Monday 21 October 2019

Brushstrokes & Bubbles: Art workshops are going through a renaissance

Art workshops are going through something of a renaissance. Throw in a glass of your favourite tipple and you can paint the town red, blue or any colour you like, Chrissie Russell discovers

Picture perfect: Paint Club in full swing at Dublin's House Bar. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Picture perfect: Paint Club in full swing at Dublin's House Bar. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Job done: Paint Club’s Aisling Kearney Burke with fledging artist Chrissie Russell
Assistant Gabriel Marques gives a helping hand
A student diligently mixes colours

My sky lulled me into a false sense of security. My buildings look iffy but it's my water that's giving me real problems. And the bridge. I don't even want to think about the bridge... It's 8pm on a wet Tuesday evening and I'm currently stuck somewhere between what's known in the trade as Stage 3 and Stage 4 of the creative process, an unenviable limbo between 'This is crap' and 'I am crap'.

"It shouldn't be perfect," trills Aisling reassuringly as she prises the paint brush from my clenched fist and trails it lightly across the canvas, effortlessly creating the effect of water, before moving on to gently suggest some darker shading to the girl painting on my left. I take another look at the scene I'm supposed to be creating - a beautiful sunset over the river Liffey with a terrifyingly intricate looking silhouette of the Ha'penny Bridge in the foreground - and pick up the paintbrush again, trusting Aisling's assertion that I will eventually make it to (the currently unimaginable) stage 6 of the creative process: This is awesome.

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Aisling Kearney Burke is our master artist and teacher for tonight. The bubbly Galway-based artist is also the founder of Paintclub - an events company specialising in nights out where patrons paint... and drink. Tonight's event takes place in the glasshouse at a swanky Dublin city centre bar and there's a nervous energy as everyone takes their seats at tables and bar stools, staring a little fearfully at the blank canvasses in front of us. A self-conscious titter ripples around the room as Aisling jokingly warns us of the six-stage creative process ahead: (1) This is awesome; (2) This is tricky; (3) This is crap; (4) I am crap; (5) This might be OK and (6) This is awesome.

Then it's on to the rules of Paintclub. "The first rule of Paintclub is... talk about Paintclub," laughs Aisling. "Tell your friends, tell everybody!" But it's clear, looking around the packed room, that the word is already out. There's about 30 of us here and the event is sold out, just like it almost always is.

Job done: Paint Club’s Aisling Kearney Burke with fledging artist Chrissie Russell
Job done: Paint Club’s Aisling Kearney Burke with fledging artist Chrissie Russell

Pop-up painting events, usually held in bars and known as 'the paint and sip industry', are booming at the moment. When Aisling Kearney Burke first launched Paintclub in May 2015 she was organising one public event every two months. Last week her company hosted six events in one day in venues all across Ireland. Paintclub's 14-strong team now boasts a mix of full-time and casual employees, all of whom are artists. Or at least until recently… such has been the success of the venture, they've had to employ a dedicated, non-creative mind to manage the administration and accounts.

"In my original business plan I said I wanted to put a paintbrush in the hand of half the population of Ireland," laughs Aisling. "We might not be quite there yet but we're not doing too badly. We've expanded to seven locations across the country and we're producing about 550 canvases per month."

To the best of her knowledge, Aisling, who has a degree in Fine Art (painting) from Limerick School of Art & Design, was one of the first, if not the first, company offering pop-up public paint and sip classes in Ireland. Now a cursory look online will bring up an abundance of event listings encouraging you to pair your night-out glass of Sauvignon blanc with a blank canvas as well.

The concept is fairly straightforward. Everyone in the group - with direction provided by the artist - is trying to produce the same painting. Art materials are provided and (crucially) there's usually a glass of something alcoholic to hand too. Prices for events, which tend to last two to three hours, cost around €35, there's usually about 30 people in the class and you get to keep your 'masterpiece' at the end.

The clever concept of mixing booze with brushstrokes in a social setting first emerged in America. In 2007 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, pals Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney wanted to establish a fun, cheap night out to lift people's spirits and created Painting With a Twist (then known as Corks N Canvas). "Some people thought we were a little crazy," Deano has been quoted as saying. "But you know what? Alcohol, movies and make-up don't suffer during the bad times because they make you feel better about yourself. People were looking for a break. We sold out immediately." They franchised the concept and now operate in 39 states with a whopping 11 million canvasses under their belt.

Dublin-based American expat Britt Beckert fully expected the paint and sip industry to be as available in Ireland as it was in her homeland. But when she went to organise a night out for her visiting sisters, and couldn't find one, she saw an opportunity to set up her own instead. Since launching Paint by the Pints last year, she's seen her company explode in growth, going from one or two events per month to up to nine events in a week.

