Nicholas Baxter

Notes & Advice 9

“If you wish to make certain your painting will succeed, a minimum of three things must come from you–and only you. The first thing is knowing why you want to paint your subject, the second is an analytical grasp of what you see, and the third is the skill to control the process of painting.”

Richard Schmid

This quote I recently came across, written by a wise and very accomplished alla prima realism painter, got me thinking about the underlying structure that comprises the task of creating art. Schmid divides this structure nicely into 3 primary, foundational elements. This striking simplicity belies the complexity inherent in most forms of art, especially realism, and that simplicity bodes well for artists and laypersons alike–the so-called “uncreative” types, those who mistakenly regard themselves as “not having an artistic bone in my body.”

Here’s my interpretation of Richard Schmid’s quote, expounding on his 3 main tenets and how they (encouragingly) apply to everyone:

  1. “Knowing why you want to paint your subject” refers to concept and theory. In other words, the philosophical side of the craft, the ideas and meaning the artist is working with or wishes to communicate through their work (I’ve written a lot about this here and here, with a future post coming as well). This relates to the study of your own mind, to “knowing thyself” and formulating ideas about life and the world around you. I believe that everyone has ideas about themselves and the world around them, because our living brains naturally and instinctively generate thoughts, and we can always translate those thoughts into words and images.
  2. “An analytical grasp of what you see” refers to active observation: true “seeing” rather than merely “looking.” Seeing is active analyzation of visual information, whereas looking is passive receiving of visual stimuli. And of course, all but the visually impaired can train their minds and eyes to work in concert, to more deeply understand the structures and lighting of the physical world, in order to convincingly reproduce them on paper or canvas.
  3. “The skill to control the process of painting” refers to technique, achieved through practice and repetition, like army boot camp or working out at the gym. Skill and control in painting depend on hand-eye coordination and mastery of materials, i.e. knowing which pigments are transparent or opaque, which mediums to thin your paint with in order to make it do a specific thing, which brushes produce certain effects when combined with specific hand motions, etc. Anyone can train their physical body to remember certain tasks and movements like those involved in painting, even those who don’t consider themselves to be artists. It just depends on one’s level of motivation and available time.