Thursday, November 7, 2013

Master Copy: Richard Schmid

Some experiences are so powerful, they have a way of changing your life in more ways than you can count. For me, being introduced to the work and legacy of Richard Schmid was one of those experiences.

Ten years ago, as a pimple-faced college freshman, I went on a field trip with my college painting professor and some fellow art students, to the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The object of our visit: Richard Schmid’s retrospective show and slideshow lecture. I didn’t know anything about Richard or his work, having grown up in rural Wisconsin in a very sheltered home, where our only real exposure to the current art world was watching Bob Ross on PBS (yes, my first paint kit was a Bob Ross set!). But in spite of my naivety, I did know that I felt an irresistible draw to the world of art, and my life would not be complete without it. Still, I had a lot of important choices to make, such as which career to choose (every college student faces this!). I was also torn between art and music, having played classical piano since the age of eight. I was good at it, but drawing and painting were what I really loved.

Seeing Richard’s artwork up close took me to another place. I had never seen anything like it. I always thought that painting meant simply making a pretty picture or copying a photo and impressing your friends with it. But Richard Schmid created figures, still lives, and landscapes that emerged from the canvas and made you want to know more. I wanted to climb into those paintings and feel that grass on my toes, or put those fragrant apple blossoms to my nose, or get to know that intriguing portrait subject on a deeper level. Furthermore, the way he described his wife Nancy, sweetly referring to her as, “My beautiful Nancy,” made me want to meet this woman, also an incredible artist and person. The tenderness with which he spoke, made me realize that both painting itself, and depth of relationship, were the lifeblood of this artist. The world that he shared with me, the viewer, was a world I wanted to be a part of. That’s when I knew that I had found my life’s pursuit, and there was no going back.

Fast forward ten years: I have gotten to know Nancy Guzik, and had the privilege of studying with her at one of her workshops. I’ve taken thousands of mental notes from her and others, and applied them to my work as best I can. I’ve struggled to break bad habits and challenge myself with something new each time I stand at my easel. And I’ve kept Richard’s “Alla Prima” on my nightstand like a Bible.

Last month, I had the incredible privilege of copying a Richard Schmid original. I was very excited to give his suggested techniques a try. Two years ago, or even last year, I would not have been ready for this. But lots of study, trial and error, and hours spent at the easel had finally prepared me for this amazing learning experience and I couldn’t wait to give it a shot.

First of all, I should probably mention why it’s so beneficial to do a master copy. By copying another artist’s work, you get a sense of the way they looked at their subject and translated it to colors and brushstrokes. You see ways that they solved problems differently, and quite often, BETTER, than the way you might have done it. It’s like following in someone’s footsteps and seeing how they made the journey—what shortcuts they took, or which scenic vistas they stopped at or chose to dwell on (i.e. the focal point!). If you can't copy from an original, the next-best-thing is to find some high-resolution images online and work from your computer screen. This will ensure more accurate color, as well as the ability to zoom in on some of the finer details. Some good resources for high-res images include the Art Renewal Center, and Flickr. There is also a great iPad app called Art Authority.    

Anyway, Nancy said Richard had picked out this painting specifically for me. As soon as I saw it, it took my breath away. The subject of this 24x18” portrait is an elderly priest, wearing his vestments and making eye contact with the viewer. His gaze is quite engaging, and shows both depth of character and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age. He has a strong, angular nose, juxtaposed by soft white hair and eyebrows. Technically speaking, the portrait is perfectly placed and well-balanced. I immediately noticed a wonderful harmony of color, especially evident by the “triad” of lime green, found at two points on the vestments, and at one point next to the left eye. There is a single palette knife stroke in the portrait, located along his neckline at the brightest area of the collar (I discovered later, as I was working on it, that it was NOT pure white, but was actually a mix of white and touch of lemon). The seemingly spur-of-the-moment brush strokes at the bottom of the portrait are in fact quite deliberate, working to lead the eye around the painting and provide balance to that magnificent head.

 My canvas happened to be a little bit smaller than the original, so I had to shrink the size down overall. This made for an interesting challenge of making sure my painting matched his in proportion and drawing, but not necessarily in size. I also had to squelch my own natural tendency to “shrink” things down. So as I began, I chose a relative size for the head, which ended up being about three-quarters of the original size.