Assistant Gabriel Marques gives a helping hand
Assistant Gabriel Marques gives a helping hand

"Paint and sip does seem to be a booming industry, especially in Dublin where it has grown rapidly in the last year," says Britt. "We're usually booked out up to a month in advance, especially for hens, team buildings and even blogger events since it is an aesthetically pleasing setting."

Ah of course, the Insta-kids and their love of a good background... There's often a tendency to put the millennial market front and centre to the craft renaissance but, according to paint and sip organisers, this simply isn't the case. Paintclub's clientele tends to range from 25-60 with working mums proving a popular cohort. Paint by the Pints sees a similarly broad patronage. "We've had guests from age 18 to 81 and love having this mix," enthuses Britt. "No one's out of place. You might be sitting beside someone who has painted since childhood or, more likely, someone who hasn't held a paintbrush." Events are a popular option for dates, after work parties and singles. "The best part is that there's no experience required - just relax, put down your phone and paint like you're a kid again."

"We had an 85-year-old in celebrating her birthday with her daughters and granddaughters. We also had the Leinster rugby team in with their partners after a big European win," reveals Kate Buckley who runs Paint and Prosecco. With a sculpturist mum and an architect dad, Kate felt destined to enter a world that combined art with planning. But I'm surprised (and impressed) to hear that she's managed to hook the rugby crown. Because looking around at my fellow painters it has to be said that men, though present, are most definitely in the minority. Statistics for paint and sip events across America put the attendance at such events at 78pc female. "I don't know if it's the 'prosecco' association, or that it's creative, or if men are more worried about getting it wrong but we definitely don't see as many men as women at events," muses Aisling. "When we do, it's usually guys under 35 and often they're from places like Spain and Brazil." The tide seems to be changing a little, though. Her Kildare group has a dedicated fan base of older gents; Dublin is often about 60/40 between females and males and Cork is following suit. Friday nights tend to boast the biggest rates of male participation. "Sometimes they've been dragged by a girlfriend but often end up doing better at it than the girl," reveals Aisling. "I'd love to see more men give it a go, because the ones who do always love it. I held a corporate event for an engineering company where it was 95pc male and all 30 plus and they had a great time. But their boss set it up without telling them what it was and a lot of them said that, if they'd known in advance, then they would never have done it."

Psychologist research has shown that - male or female, old or young - we're often happier having an experience than buying something material, an ethos that paint and sip really taps into. Then there's the long association of art and therapy with the healing power of painting linked to relieving stress, improving the brain's problem solving capability and positive mental health benefits to name but a few. An impressive body of evidence also shows that doing something new reaps rewards, that practicing a new skill can change your brain chemistry improving learning and potentially staving off dementia.

Bar painting with my four-year-old (and depending on how tonight's painting turns out, it might be something I pass off as one of his) I have never painted before. At school I liked drawing, but paint terrified me and I'm more than a little nervous about picking up a paintbrush for the first time at the ripe old age of 38. But there's an undeniable buzz about doing something totally different. It's also completely absorbing: within minutes the nerves abate as concentration kicks in. My brow is furrowed, my tongue sticking out such is my intense focus on trying to create a darker hue of orange.

But don't be lulled into thinking this is a simple paint by numbers exercise. You are the painter and you're encouraged to get creative. Aisling and her two assistants offer instruction and guidance, but that's all, and a quick look around the room reveals that, even though we're all painting the same scene, everyone's painting is different. Beside me is Nadine, a make-up artist and Paintclub virgin like myself. While my attempts at the evening sky are pale and tentative, her palette is vibrant and fiery. My sun has slipped away, hers has gone down in a blaze of glory.

"Yours is so passionate," I whisper enviously. "Yours is great," she replies kindly. We're both a little jealous of the blending achieved by the girl on the next table, who hears us and insists that our work is better. There's a genuinely lovely sense of camaraderie and encouragement in the room as well as a full-on dopamine hit from instantly seeing results. Aisling reckons that's one of the reasons paint and sip has struck such a chord with people. "There are very few things we do nowadays where you can see immediate results. Like if you go to the gym, yes you'll feel good, but you have to go every day for six months to see results! With painting, there's an immediate effect."

There's a very human desire in most of us to create something. We also tend to have a deep yearning to reach out and make social bonds. Put them together and something wonderful happens.

