There’s one technique that’s practically guaranteed to have you painting like a pro: it’s called a master study.
Now, you might be thinking, “Oh man, here we go, another ‘shortcut to getting great at art’.”
Well, it’s not a shortcut. But it’s pretty much the straightest path.
Think about it: you’re browsing through Artstation, looking at master artist after master artist. Probably getting pretty bummed out because you think you’ll never create what they can create.
Well, here’s the thing: you can create what they’ve created. All the information is there in the painting. It just takes a bit of time and ingenuity to crack it.
Ok, you probably can’t create it exactly the same, nor should you. Every artist has their own style.
But if you want to achieve a similar level of skill, here’s the key: start with imitation.
All great creators started by imitating their predecessors. That’s the doorway into skill, from which we can develop our own unique style.
Creating a master study
But let’s worry about style later. Here’s how you do a master study.
1. Start with the basic shapes
I like to use the lasso tool for this. But you can do this any way you want, even with oil paints. I’ve chosen a painting that I really loved here as well, from one of my favorite artists, Tyler Edlin.
Just focus on the big shapes. Try to get them right. Squint your eyes if you have to, so that they look pretty similar from a distance.
2. Refine your shapes
Start to work in smaller shapes. Start to sculpt using values.
Continue to resist the urge to paint details. This study only took me an hour or so, and that’s all the time I needed to understand the most important elements of the painting.
Trust me: if you get the composition, values, and overall shape language right, you’re 90% of the way there. No need to reproduce everything mark for mark.
3. Final details
Now, go as far into this as you want, but after awhile you may see diminishing returns. It can be a nice challenge though to see how closely you can replicate another artist’s work. And I can guarantee you’re going to learn a few things along the way.
Try different ways of replicating textures and details without hand painting them all. Use a large, textured brush, or maybe even some photo textures.
Whatever you do, know that you’re not going to create an exact duplicate—you’re just trying to capture the essence of the thing.
Do this enough times, and you’ll be a master artist yourself in no time.
Feel free to check out the full video above, and if you want to know more about improving through studies, I have a full video on creating a landscape study right here.