With the exception of the occasional group class, painting is largely a lonely, solitary pursuit. It’s a discipline usually driven by obsession with painstaking detail and technical precision.
The organizers of Art Battle Seattle ask the question, What if it doesn’t have to be?
What if you add an audience? And a DJ? And make it a reality-style competition with a time limit and live voting? And splash in a little alcohol?
Then it might be more like a party.
“There’s a very specific skill set for this type of art entertainment,” competitor Heidi Leonard said. “You have to know what you’re going to paint. You have to know the technique you can use in order to execute the painting in 20 minutes. And it has to be content that the crowd is going to respond to because it’s a popularity contest at the end of the day.
“It’s a competition. It’s Art Battle.”
Leonard is one of dozens of local artists who have participated since producer Frankie Cannata-Bowman and emcee Austin Roberts launched Art Battle Seattle in February, joining some 60 cities around the world that now hold Art Battles. The first one was in New York City in 2001. In Seattle, Art Battles are typically held once a month. The next one is Oct. 24.
Though there are subtle variations in presentation, the rules set by the Art Battle parent organization are the same from city to city. Twelve painters enter the competition, only one emerges victorious. Artists apply ahead of time by submitting pictures of their work. If selected, they play for free and their materials are provided.
Along the way there are three rounds, with the top two from each of the first two rounds facing off in the finals. Painters can tackle any subject they wish. The only constraint is the time limit.
The winner of the finals in each Art Battle wins a gift certificate for art supplies and earns the right to compete in the city championship in January. The winner will receive a free trip to nationals in April, with $5,000 in cash and art supplies and a berth in the world championship next year at stake.
It’s a totally different experience from the artists’ perspective.
“I feel like if more people hear about it and more people see what it’s about, they’ll flock to it because there’s nothing like this out there,” said Amanda Meyer, a finalist in last month’s competition. “I’ve been in Seattle such a long time and this is the first thing I’ve seen that’s so unique, a community like this for artists.”
It’s also unique for the audience. At last month’s event, the painters’ easels were set up in the center of the dance floor, with tables lining the edge, at Sodo nightclub Eden Seattle. Music played loudly and Roberts hyped the crowd, urging attendees onto the dance floor. Spectators swirled around the painters for the full 20 minutes in each round, watching the paintings unfold stroke by stroke.
Some newer competitors struggled with all the stimuli. Regular participant Ciera Christensen fed off it, dancing to the hip-hop mix delivered by DJ Nightwatch as she covered her canvas.
“You can see there were a lot of first-time painters here who definitely had the nerves,” Christensen said. “It’s really not about winning. It’s just about enjoying it and making something great.”
What shape that something great takes is up to each artist. Meyer has earned the nickname “Sexy Bob Ross” for her obsession with landscape paintings — and pop-culture icon Bob Ross.
“He’s my main squeeze,” Meyer said of the late painter. “I do landscape paintings, but I started watching Bob Ross on Netflix and I said, ‘That’s who I want to be.’”
Christensen seems to be stuck on a theme, as well — eyes and facial expressions. She painted a striking green eye with smudged makeup in the first round of September’s competition. She thinks it may have something to do with her job in loss prevention at Amazon.
“Micro expressions, you can tell so much just by looking at someone’s eyes,” Christensen said. “You know a lot about them as a person, how they’re feeling at the moment. So I just spend a lot of time analyzing and studying faces. I also do my makeup every morning. Since you can’t work from a reference piece, you’ve got to go with something you can picture really well with your mind’s eye. I keep telling people I might be a one-trick pony. If I make it to the final round, you might get another eyeball. Just switch up the color, they’ll never know.”
Leonard, who won April’s competition, has been helping the organization as a volunteer while waiting for the city championships (each month’s winner is barred from competing again until the postseason). She has seen common themes appear over the months. The painters with personality have a huge advantage. And it doesn’t hurt to have a presence on the Gram.
“The bigger your Instagram following, your social-media following is, that definitely helps,” she said. “If you have people that are following you and that like you as an artist and you are a professional artist, then they will come and see you. Bands have groupies, why can’t artists? This gives artists a venue to have groupies. What’s wrong with that?”
The resulting paintings are something of a menagerie. Leonard used a shaggy cow to win her contest. September’s painters produced several Seussian landscapes, a New Age-ish wolf, a surrealist portrait of Medusa featuring a bird’s nest as jaunty chapeau, a few examples of expressionism and a smattering of cubism. Bernadette Enriquez won September with a colorful portrait of a woman.
Every artist managed to complete a painting in 20 minutes.
“I can’t choose what to wear in 20 minutes and meanwhile they’ve got these whole paintings out,” emcee Roberts said. “I like it when they’re just totally different. And I’ve had many nights where people have come up and said, ‘How do you expect me to choose?’ I always say, ‘This is the problem with evaluating art.’ I love when there’s an outcome where it’s generally hard to decide what is in your heart.”
The next installment of Art Battle Seattle will be 6:30-10:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 24, at Eden Seattle, 1950 First Ave. S.; $20 early bird ticket, $25 general admission, $30 at the door; artbattle.com/tag/seattle