Painting from life lessons

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In December, I registered for Strada Easel Company’s 31-Day Challenge: to paint from life every day in January, and post each painting on Facebook for a chance to win a Strada easel. 

Winning an easel is great motivation, but knowing from my 2013 experience how educational daily paintings are, I was excited to dive into the challenge.

It started out great; I had lots of time in the studio the first week and was really learning. Immersing yourself daily in quick, non-outcome-oriented projects reawakens the fundamental process. I’m talking painting, but this applies to any artistic or creative endeavor you enjoy. Because you don’t expect a masterpiece, daily exercises allow you permission and time to focus on one aspect of your methods. Artist Bryan Mark Taylor, who designed the Strada Easel, refers to this as “deliberate practice.”

Instead of replicating the landscape or still life in front of you,  you might concentrate on shadow colors, edges, values or color temperature. Approached in this way, daily paintings can build our skills in individual areas.

Daily paintings can also become drudgery. Had this challenge taken place in May, I could have painted myriad landscapes within a couple miles of home, but being that it’s only risen above freezing a few times this January, I had to get creative in finding still life subjects. Online posts of my paintings reflected my lack of time and attention in weeks two and three, as I made several trips to Montana after my grandma’s stroke, passing and funeral. My heart wasn’t in the challenge, but because I’d signed up for it and I’m not a quitter, I kept painting daily. And that was good, as painting is therapeutic; like exercise, we might not always want to do it, but we feel better when we do.

Posting the less-than-mediocre daily paintings was good for my humility as well. We benefit from seeing that not everything an artist produces is gold — some are real stinkers! Sharing our mishaps demonstrates that it’s not particularly talent, but a combination of work, practice and (depending on your belief system) luck or divine intervention when something works out. Even painting my gawking 50-cent plaster cast knock-off of Michelangelo’s David — which I rendered so much more terribly that I disguised him with Groucho Marx’s nose and glasses, making him look like Woody Allen — taught me something, and more importantly, showed my followers that art is adaptable. Like people, art can begin going one direction and end up disfigured but “happily-ever-after-ing” somewhere completely different.

It’s hard to explain, but this painting challenge brought the act of sketching back into my life. It’s strange coming from someone who’s immersed in art, but when I started painting full-time, I quit carrying a sketchbook with me except for long trips. This challenge inspired me to start observing and sketching my everyday surroundings again. Drawing is fundamental, and if I don’t practice and develop that skill, my paintings suffer.  A sketchbook is like a diary; I love looking back at the places I made time to record and times I would have forgotten had I not made a quick sketch. I also took my homemade pochade box (a little painting sketch kit) out of retirement and painted from my car.

I’m happy I stuck with the daily painting challenge. Many of the paintings will be painted over if I didn’t wipe them out before they dried. I’ll keep a few as reminders of something I learned or enjoyed. As January draws to a close, I realize it’s less about winning an easel and more about how the time studying the light, colors and shadows in quick little studies helps me later on with the big, involved paintings. It’s about committing to my own growth as an artist, and applying parts of those lessons to my growth as a person. I might even continue the practice on my own in February.


Sonja Caywood

Guest columnist

By |February 9th, 2017|

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