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10 Painting Myths Dispelled

Image courtesy of Martin L

I was recently lucky enough to receive a copy of Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting for my birthday, and I can safely say it’s the best instructional book on oil painting (and painting in general) I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

As well as providing a detailed insight into the techniques and theories of an experienced oil painter, the book also helps dispel some commonly held beliefs about painting. You’ve probably heard some of these myths yourself:

1. Great Artists are Born With Talent

“Talent. Don’t bother about whether or not you have it. Just assume that you do, and then forget about it.”

~ Richard Schmid

Anyone can learn to paint. Seriously! While artistic ability may be determined to some degree by genetics , it is by no means the only factor. There are dozens of other things that must all be present in the right combination, including (among many others) perseverance, dedication, good teaching, hard work, and a certain degree of luck!

With the right combination of these things, even someone with little “natural artistic talent” can become an accomplished artist.

2. You Should Never Copy Another Artist’s Work

Studying the work of other great artists by copying their work and learning from their knowledge is how we become better artists ourselves.

All great artists have ‘stolen‘ the ideas of great artists before them. There is no shame in copying the work of a competent artist, as long as you are learning from their knowledge, rather than blindly imitating or passing of other people’s work as your own.

3. Painting is Easy When You Know How

Although skilful artists may make it look easy, painting well will always be a challenge, because as our painting improves, so too do the standards we set for ourselves.

Painting is a lifelong learning experience, so the more skilful you become, the more demanding your painting challenges become, so if anything, you could say that painting gets more difficult the better you get at it.

4. Sometimes a Painting Just Doesn’t Work

Artists often complain that their painting just isn’t working, doesn’t feel right, or lacks a certain feeling. The fact is, a painting doesn’t paint itself, so if it’s not turning out how you intended, you can always find the problem in one of three areas – the subject, the circumstances, or something you are doing wrong (contrary to poular belief, it is not usually colour, but drawing that causes the most problems).

By following a process of elimination in these areas, it is usually possible to isolate the cause of the problem and fix it. Blaming the painting itself is a real cop-out.

5. People Are More Difficult to Paint Than Other Subjects

While it’s true that artists often find it more challenging to paint portraits than other subjects such as still lifes or landscapes, there is nothing inherently more difficult about painting portraits than anything else.

When we paint, we should not really be thinking about painting objects, trees, faces, fruit etc. What we are really painting is the effect that light has on various surfaces, so we really only need to learn to paint one thing – light.

6. Colour follows certain unbreakable laws

While there are rules of thumb concerning that can be helpful under some circumstances, there are always exceptions to the rule that you need to watch out for. For example, it is often said that when painting landscapes, warm colours “advance” toward the viewer, and cool colours “recede” away, but the fact is that sometimes colours can appear warmer with distance, so you always need to look out for the exceptions to these ‘rules’.

7. You can’t learn to master colour, you either get it or you don’t

There is often an air of mystery around colour, like there is some secret to it that only the chosen few know about. This is of course false, colour can be mastered like any other skill, all it takes is dedication and practice.

8. Red is a warm colour, blue is a cool colour

In fact, the temperature of any colour is always relative to the surrounding colours. For example, as Schmid points out, green may seem cool compared to red, but it can look warm when placed next to blue. Whenever a new colour is introduced, it alters the relative temperature of all surrounding colours.

9. Colour harmony means a pleasing set of colours

Colour harmony in painting has nothing at all to do with how pleasant the colours appear to you. Colour harmony is merely a ‘relationship that unites colours’, created by the light source in any scene. Nature, therefore, always displays perfect colour harmony, whether you like it or not. If you paint the colours exactly as you see them, you will achieve colour harmony.

10. Adding white to a colour simply creates a lighter version of the same colour

White is the coolest colour available, so adding white paint to any other colour not only lightens it, but also makes it cooler, essentially changing its colour. You need to look out for this and compensate by mixing with warmer colours.

A must-read if you’re serious about learning to paint

Note: I’m not getting paid to promote this book, and I don’t earn any commission for recommending it, I simply believe that if you want to learn how to be a better painter, you need to read this book. You can buy the book from Richard’s own website.

Let me know in the comments if you learned anything new from this post, or if you’ve read Richard’s book yourself, and what you thought of it.

15 Comments on 10 Painting Myths Dispelled

  1. Carolyn King says:

    Dan…..So many thanks for what you do here on this blog! I am thrilled to read these posts and will definately look into buying this book. I am a ‘teaching-artist’ in the States and have pretty much
    devoted 30+ years to learning about, practicing and teaching others about art-making skills. I found the ten things listed here to be TOTALLY RIGHT-ON!!! Thanks again…. Carolyn

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  3. All good, except for the one about portraits. An individual, unlike a tree or a mountain, is capable of thousands of subtle expressions and very difficult to capture exactly. Unless you’re only going for an approximate likeness, this is by far the most demanding task in painting. Take a look at the recent portrait of Mayor Guilliani and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Thanks Gerald. I agree, portraits are very demanding, but in theory, there’s no reason why they should be more difficult than painting an accurate still life for example. It’s our minds and preconceptions that tend to get in the way, as well as our familiarity with the subject matter.

  4. By far my favorite book on painting. I’ve read it several times and every time I learn so much. Just wish he was still teaching. Id love to do a workshop with him!!! Amazing painter, amazing insights!!!

  5. Great highlights Dan, I’m just reading Alla Prima now after managing to get a copy and I have to say it’s revolutionizing the way I think about painting. I’m just in the process of writing a review blurp for the 1st half of the book. I can see myself rereading it many times, truly is the Painters Bible.

  6. Regarding Schmid’s book how much practical information is in it? I don’t need to read a book full of his paintings. I can find those on Google Images. Does he offer a lot of exercises beyond creating a color chart? Is what he has to say about painting really all that earth-shaking and ‘different’ than what is in the countless other books out there? His book costs A LOT, so I want to be sure I’m wise with my money. Great blog and I appreciate this article you created.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Hi Thomas. There are not really many exercises in there, it’s more a book about his approach to painting – how he thinks about composition, edges, colour etc. It’s certainly not a ‘how to paint’ book, more of an insight into the mind of a great painter. Whether it’s worth the money or not is a matter of opinion and probably depends on what you hope to get out of it.

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