The Rise of the Painting Party

A new type of art school has been spreading across the U.S. recently, but it is neither a state-run institute nor an arts academy.  Rather, it is more along the lines of a service-sector business that promises that a finished “masterpiece” can be made by anyone who knows how to form his or her ABC’s.  Class offerings are autonomous group sessions set up so that the client/student will return home with his/her very own wall-ready canvas to take home.  Students/clients register to make a specific painting, selected from dozens of small,  decorative but very basic acrylic works available at the location as examples, and are then guided through copying said painting stroke-by-stroke with thirty or so others.  Adult students are encouraged to bring a bottle of wine and all are welcome to bring friends (of course); the venue provides the rest.

But is it really art?

The atmosphere is casual and pressure-free, with unbelievably clean studios and upbeat staff members.   In a sense, the sessions have the same appeal as paint-by-number kits and coloring books, but with the added amusement of cheerful company, perhaps alcohol, and the heightened illusion that one is “being creative”.
It is a concept that has proven so popular that two such “schools” operate in Huntsville, AL alone (Spirited Art and SOCA Galleria); one has become a franchise with a second location in Knoxville, TN, and two new locations scheduled to open in Arkansas and Virginia.  Meanwhile, “Paint and Sip” sessions (as many of these gatherings have come to be called) sprout up regularly at museums and other organizations; their popularity has made them a lucrative career option for working artists and an easy means to drawing a crowd for centers of art in small to mid-size cities.

The demographic that seems to enjoy this concept most consists of white-collar professionals who enjoy playing artist but do not really have the time or will to make a career or self-directed hobby of art.  Professional artists are welcome to register for sessions and use their creative skills to modify the example painting as they like. . . but looking over the pictures from various studio locations, it is clear that this rarely happens.  Most of the finished paintings are practically identical and the student/customer base consists largely of companies doing team-building exercises, young professional women and their friends, and group parties.

Though one cannot help but applaud the owners of such places and hosts of such events for turning quick profits on their art degrees, is it really beneficial for public arts awareness and artistic communities to call copying simplified acrylic paintings “art lessons”?  Teacher testimonials on the websites for these schools gush about helping to make art accessible to all and helping everyone to “have fun” making art.  Given the widespread belief that the art world is frigid, elitist, or even irrelevant, it may seem a bit counter-intuitive to question anything that gives the masses a friendly introduction to the arts. . . and yet something remains oddly phony about the “Sip and Paint” Party; namely, the supposition that the art-world equivalent of putting together IKEA furniture or pouring water into a pouch of pre-made cake mix could not only be a placeholder in absence of the “real thing”, but could actually be the real thing.

The questions that this trend raises about art’s role in communities and art education are myriad and all are welcome to add to the discussion in the comment section below!

Christina Wegman is a painter, freelance writer, music teacher, and art event coordinator currently residing in Alabama. Since she hosted her first one-woman art show in 2007, many of her paintings have been displayed in the  “Unique Views of Huntsville” juried competition, and her work has been represented by several galleries and organizations. Born in Los Angeles, California, she has traveled widely throughout Europe and studied in both the U.S. and Canada, where she chronicled some of her thoughts on life and culture at Un Portrait De La Vie Moderne: A Culture Blog . Her current site is Abstract Träumerei.

17 responses to “The Rise of the Painting Party”

  1. Ashley Devick says:

    I think it is always a great thing to expose people to the arts in any capacity – however, I don’t really dig the whole “paint the same picture” concept. I took several art classes in college and still love to paint on a recreational basis. I am signed up for an art class that starts in October where patrons more or less bring their own supplies and photos they would like to “copy” during the class. While I may not be able to sell the work or hang it in a gallery, it will make a nice Christmas present or something I can give to my parents! But at least I will bring a photo that I personally snapped… Overall, anything to help people understand that art ain’t always easy is a positive in my book!

  2. Chris Kapolas says:

    I think it’s the “sameness” that sort of bothers me about this. Not that I have a problem with the concept in general, because getting started in a creative endeavor in a new media is pretty daunting. And the sort of ease and access and communal “all in it together” vibe probably does a lot to get people over that initial hurdle. And perhaps when all is said and done that sense of “hey, I created something and it wasn’t that scary” might open up a door for them to undertake more art-related or creative endeavors. If that’s the end-game, then I think it’s awesome. If it helps to get someone excited about making something or gives them some basic tools on which to build, then I think it’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, it does sort of reek of being sort of a false creative outlet, which is gross.

  3. Maureen says:

    I have no objection to something like this, provided the pr is honest (or is that a contradiction in terms?).

    I know quite a number of professional artists (very good ones) who hold workshops in their studios for non-professional artists, though none of them takes a lets-all-make-the-same-thing approach and all offer workshops of several hours’ length. It’s not only a way to introduce attendees to how an artwork gets made (there’s teaching here, and information sharing), it supplements these artists’ income so they can continue their own work instead of slinging hash, plus exposes their artwork to prospective new clients.

