Want a Matrix-like artmaking download? Try to discover, if you can, why an artist created as they did.

I’d always loved the paintings of JMW Turner, but when I learned about the young artist’s fascination with Dutch Golden Age maritime painting, I appreciated all the more the transcendent, semi-abstract (and very un-Dutch) light-scapes Turner made later in life. Turner treated the “old masters” as springboards for the spirit – but he needed those masters!

Arguably the first step to “finding your voice” as an artist is finding a Master whose work you’re drawn to. Of course, study the techniques they use to make their work sing. But don’t stop there – how it’s done is important, but it’s only half of what that artist can teach you. Digging deeper than the surface is important too.

Ask yourself why you love an artist’s work as well as admiring the artist’s skill. It’s important for your own creative growth to try to enter into the inner life of the creator, their “motive” for painting how they did (which is where the technical term “motif” comes from). Mentally connecting technique with artistic impulse furthers your resolve to create work that expresses your own.

A ‘pilgrimage of the heart’

Do some serious poking around: watch videos, read online interviews and show reviews. Read the artist’s statement and the website bio. Get in front of the work you love in person (always hard, and harder than ever these days, I know) and just look, think and feel what you feel. Admire the lines, the color, the styling, but also look under the hood, so to speak. Step back and see if you can trace the emotional ideas and thought processes that drove the major creative decisions.

Can you feel what prompted those choices? Treat individual artists’ techniques as welcome signposts on a long journey: “Faith,” said theologian A. J. Heschel, “is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

All artists have always copied and stolen from each other. There’s no shame in copying others’ work as you learn the basics of how it’s done, nor should anyone feel at all icky about incorporating aspects of others’ work into their own.

Just remember, as Matisse suggested, to sense your way into the thoughts and feelings behind the effort as well as understanding the technique necessary to lock in the results that blow you and everybody else away.