Learning by copying

I have been using pen and ink a lot more lately (and am growing to really like it), but there are still things I find difficult, especially when it comes to executing certain very precise ink ‘styles’ required for scientific illustration (loose pen and ink work is a whole ‘nother board game!!). I think that’s where copying comes in handy. Taking an image in the style you are wanting to learn, enlarging it (so the lines are approximate to the original inked size) and then taping acetate film over the photocopy and copying the original drawing is a great learning exercise. I have found that trying to get all the nuances of the line and details the same as the original illustrator did in their illustration is a huge help in learning the muscle-memory required to execute the technique (or something similar) on your own work.

Here is an illustration of a Marginella pygmaea shell from Henry Suters ‘Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca‘. The original illustration is much reduced in the published work, so that the stippling is hardly visible (and the dots tend to merge).


By photocopying it at 200% of the printed size, I was able to copy the illustration using a 0.5mm pen to outline and a 0.1mm (Rotring Tikky pen, which is actually more like a 0.25mm nib size) for the stipples. When I reduced it back down to the print size, they still look a little different (possibly my stippling nib size was too big), but it’s a really useful exercise to pick up some little hints about the technique the original illustrator used.


Copying reference images can also help with deciding what nib size to use (and what it might look like when its reduced down for reproduction), as you can work out what size nibs were used in the original.

Here is a little visual reference where I played around with the different nib sizes that are commonly used in sci illustration, and what they look like when they are reduced down. You can download the original image here and print it out as a reference if you would like to. Otherwise, making a sheet like this with your own pens (which is more accurate) as a quick visual reference is a great help!


One thing to keep in mind when copying is to use it JUST as a practice exercise. Every artist is different, you may like some of the techniques the original illustrator used to execute the image, and you may be able to figure out other techniques that better suit you. Take what you like from the practice, combine it with observation from real life, and use it to create your own amazing illustrations!

I’d be interested to know- do any of you copy ‘pro’ work for practice? Have you noticed an improvement in your own work when doing so?

Pens used: rapidograph isograph technical pens

till next time,



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