Let's paint the town

At Paint Nite at Cavanaugh's Headhouse, instructor Jennifer Scott (right) leads a class. The art-in-a-bar phenomenon has reached 60 U.S. and Canadian cities.
At Paint Nite at Cavanaugh's Headhouse, instructor Jennifer Scott (right) leads a class. The art-in-a-bar phenomenon has reached 60 U.S. and Canadian cities. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

The phrase takes on new meaning at local bars where art lessons mix with libations.

Posted: December 26, 2013

Shortly after 7 on a recent Saturday evening, the drinking got underway at Susan Carroll's bachelorette party.

And so did the painting.

This was no freaky fete with 16 bawdy women on a bender. Rather, the women were part of a social phenomenon spreading across the Philadelphia region that mixes art instruction and alcohol in bars and storefronts.

This traveling outfit is called Paint Nite. But there's also Painting With a Twist, which holds sessions in a fixed studio, and 25 aspiring artists cart their booze and snacks with them. Last year in Warminster, the Uncorked Artist opened in a historic tavern with a 15-foot fireplace.

At Paint Nite, in a back room at Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co. on South Street, 50 budding Rembrandts sat in front of propped-up 16-by-20-inch canvases, dabbing, stroking, and wiping - as the waitstaff delivered crispy calamari and gin-and-tonics.

"My friends didn't tell me where I was going. All they said was to dress casually," said Carroll, 57, of Broomall, as she brushed her surface with wine-red acrylic. "We're having so much fun."

Because of the art or the alcohol? "Both!" she said, laughing.

Paint Nite has expanded to 19 bars across the city and has inched into Ardmore, Holland, and Paoli since it arrived on the Philly scene in June.

No art talent is required for the two-hour sessions costing $45. Sign-ups are done online. Included are smocks, paints, brushes, canvases, and guided instructions to re-create a sample painting. Reveling in the spirits, er, spirit, of the season, winter scenes to paint - such as Snowy Rainbow River, Blue Winter Plain,Snowman, and Winter Sun - are on the January schedule.

Back at Headhouse Crab, instructor Jennifer Scott circled the room giving tips to her eager pupils. Tonight's rendering was a still-life scene of a goblet against a golden background.

"They all make the same painting, but with a personal angle," said Scott, 37, a classically trained artist from the Northeast. "People are often more relaxed painting here than in a community center, where it can be more daunting, and where they're afraid to fail."

Most of the customers who attend are women - but not always.

"We all got discount tickets on Groupon," said Pete Rushing, 30, of West Deptford, gesturing to himself and three female friends. When told he was the lone guy in the room, he asked surprisingly, "I am?" - and then looked around and shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's a bonding experience - with alcohol."

This was Lisa Stanton's third time at a Paint Nite. "Once, I painted a firefly and gave it to my sister for her birthday. The other time, I did a tree with the sun. I kept that one," said Stanton, 50, of Prospect Park. And tonight's sketch? "I've messed it up. But I don't care, I'm enjoying myself."

Paint Nite is the brainchild of Boston friends Sean McGrail, 40, and Dan Hermann, 42, who dreamed up the art-in-a-bar idea in 2012, after they went to a friend's painting party.

The dynamic has been a successful collaboration in commerce for the Paint Nite entrepreneurs and bar owners - patrons pay for art lessons, while they open their wallets a little more to wine and dine. "People have been drinking and painting for millennia," said McGrail.

Already in nearly 60 cities across the United States and Canada, Paint Nite will soon come to London. It has been so successful that McGrail said they were on pace to top $10 million in revenue by January.

Stacey Vey, 50, co-owner of Stir Lounge near Rittenhouse Square, said her bar's Sunday Paint Nites usually bumped up income about 20 percent. "It's always a good crowd."

A few blocks away, Jeff Land and his date, Kristine Overbeck, both from Marlton, had brought two bottles of wine to the newly opened Painting With a Twist in a former restaurant and supply store on Passyunk Avenue.

"I did this when I lived in Ohio. I take pictures for a living. I can't really draw," joked Land, 30, a photographer.

"It's a great date night," Overbeck, 26, said between sips of wine.

Across the table, birthday girl Jacqueline Edmond-Long, of Lansdowne, who was turning 46, giggled with 12 of her besties as they admired each other's paintings of a wineglass. A side table was set up with chicken appetizers, canap├ęs, and a cake.

"I'm a little creative," Edmond-Long said, "but I've never done anything like this before."

Painting With a Twist owner Jan Larson, 56, a physician, said her weekend $35 paint-and-sips have been selling out since she opened three months ago. "It's really catching on. I'm like other people who work for big corporations and are hungry for a creative outlet. It's been a great escape for me."

Painting With a Twist franchise founders Cathy Deano, 59, said she and her friend Renee Maloney, 44, were looking for a way to raise the spirits of their Mandeville, La., community a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Someone suggested art classes.

"At first, we said no. And then I said, 'Well, what if we could drink?' " said Deano, who held the first classes in her backyard. "We had so many people thank us and say, 'You know, for two hours, I didn't think about dealing with my insurance. I just got to have fun.' "

They opened their first brick-and-mortar in 2007 and now have 100-plus franchises nationally, with start-up costs beginning at $75,000. Locally, besides the Queen Village outlet, there also are studios in Exton, Jenkintown, Skippack, and Wayne.

Meanwhile, the business concept keeps growing nearby, with other companies dotting the local landscape.

Colors and Bottles, from the Midwest, has been setting up easels in seven bars around 15th and South Streets for a year and will be adding six bars to the lineup next year, said regional representative Leah St. Clair, 25. "We also do parties in homes, and corporate events."

Tara Smith, 48, who was introduced to the concept in Denver, just opened a North Wales location of the Uncorked Artist, running a frequent-painter program to generate repeat business.

"If someone is nervous when they first come, I tell them, 'Have a seat, take a deep breath, and enjoy your wine,' " said Smith. "After a while, they reach their potential."

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