William Vaughan in his “[digital] Modeling” book has this to say to those that would ask “How do I make my work look like what the pros are doing?”:
[Use as much reference material as possible and hone your observational skills].
Not exactly what you were expecting, huh? But yes, that is the mind-blowingly simple trade secret of the pros. It’s what separates a hobbyist from a professional. Remember that the sooner you come to the realization that there is no magic “Do My Job” button, the sooner you can start down the road of creating professional CG work.
The biggest problem I see for new artists is a lack of reference and observation. It immediately shows up in their work. Not only is it obvious to me, but most importantly, it’s obvious to those doing the hiring.
And I agree wholeheartedly! You can never have too much of it, so I suggest you get into the habit of collecting good references and store them in a digital morgue file. Using references is a skill and it doesn’t make you inferior, but will only make you a better artist in the long run. The more realism you want to see in your artworks, the more you’ll have to consult references.