Was the Strada Easel Challenge Worthwhile?

It’s the end of September and that means it’s the end of another 30 Day Challenge to draw or paint from life every day for 30 days. Sponsored by Strada Easel, this is the third challenge I’ve completed. As you may recall from this post, I hemmed and hawed over whether to participate this time.  Was the strada easel challenge worthwhile?

Select drawings and paintings from September Strada Easel Challenge.
Select drawings and paintings from September Strada Easel Challenge.

Like everyone else, there are so many demands on our time, and when I look back, I have to ask myself the question, was it worth it?  In a word, YES.

I’ll admit, the first time I did the challenge, my goal was to win an easel. (That didn’t happen.)  The second time, my goal was to understand form, and the change in color from light to shadow.  I painted so many fruits and vegetables!  You can see that post here.

This time, my goal was to revisit  and improve my drawing skills.  Even though I planned to paint from life, I also committed to drawing every day for a minimum of 30 minutes.  I drew in the evenings, after dinner, usually while listening to the US Open or while watching a movie (this only worked with movies that didn’t have subtitles – ha!).  I had a notebook, several ideas, and picked things from my daily life.  Most evenings, I found myself drawing for nearly two hours!

Several days were devoted to painting still life or plein air. Between painting with our local plein air group, painting simple still life, and participating in the Steamboat Plein Air event, that covered almost half the month.  On the days that I either traveled or focused on studio work, I picked up the pencil for drawing.

The biggest challenge was dealing with the ‘hiccups of life’.  My sweetheart had to go in for surgery (all is well now) and spending three days and two sleepless nights in the hospital made things quite difficult.  Surprisingly, I found that turning to drawing while I waited, or while he rested, helped me to relax too.  Rather than feeling obligated to draw, I found solace in quieting my mind.

Finally, it was an exercise in letting myself off the hook.  If I only had 20 minutes, that was ok.  When I was feeling stressed out, that was ok.  I drew or painted anyway, and I did my best to notice how it affected my work.  Each and every drawing or painting is a self-portrait.  What we feel comes through in the brushstrokes and line.  Some drawings were quick and loose and messy.  Some paintings fell apart or felt too stiff.  Each time I put pressure on myself to perform, things fell apart.  When I was relaxed, rested and focused, everything came together.

Perhaps what was most worthwhile was seeing the change in my work from one challenge to the next.  I can see improvement in color mixing, turning form, growth in my confidence as an artist, and improved stamina.

For the first challenge, I found the pace exhausting.  I was taking an online course (drawing from life), traveling, blogging, and many days I was painting in the rain!  It was too much. I felt too much pressure to post and create something ‘good’.  The second time, I kept it simple with 5×7 (or smaller) paintings and few days outside (it was January after all!) and that took the pressure off.  This time, I had the stamina for almost daily painting.  On the days I didn’t paint from life, I was still painting in the studio.  On those days, drawing from life was incredibly rewarding.  Almost like having dessert at the end of the day!

The bottom line, have a goal.  Have your materials ready ahead of time.  Paint small.  Plan your time.  And go easy on yourself.  The reward truly is in the doing.

Coming Up – 34th Annual Fort Collins Historic Homes Tour

The 34th Annual Fort Collins Historic Homes Tour is coming up September 15th.  Northern Colorado plein air painters have been invited to paint at the historic homes this year, and have a pop-up art show and sale at the Avery Carriage House (108 N Meldrum).

Throughout the summer,  artists painted on location in Old Town, at the Avery House, the Water Works, and various locations around Fort Collins and along the Poudre River.  On display during the tour, is a painting I created of the Historic Avery House.

The Avery House

Built from the sandstone quarries just outside of Fort Collins, the Avery House was built in 1879.  According to the Poudre Landmarks Foundation (PLF) website, “members of the Avery family lived in the house until 1962 when it was sold. Poudre Landmarks Foundation, Inc., was formed in 1972. The group worked with the City of Fort Collins to purchase the home in 1974 at a cost of $79,000. PLF then took responsibility to oversee restoration of the house.”