    Also, these workshops can build a lot of self-confidence; sometimes, that’s the one thing someone needs to feel it’s ok to pursue a passion, like art-making. None of us knows from where the next new talent might come. Also, let’s not rap against what’s just good fun and community. My guess is those workshop attendees go home with a smile on their faces. And why shouldn’t they?!

  4. Christina Wegman says:

    Maureen, I agree with you. . . and it’s just that dishonest PR that
    bothers me about these places. . . they call themselves art schools and
    the paintings “masterpieces”, but as far as I am concerned, they
    undermine the efforts of professional artists to foster a more genuine
    community spirit and educational exchange (with the workshops you
    describe, for instance).  I’m with Ashley and Chris on this– there’s
    nothing wrong with light-hearted, cheerful sessions that encourage one
    to bring a photo and a bottle of wine and learn a bit about art or study
    a well-known masterpiece in depth, but there is something eerie about
    everyone doing the same painting yet still calling it their very own
    original.  These types of schools encourage that and claim that the very
    slight variations are enough to make each piece original and many
    people have very proudly shown me works generated at such session as
    “their art.  The fact that this model has spread so rapidly makes me
    wonder about many, many things about public perception of the arts (as
    usual, John Dewey’s Art As Experience comes to mind)!  Is that a good
    way to introduce the arts to an audience filled with misconceptions or
    outright fear? 
    Is the self-esteem boost alone enough to encourage the student to go
    further, or does it simply encourage delusion?  (Is that not one of the
    main failings of educational systems at large that either take advantage
    of the self-esteem angle for profit or lavish students with praise
    rather than really teach them, leaving them miserably disappointed at
    some later point?)  I’d love to hear further thoughts from all three of
    you (and any others who would like to join in)!

  5. “or were treated as as studies/an insight into how an artist works ”  << Now that WOULD be interesting, I was interetsed to see the differences emerging among the various versIons!

  6. My general reaction is that is a kind of fun workshop but not an activity that fosters development of an individual’s creativity.

    What Christina writes about how these sessions are marketed is indeed a worrying aspect.

  7. Christina Wegman says:

    Agreed. . . I love discussing how an individual’s thoughts, focus, perspective, imagination, and experience can change the way a scene is interpreted on canvas (even a simple scene taken from an existing painting/model). . . that’s where the real creativity and theories of artistic technique could develop!

  8. Christina Wegman says:

    That people buy into this marketing so readily is worrying too. . . does anything like these schools exist in Italy, Carmelita?  My assumption has always been that Italy is already so full of fine art and good excuses to drink wine that people would not respond well to this kind of thing. . . am I at all correct?

    In the past months I’ve learned more about the Reggio Emilia Approach to early childhood education and how it encourages children to express themselves through the arts long before they can read, write, or even speak very much. . . it seemed no coincidence to me that, like the Montessori Method which so strongly marked my own education, it developed in Italy. . . under these systems, creativity becomes such a way of life that most of the students have a pretty good grasp of what it means to really be creative (or what will help to further develop their creative spirits) from a remarkably young age. . .

  9. I did a serach for art courses and found nothing similar here. Course in wine apprecaition yes, and courses in art also, but not the too combined, at least I didn’t find any. 

    Reggio Emilia (which is very near Bologna where I live and which has probaly the best Parmigiano-Reggiano of all)  has long been a world leader in pre school education . The conecpt of “the hundred languages of chidren” is all about encouraging creativity. From Wikipedia on the Reggio Emilia appraoch:  “As children proceed in an investigation, generating and testing their
    hypotheses, they are encouraged to depict their understanding through
    one of many symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpture, dramatic
    play, and writing”

  10. Kathleen Kirk says:

    I’ve been reflecting on this since you first posted, Christina, and it’s interesting to read all the comments and see our areas of agreement.  On the one hand, it seems like a harmless, fun activity, fostering good feeling for the arts and possibly giving real artists a small source of income.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to generate real creativity in the “student” (even though imitation of the great masters was a traditional way to learn to be a painter!) nor a deeper understanding or respect for the fine artist.  (Plus the whole PR issue you’ve brought up.) It might, in fact, encourage even more disrespect for the artist and discourage arts funding in the schools and for not-for-profit arts organization along the lines of “frivolous” expenditures, etc.  Sigh…

    In a way, it’s like some local cooking classes that help the home cook plan and prepare meals for the week, or approximate recipes of the great chefs, or develop their “inner cook.”  Harmless, helpful, but no one is fooled into thinking they ARE the great chef.  On the other hand, it is sort of true that anyone can cook, anyone can write a poem, anyone can make a painting.  The naive or “outsider” artists, the untrained, can be as expressive and masterful as the diligent apprentices who become masters.  

