Have you ever wanted to draw like Turner?
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, copying masterworks was a vital part of a young artist’s education. It allowed students to not only come face to face with great works of art, but to familiarise themselves with the techniques and try their hands at creating in the style of their teachers. As a student himself, Turner spent many evenings copying watercolours, and later in his life made a series of simplified line drawings for his own students to work from.
Nineteenth-century students could copy from framed Turner watercolours displayed in the basement of the National Gallery. In this exercise, you’ll have the chance to copy a series of Turner’s drawings that emphasises the artist’s varying styles and techniques. By copying his drawings you can explore the different ways he approached his subjects and the techniques he used for light, shade and perspective. You can follow the links below each picture for a high-resolution image yout might find easier to draw from.
All you’ll need is a pencil and some paper. Ready to get started?
1. In this drawing, Turner has captured the image of a cathedral using fine, highly detailed lines. Use a really sharp pencil to copy these carefully drawn details. Try focusing on a small area of the architecture in the centre. You could start from the middle section of one of the spires and take it line by line. Keep looking back to check that the proportion of each mark to the others is the same as in Turner’s work.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lichfield Cathedral from the South-West, 1794, graphite on paper, 22 x 27 cm (Tate)
2. Although his most famous works deal with land-, sea-, or city-scapes, Turner wasn’t afraid to try his hand at drawing people, too. Drawing figures in proportion is tricky for even the most seasoned artist; Turner practised them over and over again to get them right. Choose one figure you like in the sketch below. Try and follow the outline of the figure without lifting your pencil off the paper, so that you are focusing on the movement of the line.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Studies of Figures and of Fairground Tents and Banners, 1794, graphite on paper, 21 x 27 cm (Tate)
3. This dark and sketchy drawing was probably made quickly and on the spot. Can you see how quickly the lines appear to have been put down? And have you noticed how some marks appear to be lighter than the paper? Turner achieved this by using a mid-tone paper and sketching with pencil, and then adding highlights using white gouache – a thick, opaque paint – and darker areas with a softer pencil and chalk.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Pont Pérant, near St Laurent-du-Pont, Gorges du Guiers Mort, Chartreuse, 1802, chalk, gouache, and graphite on paper, 28 x 21 cm (Tate)
To get this one right, think of the drawing as a series of marks rather than a scene. Start in one of the top corners and try to copy the way Turner might have moved his pencil to make the marks, quickly and with movement. Try holding your pencil like this.
4.  Here’s another landscape. This one uses a darker paper and white gouache like the one above, but is made up of curling, dark gestural marks instead. These marks appear very dark because Turner has actually used pen and ink in this case, but you could try using a soft pencil to follow the coil-like lines on the left-hand side. Try and copy the way Turner might have moved his pen. Think of the energy and speed he might have used and how he might have made those curling lines. (Tip: Use your hand from your wrist rather than just from the fingers in order to create a looser line.)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Ground of East Cowes Castle, with Figures among the Trees; a study for ‘Boccaccio relating the Tale of the Birdcage’, 1827, chalk and pen and ink on paper, 19 x 14 cm (Tate)
Looking for more material? You can always browse Tate’s collection of Turner paintings, drawings, and sketches for more inspiration.