In addition to hosting tours, private events, and weddings, PLF hosted a tea at the Avery House this past June.  We were invited to paint at the event.  Imagine our excitement when the attendees arrived in period costumes.  We felt as though we had stepped back in time (except for when a cell phone appeared!).

About the painting

During the event, I was able to photograph the men and women dressed in period clothes.  Using those photos, drawings of the home, and color studies made on location over the course of the summer, I then created this painting that depicts the Avery House as it might have been over one hundred years ago.

Step Back in Time, 16x20, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Step Back in Time, 16×20, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper


Home Tour Details

The historic home tour includes the Avery House, the Water Works and six private homes.  While the tour is a ticketed event, the art show is free and open to the public.

The pop-up gallery will be open, September 15th from 10 am – 4 pm. 

All artworks are available for sale that day. 

Local plein air artists will also be on-site at the homes and buildings during the tour.  Plein air paintings painted during the tour are available for sale from the artist.  A portion of the sales will support Poudre Landmarks Foundation in maintaining and preserving these historic homes and buildings for the public to enjoy.

For a list of the homes, details on the tour, art sale preview and to get your tickets, visit http://poudrelandmarks.org/historic-homes-tour/ for more information.

Turning, 8×10 plein air

Plein Air days are the best days. September light in Rocky Mountain National Park when the leaves are turning makes everything even better.

Painted with the PAAC, Northern Colorado crew at Cow Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park this morning. Blues skies, the start of golden leaves and cool morning temperatures.

Turning, 8x10, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Turning, 8×10, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper

As I was painting, I heard voices of various instructors in my head.  Paint something beautiful. Make every brush stroke count.  Start the finish, finish the start.  Make brushstrokes.  Each painting requires a tremendous amount of thought.  Composition, color mixing, color harmony, movement, gesture, paint quality, form, and how the piece holds together.


Lessons from the Estes Valley Plein Air Quick Draw

Sunflowers, 10x8, oil on board
Sunflowers, 10×8, oil on board, © Nelia Harper

Yesterday, I went up to the Estes Valley Plein Air Quick Draw with friend and artist Andrea Gabel.

We went to cheer on Jenifer Cline and pick up some tips and watch the artists paint, and see the art show.

We wandered around, looking at easels, brushes, paint tubes, and thumbnail sketches. We said hello to many artists we knew and encouraged them.

As the start drew near, the tension in the air was almost palpable. The artists tensed, brushes at the ready. The bell rang, and I expected them all to start running. I think their hearts and adrenaline pumps did!

Being a spectator, I tried to be objective and withold judgement on the variety of starts and subject matter.

We watched the artists work as we walked back and forth from one to another, watching the paintings progress. So fascinating!

Some artists were bold, and confident. Some used their whole bodies and some chatted with the spectators.

Others hid from the crowd. They futzed and fretted, dabbing at the paint and the canvas. Closed in on themselves and furrowing their brows.

At the end of the day, when the paintings were hung, we could see where people held back, played it safe, made timid brush strokes, and worried. We could see who felt confident and self-assured.

As we chatted over lunch, dissecting the experience, a few things were clear. First, all paintings look better in a frame. Second, the bold expressive paintings that had clear composition and value range were preferred.

We both vowed to be bold(er) in our painting. More variety of thick and thin, variety in movement and brushstrokes, harmonious yet interesting color. Better to be bold and wrong than timid and futzy. How do we use this knowledge to improve? How does one become a bold painter? Confident? Expressive?

Practice was our best guess. So, today, my aim was to be bold and expressive in painting these sunflowers.

Conversations like these

It’s conversations like these that keep me moving forward.

Anything here sound familiar?

MAE: So, are you going to do the Strada Easel Challenge this month? (MAE: my alter ego)

Me: Oh, I don’t know. I thought I’d take this one off.

MAE: Really, why?

Me: Well, I want to do it, I should do it, but..I’m not sure I have the time or energy. It’s such a big commitment.