    But some of us pursue it as our life’s work and some as hobbyists (or in our own kitchens).

    One thing that resonated with me is our local art-class offerings, via after-school programs, parks & rec activities, and area colleges or community colleges versus the art classes at the local arts center, given most often by trained, working artists, struggling to make a living as artists or art educators. The arts center has to compete for attention and a proper perception of what it is offering, and why at this price rather than that.  The parks & rec activity is cheaper because it is an activity, perceived by some parents as such or even as value-added babysitting.  In a way, the “paint and sip” classes you describe do seem more like a recreational activity and form of relaxation than arts training.  Ah, but that word “recreation” is important!  Re-creation.  Hmmmm.

  11. its just something fun for people to do. you are over thinking it. it has nothing to do with “art lessons” or “real artists”

  12. Terry Miller says:

    I love the idea of these painting events. I have taught several classes in Pennsylvania. The thing to remember is that many many people would love to just have the experience to pick up a brush and escape for a few hours. Why pay hundreds of dollars in materials to try painting when for about 30 or 40 bucks you can give it a shot at one of these classes. You are correct about creativity. But once someone gives this class a try it may motivate them to buy the materials needed and continue to create or maybe sign up for a class at their local art association. Sometimes I get annoyed at the snobbery of those who hold an expensive degree in fine arts. I don’t understand why they have to put down self taught artists. These sessions are called art parties not lessons. Let it go. It’s fine.

  13. TheColemaNation says:

    As a working artist and general manager of a sip and paint, I am intrigued with this conversation.
    I have a BFA in painting, sculpture, and drawing with both traditional and nontraditional instruction. Seeing what has happened to arts in public schools, I think that what sip and paints offer are important to rekindle a lost passion for the creative arts providing a new appreciation for the making of art.
    The constructive criticism and verbal support is not the same as it would be for a student in a university setting, but more like you would for any beginner and be more supportive than critical.
    At my studio, most our instructors are K-12 art instructors and all have at least a BFA and others either with or working on an MFA. What we offer in our classes is more than a step by step carbon copy, but instruction to use paint and brush to create specific effects that create an image. Most artists learn through reproduction to learn style and technique. We also promote the idea of not painting what is being instructed or changing colors or adding subjects to the composition.
    It is priceless to see excited face both young and old, satisfied with what they have made. Most the effort from our instructors is breaking down the hesitation to commit paint to canvas, and as with most inhibitions, a glass of wine helps.
    One aspect that gives me great hope, is when guests discuss having a new appreciation for artists the the efforts they take to create art, whether good, bad, great, or mediocre. A new appreciation and understanding for art and creativity have been seeded and with that, all these moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and grandparents will hopefully show in how the creative arts are funded in public schools.
    For those guests that have shown a deeper interest in the arts, we have expanded our classes to include not only acrylic techniques, but investigation and exploration in collage, watercolor, charcoal, life drawing, and still lifes. I think it is fantastic that in this new and expanding business that it can create new connections as well as reestablish one’s connection to their artistic side no matter their skill level.

  14. […] topic this month on the Escape Into Life Blog relating to the “paint and sip” trend. Click here to read the post and share your […]

  15. Caroline says:

    Hmmmm, I really wouldn’t worry too much about this changing peoples view of art or artists. It’s just a fun endeavour for the average person who has not tried painting before. I believe a true master painter would not feel threatened by this type of class. If you were learning a new instrument, the teacher would not expect you to choose the first piece of music you were to ever learn or to compose your own piece of music. I know the world of abstract art allows for this type of painting, but most people believe there is more to painting than just spreading colour over a canvas like a four year old child, no matter how pretty.

  16. Linda says:

    This is the opposite of art in all its glory. I’m a former art teacher, primarily for young, mild special needs students and this approach to “art” is what I constantly had to battle. The reason these adult, cookie-cutter “art” classes flourish is because many people were subject to this approach as children and were discouraged to think and create for themselves. “Art” to them is a slick product and has nothing to do with the challenge of self expression. I’m not against a fun evening with friends and I acknowledge that a coloring book-type experience can be a relaxing diversion from our adult responsibilities but please do NOT call this art.

  17. Kelly says:

    These art parties are for entertainment purposes. Many of us who privately own these art party businesses also hold actual art classes. However, even the chains that do not should not be frowned upon. Also, during my art parties I do provide tips and techniques. And my regular painters are learning and growing their technique. They are also learning how to mix colors to obtain the color they are looking for using the primary colors. I find it disappointing that anyone (especially someone who considers themselves an artist and/or teacher) would be so negative and judgmental about people who have not touched a paint brush since grade school (or ever) being able to experience the fun and excitement of watching a blank canvas come to life. Have you attended an art party? Also, FYI, you do not need to have an art degree to be an artist. This is a well documented fact that many great artists are self taught. Consider that the view may be skewed from that high horse.

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