The road to improvement is paved in mirrors.
Over the past few weeks I've gotten the question/comment "what should I study/I never know what to study" a bunch of times.
The past 2 or even 3 years I've been painting nearly every day, but have actually functionally seen very little progress in terms of skill. So what happened?
This has been on my mind for ages now and I'm finally breaking away from it and seeing my faults - so I thought I'd share my advice, my findings and my "secret".
First off, it's all about analysis of your own abilities and conscientious self-reflection. Sounds easy, but it's not. Have you ever met an aspiring artist who has just no idea of their own skill level? They might even get offended at the notion that something might be off.
Cognitive bias is a large part of life, and with art it might be even more prevalent. Look up the Dunning–Kruger effect, for more info. Getting past this is all about honesty towards yourself and total humility (taking a page out of Jaime Mantzel's book on that one).
You have to train yourself (yes, train - it is a skill) to look at your artwork objectively in both broad strokes (eg: anatomy, perspective, composition) but also in small details (eg: "the colour of the skin on the nose of that character is off").
Doing this is basically a catch 22 - since if you knew the colour was off, why wouldn't you just fix it anyway, right? If you "know" your own faults so well then they wouldn't be faults. But great wisdom is in knowing what you don't know.
How do you do that? Context. You put your artwork in context. Not just one context, but many -- for example, you collect and compare all kinds of artwork of artist you want to achieve the "skill level" of and put yours among it. Does it hold up? No? Well, why?
You could also collect artwork that is very similar to the subject matter you tackle for a more honed in context.
Another obvious example is when you do a photo-study. The photo is the context - quite literally, it is the perfect context to see the faults of your painting. That's why its a solid form of studying. You are fed the perfect context on a platter.
For the first 2 years or so of my art-journey, I painted anything and everything and my skill sky-rocketed. The first year was great. The reason being is I knew so little, so anything I did was brand new information.
In the beginning you can cast a big net and learn the large building blocks of art: the fundamentals; present in and essential to almost every piece of art. But as time progresses and your skill progresses, so must the net that you cast shrink.
This is the part where I messed up.
I got stuck in the mindset of "if I paint something every day I'll get good" based only on the fact that that happened the first year. It's not true.
The more your skills develop the more your must reflect on what your weaknesses are and target them specifically with studies. This is a more in depth and complicated way of saying "do art out of your comfort zone."
Because by the time you HAVE a comfort zone, you'll need to start analysing your work and picking studies. This all seems terribly obvious but a reminder can be a great help. When you're in it it can be hard to see.
So today what I did was I broke down art into the big blocks (and some smaller) and I graded myself. This is how I perceive my own skill. In this case, 10 is not "the best ever" but its my own contextual skillset. 10 being my strongest area, 0 my weakest.
Just spending some time figuring this out can be a huge help to your process. There is more than one kind of self portrait you can do. In my case, my drawing skills are far below painting, which has hurt me for a very long time, and is clearly seen in the graph. (the first subjects being more painting oriented, the latter more drawing)
If you still have trouble figuring our your graph (and I encourage you make one yourself), allow me to give you one more insight:
Ever since the beginning I made art and posted or sent it to friends and asked for feedback. Feedback is valuable, of course - everyone knows that. Asking for feedback is what you're supposed to do. So I post online, and sometimes awesome people make the effort to give their input.
Sometimes I applied it, and sometimes I didn't and "took it to the next piece". Good, right? Kinda. But no, not really. You see, when someone gives you feedback, it's important for you to realise they are not critiquing your piece. It's important you realise you. are. your. piece. They are critiquing you. Your skill-set. Not it.
So when someone tells you, "the arm of that guy looks weird", you shouldn't take that as "that arm looks weird, work on that part of the painting it/fix it" - the real value is in that they are saying "You need to work on your anatomy, more specifically arms."
Then you can take that information, add it to your own mental map of your abilities, and get to studying.