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An Artist's Experience of Doing a Performance Painting

I am going to school for art education so that I can teach high school art. I want to inspire young people to be the best that they can be.

I painted this while the concert band played "Mars, the Bringer of War" by Gustav Holst.

I painted this while the concert band played "Mars, the Bringer of War" by Gustav Holst.

I Volunteer as Tribute

When I first heard about the opportunity to do a live painting, I jumped. I boldly volunteered myself with utter confidence and excitement. I had overheard my art teacher asking another girl to do the painting, but she was very cautious and hesitant and did not want to do it. That is when I volunteered as tribute.

After I volunteered, I was extremely excited about this opportunity. I told all of my friends and family and made social media events for people to RSVP. My grandma even made plans to drive the four hours to come and see me. She planned to come to this instead of my graduation and everything!

I have always wanted to do a live painting—ever since I found out that it was a thing that people actually did. Music definitely inspires me. When I hear good music, I can't stand still. I bounce and twirl and tap and boogie-oogie-woogie all over the place. I have a lot of ideas for what kind of paintings I want to make to music. So of course I was pumped to have this opportunity knock on my door.

I wasn't the only one who was going to paint live, either. They had an elementary student, a high school student, and a college student (me) so that they could have multiple levels of skill represented. I was just really glad that I wouldn't have to go up there alone because, even though I was really excited, I was also a little nervous.

This is the painting that I made while the choir sang "Ignea Vis" by J. Michael Saunders.

This is the painting that I made while the choir sang "Ignea Vis" by J. Michael Saunders.

Nervous Nelly

Like I said, I was nervous. Not just a little nervous, either, I was crazy nervous. I wasn't nervous at first because I was so excited, but the closer the day got, the more I worried. There were two other painters, one who was very skilled and one who was a child. I didn't want to have my painting look comparable to the child's painting, and I wanted to make sure that I was better than the other girl since I was older and supposed to be at least a little better.

I even lost sleep because I was so nervous. I had 8 am classes, but I stayed up until 2 am thinking about this painting I had to do more than once or twice. I made sketches and listened to the song "Ignea Vis" by J. Michaels Saunders sung by many a choir thousands of times. I wrote notes and even made some practice paintings.

Then, two days before I was supposed to perform, I found out that they wanted to do a second painting. Originally I was only supposed to paint for the choir, but then the band director decided he wanted me and the others to do a painting during one of his songs too. Can you imagine my nerves?

To make things worse, the practice paintings I made looked like I took a shit on them and smeared them around. I'm not even kidding. I had lost all hope at that point. I even thought about how to get out of it, but I also knew that I had to go through with it for myself because I knew deep down I really wanted to do it.

I almost reached a state of depression just hours before my painting. I had to pray with my husband before and think about all of the other people wishing me luck to start feeling better.

Ignea Vis Painting

Right before I went on, I decided that I might as well just paint a flower. The song is something about a "fiery vitality" or something like that. The whole song is in Latin and was written in the medieval times by Hildegard von Bingen, who was a Jane of all trades. I wanted to try to incorporate her into my first painting, hence the weird profile in my first try at this painting. Anyway, because it was in Latin, I had no idea what the song was really about. I tried to look up the lyrics, but I couldn't find them. The choir teacher did have a translation, but my art teacher wouldn't let him give it to me because he didn't want me to have unnecessary imagery. The choir teacher thought they would end up more abstract anyway.

I felt kind of like a sellout, choosing to paint a flower, but it ended up being amazing. I tried to make it look sort of fiery and vibrant to go along with what I thought the song may be about. When I listened to it before, it always made me think of nature and beauty. I loved the painting I came up with and even had multiple offers on it.


"Mars, the Bringer of War" Painting

After making the "Ignea Vis" flower painting, I felt amazing. Then, I had no idea what to do for the next painting. I did a lot of brainstorming in just a short amount of time. I talked to the band performers about what they thought and we came up with a great idea. I had one of the flute players pose for me and it was settled.

I decided to paint an angry eye because Mars is bringing the war, so he is probably angry. I made it red because the planet Mars is red. I knew that it would look a little like the eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings, but I didn't care because he brings war too.

