How Smart Artists Study the Work of Masters

Jun 07, 2023

In my studio and in the rest of my home, I like to hang watercolors painted by artists who inspire me. In fact, you might have noticed them every once and a while in the background of my videos.

One of my favorite paintings is by Joseph Zbukvic. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s a world-renowned watercolor artist from Australia who has won countless awards and is one of the most sought after watercolor instructors. His signature style is evocative, dramatic, and full of emotion, and I was lucky enough to take a workshop with him early on in my watercolor journey. I have drawn inspiration from him ever since. 

5 Lessons Every Watercolor Artist Can Learn from Joseph Zbukvic


Of course, there are countless lessons we can learn from an artist like Joseph Zbukvic. I am certain that every watercolor artist can improve their craft by taking some time to study his career, process, and big ideas in his paintings. However, there are 5 incredibly accessible lessons you can glean from simply studying his body of work.

Follow along as I outline what I think are the most important lessons he imparts to beginner watercolor artists - and even those who have been painting for years. 

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1. Work from the "Bead." 

 Joseph talks a lot about working from what he calls the "bead." What he means by this is work from the wet edge of your painting. Often, he'll work from one end of a painting to the opposite end, working wet-into-wet

Here is an example from one of my paintings. See how I picked up "the bead" that was on the car's tire and expanded it to create the shadow underneath the car? 

2. Paint the Large, Connected Shape 

The wet-into-wet painting process that Zbukvic uses contributes to the large, connected shape that he creates in his paintings.

Scroll up or down to look at some of his paintings. Notice the way that shapes bleed into one another and, though there are individual elements in his watercolor paintings, they all work together in a  unified way.

Here is an example of how I visualize the large, connected shape even as I am drawing. Thinking of the painting in this way helps you think about shapes instead of objects and keeps your painting fresh, focused, and unified.

Want some practice creating a large connected shape? Check out this tutorial:

3. Develop Your Calligraphy.

What Joseph calls "calligraphy" is your brush work, and referring to it this way, I think, really emphasizes the artistry and intricacy that your brush work brings to your watercolor paintings.

Zbukvic makes these rich, staccato brush marks with hard edges and thick paint. They are unmistakably his and are a great example of how varied and dynamic watercolor paintings can be. 

Working on your brush work can make you stand out and help you to refine your individual style as a watercolor artist.

One of the best watercolor subjects on which to practice your brush marks are trees and foliage.  

Want a practice exercise to develop your brush work? Check out this tutorial:

4. Use Opposites to Create a Focal Point.

There is no mistaking the focal point in a Joseph Zbukvic painting. Here I've zoomed in on the most dynamic part of the painting that I have in my studio. What do you notice about it?


What is most apparent to me are the opposites right up against each other: the hard edges and soft edges, lights and the darks, warm and cool colors. Placing these opposite elements up against each other makes this part of the painting pop. It's incredibly dynamic and it's hard to even look away.  

5. Own Your Creative License.

When you get the chance to see Joseph's reference alongside his painting, you'll notice something important: he does not shy away from changing the scene to create a more interesting painting. He moves and eliminates objects, changes the composition and atmosphere, and does not allow the reality to control his creativity.

Remember that you do not owe your reference photo or inspiration anything. You are the artist, and you can arrange and change things as you see fit. The point is not to create a replica of the subject, but to bring out something, highlight something, say something about the original. When you use your creative voice to create a scene, it will be more compelling, more interesting. 

Finding inspiration in an Artist's Body of Work

Perhaps the most inspiring part of studying an artist like Joseph Zbukvic is seeing the depth and breadth in his body of work. If you look at his earlier work compared to his later work, you can see his dedication to his craft, the sheer time and effort he's put into becoming the artist he is today. I find this incredibly motivating, and I encourage all of you to check out his portfolio of work when you need some inspiration. 

  Related Videos:

A Conversation With Watercolor Artist Thomas Schaller

A Conversation With Watercolor Artist Andy Evansen

A Conversation With Watercolor Artist Tim Wilmot

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