Richard Schmid | Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting

By Richard Schmid

Study of a Young Girl, oil, 20 x 17., painting, southwest art.
Study of a Young Girl, oil, 20 x 17.

I have been a painter for my entire adult life. In all of that time I have never been able to ignore the wonders that are possible in painting. The astonishing thing to me is how certain individuals could even conceive of anything as beautiful as some of their works or how you and I could have the capacity to respond to them.

I have pursued this question relentlessly over the years, and I am still consumed with the mystery of what makes such magic possible. In my younger days, I learned what many serious thinkers thought about Art, and for a while I even believed that I knew what it was. Inevitably it dawned on me that I could probably not rationally understand Art itself.

I know that perhaps it is best left a mystery lest it lose its flavor, but as the matter stands, I am not wholly resigned to being in the dark forever. There is something in me that wants to keep picking away at the question of Art, because it still amazes me that I cannot clearly define this thing that has so dominated my life. To me, conundrums like this are like windmills were to Don Quixote. So, though I don’t expect to nail it very soon, the question of Art remains wonderfully seductive. It is firmly bound to my identity, my values, my relationships with others, and my idea of what the world is.

Russian Doll, oil, 20 x 30., painting, southwest art.
Russian Doll, oil, 20 x 30.

While I am painting, however, such theoretical ideas rarely surface. I never wonder if my work is important (whatever that means) or if I should be better occupied. Any doubts I may have about the significance of what I am doing are little more than trivial irritations. Marvelous speculations sometimes come rushing to the surface during my sweaty efforts at creation, but they are never about aesthetics or the nature of Art.

Instead, my painting draws me into the thing that captivates me. Sometimes when concentration is intense, my canvas seems to take on an irresistible momentum, unfolding almost as if it had a life of its own, and I become lost in the spectacle of what is occurring. Those are heady moments indeed, times to be savored. They are always a dramatic reminder that skill is only one of the prerequisites—part of the setup to unleash a poetic act—and my painting, with all of its involvement and complica-tion, seems merely a record of the event.

Loveland Gentleman, oil, 16 x 18., painting, southwest art.
Loveland Gentleman, oil, 16 x 18.

Of course, there is more to this business than what happens during painting. In my student days I was introduced to the ideas of Robert Henri [1865-1929], perhaps the most revered and influential of American painters. In his book The Art Spirit [1923 Harper & Row], he made one point over and over again—that Art can be a powerful voice for anything and that artists should be the people who keep track of the unnoticed adventure underlying the routine of daily life. He urged us toward the Socratic maxim know thyself as the starting point. Henri believed that Art was the means to jolt ourselves and others awake to the wonder of being alive in this stupendous universe. Over and over he pleads with us to seek technical excellence so that we may give compelling expression to our thoughts.

Time has not diminished my fascination with his ideas nor those of other heroes of my youth: Whitman, Emer-son, Thoreau, and others. Their collective philosophy flashed as a thrilling verification of the direction in Art that I craved, and though it may sound naive for a man of my age, I still respond to those ideas.

Red Sailboat, oil, 8 x 16., painting, southwest art.
Red Sailboat, oil, 8 x 16.

Subject matter. Many people gravitate toward Art because it is an arena of great freedom—every human activity imaginable is now presented as Art today—but no creative effort can endure unless it touches us in a way we cannot forget. If you wish to do that with your paintings, you must do anything and everything necessary to paint them well.

Awareness and deep response are the beginning of any poetic act, but they are common human experiences—not exclusively artistic—and everyone has them. What sets you apart from the rest of humanity is your ability to give visual form to an idea—the skill to transform it into something more than merely the insight or perception alone. (As Mae West put it: “It ain’t what you say, it’s how you say it.”) Art is the thing that happens in the process of this unique transformation. You must be able to grab your viewer’s attention and hold it while you get your message across.

Hobb Green Breakfast, oil, 10 x 18., painting, southwest art.
Hobb Green Breakfast, oil, 10 x 18.r

If what you choose to paint comes from your heart, and you are skillful enough, it will resonate somehow within someone else. It is absurd to imagine that the magnitude of a work is somehow connected to the accepted importance of its subject (or the artist). The portrait Velázquez did of his manservant surpasses those he did of the Pope or the King of Spain. Degas found his vision in simple ballet students, not prima ballerinas. Monet caught it with lily pads and hay; Toulouse-Lautrec saw angels in prostitutes; Vermeer painted the corner of his room. Rembrandt dignified humanity by painting his own worn face; Bach offered us his beautiful abiding love of God; and uncountable thousands of completely anonymous artists gave us their workaday craftsmanship—things that are now the treasures of antiquity.

Pansies, Oil, 12 x 24., painting, southwest art.
Pansies, Oil, 12 x 24.

Always remember that everything, dear friend, is a miracle, and it is everywhere. Therefore, nothing is out of bounds as subject matter, even the most negative things. That is why the masks of Tragedy and Comedy are symbols of Drama and why Poetry and Music are so bittersweet. The grandest and simplest things contain worlds within worlds. Seeing them is a matter of the right point of view, and your painter’s eye is a special portal to such sights.

Exeter Cottage, Oil, 24 x 40., painting, southwest art.
Exeter Cottage, Oil, 24 x 40.

When choosing your subjects, never worry about greatness or significance or your place in history. Let your subject come from within you and be a simple act of sharing. In a sense, every work you do is a self-portrait because your paintings always reveal more about you than about your subject. Your experience of something, not the something itself, is the true underlying subject of every work you do. Ultimately, that is how your work, or that of any other artist, will be judged. You. You are the sum of your choices. Your job then is to make sure that your ideas about what to paint are not wholly based upon either the acceptable or the taboo but arise instead from what honestly fascinates and stirs you. You may feel vulnerable, but I see no way around that. I assure you it is OK to feel vulnerable it is, after all, the human condition.

In any case, your thoughts (and mine) are just as valid as anyone else’s. Even though you share countless similarities with others, you are unique. No one has your mind or your feelings. They do not notice what you notice and do not have precisely the same sensitivities or fears. No one has the same idea of God as you do. No one longs to embrace life or ponders death and beyond as you do. No one is human in the exact same way you are. Once you understand this, your task is to get in touch with yourself. Find out what moves you, what you believe in, what you truly understand about life, who you are, and what this great experience of being alive means to you. Then put it in your paintings.

Somewhere within all of us there is a wordless center, a part of us that hopes to be immortal in some way, a part that has remained unchanged since we were children, the source of our strength and compassion. This faint confluence of the tangible and the spiritual is where Art comes from. It has no known limits, and once you tap into it you will realize what truly rich choices you have. May each painting you do from that sacred place include an expression of gratitude for the extraordinary privilege of being an artist.

Photos courtesy the artist and Talisman Gallery, Bartlesville, OK, and Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ. To order a copy of the book, contact West Wind Fine Art & Antiques, 800.939.9932.

Featured in June 1998