Ursula Kolbe addresses the question of ‘copying’, writing:
“Should you be concerned if children copy images? It may surprise some people that virtually all artists at some stage or other copy images in order to learn. Young children often begin a drawing by ‘borrowing’ elements they see in the drawing of an admired peer. ‘Borrowing’ can be one of the most important factors influencing how children learn to draw.
Copying has a long history. Before the modern era, apprentice craftspeople were expected to imitate their masters’ techniques. This tradition still continues today – for example, in the teaching of traditional Chinese calligraphy and water-colour painting.
I remember copying an illustrator’s technique at the age of about ten because I wanted to learn how to draw shininess. I wanted to create an illusion of silk but didn’t have a clue how to convey the vision of loveliness I desired. So when I came across a watercolour illustration of a silken-sashed fairy, I set about copying it in pencil. I found I could create a silky appearance by leaving tiny white spaces as I coloured the sash – the white spaces suggesting light bouncing off the surface.
Adults sometimes misunderstand children’s purposes in copying. An artist friend recalls an incident in her childhood when her mother, seeing her copy parts of an illustration, remarked critically: ‘You’re not copying are you?’ According to my friend, ‘This was actually quite shattering. I remember thinking, but why? – I’m learning from this – what’s the problem? To me it was natural, but to her it was something I shouldn’t be doing.’
Both my friend and I had copied work that we admired in order to understand how to do something. Generally it seems that children can only copy shapes they already know how to make, or are on the verge of knowing how to do. They actually ‘copy’ very little – only bits that help them do whatever it is they want to do.
Sometimes, however, children copy images because they have no confidence in their drawing abilities. This is when it’s important to find ways of restoring their confidence. you might suggest they try a different medium – such as clay or collage – where they may have no notions about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are.
Despite the benefits of selective copying, it is not something that adults should introduce to young children. Children are the best judges of knowing when and what to copy in order to learn how to draw. It makes no sense for them to copy something without understanding why or to what purpose. This can only lead to frustration.” (p.119)
Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Ursula Kolbe (2007) Rapunzel’s Supermarket: All about young children and their art. Second Edn. Pippinot Press: Byron Bay, NSW.