The 100-day project
Updated: Mar 31
The 100-day project is a global art project. Every year, thousands of people from around the world take part. The idea is simple: you choose a creative project and do it every single day for 100 days. You can share your work on social using the hashtag #The100DayProject, but you don't have to.
I was still fired up from the Strada Easel Challenge, where you paint or draw from life every day for the whole of January. When that finished, I fell into a bit of a slump. It was time for a new challenge! But what subject to choose? I considered carrying on with plein air painting, but I didn't think I would really have time to do that every day. In the end, I decided to paint 100 watercolour portraits, and to spend around 30 minutes on each. That felt doable, even on busy days, and had the advantage that I would never run out of subjects.
My goal for the project was to improve my observation skills. Portraiture is possibly the most demanding subject - our brains are so finely attuned to faces that we can instantly tell when something is a bit off. You don't have that problem when you're painting a tree! My hope is that, at the end of the 100 days, I'll feel able to ask someone to sit for me for 30 minutes and not turn into a nervous wreck, because I will have developed a process that will carry me.
I'm now almost halfway through my project, and this is what I've learnt so far:
It is easier to do something difficult every day, than it is to do something difficult every now and then. I think that's because it eliminates the element of choice. Sometimes, deciding whether to do something or not is harder than actually doing it.
Routine is key. I have a day job, and it often feels that this job gets all my energy, and art gets whatever is left at the end of the day - which often isn't much. I decided to flip this on its head and paint first thing in the morning, before I open my work emails. That works well for me. I don't always manage to complete the painting before work needs my attention, but once I've started, I feel compelled to go back to it, and it never feels like a chore. I might just spend 10 minutes between Zoom calls here and there - the beauty of remote working!
It's actually a good idea to build in breaks and not complete the painting in one go. Breaks give the paper a chance to dry properly between layers, and they give me a bit of distance from the painting. That makes it easier to spot mistakes and reduces the risk of overworking.
It really helps to have a plan, so that when I sit down to paint, I'm not casting around for ideas. I set myself a weekly theme - like self portraits, or master copies, or painting characters from a film - and gather all the reference photos I need on the weekend.
For portraits, good drawing is essential, and it's the hardest bit. I usually spend a lot more time on drawing than on painting.
I've become more aware of my personal biases - the traps I keep falling into, like placing the eyes too high on the head. I've developed a little trick to check whether I've got the drawing right, if I'm working from a photo. I do a freehand drawing first. Then I place tracing paper on the drawing and trace it through. Next, I place the tracing on the computer screen and adjust the size of the photo so that it matches the drawing. If I notice mistakes, I go back to my drawing and correct it.
However (and despite what I've just said!), it's not a good idea to copy a photo too closely. Simply tracing it through may seem like a handy shortcut, but it has two major drawbacks. Firstly, it avoids the part of the process I find the hardest - and that's precisely the bit I need to practice. And secondly, it doesn't make allowance for lens distortion. This particularly seems to be an issue with photos taken on a smartphone, and especially if they are taken from close up or where the head is at an angle to the camera - if you copy those measurements too slavishly, the painting will look completely wrong!
I think you learn more from doing lots of short paintings, than from working on one painting for a long time. I can sometimes turn a terrible painting into something okay if I put lots of work into it. But I can never turn it into something good. The good ones were always good from the start, they just didn't get ruined in the process.
Because I have so much time to spend on the topic I've chosen, I don't have to whittle down my ideas, like I normally would. I get to try them all, and sometimes those that I'm less enthusiastic about turn out to be the best ones.
Making master copies was a really useful exercise. The main thing I learnt was not to worry too much about skin tones - these artists focus more on tone than hue, and it works. Some even use black! A limited palette of just two or three colours is a good idea. The evidence of good drawing is everywhere in these paintings. It's clear that these artists have observed really hard where it matters, for example by catching the tiny highlight on the lower eyelid, but painted loosely where it doesn't - like the hair, clothes, or shadow areas. Even the really "wild" paintings are not wild at all when it comes to the placement of the features.
Oh, and as regards social media - I don't feel like posting my work every day. When I did that for the Strada Easel Challenge, it felt quite limiting and made me less willing to experiment and make mistakes. So now I just post a reel where I flick through the paintings I've done that week. You can watch them here.