Alla Prima by The Amazing Richard Schmid

Laura Charles

Illustrator, Artist, & Incurable Doodler

About this time in 2011, I was taking an alla prima landscaping class with an incredible landscape painter and teacher, Paul Kratter, at the Academy of Art University. I was absolutely loving it, but I was still trying to figure out at the time why my MFA advisor was throwing me into all these fine arts classes. My schedule was loaded with drawing, painting, and figure classes. I kept waiting for the animation-specific work to begin. These were all classes in the fine arts department, a few in the illustration department, but they were not like other life drawing classes I had taken at the Cleveland Institute of Art. That figure class I had taken in undergraduate where the instructor had dismissed my attempts at accurate drawing as being too safe? Not having enough emotion, and being too close to reality? That kind of fine art class was nowhere to be found in my schedule. Not that my instructors were going for photo-realism, they still prized mark-making and emotions. But they also wanted accuracy. And if you were going to make an artistic change they wanted you to be able to do it well and to say why you were making the change.

I’ve never been so challenged as I was in the fine arts classes that I took at AAU. You may wonder (like I was at the time) why an animation student was taking so many life drawing and painting classes, and as I found out, animators and illustrators can’t be good at imitating life without studying it. Even more, animators and illustrators continue to study life drawing for the rest of their careers. At studios like Disney and Pixar, life drawing is a regular and essential part of the creative process for a lot of their artists, and personally, I will be studying and improving my life-drawing and imaginative drawing skills for the rest of my life. I struggle with perfectionism so it wasn’t until I was working for my MFA that this knowledge became a joy and an adventure instead of a burden.

When I was in this class a fellow student introduced me to the book, Alla Prima, Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid. When our class ended, even though I had other painting classes with equally amazing teachers, I felt the loss of that book when I was painting by myself, and immediately went out and bought my own copy. There is an Alla Prima II out currently, which I imagine is even better than the version I have, but the volume I will be talking about is his first book, (tenth printing 2009) in the softcover version. Although if I had known how much I was going to be using it, I may have invested in the hardcover edition.

I had never seen a book like Alla Prima. Firstly, this is not a book for beginners. If you have had several years of alla prima painting instruction, this is like having your favorite painting instructor on call. Not that you shouldn’t get this book if you are a beginner, just be prepared to not necessarily follow everything if you are new to oil painting and you purchase it. He doesn’t always explain everything, and it’s not really laid out like a beginners book. That being said, I find this book invaluable. When I am having an issue with a piece, I pull this book out, flip through the pages and find the area that I am struggling with to see what Schmid has to say about the subject and it always knocks some sense into me. Or I can go to pg. 17 which has a really handy list of common issues if I am not sure what the problem is. I also read this book all the way through at least once a year. It refreshes my brain and he book is filled with color plates of his paintings both finished and in progress. His work and mark-making is so inspiring, I am always reminded of something I need to work on, or something I want to try when I go through it. This publication technically has chapters, but somehow it feels more like a letter or a lecture than a book.

The Chapters:

Good Ideas and Free Advice: The handy list of potential problems! Plus other tips and advice.
Direct Painting: A bit of history and how to see what you are painting when you paint from life. This is not what I am usually doing, but it is a useful chapter for when I am doing life studies, and for when I am having lighting issues in my illustrations.
Starting: Ways to start a painting – Schmid covers several ways to start a painting in this chapter – it feels like he has tried every one I ever heard of, and some I never had. I prefer the line and mass block in, which is not his preferred method, mostly because I am almost always working from my head or a combination of references, rather than a real life set up.
Drawing: I have had favorite painting teachers tell me that the most important part of painting is drawing.. I often end up here – drawing is the never-ending struggle.
Values: A favorite chapter. I have a pretty good grasp of value, but the trouble always seems to come when I go from my value studies to my color. This isn’t an uncommon problem for artists, but it is something I am working on.
Edges: This is still something I am figuring out, the balance of sharp to soft edges.
Color & Light: I often rely on my instincts too much, I think I want to try the mixing swatches he recommends in this chapter, which I have never had time for before. I am really looking forward to trying this out.
Composition: Schmid doesn’t spend a lot of time on “the rules” here – the many available guidelines artists have to help create successful compositions. He spends more time on breaking them well, and following your gut. Another reason why I say this book is not for beginners. I occasionally break rules in composition, but I am still working on doing it well. Failing when trying something new is also something I am trying to let myself experience.
Technique: This is an essential chapter on tools and applying paint. I spent far too long ignoring some of the advice in here… right now for example I am focusing on his admonition to “Never skimp on paint”. I have been thinly applying for the last few years, partially from fear, and partially from budget concerns, but I have decided to work smaller for a while and use more paint, and the difference is amazing. I am also working on using my pallet knife more. I’ve never had a teacher really get me to use it, but for Schmid, and for a number of other artists I admire, it is an essential tool.
The Magic: Why do you paint? Why should you paint? This is the magic. It’s one of my favorite feel good pep talks to read this short chapter.

Schmid is focused almost exclusively on plein air painting, and I have to pick and choose the things that his teaching can help me with for my illustration work but for my life studies, his advice is spot on. This is why I continue to study artists like Richard Schmid even though my style is so drastically different from his. From my perspective it doesn’t matter that my shapes are are exaggerated and my environments are fantastical, I still want to create a sense of believability. For that, books like Alla Prima are indispensable.

“…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.”