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. Also, I've heard that you generally get better a lot faster when you are working full time in-house, is that because you are constantly being critiqued and forced to produce more work?
Maybe it's that way at some ideal workplaces, but generally that has not been my experience. The reality of production is that you may become faster and more efficient at applying what you already know, but taking the time to study towards fundamental improvements is not really a scheduled priority. If you're hired somewhere, it is with the expectation that you already have the fundamental skill level you need to execute the work, so you just get on with doing that work.
You might improve over time, but a lot of the time it's the same kind of improvement that daily webcomics go through over the process of years- a reader might say, "oh man this guy's art is so bad, his progress is glacial, why doesn't he just take an art class or something". But progress is slow because doing those comics are a lot of work no matter how skilled you may be, and can leave little time for putting effort explicitly towards study and improvement.
Which is why I asked specifically about what people do for outside practice and not portfolio/production work, trying to make "good pieces"- to make an analogy, I'm asking about a football player's workout routine, rather than what they do in a game.
I look at people that have made a ton of progress and it's people like @ikage , who seem to have an infinite supply of energy to do fundamental study in addition to their day job- a lot of people get a job and stagnate at their current skill level.
I want you to take a closer look at the Gil Elvgren original and take special note of how he's not using lines to carve out the contours of form. Nothing is outlined, it's all carefully controlled values. If one object sits in front of the another, value differences are used to sculpt this relationship out and separate forms, not outline. If a form curves away from the light and becomes shadowed, its outside edge does not suddenly become a strong outline.
I might also add that to take this to a real high level of finish as demonstrated by Elvgren's original, I would suggest trying to varying the softness/hardness of your brushes. You do have a really strong start here, so just a little bit more pushing on it is really going to make it shine.
What's going to ensure that using these soft brushes doesn't yield a bunch of mush, is paying close attention to the edge work. For example, if you look at the rear leg, which has a shadow falling on it: In the ref, I can tell that the edge defining the shadow being cast on that leg is fairly hard, and where the form of the leg is rounding into shadow on the left and right, are much softer. On your study, it's sort of the opposite. Or the wrinkle under the armpit: in the ref, one side of it is defined by a hard edge, and the other it is a soft edge. On yours, both edges are hard. Doesn't seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but these things can have a big effect on how convincing the picture ultimately is.
One easy trick I can give you here is that since the contour of the figure is all defined by hard edges in most Elvgren paintings (and a lot of paintings in general, really), working in Photoshop is a huge advantage. Just start with a solid 100% opaque layer with a shape defining that contour, and lock the transparency on the layer- or use a mask, or use a clipping mask, lots of ways to do this (see step 4 here if none of that made any sense: http://bacon.iseenothing.com/otherpeoplestuff/maleba_pokemon.jpg). Then you don't have to go around forcing in those outlines over and over, just to retain the shape- you can just paint to the edge of the shape.
This may seem like some really finicky stuff, but well- the difference between someone good and someone great a lot of times resides in the willingness to spend the time with this real finicky stuff. Like I said, you've got a real strong start here, so if you go back to it where you're already starting at a place where you don't have to worry about the broad proportional concerns, the broad lighting concerns, the broad color concerns, etc. since you've already tackled those issues, and now can just focus on these subtle edgework issues and spend your time making strides in that one particular area of expertise, is a great place to be.
I probably have the sloppiest-ass drawing of anyone that actually gets paid for art, having to go through a ton of cleanup and modifying to try to get things just in proportion...so whenever I see artists with solid mental previsualization and line control just able to put down the right line the first time and have it look good, it's like Al Pacino yelling at me like I was Kevin Spacey's character in Glengarry Glen Ross.
"Where did you learn your TRAAAAAADE. Who ever TOLD you you could work with men."
If you're going to study with pin-up work, I might suggest doing some master studies of Gil Elvgren's work. I mention this because you have a fairly consistent issue of not articulating out the rounding of the form in your work, making the lighting and solidity of the figure seem vague.
A lot of photography you see is going to make for poor reference for a painting, or hard to learn to draw from, because the photographer may be using a lot of lights and reflectors to intentionally subdue indications of form, for a more 'flattering' look, softening and smoothing out any tendons/muscles/wrinkles etc. that would be perfectly fine on a real human, but might look awkward in a photograph. (See also: models that have been Photoshopped to hell and back).
This is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want when trying to learn how to create a convincing illusion of form through value- where you gain the most benefit (learning-wise and aesthetically) from having clearly defined light sources acting to emphasize the form, rather than flatten it.
I suggest Gil Elvgren's work because his work not only is he sort of the grandmaster of the classic 50's type pinup, but because his lighting setups are generally simple- usually a primary light with possibly a fill or rimlight opposing it. There's no need for him to resort to throwing a ton of lights at his models to try to flatten the form- since they are paintings, he can achieve a flattering look by simplifying or subduing details as he sees fit.
As a result, his work is going to be a lot easier to figure out what's going on form wise- where the highlights/midtones/core shadows/bounce light areas are, how and why he's varying the edges between light and shade, etc.- and this is going to make it a lot easier to actually draw/paint, it's going to make it a lot easier to learn from.
It also can help that working from a painting, you already know the picture works as a painting- a lot of photos just won't ever translate satisfactorily into a painting, without making some real significant changes to make it work. It can be disheartening to spend a ton of time working from a photograph, trying to make it work, only to find it falls down because it wasn't a good reference to work from to begin with.