How I Painted Live at a Wedding

I’m a painter, and I love making live art. As in, while people watch. Yesterday I was hired to paint a couple’s “first dance” live at someone’s wedding reception. As guests cavorted on the dance floor, a woman approached me, astonished. She said emphatically: “I’m from Los Angeles. I’ve seen a lot of things, but I’ve NEVER seen anyone do THIS!”

I was busy painting a double-portrait of a couple dancing during a 5-minute wedding song. You might think, That’s crazy!

Well, it wasn’t a 5-minute painting at all. I planned a process, and it took 12 hours of hard work. Here’s how I did it.

Let me preface my story by inserting a little reminder: God has put more than enough creativity into each person to go around, many times over… so I hope you never compare your own methods or your creativity to others with a spirit of comparison. I hope you never think, “Aw, rats, I can’t do that, because someone’s already doing that.”

That would be like saying, “Rats, someone has already written a song in the key of G.” Don’t think that just because someone else painted live, it means you can’t. Shoot! Even if I painted the same subject twice, it would never yield the same result.

Maybe this story will give you ideas —┬á maybe even painting live with acrylics at a wedding, if that’s what you want to do. ­čÖé It’s some serious fun.

I also must say, live art isn’t for everyone. I relish painting in solitude because it’s just me and God, soaking in the process together. But if you discover that you’re wired to tackle live art, it’s one of the best things on earth. We could start a discussion — share what you’ve done, or if you have questions, please ask. I have many good friends who do live art here in Boise, and it never gets old.

Creating on stage isn’t just for worship services, friends.┬áPersonally I’d love to see more people engaging with the public in this way.

Why is it so powerful?┬áSeeing art unfold is breathtaking, in any context. Artists reflect God’s generosity and hospitality when we invite someone, or lots of someones, to behold our creation process.┬áI’ve painted live at public schools, rock concerts, music festivals, alongside jazz musicians in bars, and for family celebrations. Creating on stage inspires people as they witness visual beauty designed in real time. Something appears from nothing. A beauty that’s here to stay, a testament to this specific moment. It’s unforgettable.

What if we started a live art movement? Oh goodness. Anyway.

Back to my wedding gig.

The day before the wedding (a.k.a “The Rehearsal”), I took photos of the venue, found my ideal vantage point, lugged in my easel, and situated a canvas drop cloth where I wanted it. I even taped clear plastic underneath with gaffer’s tape in case anything soaked through my normal drop cloth, in case the Boise Train Depot didn’t want puddles of Phthalo Blue on their nice floor.

Then I made some color studies with soft pastels (chalk pastels).

I wanted to achieve a warm glow with dramatic lighting, inspired by the artwork of Tyrus Wong, the designer who set the artistic style for Disney’s Bambi.

In retrospect, I wish I had FIRST done a few small (3″ x 4″) value studies using only black and white to achieve a clearer, softer sense of light and create more drama, before making the color studies. Oh well.

The next day was the big wedding day. While the wedding party applied makeup and posed for photos, I was relaxing in the warm, sun-soaked Open Studio at VineArts, enjoying a peaceful time of creating beside friends. I penciled the main lines of my background onto a 24×30″ deep edge canvas.

The background I was pre-drawing reflected the interior architecture of the ballroom, which I didn’t want to figure out “on the fly” during the event. Perspective was extra tricky because of the angle I chose, so I began sketching with vine charcoal for easy erasing of the dusty medium. I even drew vanishing points, which I never do, but you know. Tile floor.

Once I was happy with the composition, I re-traced those light charcoal lines with dark solid pencil, making sure those pencil lines would reassuringly show through my first few transparent washes of acrylic color without washing away and throwing me into a panic.

Then I erased all my dusty vine charcoal lines, so the dust wouldn’t smudge into my paint later when I sprayed it with water.

Finished with drawing the basic shapes, I then practiced figure drawing in a style I wanted to learn from, copying from a book my mom gave me recently.

It’s good to practice, just as live musicians practice before they perform! I don’t hesitate to practice before painting, even worship painting. The whole process is spiritual.

Fast forward to the wedding that same evening: Guests chattered in excitement. I was glad to be stationed in back of the ballroom, not in front, so I could relax and lay out my acrylic colors during the ceremony, spritzing my palette with mists of water to keep the paint fresh. The ceremony was beautiful.

Finally! They’re now pronounced husband and wife! Time to paint!

The first thing, as everyone got in line for dinner, was to spray my canvas generously with water and brush on a variety of warm, vivid acrylics. The colors bled together in interesting ways to tone the whole canvas, getting rid of any white.

During the first 90 minutes of the reception, while people enjoyed dinner and cocktails, I worked on the background, reserving a “glow” where I would put the couple dancing later. I even reminded myself to wrap all colors around to the deep edges of the canvas as I went.

At one point, I noticed water cascading down the power cord for my clip-on light. Hello! I could have died! I patted cord dry with a fluffy rag and moved the cord out of the way.

Ummm, yeah.┬áThanks, Lord, for not letting me electrocute myself at someone’s wedding…

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the couple’s First Dance!” I stopped painting and stepped out from behind the easel. The room hushed. While the couple gazed into each other’s eyes, I zoomed in and recorded them with my iPhone on video mode. I wanted to be able to pause it later and isolate the best frame to portray a posture of being┬átotally in love.

And these two, they are totally in love.

When everyone else took to the dance floor for crazy antics, I reviewed the video, paused it, and made a screenshot of the frame I liked best. I then brought it into Photoshop and increased the contrast dramatically to help me see where to simplify any lost and found edges, for best effect. I lightly drew on top of the now-dried acrylic paint, drawing the figures with vine charcoal and a kneaded eraser before painting. 

People loved watching me paint! Sometimes I chatted with guests as I painted, but mostly I just worked. People told me in tears how much they loved Nikki and Jeff. Wide-eyed kids bounced over to watch me paint. They were adorable and nobody touched my paint supplies.

For the remaining two hours, I finished the figures, as well as the background. I completed the painting just before everyone had to clean up. Happy hugs were everywhere. When I presented it to the young couple, they were elated to tears.

I just love these young kids, and getting their check at the end of the night wasn’t why I did this project; in fact, I didn’t charge much. But the woman from L.A. took my business card and said she might fly me out to California to paint at her son’s wedding next year. That would be fun!

I’ll update this post later with a better photo. Thanks for letting me share my process with you. I’m hoping God will continue to show his artists new, creative ways to facilitate wonder and reflect beauty, both inside and outside of church buildings, to his glory.