Paint-and-existential crisis

Paint & sip studios are all over Sacramento. Is it real art?

“BJ” Jones, the master artist and instructor at Hue Paint & Sip on March 2. She created the original “Ride Along” piece that everyone learned to paint.

“BJ” Jones, the master artist and instructor at Hue Paint & Sip on March 2. She created the original “Ride Along” piece that everyone learned to paint.

Photos by Reid Fowler

To schedule a night at Hue Paint & Sip, visit Tickets are typically $39. Materials include a 16x20 paint canvas, apron, paint and brushes.

At Hue Paint & Sip Studio on a recent Saturday, rows of easels held identical canvases, blank except for pencil-stenciled outlines of the same step-through bicycle frame.

These graphite guidelines take the infinite possibilities of the blank canvas away, making the prospect of filling it up with paint more approachable and limited.

The master artist and instructor for the evening, “BJ” Jones, created the original “Ride Along” piece—along with every other colorful painting in the purple-accented, oversized wine glass-endowed establishment in East Sacramento.

There are many options for paint-and-sip events in Sacramento. It’s trendy, approachable and everywhere: at local restaurants, in private homes or in `new venues including Jacqueline Johnson’s studio. In fact, the city has a seemingly endless supply of paint nights, featuring smocked painters lined up in a row—all working on the same exact painting.

Paint-and-sip nights feature all the undeniably agreeable super-hits: beautiful beaches, moonlit meadows, towering trees and pleasant pets—but are they too agreeable?

The painters

Cara Gregor of Cara Emilia Designs works as a creative employee at Heringer Estates, the Clarksburg vineyard and winery. She got her foot in the paint-sip door through the company, but now holds her own classes at venues and parties throughout Sacramento and Davis.

A few years ago, when Heringer Estates decided to start running paint-and-sip events, Gregor, who was in the sales department, was tapped for the job. She’d never been to a paint night, but her lifelong love of painting took the wheel.

For Gregor, bringing art into people’s lives has been a largely positive experience. A typical paint-and-sip lasts a couple hours and leads participants through the steps of recreating a pre-made painting. It’s an ideal outing for someone who doesn’t necessarily think of themselves as an artist.

“This is the interesting thing about art,” Gregor said. “People are not used to being creative, necessarily, all the time, and they’re not used to being around art supplies. But we were all around art supplies in kindergarten and preschool.”

Maxfield Morris, learning how to paint “BJ” Jones’ red bicycle. Will he become just another smiling paint-and-sipper by the end of the night?

There are many fun-night-out paint classes going on around Sacramento. Some of them mix paint with wine, coffee or beer—not literally. Gregor’s classes share the space and libations of coffee shops and breweries, such as Philz Coffee and Sactown Union Brewery, and put people in a mindset where they’re willing to try new things.

From local brick-and-mortar studios to national franchises that paint in restaurants, there are a slew of weekly options, including the Painted Cork, Hue Paint Studio and Yaymaker Sacramento (formerly Paint Nite).

A night of painting ranges from $20 to $60; food and drinks can be purchased from host venues or brought from home, depending on policies.

Davina Vargas, Yaymaker Sacramento’s regional general manager, says there can be 120 to 220 local paint nights in a given month—good numbers, she says, competitive with Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“Sacramento is doing really well,” Vargas said. “Sacramento, for one, has the income for it and, for two, has the people who are up for coming out and trying new things.”

This echoes a recent city survey about the creative proclivities of Sacramento, which showed 51 percent of those polled considered themselves “an artist, craftsperson, or creative worker.”

That’s a big market, and it makes sense that more businesses are providing art-themed activities.

Yaymaker’s recent name change was an effort to shift from the increasingly ubiquitous “Paint Nite” and distinguish itself from the growing competition.

Yaymaker has some advantages—such as large data insights on customer preferences. With more than 20,000 artist-submitted paintings in its system available for use in 1,800 cities, the company can see what subjects do best.

“A lot of things with flowers and mountains have done well,” Vargas said. “Things that have to do with pets do really well … Those sell like crazy. Dogs, cats, animals; people love to paint that stuff.”

The top Yaymaker painting is by a Boston artist named Andrea Soto, called “Lola in the Fall,” a silhouette of a woman in a multicolored dress. It’s grossed around $32,000 for the artist—$10 for every time it’s used.

Are you in there, Maxfield? We’re kidding, he’s fine! He actually had a good time.

Across the country, paintings that appeal to the most people are being reused over and over in classes; imagine all those copies of “Lola in the Fall” out in the world.

Nearly everything we own is mass-produced by the hundreds of thousands, but some believe that by definition, art should be unique.

Tamara Jackson used to run painting classes featuring a different creative instigator: cannabis. “It all happened for me by fluke,” she said. “I can only paint when I’m high. That’s where it started.”

She stopped holding puff-and-paint nights because it was difficult to find cannabis-friendly venues, but her classes could also get weird. Once, her students were painting a pond and one woman wanted to add some fish—and there happened to be a package of Goldfish crackers laying around. “She took the Goldfish crackers and she glued them to her painting,” Jackson said.

The structure of traditional paint-and-sips was something she wanted to avoid. “At the end of the night, their pictures look the same,” she said. “You drew the outline for me and I was able to stay in the lines. Wow. When I’m doing the puff-and-paint parties, everybody’s picture is so different.”

Back in the studio

Often, paint and sip is like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. That’s how I ended up behind the brush, tasked with painting the same bicycle so many others have painted.

The paint-and-sip experience at Hue feels a lot like riding in an airplane. You hear the enthusiastically explained rules for the evening, you place drink orders from your seat and there’s virtually no chance of a crash—it’s pretty swanky.

Part of me chafes at the structure, but another part loves just filling in lines with paint. All across the room, small deviations from the sample painting feel like big victories. You can choose what colors to use; you can be bold or toned down. It’s an encouraging environment.

BJ is in performance mode the entirety of the nearly three-hour class—the most impressive aspect of the evening. She has been doing these kinds of classes for about five years, and she produced all of the studio’s rotating paintings over a three-week period.

I feel conflicted. I don’t want to make the same thing as a room full of people. I want to stand out. With billions of people on the planet, little reminders that you’re not special cut deeply. Who cares if my bike was red or purple—what will I have to show for my life when it’s over? Does anything I do matter?

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can blame existential dread exclusively on paint-and-sip. It makes painting more approachable. It’s a cathartic way to spend an evening.

Is it art? Well, it made me question my place in this city, the world and the universe—so, yes.