I painted with the music a lot more for this one, too. I really got into the rhythm and all that sort of stuff. I even shook my booty at the audience a few times, on accident, really. I told you already that I can't control myself when I hear good music!

The Live Painting Experience

I've explained my experience from before the painting and how I decided what to paint, but now I'll describe what it was like to actually be on stage painting in front of people.

When I walked on stage, I just focused on where I was going. I didn't look at the crowd at all until after I was done with my first painting. When the music started, I just started painting. I did my best to paint with the same flow of the song. I knew I was painting a vibrant, fiery flower, so I just painted that. I made sure to use a lot of paint, putting it on nice and thick. It dripped, and I liked that. I didn't use a sketch or anything, either. I just focused on how the beautiful colors blended and mixed. I only had about seven minutes for each painting, so I really had to nail it and fast.

The flower painting was easier than the eye because flowers can look like almost anything. Eyes are different because people know what eyes look like and they aren't supposed to look wrong. At first, I made the eye too long and thin, so I had to make it thicker. At first, it looked like I had ruined the painting, but in the end, it made it so much better.

Live painting is a lot of quick decisions. Making the structural change to that eye was a quick decision. All of the colors were quick choices too. All of the details had to come on their own. I hadn't originally planned to outline the flower, but I did and I think it really made the painting.

Last of all, I believe that showmanship comes naturally, for the most part. Like I said, there were two other painters. The girl who was just a little younger than me and who was a really good painter just wasn't a show person. Both of her paintings were boring and from what I've heard she wasn't fun to watch either. Even though she can make amazing paintings, making amazing paintings in front of people in only seven minutes is completely different.

I say that the ability to be a performer comes mostly naturally because I did actually practice this. When I made my practice painting, I had a friend watch. She gave me tips about what would look better as I was painting, like stepping aside to "think" so the audience could see the painting a little better. We also decided that I should paint expressively because it was more interesting and fit the bill better.

A Good Conclusion

Overall, I loved making the paintings live, once I got over my nerves. I liked it so much that I want to do it again and again! I may even start a business of live painting at parties. I hope to get asked to paint during a concert again at some point. I am hoping that having the experience will help.

Art is what I am passionate about and now I am really excited to add another layer of depth to the painting of my life. Okay, I know that was a little cheesy, but it is true. I am so excited to be able to have real confidence in making live paintings now that I know I can do and I know that I am good at it, even without a sketch.

Advice for Aspiring Speed and Performance Painters

If you want to do a performance painting of some sort, my top piece of advice is this: PRACTICE.

If I hadn't practiced and come out with my crappy paintings, I wouldn't have been able to make my beautiful ones. In my personal artistic process, my first ideas are almost always my absolute worst. However, I can't come up with anything better until I got that idea out somehow. I either have to make the bad piece or at least make a sketch of the bad piece so that I can stop thinking about it and move on. Another reason to practice is so that you can become familiar with the process and time frame. When I made my first paintings, the songs actually went a lot longer than I thought they would and I ran out of room to paint. I also made sure to buy the same paint that would be provided to practice with so that I could be familiar with that too.

Besides practicing, it is also good to know what kind of setup you will have. Are you going to provide your own paints? What colors will you use? Is washability a factor? If so, tempera paint works well. That is what I had to use for my paintings. Otherwise, acrylic paint is a good choice because it applies thicker and dries glossy while tempera dries flat. Acrylic basically dries as plastic, though, so it isn't good if there is going to be a lot of cleanup. Watercolor could work if you are brave and/or know what you are doing with it. I don't think I would be confident enough with watercolors. Are you going to have them on the floor or are you going to have some sort of table or bench to have them at easier reach? (I used a little artist side table thing with drawers and it worked really nicely for me and I was really glad my paints weren't on the floor). How is your canvas going to be set up? Or are you using paper? Do you have an easel? What about a drop cloth? You will probably need one of those. What containers are your paints going in and will you have or need water for your brushes? What kind of brushes are you going to use?

I used a 98-cent 2-inch brush that had crappy bristles and it worked out. A lot of speed painters like hog-hair-type brushes with stiff, sturdy bristles because they can take a beating as you bust out a painting. There are a thousand more questions you could ask yourself to be prepared with a setup (who is providing what, location, are you the only one performing, does your stuff have to move out of the way quickly, etc.), but there is also something else that I think is important to keep in mind.

