Column: A January painting challenge

I skipped last year’s January Strada Easel painting challenge because January is one of my busy months in the studio.

With Feb. 1 image deadlines for spring museum shows, I often procrastinate until there’s a dramatic time crunch to complete the paintings and email good, high-resolution photos of them by midnight on the last day. It’s wrong to delay, but the “performance under pressure” technique is how I accomplished term papers in school. This article’s due at The Press tomorrow, so I’ll likely never learn. Artists used to have to send glass slides of artwork.

As with everything else, technology makes things much easier, but it also fills our days with meaningless side tasks we wouldn’t be wasting time on if we had to take photos of finished paintings, have the film made into slides and snail mail them to the museum by Feb. 1.

I wrote about the Strada Easel Challenge years ago. Bryan Mark Taylor, renowned artist and founder of the easel company, started a biannual (September and January) challenge for artists (anyone can participate) to draw or paint from life —not photos — for a month and post the work daily on social media with the hashtag #stradaeasel. He draws names from artists who complete the month-long challenge and gives away five of his deluxe Strada easels. Like many things that begin Jan. 1, there’s a dropout rate. Over 1,100 artists from around the world began the challenge, and around 800 remain. I started participating several years ago to win an easel. I continue taking part (except last January) because the practice of doing a quick painting from life daily is so beneficial to my skill development.

Bryan Mark Taylor created the challenge to stress the importance of painting from life rather than from photos. I often have a photo on my iPad airdropped to a TV, where I can zoom in on the shapes of color and the muscular structure of an animal (picture Charlie Russell shaking his head in amazement, and disgust.) Animals stand still on the screen, but even our latest camera technologies flatten surfaces and homogenize nuances of value and color into either bland unity or harsh contrast. I love the ease of seeing a reference photo up close to draw it out. Rather than trying to copy the flatter, “lost” colors or values in a photo, I apply my experience with animals in life. I do sometimes paint en plein air without being forced to, but the challenge of making myself paint from life every day for two months of the year teaches me a lot about light and color and perspective. It improves my studio paintings and makes me a better artist.

Bryan Mark Taylor recommends painting the same thing over and over during the month. It was years before I did that, and finally it was because it saved time spent driving around looking for a subject. The last two Septembers I’ve concentrated on sunflowers outside my studio door. A couple years ago I painted a tiny tin car, adding it to still life scenes until my puppy stole it. This January, I’ve often parked just outside Dayton to paint a stand of willows. The shapes that the hard-crusted, been-here-awhile snow makes on the warm, brown hayfield, and the hopeful orange of the willows against the dark blue Bighorns intrigues me.

Nearing the end of the challenge, I look at this month’s plein air paintings and remember: the days I really didn’t have time to spend; a good radio sermon I listened to as I painted in the car; the day I ran out of white; the day I forgot a smaller paintbrush; the day I forgot my phone to take the photo; but mostly I remember something I learned with each painting. The experience of painting from life gives me practice in seeing and depicting natural light and color that I take back to the studio. Standing at the easel — and looking at a photo on the iPad — as I complete the last of my spring show paintings, I see those quick, Strada Easel Challenge lessons demonstrated in my latest work.