Monkey Style Draw Fu – Copying

September 9, 2015 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

Monkey Style Draw Fu – Copying

Monkey StyleOkay, now you know all the fundamentals that go into drawing cartoons. Problem is, it’s slow going.  You know what to do, you know how to do it but, your stuff doesn’t look right.  You’re stuck. It feels as if you’re running in place.

You wish there was a way of getting better faster. What’s the best way to increase your improvement rate? How can you get faster results?

In this lesson, this is what we’re going to tackle.  One of the fastest ways to improve is to copy.

Copy? Yes copy.

This lesson will explore the benefits of copying and why it will help you improve your drawing faster than just about anything else.

Isn’t Copying Cheating?

Most people think that copying is somehow cheating.  It’s not “real drawing.”  Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes great observation skills and hand eye coordination  to be able to copy something well and accurately.

Believe it or not, these skill have enormous benefits when drawing from life and imagination. It’s a very important ability.  The better you are at copying, the easier drawing from your imagination will become.

The Benefits of Copying

Why is this?  How can copying help you improve faster? Here’s a list of benefits.  I’ll go into each one below:

  • Increases observation skills
  • Solves drawing problems.
  • Know what drawing well feels like.
  • Builds visual vocabulary.
  • It’s an easy win.

Increases Observation Skills

By far, one of the most important skills to have when drawing is good observation skills. Observing and then capturing what you’re seeing on paper, is essential for drawing.

You may want to draw something you observe from life or draw a famous cartoon character.  In both these cases, knowing how to draw what you see accurately is a must.

When I was little, I used to copy cartoon drawings I liked.  I did it a lot.  I got good at it.

As a working professional in animation, I can’t live without this skill.  It helps me draw the characters I need to draw “on model.” Which is a fancy way of saying, they look like they should look.

Copying other people’s drawings is a fun and fantastic way to increase your observation skills.

Solves Drawing Problems

Drawing is problem solving. Every part of a cartoon is a problem to solve.  The more you do it, the more “answers” to problems you have.  It’s what makes some cartoonists better than others.

When you copy other cartoonist’s drawing you see how other artists have solved certain drawing problems. You walk in another artist’s shoes. Why struggle for answer when someone has already solved it for you.

It also creates a better understanding of the work of the person’s whom you’re copying. This leads to the next benefit.

Buildings Visual Vocabulary

If you copy from more than one cartoonists, you will suddenly have a greater library of drawing solutions to choose from. Every cartoonist has their solutions to drawing problems.

Copying helps you learn them.  Use this to your advantage.

Know What Drawing Well Feels Like

Part of the reason drawing can get frustrating is because your body and your brain don’t know if they’re doing it right. What is it like to draw well? How do you know you’re doing it?

Copying helps.

When you copy someone better than you, it helps you feel what drawing well is like. It gives your body something to lock onto and mimic.  It can condition good drawing muscle memory.

Your brain will start seeing and making better judgments. It increases the likely hood that you will be able to feel how you should draw. You’ve drawn well once, you can do it again.  Your body has experienced it.

It’s An Easy Win

You know how I am about easy wins.  They help you move forward so much faster.

When you’re feeling a little stuck and you want to have a least one good drawing at the end of the day, copy. Copying a drawing from someone you admire, not helps you learn something, but you will have created a potentially satisfying final product you can be proud of.

How to Copy

Alright, now that you know the benefits of copying, how do you do it to get the most out of it? I’ll give you tips to think about when studying by copying.

  • Compare positive and negative shapes.
  • Backwards engineer the drawing process.
  • Use the same tools as the person you’re copying, if possible.

Let me explain what I mean. Interestingly, the first two tips are almost contradictory

Compare Positive and Negative Shapes

Remember how every drawing can be broken down into flat shapes? Well one of the first things you should do when copying is trying to find what those shapes are.

This requires comparing landmarks on the original drawing and either measuring or eyeballing their relationship to one another.

Like this:

How to copy 01 How to copy 03 How to copy 04

You want to also note the shape the negative spaces on the thing you’re drawing makes.  The negative space is the spaces between the forms that separate the forms.

Here’s an example below:

How to copy Negative Space

Both these methods are there to help you see the drawing as a whole unified design. The goal is to have a road map where you will draw the rest of your study.  You’re basically creating an accurate lay in to work off of.

I’ll explain this more later in the this lesson.

Backwards Engineer the Drawing Process

Having said that about the surface and design of a drawing, you should NOT obsess yourself with drawing surface details. When copying a drawing, the final line should be the last thing on your mind.

Instead you should focus on how the artist got to the final product. Work out the under drawing that creates the final look. Construct the drawing.

Once you have your lay in, start with the simple forms and then build the compound forms on top of those. Use you’re favorite construction formula and apply it to the drawing.

You want to be mindful of how the drawing was made, rather than being a mindless photocopy machine. You want to experience the full drawing process, otherwise you’re missing the point of copying in the first place.

Use the Same Tools as the Person You’re Copying, if Possible

This isn’t an absolute but it’s very useful to use the same tools or media as the cartoonist you’re copying.

For example, if you’re copying an ink drawing, yes, you can start solving the drawing in pencil, but once you’re done, try finishing the drawing using ink. If they used a brush to ink, you might try it too. If it was a quill pen, you might want to use one too.

