Module 15 — Reverse Engineering

Other artists’ work can give you clues about the qualities you want to develop in your own work.

A time-honored tradition in painting is to study the work of other artists to try to puzzle out how they achieved a particular effect or quality in their work. This sometimes includes copying, but be careful about how you approach this. To figure out how another artist works—and maybe pick up some new skills—you need to look carefully for clues about how the painting was created, not simply try to mimic the appearance using means you already know.

It may seem simpler to just take a workshop with that artist. And that’s one way to learn. But you don’t always have that option, and if you try to puzzle it out on your own, sometimes you discover a related effect or technique that’s even better suited to your work and becomes uniquely yours. And even if you do someday take that workshop, you’ll learn more from it, having carefully studied the artist’s work. 

Don’t stop with your first impression. For example, if you love someone’s use of color, is it just that the artist uses some of your favorite color combinations, or is each piece carefully engineered to make those favorite colors really shine? Perhaps they are used sparingly in a painting that is otherwise mostly neutral. Or perhaps they are used adjacent to complementary colors to make them pop. 

Module 15 Thinking Prompt—Learning from Paintings

What Qualities Do You Want to Develop?

What are some of the qualities you want to develop more in your work? What are some of the effects you’d like to be able to create? 

Don’t limit yourself things like “paint better trees”. Include more general effects or qualities, such as harmonious color, luminosity, delicacy, boldness, expressive brushwork, etc.

Who are some of the other artists whose work you admire and think you’d like to study? Make a list in your studio notebook and see if you can find examples of their work to study. 

Does their work share similar qualities, or do you admire different artworks or artists for different things? Maybe you like this one’s use of color, but not subject matter; that one’s line work, but not their color palette. Make a list of phrases that capture some of the qualities you’d like to try to enhance in your own work. 

Are there things you admire that have more to do with the overall result (e.g. a sense of mystery) rather than the specific visual qualities? Places where you want the same result but want to get there by different means or a different look? 

Are there things you want to emulate that have to do with how the artist designs, plans, or presents their work? More general things about their lives, way of working, philosophy, etc.?

Caution! You Can’t (and Shouldn’t) Do It All

It’s easy to wish you had the skill to do something; it’s another thing to want it badly enough to be willing to put in the time and effort to acquire it. If you’re struggling to acquire a skill, but you’re spending more time reading books about it, watching demos, or taking workshops and classes than you are actually practicing it, it may be time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Is it really something you want to develop, or simply something you admire and enjoy in the work of others? If you can recognize the difference, you’ll save yourself a lot of aggravation (and time!).

You don’t have to be skilled in every style or technique. Just the ones you need to make your unique art.

Module 15 Activity Prompt—Reverse Engineering

To figure out how another artist achieved a particular effect or quality, try making some guesses and then trying to create effect or quality in a simple study of your own. Start from a previous painting that isn’t too challenging. Or use those pears (or whatever) again.

Work on One Aspect At a Time

Pick ONE aspect of the work of an artist you admire, and try to use that together with your usual way of working to see if you can figure out how that artist is thinking and working. Or pick an effect you admire in another artist’s painting, and do some experiments to figure out how the effect was achieved. 

Or, Emulate the Process Instead of the Appearance

If you know something about how the artist works, you can try picking something about the process to emulate, instead of how the work looks. See if you can understand why the artist works that way. 

Or, Be a New You

Here’s a variation: try painting something in the way you would paint, but if you were some different version of yourself. How would you paint, if you . . . 

  • used mostly bright primary colors
  • started with the paper very wet and kept painting, adding more detail and harder edges as the paper dries
  • started by pouring, stamping, spattering, and running paint everywhere and then painting on top of that
  • drew or painted holding your tools only at the very end (like Monet!)
  • moved your brushes at quarter-speed
  • painted only with a 2-inch flat brush
  • dared to make the silly, childlike shapes you imagine when you dream of being a children’s book illustrator
  • actually were whatever version of artist-you that you’d like to become

Be Daring!

Be bold and maybe go a bit overboard in this exercise to see how it feels. You might discover that what you think is bold turns out to be not much of a departure from your usual, by the time you get done. We all have a tendency to drift back towards what we normally do. And that’s fine. It’s part of what makes your art distinctively yours. If you feel like you haven’t pushed the envelope enough, you can try taking it even father next time. If it’s too much, dial it back.

How Does It Feel?

Pay attention to how it feels to work this way, in addition to (or maybe more than), how it looks. If you enjoy doing it, you’re more likely to put in the effort to actually figure out how to make it look the way you want it to. 

Module 15 Journaling Together Video

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