Nancy gave me some pointers on how Richard started, but since every painting is different based on the subject matter, the lighting, and the colors, I still had a lot of guesswork to do. I didn’t mind though – this is my favorite kind of problem-solving (Give me a math question though and I might complain…). 

I began by matching the tone of the canvas as closely as I could. It looked like a light wash of transparent oxide brown, so that’s what I did. Then I jumped into some of the background brushwork on the right hand side. Richard’s strokes look so effortless and spontaneous, but I quickly discovered that they were very difficult to replicate (and not just because I’m a lefty). It seemed to me that he used a very big brush, with mixtures of transparent oxide red, alizarin, and ultramarine blue. I labored over the background for quite some time before moving into the head. 

Left: This one little brushstroke at the top of the portrait gave me a lot of trouble. What took him one sweep of his brush took me a dozen tries, just to get it to have that “curling ribbon” effect. I still have a lot to learn about technique!
The head was blocked in with a middle value “general” skin tone (I think I ended up using white, transparent oxide red, a little yellow ochre, and cad. orange). From there, I chose a slightly darker and warmer tone to block in the eye sockets and shadow shapes.

Below: Here’s a close-up of Richard’s painting. I immediately latched on to an anchor point on the face: a very dark shadow with a hard edge, along the bridge of the nose. By using this point as reference, I could correctly place the rest of the features. I tried my best to match every brush stroke and every value, as well as the volume of paint on each stroke. Eventually the colors started coming a little easier, but the brushwork still required intense concentration.

When it came to brushwork, I was blown away by how intentional Richard was on every stroke. It was evident that he never “zoned out” or lost focus while he worked, or if he did, he made sure to cover it up!  Also, note the variety. There’s even a finger print on the nose, and some subtle lifting of the paint on the forehead and next to the left eye socket (below that wonderful note of blue). I tried to match all of those things exactly.

Above: Nancy was kind of enough to take some photos of me working on my copy. Here it is about an hour in, with some of the background and head blocked in.

As the work continued, I felt that I could read more of more of this man’s character, from the powerful yet sensitive way that Richard had painted him. He seems resolute and yet pleasant; wise, seasoned, and content. If I made any mistakes in my drawing, they immediately changed the overall expression and personality of this portrait. At one point, my rendition made him look suspicious (Nancy pointed out that darkening the white of his eye would make that go away, and she was absolutely right). At another point, he looked sad. It could change with just the slightest drawing or value error. What responsibility! And yet, what a joy to try and figure out how Richard did it!

The painting sings, it's so harmonious. So bold and confident, yet incredibly sensitive.
I could feel Richard's joy as I was painting this and it seeped into me like a prolonged and steady rain during the course of the five hours or so that I worked on it. In working from the live model, Richard must have delighted in every minute of it. That stroke of blue on the jaw line is like a dash of salt that makes the recipe perfect. Some of the edges on the hair and eyebrows are incredibly soft, like the “rear ends of ducks” (I couldn’t help inserting this comparison from “Alla Prima” – it made me giggle). The brushstrokes in the vestments are awe-inspiring in their variety of color, thickness, and length.  
Below are some more progress photos. As I look at the finished copy (last photo), I realize how many places I was off in my drawing and values, but what matters--more than just getting a perfect copy--is that I learned from the experience.

Occasionally I let out a squeal of delight or started jumping up and down from excitement as I accomplished little victories, or discovered something new. It was so appropriate then, when Nancy put me on the phone with Richard, and the following was (in short) his advice to me:
“You could have more fun. Play with your backgrounds, make beautiful designs and shapes. You don't have to tell what it is; it need not be explained. Just make beautiful shapes.
The most powerful tool you have as an artist is your imagination. Bring out your inner child. Use more harmonious colors throughout the subject and the background. Design your paintings.”

I won’t forget this priceless advice, and I intend to apply it to my very next piece. The wheels are already turning and I can’t wait to see how my work starts to transform, now that I’ve received such generous help from Richard and Nancy. What a gift. Thank you, Richard and Nancy, for allowing me to learn from you!  


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