MAE: Really? I thought you planned to be out painting at least 15 days this month.

Me: Well, yes. But, I have a couple of projects I need to finish, and I need to get ready for the home tour and the Steamboat Plein Air. Plus, I’ll be traveling some days. And I’m sure there are a bunch of days when it won’t be easy to find the time…

MAE: Not find the time? Isn’t this what you do?

ME: Well, yeah…

MAE: And you can paint or draw, right?

ME: Yeah.

MAE: It’s not like drawing takes that much time. It’s just paper and pencils. You don’t have to spend hours drawing and getting a perfect drawing, do you?

ME: Well…Yeah…I don’t know…I guess there aren’t any rules about how much time I devote to drawing or painting from life each day.

MAE: And, in theory, you could spend less time on your phone? Possibly there’s some wasted time there?

ME: You think I spend too much time on my phone?

MAE: Just sayin’… There are a bunch of moms that are going to do this and people that have other full-time jobs that will find the time to do this, don’t you think?

ME: True…but if I only spend a little bit of time, they won’t be very good, and I won’t want to post them on social media.

MAE: Nobody says you have to post them.

ME: Good point. I should really spend time every day drawing anyway. I want to work on my drawing skills, value studies, and thumbnail sketches. I guess I could devote 30 mins every day to that – either draw, or if I’m in the field work on those things and paint too. I could set my watch for 30 minutes and quit.

MAE: Just practice for the sake of practice.

ME: The last two times I did the challenge, I saw a huge improvement. I could do the challenge and not tell anyone.

MAE: Exactly. Of course, if you’re going to do the work anyway, you might as well try to win a Strada Easel. Right?

ME: Huhn.

And so it begins. Day 1 of the Strada Easel Challenge to draw or paint from life every day in September.

I started out with my timer set for 30 mins. Needless to say, I kept going.

Painting Whitewater

After working diligently in the studio on a very difficult perspective problem for the past few days, I stepped outside for some much-needed plein air painting.  I found painting whitewater at the Poudre River to be the perfect solution.

Whitewater, 8x12, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Whitewater, 8×12, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper

Apparently, I needed to unleash some pent-up color craze and fluidity.

My goal was to focus on color and abstract shape, thinking beyond rock and water, placing paint and leaving it untouched. Mix and place. Mix and place.  One of the greatest challenges of painting whitewater is seeing and understanding the changing color and placing it in the context of the big picture.  And, water isn’t actually white.  Water color is it?  What color is it in the shade?  In the sun?  Whitewater, with it’s eddies and foam and dips and swells fools the eye.  It rolls back on itself while constantly moving forward.

The color got a little crazy, as I dipped repeatedly into transparent oxide yellow.  Here it is, photographed on-site in full sun.  It looks more muted indoors.

Needless to say, I feel much better and ready to go back to fixing the perspective on the studio painting.

Twirling Syd, pastel, 16×22

Just a simple moment caught in time.  A girl sings a song and twirls an umbrella.  A cell phone camera captures the moment.  That moment, shared among friends becomes a moment of inspiration.  The artist eye sees that moment, and the urge to paint is there.

I can see the painting in my mind’s eye.

“Sure!” Mom says.  “I’d love to see you paint this!”

We talk about what the painting could be, I throw out some ideas, thinking out loud.  Then, back in the studio, I dive deeper into the image, and I realize that so much is said in so little.


Twirling Syd, 16x22, pastel on UArt © Nelia Harper
Twirling Syd, 16×22, pastel on UArt © Nelia Harper


As I worked on this painting, I came across this quote from Andrew Wyeth.  It summed up my feeling of painting precisely.

My struggle is to preserve that abstract flash – like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly.
– Andrew Wyeth

My goal with the piece was to focus on her expression as she sings.  Does she know that she is watched?  Or is she simply not self-consciousness?  As she twirls the umbrella, lost in her imaginary world, we have a small glimpse into the life of this little girl.  Who were we at this age?  Were we inhibited?  Or did we talk to our dolls and ourselves?  Did we read books without a care in the world and dress in what we fancied that day?  Did we hold hands with our friends and skip to our own song?  Do we remember ourselves?

