There are many ways to improve one's technique and one of the most effective way is to make copies at the museum. The first time I saw this phenomena was at the Louvre itself with many artists. At the time I was a beginning artist myself and admired the students replicating old masters techniques. The most striking artist I met there at the Louvre was not a student. He was 80 years old and he was painting his 117s Mona Lisa! The one he was reproducing was for the Japan embassy in Paris. I spent several days watching him paint and asking him many questions and taking notes on his technique. As I mentioned he was 80 years old and he was complaining about his doctor who forbade him to drink coffee and smoke cigars_his only little pleasures...
He painted fast with a medium size round kolinsky type brush, something which shocked me since I rarely used rounds myself at the time and he looked like he was painting with a child's brush. The result, however was striking and just great. He showed me his portfolio later on and he was so much into Leonardo Da Vinci that he painted himself as the master, a look alike portrait of himself as Leonardo painted himself.
However, I came out of this experience determined to go to a museum and paint on location. At the time I lived in Los angles and therefore I applied for a permit at the L.A. county museum and painted a couple pieces, there a Bourguereau and a Rubens.
Here they are:
My first one:
Copy of William Bourguereau: Innocence 2
executed at the L.A. County Museum
My second one:
Copy of Peter Paul Rubens: The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth, St. John, and a Dove
executed at the L.A. County Museum
When I was copying the Rubens I attracted quite a crowd of admirers to the point where it was difficult to work or even breath depending on the time of the day.
When I was doing the under painting in Sepia tones and whites, a british man started to talk to me. It appeared that he was one of the curators at the National Gallery of london and had quite a knowledge of the techniques of the old masters. He let me know that Rubens did not use an underpainting, but mostly painted colors directly with his particular own style. That lead me to research his technique with intensity. I'll now show you an unfinished Rubens painting:
As you can see this is not a finished product. Look at the leg of the roman soldier on the right.
And the one with his back to us. You can see the sketch outlined in brown and a bit of shadows and white light. I would not really call this an underpainting, but more like the putting down of the sketch, because in order for an underpainting to be effective it needs to be way more finished than this. Now notice how the flesh tones are added, practically muscle by muscle:
When I did my copy, I did not know about this, but that was fortunate, since Van Dick himself, one of the best pupil of Rubens, could not imitate this technique.
However, I studied this painting carefully and copied it several times. So doing, I learned so much about technique, anatomy, color, modeling.
A few years later, when I lived in Arlington for a few months for my husband's business, I had the opportunity to make a copy at the National Gallery of Art of Washington D.C.
Here is the painting I copied there:
My third one:
Copy of Boucher at the National Gallery of Art of Washington D.C, "The love letter".
For this copy I was only allowed 3 afternoons. I already had 3 young children and hired a baby sitter in the middle of my very busy schedule. It therefore was a race with time. But again I learned so much with this piece, especially about contrast, (My work was never contrasted enough) and about the balance between dark and light, and as you can see here the top and most sides of the picture are in darkness allowing brilliant light to shine and focus on the figures.
I did paint more copies of old masters over the years but from prints, which does not have the same impact. to copy paintings at the museum is fun, challenging and very rewarding for the art student.