You should also think about what you are going to paint. For the few weeks I had before my paintings, people asked over and over and over again, "What are you going to paint?" I kept telling them that I didn't know and that it was supposed to be more abstract. However, after thinking about it a lot, I decided abstract was the wrong way to go. Painting ANYTHING would be much more impressive than spreading the paint around in an abstract way. Boy was I right. The other two painters (granted one was an elementary school kid) did abstract paintings and I don't think they were as interesting as mine. I know abstract art can be amazing and interesting and intriguing.

Don't get me wrong, I love abstract art and I love to make abstract art. The thing is that real abstract art takes time and process and practice and many, many different experiments to get the right blend of colors and mark-making. Anyone can walk up to a canvas and sling paint around and call it art, though. If you are going to do a speed painting, I highly suggest thinking of something to paint. You can paint loose and in an expressionist sort of way while still having some sort of subject matter. You will impress yourself and others much more if you do this and impressing people is how you can sell paintings. Flowers and eyes are pretty basic and rather overdone subjects, but man, do they sell.

I know art isn't about making money, it is so much more than that, but there is nothing wrong with making money from something that you love to do. But, to make money, you may have to make the work that people want to buy, on top of the work that you want to make. And, if you are lucky, eventually the work you make will be the work that people want to buy, but you have to start somewhere and not everyone can start out making what they want to make the thing that people want to buy.

Making something that someone else wants to buy, even if it is not your true style, is a way of building credibility. When you apply to galleries and things like that, they will be impressed if you have sold a lot of paintings and have a large following. It is a way to get your voice heard, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the best canvas to use for about 10 feet by 10 feet painting?

Answer: 10' x 10' is huge, I would first suggest trying something a little smaller, especially since 10' is taller than an average interior wall, which is typically around 8' tall. Being able to paint that entire surface as a speed painting would be very difficult, though I'm sure it is not impossible. I just know I would definitely not be able to reach the top and would have a hard time going back and forth so much. If you are set on that size, you will probably have to custom order materials. There are probably companies that have banner type materials in the size you need, but industry standard is typically 8' at the widest, and is then on a roll. I am sure that large format printers would have at least up to 12' wide though. You may be able to search for large format printing in your area or look online to see what you can find. You may have to call to custom order the blank material and have it shipped. You may be able to find an actual canvas to use, but it will not be affordable, plus if it does not come primed you will need to prime it since speed painting relies on the paint going on fairly smoothly which would not happen on an unprimed canvas. Typical banner material would be smooth enough already but may be too smooth and the paint may not stick as well and you may get a lot of extra dripping. Getting something 10' x 10' is just not something that you will likely be able to easily find locally. Again, I would suggest a little smaller. I have worked on a 4' x 4' canvas, which is easier to find or make, and that was a great size. It was big enough to make an impact yet small enough to be somewhat manageable. That one was stretched so transporting it was a little difficult because even 4' x 4' does not fit into a regular vehicle. We had to carefully lean it in a pickup bed. The 10' x 10' would likely need to be loose. You could probably figure out a way to tie it up to do the painting but would need it to be able to fold or roll to get it transported anywhere for the most part. I hope this answer was helpful and that you are able to figure something out that will work for you. Good luck on your painting, I would love to see how it turned out and what worked!


Hannah Beam (author) on February 19, 2020:

Hey Jimbo!

I personally do not sketch on the canvas normally before painting. It kind of depends on how fast the painting needs to be. On my 10 minute paintings I did not sketch on the canvas, but I did some sketches beforehand. I always do plenty of sketching and smaller practice pieces beforehand. I did about a 5-6 minute painting once and I did sketch a little on that one. Just a basic outline and a few small refeence points. That one I started with a black canvas so the pencil lines were hard to see. For the most part, the audience will be far enough back that they will not be able to see light sketching on either black or white canvases and the painting comes together quick enough that they don't notice pencil lines, if they are there. Another strategy is to just use a few small lines or points as a guide or reference as opposed to an entire sketch.

jimbo on February 18, 2020:

Do you sketch an image on the canvas BEFORE beginning? I see many performance artists following what appears to be some sort of a rough sketch on the surface. I was wondering how they hide the lines from spectators?