"There's a magic, an electric atmosphere in the room when everyone is having such a good buzz from the sense of accomplishing something. It's just a warm fuzzy feeling when you see people whatsapping their husbands or friends at the end of the event saying 'I did that! I made that'," grins Aisling. "And the best thing is, that will be the first moment they'll have thought of their phone all evening. People say to us 'I forgot to check my phone or drink my drink' and you know then that's been a great event - you got the magic." She laughs, "I sound high, but I honestly just want to get people painting."

For busy folk and commitment-phobes there's an extra bonus as paint and sip events offer the chance to indulge artistic aspirations without any need to sign up to a 10- week course or purchase costly equipment.

Interestingly though, the industry does get a lot of repeat customers. The two friends sitting beside me reveal this is their fifth or sixth event and such is their blossoming confidence that they bravely decide to go for 'the big canvas' option at tonight's workshop. Aisling tells of one Dublin customer now on her 21st event. She sees return clients growing more confident, not just in their painting, but in themselves. One woman changed her college degree to something more creative, another opened a small card -making business.

Repeat custom is of course the holy grail of any business, so too is the lucrative corporate world. Traditional 'team building' exercises like paintball might have been only accessible (or desirable) to more physically able, younger members of staff, but paint and sip is open to all. At Giddy Studios in Dundrum, Helena Dilleen reckons corporate bookings for creative classes have gone up by 300pc in the past year, spurred on by better understanding of the links between innovation and creativity. Big industry names like Twitter, LinkedIn and Google are just some of the clients on Paintclub's impressive CV.

Understandably, Aisling isn't keen to publicly flaunt her accounts but when she talks about aspirations of eventually reaching a turnover of €1m annually, it isn't a wholly unrealistic figure. The paint and sip model is a lucrative one. I'm out on a Tuesday night and our painting room is by far the most packed part of the bar. "The bars are only too happy to have us," reveals Aisling, and because of that, there's no fee for room rental. Thirty ticket sales at €35 a pop and limited outgoings on materials and staff? Well, you do the math. But of course any bubble can burst. Stateside a saturated market has seen many paint and sip companies look at diversification offering flower workshops, candle making and sign designing classes on top of painting options.

"I'm not stupid, this is the new thing to do right now, the new painting thing that people like but there will be a life span to it," says Aisling frankly. "As a company, it's my aim to move in a direction where we're sustainable and where I can provide work for my artists. I want to enjoy this while it lasts and while there's demand there, but I also don't want to be a flash in the pan. I believe 100pc that we can be sustainable, but we just have to be smart about it."

The Irish market, she agrees, has become more congested in the past four years. "But there's something for everyone," she says diplomatically. "We believe 100pc in what we offer and the quality of the paintings and we come up with original paintings." She also likes to challenge her customers with high standards of artwork. "In the US, some of the Facebook groups show paintings that are fun but a five-year-old could have done them - I want people to feel a real sense of accomplishment. That feeling of 'Oh My God, I can't believe I just did that."

Paint by the Pints prides itself on its charitable side, donating €1 for each canvas to Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI) where Britt volunteers. They also run BYOB nights, collaborations with Chinnery Gin and even a Bring Your Own Dog event. At Paint and Prosecco, Kate likes to offer guests a 'bespoke experience' with surprise extras like complimentary sweets and fun decorations.

Fine art and fine wine is a good pairing. But if you're looking for tales of amateur artists gone wild, I'm afraid there's nothing much to report on that front. A loud guffaw when someone accidentally dips their paint-brush into their beverage is about as raucous as it gets.

"Drinking too much is never an issue," agrees Kate. "It's always a very civilised affair." In fact, Paint and Prosecco recently launched a popular afternoon tea concept. "I think, more than ever, people are enjoying one or two drinks rather than binge drinking," she continues. "People are more health conscious but at the weekend they do like having a glass of bubbles to unwind. Our classes offer that perfect Instagram 'a weekend well spent brings a week of content' vibe."

Given that most artists will take days, if not weeks or months, to create a painting, it's an impressive feat that paint and sip events aim to achieve the same thing in just a few hours. Paintings are cleverly selected to appeal to a broad range of palates (and palettes) with landscapes and city skylines a popular option.

Shelving doubts about my own skyline, I crack on with the fiendish bridge and something magical happens - it all somehow comes together. It's certainly not perfect, but I'm delighted with it. By the end we're all grinning like school children, taking photos and exchanging enthusiastic critiques of each other's skills before carefully carrying our artworks out the door. One chap shouts over his, thanking Aisling for a great event. "I'll definitely be back," he beams. "Me too," I think, "this is awesome."


Photography by Kyle Tunney

Irish Independent

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