Toronto’s first Art Battle of 2015 saw over 400 keyed-up art lovers packed into the historic Great Hall on Queen Street West for January 20th, a Tuesday night of competitive live painting. The monthly Art Battle event features sixteen artists; fourteen are selected prior to the event while the remaining two are pulled from the night’s audience as “wild cards”. Each artist is given brushes, acrylic paint, a blank canvas, and just 20 minutes to create the painting worthy of a win. The Art Battle competition begins with two groups of 8 artists. The artists have one round of painting to prove that their talent deserves a place in the final round. The audience decides which two artists from each group will paint on in the final round by placing electronic votes through their smartphones. The top 4 artists compete in the final round which determines the champion for the evening.
Plucking at the audience’s heartstrings is the key to success in this competition; spectators’ electronically casted votes determine which painter will take home the win. Artists paint to secure themselves a cash prize and a spot in the Toronto city-wide finals to be held this summer. This month’s voting produced a tie in the final round; artists Mark Liam Smith and Vick Niresh shared the glory.
Watching Art Battle unfold from the wings is exhilarating; deep house pulses as the crowd forms a slow-moving tornado of anticipation that circles the platform elevating the artists and their canvases. There are as many smartphones out and recording as at any concert you have ever been to. Necks are craned, laughter is loud, drinks are shared, and camera flashes abound- all while the timer counts down. This is certainly not your average studio experience.
At some point, everyone at an Art Battle competition wonders what it is like to be up there on that platform with that blank canvas. With this curiosity in mind, I (E.K) introduce top finalist, Mike Rachlis (M.R). Rachlis is a Toronto based oil painter, OCAD graduate, and first time Art Battle competitor. His gestural paintings won my admiration.
E.K: What did you do to prepare for Art Battle prior to the competition?
M.R: I prepared for only one round not expecting to win. I did some sketches in charcoal and paint to try to establish an idea of a composition based on photos I had taken of myself. I had this fear of getting up there and not having any idea what to paint. The second round was on the spot. After having made a composition on the fly, if I were to do Art Battle again, I wouldn’t prepare beforehand.
E.K: What are you feeling/thinking/doing in the 5-10 minutes before the competition begins?
M.R: I was unbelievably nervous before, so I was just trying to stay calm and create some sort of a plan for how to start the painting. I spent the five minutes beforehand with my girlfriend trying not to over think everything and just relax so that my hand would stop shaking and I could paint.
E.K: In Art Battle, you have only 20 minutes to complete a painting amid a large crowd. How did your artistic process differ during Art Battle versus in your studio?
M.R: The largest difference is that painting in the studio is a triathlon of painting, looking, and thinking, while Art Battle is an all-out sprint to get the painting done as quickly as possible. In twenty minutes you barely have any time to even think. I ended up going into a state that is easiest to describe as auto pilot; it’s like trying to get your hand to connect straight to your brain. You don’t have to make a decision about how the painting is going and then continue to paint; it just has to happen right as you think it. When I work in the studio, I’ll paint frantically and then take just as long to sit back and look and think about where the piece is going. In Art Battle, this is not an option. I also work exclusively in oil paint so the switch to acrylic was noticeable. But that was a quick adjustment.
E.K: How did the audience’s presence affect you?
M.R: I hate painting in front of people, so to have 400 people walking around and staring at me was nerve-wracking to say the least. It actually made me focus on my painting because I didn’t want to stop at any point to take notice of the crowd.
E.K: You had your ear buds in during painting. What were you listening to?
M.R: I have pretty eclectic music taste. I made a really random playlist for Art Battle. It was mostly really energetic music ranging from punk stuff (Dead Kennedys, Bloodhouse) to southern rap (Young Jeezy) and some 90’s drum and bass. I was just looking for loud and fast.
Text and photo: Emily Kovacs