Master studies - how do you deconstruct artists’ techniques/methods?


  • SVS OG

    I have been doing a few master studies in my sketchbook but I am not sure I am necessarily doing them ‘correctly’.

    Part of the issue I think is that I am not sure how to figure out what the artist is doing to get the result they achieved just by looking at the image. For the most part, because I don’t have a trained eye, I can’t even tell if the image is digital or traditional unless I research the artist further online to find out their process. (Is that cheating somehow - Am I supposed to be able to tell just by looking??)

    So how does one go about deconstructing technique to produce a master study? Do I just make a guess at what is going on and see if it looks close when I recreate it? If not, guess again and redo. OR am I supposed to know the various techniques of a medium the artist is using and then look for that in the image as a starting point. Eg watercolour artists tend to start with some kind of wash then move to more dry techniques for details etc.
    I have found a few YouTube videos where people are doing master studies but they clearly have a good handle on what they are looking at before they started and just seem to know exactly what techniques to use. ‘So the artist obviously used a warm under painting first then a wet in wet wash in the sky before charging in a combination of ...’ etc etc. Wth?? How did they know that??

    I feel as if I am groping around in the dark, spinning my wheels and not making the most of my practice time, so any tips you can offer would be helpful.


  • Pro

    @MissMushy Eventually, becoming able to tell what media or technique was used just by looking is a desired outcome. However, you're not expected to get there instantly. You don't know what you don't know, it's completely normal to start there.

    When you see a YouTuber do a master study and they say "So the artist obviously used a warm under painting first then a wet in wet wash in the sky before charging in a combination of ..." it's likely because they themselves have practiced those techniques in the past and they have become very aware of exactly what kind of look is achieved from that technique.

    In the beginning, you have to learn before you can make those educated guesses. Research to figure out what media and techniques the artist used is not cheating, it's a smart approach that will help you narrow down what you need to do. For what you can't find with research, as you guessed you'll have to do trial and error until you figure it out. You can also ask other artists to get their take on it. There is no magic way to just instinctively know. everyone has to learn and train their eye. Use whatever means you have at your disposal to learn - none of it is cheating or wrong.

    Research is in fact a very good idea. If you start a master study and you're not even sure if the image is traditional or digital, the amount of trials and errors you'll have to do before you figure out the right combination is just... astronomical. Narrowing it down will be helpful so you don't spend months and months on one study. And sometimes it's very hard to tell just by looking. Did you know the famous piece "The Scream" by Edward Munch is not even a painting? It's a pastel drawing! Everyone gets it wrong. I've seen renowned journalists and even art publications/books/sites refer to it as a "painting". Sometimes it's tricky and research is a big help.


  • SVS OG

    @NessIllustration phew thank you. I feel like an idiot even asking the question because it seems so effortless when I see others discussing their work. I figured it was something people were taught to do in art school and therefore had some insider knowledge that I didn't. Thanks for demystifying it a bit for me. 🙂


  • Pro

    @MissMushy No, there's no big secret we're taught in art school hihi. Art history helps, but that basically the research part that you mentioned, nothing more. Live drawing classes help with observation, which also ends up helping with master studies. I wish there was something more concrete to give you lol. I think watching YouTube videos of people doing master studies is a genius idea. Seeing how other artists do it oughta help. You're on the right track!



  • Yeah, @NessIllustration pretty much said it all. You build that knowledge over time. You do learn some of it if you go to art school, but the majority will be learned through research, tutorials, online classes. Even when you get to a certain level of confidence in being able to identify a variety of materials and techniques, things can still pop up and surprise you! Some artists use their materials in a way where it looks like another medium- some will employ a less than typical technique to get the same results as another technique.

    When I do masterstudies- sometimes following the same technique as the masterwork is important to me, and sometimes it's not. I've painted digitally long enough, that many times I can replicate the look digitally, even if I don't know exactly what medium or technique was used. If I'm copying a traditional watercolor piece for example, but I'm doing it digitally, I won't paint it the same way a traditional water-colorist would. Sometimes that's good enough for me. If I'm doing something traditionally- I'll usually need more research to figure out how to achieve the same results, depending on the style and medium used.


  • SVS OG

    @TessaW that’s good to know. Something to aspire to one day 😃.



  • @MissMushy You are asking some very good questions!

    I think one of the keys to master studies is having a very clear purpose. Ask yourself what it is that you are trying to learn or take away from the art you are looking at: the line work, composition, color, light quality, maybe how they paint eyes? Otherwise you may just end up trying to make a copy, without learning much. It happens to the best-intentioned of us. So, if what you are trying to learn is the medium that the original artist used, then yes, do everything in your power to know the medium that was used, do the research, and use the master study as a way to explore and learn that medium. If not, then the medium doesn't matter. I appreciate the skill that goes into a master study where the student is just trying to make an exact copy, but I've found over the years (and I am a master study junky), that the best way to get the most out of your master study is to be really clear about what you want to take away from the original artist and incorporate into your own work, then focus on that.

    One of the best ways I have found benefits of master studies, is to do many from the same artist. For example, I did a very lengthy series of Edgar Payne master studies with the purpose of understanding his use of color and decisions around composition. He's an oil painter, but I could kind of care less about learning how to paint in oil, but I did want to figure out how to get some of his brushing technique replicated digitally--so, I did the studies digitally. I also didn't waste time getting the paintings to look exactly like the originals, because my purpose was to understand his color choices and compositions, so that's where I spent most of my time. I would do a one hour study of his original, and do a 3-4 hour original painting using what I learned. This is how I do all my master studies now, and highly recommend it to anyone else who wants to be a fellow master study junky. When done with purpose, master studies can be the best teacher.

    So long rant short, ask yourself first, "what do I want to learn SPECIFICALLY from this master?" and just focus on that takeaway.



  • @MissMushy yeah agreed, trial and error.

    What helps me is also understanding how I learn best. I cant learn from reading.. i get sooo bored and I just wanna quit. Trial and error is more fun and even if i dont learn how the artist did it, I learn something new I can apply to something else.


  • SVS OG

    @Elinore-Eaton great advice! I sometimes lose track of what exactly I am trying to do as everything falls into the bucket of ‘improving my skills’ . Good reminder. 🙂 thank you


  • SVS OG

    @Aleksey true - trail and error can be fun when I don’t get too frustrated with my lack of progress. 😬😂 sometimes I need to give the perfectionist within a good smack 😐.



  • @MissMushy haha yes, i learned a long time ago that I learn more from failing than succeeding.


  • SVS OG

    One of my fave illustrators for look feel and humourous approach is Peter de Seve. Found this YouTube lecture breaking down his approach that I found really helpful.
    https://youtu.be/RQm28YnT2wQ



  • @MissMushy eeek thank you for posting this! I love his work too (me, you and a million others....ok more than that lol). thanks!



  • @MissMushy ANytime! GL on your masters adventures!


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