Hacks, hobbies, and side hustles: Master copies

Jinjin Sun explores art history, identity, and representation

Two horizontal rows of three digital paintings. Each copied master painting features an Asian woman with glasses in a different poses and against different backdrops. Top row left to right:  Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, Hans Holbein the Younger; Lady with a Fan, Gustav Klimt; Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer. Bottom row left to right: Flaming June, Frederic Leighton; Self Portrait, Sofonisba Anguissola; At the Dressing Table, Zinaida Serebriakova

Illustration by Jinjin Sun

Hacks, Hobbies, and Side Hustles is a for-fun internal presentation series that began as a one-time event and fast became a popular way for us to get to know our talented colleagues. It has only two guidelines: finish in five minutes and focus on a passion that exists outside of Adobe. Learn where creativity takes the members of Adobe Design when they’re not working.

I’m a senior designer on the Adobe Fresco team and this series is part “master copy,” whereby I copy a masterpiece to learn from it, and part self-portrait. It started as a 100 Day Project, a challenge to create one piece of art every day for 100 days, and was supposed to be completed within that specific timeframe. Finishing it took me about two years.

I’d done 100 Day projects before, and was familiar with the format, so when I began, I thought that I would just quickly draw something each day. This time was different: Each entry started taking longer and longer to complete and I became less interested in finishing in 100 days and more interested in what I was learning.

Even though I missed my deadline, the project was a complete success. I learned a lot about artists, art history, and drawing styles, but most importantly, because I face-swapped myself into the copies, it turned into an exploration of identity and representation. I’m using a lot of pieces from Western art history and as an Asian American woman my face is different from what we usually see in this category of art.

Two images side by side: On the left, a cartoon style illustration of a seated Asian woman with glasses facing forward with a slight smile and arms crossed at the wrists; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. This was one of the first drawings I did, and also one of the last.

I've been drawing for a long time but the arrangements in my art always felt really random, so when I first started, my focus was to better understand composition. Masterpieces always look good, so I thought that even by copying them quickly I'd be able to get a sense of how and why things were arranged a certain way and learn from that.

Initially my drawings were quick and loose but as time went on, I started doing more meticulous copying to get some of the lighting effects right and to play around more with color.

Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of an Asian woman with glasses wearing a head covering standing in a bedroom, using one hand to open a window and the other to lift a pitcher from a water basin; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” by Johannes Vermeer.

I gave up on the idea of doing one drawing per day when I realized, about seven drawings in, that I’d worked on a drawing for about five hours. I knew spending that amount of time every day wasn’t going to be sustainable, but it wasn’t until I chose Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, and I struggled with the angle of the face, that I ended up changing the quick-and-loose style I’d started with.

I abandoned the lines and the cartoon quality and just tried to make an exact copy to see if I could get closer. At that point, I started copying in a more rendered realistic style.

Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of an Asian woman with glasses depicted as all seven characters in a copy of Sandro Botticelli's circular painting; the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, and five angels; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“Madonna of the Magnificat” by Sandro Botticelli. For a while I started getting ambitious. This painting has seven figures in it, and it took me a long time. It was fun to put my face in the same drawing multiple times, but it was a lot of work.

I use Fresco. Professionally, it’s a great fit because not only is it a product that I would use, even if I weren’t on the team, but drawing in it gives me a user perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Because as a designer I want to improve the tool for fellow painters and digital painters it creates a bit of a tangled relationship: I love Fresco because I love drawing, and I love drawing and Fresco because I work on Fresco.

Two images side by side: On the left an Asian woman with glasses is depicted as both a princess and her handmaiden in an Art Deco style digital illustration; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
From “The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales” by Kay Nielsen. At one point I scaled back a bit and instead of painting worked on copying pieces with a more illustrative style. I had a lot of fun with it but getting the line work right required more precision than I expected.

This project has prompted me to pay more attention to the things around me and to start looking at historical art through a different lens: What if my face was in this painting, would that be funny or interesting? How was this effect achieved and can I recreate it in a copy?

At this point, I have a backlog of art from following art history bots on Twitter, which call out artwork randomly throughout the day, but my choices aren’t calculated. Whenever I need something new, even though I have a stream of potential pieces entering my life at all times, I end up choosing whatever catches my eye.

Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of  an Asian woman with glasses depicted as all three characters in a copy of "Self Portrait": the artist herself, and the mother and child in the canvas in front of her; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“Self Portrait” by Sofonisba Anguissola. I decided to duplicate a painting where I had to really look closely at my face and try to create a likeness. This was #77 and I drew it right after taking a 12-week oil painting portrait class at SVA which was helpful not only for practice, but to learn how human heads work and how small details help capture likeness.
Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of an Asian woman with glasses seated at an ornate desk, stacked with ledgers, writing with a quill pen; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“The Account Keeper” by Nicolaes Maes. I chose this piece to focus on scenery and better understand how light is used to set a tone or a scene.

Whenever I look back at my work, I always remember what I was watching or listening to while I was drawing. For the most part those memories aren’t related to the subject matter of the paintings, but like an old song or a familiar scent they will take me back to the time I drew them (watching the MAX keynote or spending the holidays with my in-laws).

Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of an Asian woman with glasses, wearing robes and crown of twelve stars, standing on a moon among clouds; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“The Immaculate Conception” by Diego Velázquez. I really liked how the light created a sense of peace in this one but that’s not what first comes to mind when I look at it. It was drawing #83 and it always reminds me of when the pandemic started because it’s the drawing I was working on at the time.

I finally finished this 100 Day Project in December 2021 and looking back, I can point to a few reasons why it was so valuable:

Two images side by side: On the left a digital painting of a seated Asian woman with glasses facing forward with a slight smile and arms crossed at the wrists; on the right, the painting from which it was copied.
“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. My choices about what to copy weren't methodical, which felt more spontaneous, until I got to the last ten and wanted to redo some of the earlier pieces I’d drawn quickly. The Mona Lisa was one of them.

After finishing I created a website to house all 100 drawings (in reverse chronological order) along with information about the original artist and brief comments about my experience copying them.