During my drawing lessons in Amsterdam, I've tried to always asks students to visit museums on a regular basis and find art heroes that inspire them.
As a case in point, I recently got back from a short trip to South Carolina and I found a new art hero that I knew little about. It was a large painting exhibition of Robert Henri, an American realist who worked mainly in portraiture and traveled through Europe, creating portraits of characters he considered interesting. The exhibition was in the Jepson Museum of Savannah, and focused on the paintings and drawings that Henri created during his time in Spain.
Little did I know I was in for an unexpected treat. Henri turned out to be a portrait artist in the stature, and in fact very close in style to John Singer Sargent. Bravura brushwork on the garments combined with impeccable drawing skills, and spectacular treatment of each character. Many of his pieces were surprising in how much he captured the sitter without having to ad much rendition to the features in the face. A few correctly placed brushstrokes did the whole trick. It was probably the first time I saw such simplicity and excellence at the same time.
This is something I try to emphasize during my drawing lessons in Amsterdam. Not so much the simplicity and excellent part (well, that too) but the idea of visiting museums and having art heroes. Art heroes are usually the way many of us get started into the artistic adventure in the first place. We see a relative, a friend or a famous artist and their work makes us want to give it a try.
Funny enough, once we start, we sometimes try to wing it on our own so as not to have our style cramped. There is this myth going around that copying, imitating and emulating are wrong when trying to draw and paing.
If we compared this to learning how to write a novel, it would be the equivalent to try to saying you can become a great novelist without reading and studying Shakespeare and Cervantes. You would be likely to write something terrible and worst and peculiar at best. If you were very very lucky, you would write something good, but that would be your worse scenario, because you would be at a loss to tell what it was that made it good.
Studying our art heroes inspire us to reach the level they reached. Their handling of drawing, color, composition, brushwork. These are people who have spent a lifetime solving previously unsolved artistic problems, and all we have to do is look at their work to learn how. No point facing the vast artistic world on our own and trying to re-invent the wheel.
The second thing that we get from studying great painters, is to create depth and breadth to our knowledge and taste. In his book 'Steal like an Artist', Austin Kleon suggests that the process of becoming creative is in fact a process of selecting from a large and excellent number of things we like and then create based on that mix while adding our own interpretation. In that sense, no painting is ever totally original, even if the creator thinks so.
Incidentally, visiting museums and seeing amazing works is not even a chore. If you are really interested in learning art, and you love art, this would be the best part of your day. What is a bit more difficult is to learn to analyze what is that makes a work good. To learn and describe it in the terms of the visual language and to decide for yourself what drawings or paintings seem interesting to you and which you will choose to "ignore" regardless whether they are nice or not.
Know the greats, study them deeply. If there is no technical manual of how they did things, create your own, find the largest .jpg image or poster you can get of their work and analyze it, copy it and describe it in detail.
You will learn greatly from it!