HOW TO STUDY THE GREAT MASTERS
What makes one artist different than another, aside from their vision, is how they put the PAINT down on the canvas, or wall, or whatever. It is the PAINT itself, how they use IT, the paint, that makes them so unique.
This is not a minor thing so if you are interested in studying these artists, pay attention.
If you are at the point where you are studying these great artists, if you are serious about it, then you probably already know as much about colour, and tones, and maybe even drawing, as they did, don't sell yourself short. What makes them so great is not that they know more about these than do you, but what they did with what they knew. So, when you study them, you need to realize what I just said; that you probably know as much about how to mix colours, how to get the tonal relationships, and have no backoff on drawing. If you have problems in any of those areas, you can still study the masters, but if you are wise, then you'll make it a point to get these other skills up to where they need to be, otherwise ...
So, when you want to study them, it is not how they used colours, or tones, or drew, that you need to pay attention to, it is how did they handle the paint? It is how they handled the paint that created that image!
The error that most of us do is when we want to study the artist, say Vermeer, Rembrandt, whomever, we tend to look at the image and try to paint the image. You can do that, but it is a long, long road to go about it that way. Since what it is you want to grasp is how they handled the paint, then that is what you need to see, the paint, not the image. If you have the image there in front of you, it is distractive to your purpose of seeing only the paint.
So, the best way by far, hands down the best way, is to get the image out of sight, cover it up with paper or something, then paint it from memory ... ha ... no just kidding. What you do is you DO cover up the image, but have a small hole in the paper so you can see the paint, but is too small to show any of the image.
You look at the painting, decide what area of brush strokes, layering, etc you want to study, and cover up all the rest of the image so what you can see is only that little area left visible by the hole. If you can see any image, any at all, then the hole is too big.
Then, you paint what you see in that hole, you study how the artist layered the paint, the brush activity, and so forth. If you see the image you'll be suckered into trying to get the image right, and you'll suffer and end up with a dead copy at most. So, make sure the image is not there to distract you; paint what you see in the a hole, and if you are not satisfied, do it again and again until you are.
When you are doing this, what your are attempting to learn is how they laid down the paint, so, please, don't go all anal on me and try to make your exercise look exactly as it is in that little hole; even if that artist walked into the door, they could never make a perfect duplication of that little area either, so don't go all weird. When you think you have the hang of it, you're done. Do it several times if you need to, you WILL get it.
So, now find another part of the painting you want to study, cover it all up except for that area, and repeat as above, and keep doing this with other areas until you really have an idea how to proceed with the full image, then remove the paper and unleash your newly discovered joys.
You'll have solved many of the problems in doing the painting if you follow this procedure, but of course other problems will pop up as you do it, but if you do what is advised here, you'll pretty much get what you want, maybe not on the first attempt, but if you do it again, taking what you've learned from the first attempt, success, joy, fortune, the Gods await you ... really!
What follows is to help give you the idea of how to do the above technique.
Here is the painting we are going to use ...
... and what follows are close-ups designed to help you see the paint. Look at them, but don't pay attention to the image, just look at the paint. Ideally, the images should not show any of the ... image ... only the paint, but I kinda blew it by making the images too large. However, they'll give you the idea.