Richard Schmid: The Power of Simplicity in Portrait Paintings

The following is an excerpt from The Artist’s Magazine (April 2001), in a feature article by Greg Schaber.

Portrait painting is about taking complexity and making it simple,” Richard Schmid says. “A real professional breaks things down into stages and sets up ways to simplify the enormous amount of information to be found in a person’s face.”

oil portrait painting by Richard Schmid

Vada (oil, 12×20) by Richard Schmid

To hone these skills, Schmid developed an approach built on quick oil sketches–which he considers finished works–completed in three hours or less. His accuracy begins in identifying a simple, easy-to-see shape, putting it down, then moving on to the next easy shape and re-creating it at the proper distance from the first. “My philosophy is to get the most important thing first,” he says. “If you get those first things correct, and you make subsequent mistakes in adjacent areas, these mistakes show up immediately because you’re judging them against something that you know is right. But if what you put down initially is only approximate, or even wrong, then even if you put down something right subsequently, you wouldn’t know it.”

Portrait of Kristy, oil painting by Richard Schmid

Portrait of Kristy (oil, 20×16) by Richard Schmid

His first task is getting the likeness–the exact dimensions, proportions and relationships–in all the little shapes of color. “It has to be unmistakably the person who’s sitting for me,” he says. “If I don’t get that, I’ve failed in the drawing. And often, I don’t have to put down much information to capture the model. If that happens, it’s unnecessary to take the picture out to the edge, put in their shirt and their tie and their hat–sometimes I don’t even have to paint their entire face.”

Schmid’s second goal, which is bound inextricably to the first, is to capture the look his sitter is projecting. “In the course of a session, it can range from alertness to fatigue or anxiety–all the range of human emotions. In some portraits, the change is so subtle that you’re capturing more than one thing at a time. For instance, I usually like to go for the eyes and the nose at an early stage. And they may be at a certain state at that point, then when I get down to the mouth, they’re at a different point, so there may be a little ambiguity in the face. But that’s OK.”

It’s no accident that Schmid arrived at his sketching approach while working with paid models. “These aren’t commissioned portraits to make the sitter happy,” he says. “It’s to enlighten myself and have a good time at it. I’m after what the person looks like, and it’s not always flattering. I’m not idealizing the person or trying to make them look good.”

To simplify the task of measuring and comparing, Schmid usually works life-size. “That makes measuring easy because you don’t have to make any proportional adjustments,” he says. “You can actually go up and measure your subject with a ruler. I’ve actually done that. You only have to do it a couple times before you can estimate from a distance.”

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