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  • Writer's pictureEva Juusola

Painting from life every day for a month

I've always been a bit of a Goldilocks artist when it comes to painting from life, and especially painting outdoors. Everything had to be just right - not too cold, wet or windy, not too many people around, no midges, good lighting...

Excuses, excuses. Painting from life is just really hard, and the results often look much worse than paintings done at home from a photo reference.

To push myself, I joined the Strada Easel Challenge. Participating artists paint or draw from life every day throughout January and post their work on Instagram or Facebook. If you get through it without missing a day, you're in with a chance of winning one of five posh easels.

Granted, January isn't the best month for plein air painting. Not just because it's often freezing cold outside, but also because daylight hours are so short. Painting had to compete with other activities for that precious hour of daylight before or after work. My twice-weekly run turned into a weekly run, and I don't think we went on any family walks at all that month. (Not that anyone complained.) I didn't do much printmaking, either.

Having to post each day's work on social media was challenging. On the plus side, the thought that I'd need to have something vaguely presentable at the end of the day spurred me on to try harder, and to keep trying when I wasn't having a good day. But it also made me less willing to experiment and risk failure. A double-edged sword.

(Interestingly, posting every day on Instagram did NOT mean that I suddenly got lots more followers - contrary to what marketing gurus might tell you. Maybe Instagram didn't like the fact that I was taking part in a challenge? It certainly showed my posts to fewer and fewer people as the month wore on.)

In any case, winning an easel or increasing my Instagram following wasn't what motivated me - though either would have been nice! I really just wanted to kick the habit of painting from photo references and get more comfortable with painting from life.

So why paint from life? When I used to go to painting classes, people were quite happily copying photos they had found on the internet. Back then, I thought that was okay. Now, I'm a bit embarrassed about of the paintings I've done from other people's photos. It might be a nice watercolour of a snow scene, but if someone else got up at 6am, braved the icy roads and froze their bits off searching for the perfect composition, then it's not really my work, is it? Apart from the obvious copyright issue, if you want to show or sell your work.

Using my own photos is better, but still not as good as painting from life. First of all, I'm tied to the way I've framed the photo. I find that this makes me less likely to change the composition. When I'm painting from life, I often look around and include things that are outside the frame, like an interesting tree. I might move a hill a little bit to the left, or an animal or a passer-by might wander into the scene and provide a focal point.

Secondly, the human eye just sees colours and tonal values so much more accurately than a camera. When I compare my plein air sketches with photos I've taken of the scene, I'm always struck by how boring the photo looks in comparison. In most cases, I never would have chosen the subject based on the photo alone - because the thing that made the scene special was too subtle for the camera to capture.

And thirdly, being in the scene means you absorb so much additional information through your other senses - the smell of bracken, the breeze on your skin, the sound of rushing water... as well as midges, nosy hikers, biting wind and all sorts of other nuisances! Surely, all that sensory input must influence the painting somehow.

So, here's what I've learnt from taking part in the challenge:

  • Having my painting kit ready packed in a rucksack helps. That means being disciplined about cleaning and replenishing my palette after every trip.

  • Ironically (since this is the Strada Easel Challenge!), I'm not so keen on using an easel. To me, it screams "artist at work" and seems to encourage people to have a look or even attempt a conversation. I'm a shy creature and would much rather blend into the background!

  • A camping stool, on the other hand, is really useful, especially when it's too cold and wet to sit on the ground. (I use one of those small, three-legged ones that weigh next to nothing - the big ones with a backrest and armrests are too heavy, and I feel a bit trapped sitting in them)

  • The more I paint, the more ideas I get for paintings. The ideas really only start to dry up when I've not painted for a few days. I now keep a list of possible painting subjects on my phone.

  • I've become more open-minded about what makes a good subject - I used to disregard anything that felt too familiar and mundane, like scenes inside my house or views that I pass every day on the way to work. I've realised that these actually have something going for them that other subjects don't: I know exactly at what time of day and in which lighting conditions they look their best.

  • The outside temperature is far less important than the windchill factor. I've painted at 0 °C and felt fine, and at 10 °C and got chilled to the bone.

  • It IS possible to paint with gloves on.

  • On really cold days, a hot bath on returning home means I won't spend the rest of the day stuck next to a radiator like some weird lizard, trying to warm up.

  • Taking my glasses off (I'm short-sighted) is a great way of seeing the large tonal shapes in a scene and not getting distracted by detail.

  • Even when conditions are very challenging, you can usually at least START a painting on location. It's much better to quickly block in the composition and a few key colours and finish the painting at home from photo references, than to paint all of it from a photo.

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