30 day painting from life challenge

Updated: Apr 5

The bottom line is I recommend this challenge to anyone who wants to gain more confidence in their painting skills. I've long heard the debate: to paint from photographs, or straight from life? I'll state my bias, I've turned into not a bit of a paint from life snob. Though before this challenge, I would have convinced anyone painting from photos is completely kosher! While I'll be the first to admit the ease of photo painting, I definitely see the benefit of life painting. I'll lay out each one's benefits and drawbacks as I see it.

Painting from photos

It's easier to translate from a 2D photo to a 2D canvas. Most of the decisions have been made for you, by the camera. Values, depth, hardness and softness of edges, overlapping shapes, colors, etc. Also, you don't have to brave the weather, chase the sunlight, or worry about a model who you can't stop wondering whether they need a break. If you're like me, the lack of confidence in painting from life is another big tally for photo painting!

However, here are the cons. Often our eye isn't able to see past the choices made by the camera. We think the edge was that sharp, the contrast was that strong, the colors were that flat. Without ample time spent actually painting from life, our mind doesn't have a vast library of what value, edges, color actually does in real life. Paintings can start to look too high contrast, and unnatural. If you don't mind that, then it's fine! But I'd say you are still missing out on a vastness of color, value, edge, depth, atmosphere and magic that is alive in the subject straight from life.

Painting from Life

I wish the confidence that kicked in around day 9 for every painter who's unsure whether to paint from life. Seriously, if I could shake my wand at you and give you that confidence, I would. But I know if you paint from life for 30 (grueling) days, you too can enjoy the feeling that comes from knowing you can paint nearly anything. (ok that's over confident...I believe some things are not to be painted ie. anything that doesn't light you up to paint it)

I learned I was able to paint something pretty realistically within about 2 hours. However, I challenged myself to keep myself interested, and some days painted a more difficult subject, like a self portrait. (I indulged and spent 2 days on that one.) I found that subjects where I could focus on just one thing (1 flower, instead of a tree of flowers) or with a fairly simple form (the burdened pink cow below or the tubes of paint) were the easiest and quickest to paint. Subjects where I got tripped up were intricate bushy flowers, multiple flowers in a bouquet, or something without a clear form to indicate light and shadow.

Sometimes I felt a leap of joy in my stomach to paint something. Other times, I looked at my subject matter, nearly begging it to paint itself for me. The most intense part of the challenge was knowing I promised to post a painting a day. It was a lot of pressure and pushback from my ego that I had to have something good enough to post each day.

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