A good reference book I've been reading recently is 'Imaginative Realism' by James Gurney.
He is a great example of an artist whose success is based on the study of master painters (he has an entire chapter on this subject).
A popular attitude today (that I came across a LOT at art college) is to discover new ways of interpreting themes and imagery by looking forward. It's seen as a weakness to look back and learn from the masters. Yet a step back will often result in a leap forward!
In my work I often experiment with techniques used by previous artists. I then adapt the technique to suit my needs and incorporate them along with many other processes. The effect is a mongrel of techniques creating a new pedigree result!
Although it sounds straight forward some techniques aren't always successful. Mainly because they don't suit my style of painting.
Tony Smibert is another example of a painter who has spent majority of his painting career studying 19th century watercolourists - mainly J. W. Turner. His resulting paintings don't look at all like Turner's but carries the essence of the master's work.