You can reinterpret the paintings in any way you choose. To the left is a 3-D transcription that Val did whilst at Art College (1 or 2 years ago now!) based on Durer’s Melancholia I, to illustrate the feeling of isolation – quite apt today! We are showing it to illustrate the point that the only limit here is your imagination!


You can reinterpret the paintings in any way you choose. Below is a 3-D transcription that Val did whilst at Art College (1 or 2 years ago now!) based on Durer’s Melancholia I, to illustrate the feeling of isolation – quite apt today! We are showing it to illustrate the point that the only limit here is your imagination!


Make preparatory drawings, use different media – pencils, charcoal, pastel or ink. Simplify the image – either by squinting at it or use a computer program. There is an excellent online tool, similiar to Photoshop. You do not need to download anything, just upload your picture from your computer and play. They have two versions  – the advanced (most like Photoshop) and the most useful and ‘Playful’ -which is more like the filters etc. you have on the phone camera.  Don’t be afraid of using them, just play around – remember there is no right way or wrong way! Remember we are not looking for exact replicas!

What materials will you need:

Any surface (paper, newspaper, canvas, cardboard, old bits of hardboard or plywood) and any medium you want to use – paint, drawing, ink, pastel, old remains of emulsion paint even! Use just one or combine several – mixed media, a collage even!

How Long Have I got?

This is not a finish a picture in an hour project, but more of a drawn out thoughtful project for you to get your teeth into. Take as long as you need. Let’s try and push ourselves out of our comfort zones! Once you are done send them to us via the usual channels.

Some More Examples

Picture of His 'n' Hers

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