A milkmaid bathed in light, dust on a Duchamp and Ophelia drowning … leading artists, from Tacita Dean to Rachel Whiteread, decode the masterpiece that most inspires them
Chuck Close on Johannes Vermeer
Ever since I was a student, my favourite artist has been Johannes Vermeer. I understand, or can intuit, how every painting ever made, from the Lascaux caves to today's most cutting-edge work, was painted. Information about a piece's creation – touch, hand, process, technique – is embedded in the paint, like a Hansel and Gretel trail.
Vermeer, however, is the only artist whose paintings I cannot readily deconstruct. Other than the fact that they were all made with a camera-obscura-like contrivance, they remain impenetrable. The paint appears to have been blown on by divine breath. Neither opaque nor translucent, it does not seem to function as a film of pigment, but as light itself.
While most people only notice the subject matter and marvel at the verisimilitude, time spent with a painting like The Milkmaid, painted in the 1650s, is time spent communing with an image so sublime that it transcends its physical reality (mere paint on a panel) and becomes an apparition worthy of creation by the gods. Such sophisticated and remarkable paint handling – all for a plain and ordinary-looking Dutchwoman with sleeves rolled up revealing a farmer's tan. The foodstuffs that surround her are so naturalistic, a passing fly might try to land on them, while the pail and the basket that hang on the wall are, in terms of perspective, perfect.
On the floor rests a foot-warmer which, despite the abundant light flooding through the window, speaks to the unmistakable chill in the air. Chips of plaster are missing from the rough and cruddy surface of the wall, which is much in need of a paint job.
So much information and compressed energy is packed into such a small painting. Inch for inch, The Milkmaid is one of the most remarkable achievements in art.
Tacita Dean on Paul Nash
A while back, I woke earlier than usual and sat on my balcony looking hard at a book of Paul Nash's paintings. I tried to pin down what it was about them I found so compelling. After an hour or so, I was overcome by a wistful longing – a desire to return to the places in his pictures, as if I actually knew them myself.
Place is about biography. It is more amorphous and less comprehensible than we suppose. Nash makes place not by verisimilitude, but by summoning up totemic symbols, motifs and spirit. His is an unconscious depiction borne out of a creative process. At its heart is an exploration of both English surrealism and the English landscape: looking and finding ancient animism in the rocks, trees and hills of an old land.
This is where I go to in his paintings: a half-remembered or half-imagined place that I can share with him – a warm cornfield on the edge of a disused country estate, a chalk scar disfiguring a hill, the humus, fungi and dead leaves on the floor of a damp copse.
I will always love his Event on the Downs (1934). A tree stump sits by a tennis ball in the foreground, a forked track divides the middle ground, and the chalk downs fill the background. A cloud-as-flint or a flint-as-cloud hovers nowhere in an impasto sky. The relationships between the inhabitants or personages in Nash's paintings, whether organic or inorganic, are always unsettling, out of scale, odd. He often leaves canvas bare, appearing not to be an artist who loves the stuff of paint. Instead, he fills in anxiously. The ungainliness of his pictures, although slight, is part of their attraction.
Rachel Whiteread on Piero della Francesca
The Baptism of Christ, painted by Piero della Francesca in the 1450s, is one of the few paintings I can conjure up in my mind's eye. I first saw it at the National Gallery in London when I was nine or 10. I remember seeing it again as a teenager, and later during my first year at Brighton College. Then a boyfriend took me to see his favourite painting: it happened to be this one.
I see a quiet symmetry in it, which is one of the things that makes it feel like a silent painting. By symmetry, I mean the way Piero has constructed four "pillars" across the canvas. There are the angels on the left, the tree, the figure of Jesus, and then the partially clothed figure in the background. Together they give sculptural and vertical strength – almost like a building. To emphasise this verticality, the blue cords on the robes of the garments, about a third of the way up the painting, hold the image together horizontally. This is what draws me in.
The architectural quality appeals to me. When I was making Ghost – a cast of an entire room, stripped down to its bare architecture – I had a postcard of this on the wall of the room I was casting.
Cornelia Parker on Man Ray
I didn't really know what I was looking at when I first came across Man Ray's Dust Breeding, his photograph of a work by Marcel Duchamp called Large Glass. It looked like an aerial photograph, or a view through a microscope. Taken in 1920, it seemed a truly ambiguous image – abstract, yet at the same time an accurate record. It was only later, when I'd read more, that I appreciated how Duchamp deified neglect: he thought allowing dust to settle could be a valid process in the making of art.
The Large Glass, which took Duchamp about eight years to complete, was a work-in-progress when Man Ray took this. As the dust gathered, it was silently recording the time Duchamp took to process his ideas. Duchamp allowed this long pause to become part of the final work – fixing some of the dust to the surface with varnish so that it looked like stained glass.
In 1997, I made a pair of earplugs from dust collected in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral; and in 2001, I made a homage to this photograph, called Dust Breeding (On Judd). The Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum in Texas founded by the sculptor Donald Judd, asked me to create a print. I asked them to clean Judd's 100 stainless steel sculptures, housed in an aircraft hangar there, and send me the dust. When magnified, it was teeming, made up of particles of sand and cacti that had blown in from the desert, wasps, and the legs of other insects. Dust, in the end, settles on everything.
Ed Ruscha on John Everett Millais
I first saw John Everett Millais's Ophelia when I came to the UK in 1961 and was struck by its originality. I guess I had a fondness for all sorts of pre-Raphaelite images back then. The feeling passed, but the nature of this painting stayed with me.
At first, I didn't delve into its story and symbolism. I viewed it strictly as a picture, how it was composed and so on. But later I learned that it had been analysed by so many people. Every blade of grass and each plant has been botanically identified, and someone has found almost exactly where Millais set up his easel. Some believe there is a skull hidden just to the left of the forget-me-nots on the right.
The painting became a trigger in my art, an inspiration. You look down on her from an oblique angle, so the painting is an aerial view; the diagonal of her body in the water is an aspect my work echoes. My study of art is ordered on that thinking: that you look at something almost as if it were a tabletop arrangement. I regard a lot of my paintings and even my photographs as the offspring of this painting.
Ophelia is in the grand tradition of English painting, and its story goes back to Shakespeare; my work goes back to 1968 and, you could say, is the culmination of commercial America. But pictorially they are connected, like brother and sister. Each time I come to London, I feel obliged see it. In some ways, I feel I am looking at myself.
• This is an edited extract from In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists, ed Simon Grant, Thames & Hudson. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop here