Copying was a vital part of an artist’s education in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. as a student, Turner spent many evenings copying watercolours at the house of Dr Thomas Monro. Later he made simplified drawings to make copying easier for his own pupils.

Visitor at the Colour and Line exhibition

Nineteenth-century students could copy from framed Turner watercolours displayed in the basement of the National Gallery. In this part of the exhibition you have a similar opportunity to study and work from some of Turner’s drawings.

Each drawing shows a different style and technique. By copying his drawings you can explore the different ways he approached his subjects and the techniques he used for light, shade and perspective.

Use a really sharp pencil to copy this fine, controlled drawing. 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

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Lichfield Cathedral from the South-West 1794
Pencil on paper
support: 233 x 287 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Drawing figures in proportion is tricky; Turner practised them over and over again. Choose one figure you like. 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' 1793-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Studies of Figures and of Fairground Tents and Banners 1793-4
Pencil on paper
support: 213 x 275 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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This sketch was probably made quickly and on the spot. Turner began with a mid-tone paper and pencil, and then added highlights using white gouache and darker areas with a softer pencil and chalk.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'A Bridge in the Grande Chartreuse' 1802

Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Bridge in the Grande Chartreuse 1802
Chalk, gouache and pencil on paper
support: 282 x 215 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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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. Try holding your pencil like this:

An illustration showing how to hold a pencil when drawing

Use a really sharp, hard pencil to copy this drawing: any of the ones marked with an H. Try focusing on one of the trees in the bottom left corner. Notice how Turner builds the illusion of a tree and its leaves from a few delicate lines. Keep looking back closely at Turner’s drawing, checking the relationship between the lines and shapes.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Brocklesby Mausoleum Seen among Trees' 1798

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Brocklesby Mausoleum Seen among Trees 1798
Pencil on paper
support: 261 x 371 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Turner was a master of architectural perspective. This is very difficult to get right just by eye. Try using a very sharp pencil to draw one row of the arches as they curve away from you on the right-hand side of the Colosseum. Note how some lines are darker and heavier, and some lighter. It might help to think of what you are drawing as a series of marks, rather than trying to represent the shape of the building.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Interior of the Colosseum' 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Interior of the Colosseum 1819
Pencil on paper
support: 370 x 229 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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This landscape is made up of quick gestural marks. Turner has used pen and ink, but you could try using a soft pencil (more than 2B) 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. Use your hand from your wrist rather than just from the fingers. 

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

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
support: 190 x 140 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Turner is famous for his sea scenes. Try thinking of the hull of the ship in the centre as a series of light and dark shapes that fit together, rather than an object. Use a soft pencil (more than 2B) and use the side of the lead to cover the paper quickly.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Steamer Departing from a Pier' circa 1827

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Steamer Departing from a Pier circa 1827
Chalk, ink wash and pen and ink on paper
support: 140 x 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Use a really sharp hard pencil (any marked with an H) to copy this carefully composed drawing. Try focusing on the point where the two hills meet in the centre. Notice how Turner builds the illusion of perspective by going over the hill in the foreground in more detail in another colour. Keep looking back at Turner’s drawing, concentrating on the relationship between the lines and shapes.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'View of Fribourg' circa 1841

Joseph Mallord William Turner
View of Fribourg circa 1841
Pencil and watercolour on paper
support: 234 x 336 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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This landscape is made up of quick gestural marks and outlines. Try using a soft pencil (more than 2B) and following the lines of the landscape in the background across the page. Then move on to the line of the foliage in the middle ground and then to the foreground.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Mole and Lac Leman from above Geneva' 1836

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Mole and Lac Leman from above Geneva 1836
Gouache and pencil on paper
support: 157 x 239 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Try and copy the way Turner might have moved his pencil. Move your hand from your wrist rather than just from the fingers, and try holding your pencil like this:

An illustration showing how to hold a pencil when drawing

Turner uses many different kinds of mark in this drawing to create perspective. The marks in the right-hand corner are confident and definite. Use a soft pencil (2B or more)  and try using the viewfinder to isolate a section of the drawing and copy the direction of the marks, and how thick or thin they are.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Castle in Middle Distance' circa 1801

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Castle in Middle Distance circa 1801
Ink wash, pencil and watercolour on paper
support: 290 x 432 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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If you would like to study other works on paper , you can book an appointment to visit the Prints and Drawings Rooms at Tate Britain. You can sketch and paint in watercolour from a range of works from the Turner Bequest as well as works up to the present day.

Read more information on the Prints and Drawings Rooms.