See this piece in person

This piece is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO.  Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

Nothing to Wear, Pastel on Canson Paper

Four months of drawing the figure two nights a week. Working from a model, we worked out proportions, foreshortening, anatomy, and skin tone values. Soon, it was time to create our final project. The assignment was open: the human figure as a representation of inner psychology. Although the focus was on drawing, we were allowed to use materials with which we were familiar. As much as I wanted to use oil paint, I immediately chose pastel.

As our instructor shared examples of artists using the human figure to express this idea, I wondered, don’t we do this every day in subtle ways? I looked around at the students, most of them were in their 20s. Their hair, clothing, backpacks, cigarettes, they way they stood, the use of headphones, was this not an expression of their inner psychology every day? Do we even realize what we do?

As I thought through ideas for the project, I thought about my nieces and nephews and how children clamor to be Spiderman, Superman, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures and heroes. “Pretend I’m a dog,” they clamor. “Pet me.” They pretend to do tricks. They embody the persona of that character. How many times as a child did I pretend to be a mother? An explorer? A writer? Acting out skits for classmates, I tried on various roles.

As adults, we take on roles of father, mother, millennial, hipster (is that still a thing?) executive, artist, activist, the list goes on and on. How many mornings have we stood in our closets preparing for the day and thinking about what to wear to fulfill that role? And how many times have we thought, I have nothing to wear?

All these ideas rolled around and turned over in my mind. I began to think of our clothing as masks we wear and how we can hide our true feelings. And, how we express ourselves through the way we dress and look. How we choose how we want others to see us.

Thinking about masks, preparing for the day, hiding our identity, consciously or otherwise, I searched through my house and decided to use a Venetian mask and myself as the model.

Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21x18.5, © Nelia Harper
Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21×18.5, © Nelia Harper

Using a camera on a tripod with a self-timer, I posed with various masks and body positions. After several hours and dozens of shots to get the mirror image ‘just right’, I then cropped and the image and tested a color palette on various papers.

Here, dressed in a simple black dress, a woman holds a mask to her face. Is she preparing for a night out or a day at work? What do we assume about her from the mask? How do we read her eyes shining through? When you look at the image, what do you see?

See this piece in person

This piece is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO. Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

Lilacs, oil on linen

For a week, I stood in the backyard studying the form and color of lilacs.  Hidden among the trees, I tested out Cobalt Violet, Cobalt Violet Deep, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Blue, Raw and Burnt Umber and Rose Red Deep.

Time was running out as the temperatures climbed.  Soon, the lilac blooms would fade. It was either now or wait another year.

I cleared the studio, set up the still life stand, took a deep breath, and filled a bucket with freshly snipped lilacs.  Then, I arranged them in a large vase with a deep violet velvet backdrop.  For the next three days, I painted hour after hour each day, creating the forms of the lilacs while breathing in their soft perfume.

Now available.  Frame included.

Lilacs, 16x21, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Lilacs, 16×21, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper


See this in person

This painting is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions Art Show show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO.  Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

3rd Annual Expressions Art Show July 25-August 4

It’s time for our 3rd Annual Expressions Art Show here in Fort Collins. I’m excited to show some new floral paintings that I’ve been working on as well as a couple of figurative pieces. Branching out into floral and figurative work has been a challenge and I look forward to sharing them with you.

The show runs for two weeks, Wed-Sat, July 25 – August 4 from 12-6pm
Our Artist’s Reception will be Friday, August 3rd, 6-9 pm

Location: Carnegie Building, 200 Mathews Street, Fort Collins, CO
This event is free and open to the public.

The show includes wood-turning, felted sculpture, photography and of course paintings ranging from abstract to realism, in large and small formats. It’s a fun show, and we hope you’ll be able to make it.

3rd Annual Expressions Art Show

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