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Party arty at Paint Nite

Let’s preface by saying this isn’t a kindergarten art class. In front of each student is a blank canvas, paintbrushes and plastic plates that double as palettes. Red Solo cups are filled to the brim with a poison you don’t want to mistake as your drink: paint water. Flashes of light signal “before” selfies (showing empty canvases). It’s 7:00 p.m. and someone shouts, “Cheers.” Participants clink their brushes together and “woo” in excitement as they look wide-eyed to the front of the room. Julie Cote introduces herself as a social painting instructor and, in a high pitch that conveys only enthusiasm, says, “Welcome to Paint Nite!”

It’s a Thursday night at Mambo Nuevo Latino restaurant in the ByWard Market. Cote stands in a lime green smock which is uniformly worn by the sold-out crowd—in this case, 36 participants who fill over two-thirds of the restaurant.  Only three of them are men. And with only three returning painters, anticipation thickens as the whispering dies.

Mixing painting and alcohol, this pop-up experience is known as “social painting” and is held in local bars, pubs or restaurants, encouraging the slogan, “Drink creatively.” For each event, a social painting instructor prepares a prototype painting for the lesson, and provides necessary art supplies. Tonight Cote points to a painting called Fall Tree Road, and explains that in the next two to three hours, each painter will have her or his own version to take home.

‘Going from a blank canvas to finished product is amazing, and of course the alcohol helps.’  Ajaz Hussain, CEO of Paint Nite Canada

Tap into your inner Gauguin

Social Painting Instructor, Julie Cote stands at the front of the room instructing the group on their next steps for Fall Tree Road. Photo © Bethany Rubin.

Social painting instructor Julie Cote guides the group’s next brush strokes for Fall Tree Road.
[Photo © Bethany Rubin]

Although instructors give step-by-step directions on how to replicate the presented painting, Cote encourages her students to colour outside the lines: thus enabling participants to dip brushes into their innate creative ability and produce their own unique paintings.

But the painters don’t just come away with a new piece of art that will either hang on their wall or collect dust in their basement. Cote explains the experience itself can be therapeutic. Still pointing to the Fall Tree Road model, she says, “When we start painting the leaves on the trees, I need you to channel your anger from your daily life.” The painters will then stab—or dab—the painting, to give a depth to the leaves that would otherwise be missing. Sound complicated? Not only can you choose an event based on the level of difficulty the piece will present, but prior painting experience is not required—even for instructors.

Erin Reece, a social painting instructor in Toronto, says she never painted before attending a Paint Nite event in November 2013. While painting, Reece says, she fell in love with the experience, calling it relaxing and eye opening, as it revealed a gift she never knew she had. While she works five to six nights a week as a social painting instructor, Reece also works part time as a criminal defence law clerk.

A drinks party with vision

Paint Nite can’t be brushed off as just another fad. According to Paint Nite’s website, the social painting experience is now in 90 U.S. cities and 18 cities internationally and hosts approximately 2,500 events each month. This incorporated company was co-founded in March 2012 by Sean McGrail and Dan Hermann, two Bostonians who were inspired after attending a friend’s party where they painted pictures while drinking wine and beer.

Working side-by-side two artists paint the same image with their results strikingly similar yet different. Photo © Bethany Rubin.

Two versions of the model painting Birdie Love show intriguing differences.
[Photo © Bethany Rubin]

“Going from a blank canvas to finished product is amazing, and of course the alcohol helps,” says, with a laugh, Ajaz Hussain, CEO of Paint Nite Canada. Hussain first learned about Paint Nite through Hermann, who was a student of his in economics and marketing at Babson College in Boston. With no prior experience in art, Hussain says he realized this event was especially fun for people who had never painted before, like himself. He brought Paint Nite to Canada in 2013.

“It brings people together,” Hussain says, explaining that it provides a setting for people to bond and have a good time. He says although most people come with friends, the experience also attracts individuals, who share in the powerful group dynamic. “You’re drinking and doing a creative activity; it’s a great way for people to interact.” The camaraderie and creativity, he says, supply an attractive alternative to just going to a bar.

Social painting instructors are told to create a no-shame zone, which removes the element of negative critique and promotes positive vibes for yourself and your neighbour. Instructor Reece says she wants to impart a stress-free zone, to help give the painters an escape from daily cares.

Throughout North America, businesses such as Paint Lounge, Paint Social Art and Social Artworking—to name a few—have popped up, mimicking Paint Nite’s social painting experience since it began three years ago. While Paint Lounge’s website mentions that it launched in 2010, before Paint Nite, it is available only in three cities, all in Ontario, and with a mere 3,768 Facebook likes, as compared with Paint Nite’s 21,122.  When comparing the various companies’ popularity on social media, Paint Nite has yet to be beat. Paint Social Art has 8,163 likes; however, it is available only in certain cities in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

According to an article by Barbara Quick on the Yahoo Small Business website, social media acts as one contributor that paints Paint Nite as popular. The article says McGrail and Hermann calculate that 35 percent of Paint Nite’s ticket sales are due to people tagging themselves and posting about their experience on social media sites. The participants with Cote at Mambo Nuevo Latino admit they learnt of Paint Nite predominantly through emails from Groupon, a website that recommends a “deal of the day” to customers by providing an electronic coupon for activities in select areas. The site usually offers up to 46 percent off of Paint Nite. This means the cost of your night out would drop from $50.85 plus tax to $27.46—not including your cost of drinks.

Bride-to-be Nicole Shievitz starts and finishes her Birdie Love rendition. [Photo © Bethany Rubin]

On Nov. 1, 2014, Nicole Shievitz, a medical general practitioner, was surprised by her friends in Toronto with a Paint Nite party to celebrate her bachelorette. Shievitz was always an artistic child but never pursued it further than high school art class. She says she would attend Paint Nite again, time allowing, but not necessarily on a weekly basis. Instructor Reece says she has seen several bachelorette parties, and that girls’ night, birthdays and co-workers’ team building are also popular. Reece says there are countless memorable moments, specifically recalling one where a gentleman proposed, via canvas, to his date.

It’s 9:36 p.m., and flashes of light betoken “after” selfies with freshly signed masterpieces. A woman with a paintbrush in one hand and an almost empty wine glass in the other begins cackling at the sight of her painting: “I don’t know if I needed less wine or more wine!” The other painters respond with laughter, “More is always better.” As Cote takes a group picture to place on Paint Nite’s Facebook page the next morning, her assistant cleans up the mess. The fulfilled amateur artists begin to drift out the door—or back to the bar. It may not be karaoke, book club or speed dating, but it’s providing a new alternative to a typical night out.

[Front page photo © Bethany Rubin]