The point is to try to experience the drawing as they did. You learn more about the process that way.


As I’ve said, I used to copy a lot when I was younger.  Although I didn’t really copy in a very informative way.  It did help me hone my observation skills.

I don’t have many of my earliest copies.  I do have some from Junior High and High School.

Below is a page full of copies from Junior High (around age 11 or 12).  At this point, my parents had gotten be a quill pen and ink.  I used it to ink this drawing full of slapstick superheroes I copied from the Marvel spoof comic What the…?!, which I loved:

Copying Examples 12

It’s like a copy collage.

I did something similar a while later.Here’s a drawing I did for a book report in Junior High. All the characters in the drawing I copied from books and comics of my favorite artists at the time:

Copying Examples 13

In high school I did the same thing.

The drawings below are from high school. It’s a copy from Mike Peter’s Mother Goose and Grimm.  I was trying to emulate the thick ink lines from that comic strip. The fire hydrant below is original to me:

Copying Examples 06 Copying Examples 05

A little Sergio Aragonés:

Copying Examples 04


Copying Examples 03 Copying Examples 02

Years later, as I was a working layout artist on The Simpsons, I had, what I call a “turning point sketchbook.” I call it that because it’s the sketchbook that clearly shows a sudden leap in understanding and improvement on my part.

It all happened, after I decided to sit down and copy from some of my favorite artists.  Artists that I wanted to be able to draw like.

Below are the drawings I copied so you can see what I did:

Copying Examples 11


I don’t remember who I was copying the Batman from.  The guy on the right was from a Body Bags comic book by Jason Pearson.

The Batman face on the bottom is original. I was applying what I was learning.  You can also see how I drew a tiny silhouette of the Pearson drawing to clarify the graphic shapes of the drawing for myself.

Below are some Frezzato copies. The guy with the short hair in the page is original.  I was testing out what I had learned:

Copying Examples 08

Below is are many Adam Hughes copies.  The head drawings in the page below are originals based on what I was learning from the copy:

Copying Examples 10

More Adam Hughes copies below.

The Jesus drawing and the apostle are originals and where taken from the Jesus of Nazareth Movie from 1977.  The long haired guy with the goatee is also original.  All the original drawings were tests to see what I had learned from the copies:

Copying Examples 09

Below still more Adam Hughes.  The little red drawing is original.  Again, I was testing what I had learned:

Copying Examples 07

I still study by copying.  It’s not like there’s a point where you stop studying.  The moment you do, is the moment you stop growing as an artist:

Copying Examples 01

Above are some Frank Frazetta ink copies.

Your Turn

Using the examples above as a guide, pick the artist you’d most like to draw like and copy his work.  Make sure you break up the process. Don’t simply copy surface details.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Copy a  drawing or two from your favorite  cartoonist.
  • Then test yourself by drawing something that looks similar to what they would do to see what you’ve picked up.

Like this…I’ll take the public domain character Super Mouse and draw him. The style is appealing and cartoony.

The first thing I need to do is to deconstruct the character from the inside out:

Exercise Copy example 01

In the drawing above I made assumptions about his construction. I also looked for rhythmic connections. All this while  noting, comparing and measuring features against one another.

Once  I thought I had what I needed, I went in and drew a final line on top of my rough. I drew this digitally so I just used a new layer, but if you want to do the same thing with analog tools, use tracing paper or another sheet of normal copy paper using a light box:




Exercise Copy example 02

The final line is below.  I even went so far as to try to match the line quality. It was tricky because the original was probably inked with a brush or quill:

Exercise Copy example 03

Once the copying was done, I decided to test myself to see if I learned anything.  I decided to now draw a new characters based on the construction, style and design aesthetics of what I just copied. I wanted to see if I could capture something that had the look and feel of Super Mouse without it being Super Mouse.

Here’s what I did:

Exercise Copy example 04



Once you’re done with that and are satisfied, try this experiment.  Pick another cartoonist who has a very different style from the other that you also like.  Do the same with them.

For example, if you where copying a Manga artist, copy someone more western, like Jim Davis.  You’d be surprised how much copying someone so different opens up your drawing skills.


Q: If I’m good at copying, when should I stop copying and start drawing my own stuff?

A: Now. You should have never stopped doing your own work.  Copying isn’t the goal, drawing well is.  Copying is just study.  It can be fun but the point is to be able to draw on your own.

Drawing your own stuff is the best way to see how much you’ve learned from your studying.

Pro Tip

If you’re not exactly sure what you ought to try copying, here’s a short list of ideas:

  • The Masters – Whether it’s Leonardo Di Vinci, Michael Angelo, Peter Paul Rubens, you’d be surprised how much better you’re cartoons will be if you capture some of qualities of the greatest draftsman that have ever lived.
  • Your favorite artists – Even if you don’t want to draw like them, you may want to try copying their work.
  • People who you would like to draw like or sort of like – This one is  no brainer. You want your drawings to have a certain look, copy the guy who most has that look.
  • Great cartoonists –  Wally Wood, Gary Larson, Sergio Aragonés, Bill Waterson, Dan Decarlo, you can’t go wrong with copying the artists that mastered their craft.

Basically, anyone who’s style you want to “own.” Anyone who’s drawings you want to make a part of you.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning copying questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about copying? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

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