On a cold, foggy December evening, a few dozen patrons sat quietly over drinks and dinner in the lower floor of the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Anchorage. Tuesday is usually not a big party night, not in Alaska at the darkest time of year.
But the staff stayed busy, running trays of wings and nachos upstairs where the joint was jumpin' -- not with dancers, but with 50 or so eager amateur artists participating in the far north edition of a national fad called Paint Nite.
Tables were aligned in long rows. Green aprons were draped over the backs of the chairs. Each place had a 16-by-20-inch blank canvas on an easel, large and small brushes, a cup with water for washing the brushes, paper towels and a Styrofoam plate prepared with separate splops of four bright colors -- red, yellow, blue and white -- plus a small splop of black in the middle. First arrivals had ordered their drinks and picked their places as they waited for the class to start.
"I like to arrive an hour and a half to two hours before to make sure everything is situated," said instructor Tasha Webster, one of several instructors hired by the Anchorage Paint Nite organization.
She said she can lead as many as four or five sessions each week, including open-to-the-public bar lessons and private events.
The Paint Nite company is based in Massachusetts. It began just over three years ago and has turned into a cultural phenomenon across the country. Mike Capka, a Spokane, Washington, entrepreneur, picked up the Anchorage franchise and started classes here in late September. Fifteen classes are scheduled for the Anchorage area in January. Two had sold out by Christmas.
"The Paint Nite slogan is 'Drink creatively,'" Capka said. "We're a drinking party with art, not a serious art lesson. It's a social event, people having a good time. We've decided that, rather than just sitting on a bar stool, let's do something fun, creative and positive."
Capka is also the Paint Nite licensee for Fresno, California. He estimates that the classes in both towns run at about 95 percent capacity. "January and February are popular months," he said. "A lot of people have been given Paint Nite gift certificates for Christmas, and Valentine's is one of the busiest days in the country."
In addition to Hard Rock, January venues include Firetap, Fat Ptarmigan, Seward's Folly and Kinley's. Capka said he has plans to expand to Wasilla and Girdwood.
The standard price for a Paint Nite session is $45 per person, though Groupons and other offers can drop the cost by a third or more. Registration takes place online at paintnite.com. The site directs customers to what's available in their area. Customers can select which night they want by date, instructor, location and the kind of painting they'll be doing. Choices of subjects include flowers, lovebirds, breaching whales, a quaint view of an outhouse and more. The master copies are all supplied by the parent company.
On this night, the subject was a winter landscape with a low sun gleaming off a pond. A finished example stood on the main stage next to a blank canvas. The crowd was mainly women and mainly young, giving the event the feel of a girls' night out. But Webster noted a few couples and men, and even a father-daughter pair.
The mix of participants were more or less typical of her classes, she said, though this was a particularly large group and, she told this reporter, "They're a little rowdier than usual because they know you're here."
"Rowdy" is a relative term. Everyone seemed cheerful, attentive and laid back. You can't easily get into a barroom brawl with a paintbrush in one hand.
"It's a very casual environment," Capka said. "We like to call it a two-hour mini-retreat for your soul."
At 7 o'clock on the dot, Webster gave everyone a couple of minutes to get situated, then started the session by establishing the rules of the night, the No. 1 rule being: "Don't criticize."
"How many of you have been to Paint Nite before?" she asked. About a quarter of the group raised their hands. "And how many have not touched a paintbrush since kindergarten?" The same number of hands went up.
"Now let's get real," Webster said. "Take Big Daddy," the larger brush, "and dip it in blue. Hold it like it's your magic wand."
She demonstrated the first stroke on the blank canvas on the stage, a horizontal line across the middle of the canvas establishing where a distant line of hills would be in the background. "It doesn't have to be straight," Webster said.
Among the students' lines, some were straighter than others.
Next Webster instructed the painters to mix one scoop of blue with two scoops of white on the edge of the plate to create a light blue. That color filled in the hills with a dabbing motion. "Dabbing creates texture," she said.
The winter landscape is considered to be of "moderate" difficulty, she said. The "easy" paintings can have just as many colors but fewer kinds of brush strokes.
The painters made purple and used it to section off the area where the sun would be. The sun would be formed by concentric circles of red, orange and yellow. Some of the suns were pale and pink, others were fire-truck red. Some looked round, some looked like goblets and some looked like haystacks.
Whatever the preliminary design that emerged, the differences began to smooth over as Webster repeatedly had the students blending colors, merging areas where different colors came together and going over areas to "clean it up a little bit" as the fast-drying acrylic paint set up.
"You should feel real strong in your arm by the end of the night," she said.
When it came time to do the pond she said, "I'm going to kind of let you fly free." Broad sections of the pond were painted as yellow, orange, red and green. "Two scoops yellow and one little dab of blue," she said. "Too much blue and you'll get teal. Which is an option."
The same merging process followed. "Make those colors touch more. That's what makes it flowy," Webster said. "Remember this is just your first layer. It's not going to look cute."
Some of the paintings did indeed look "flowy," a seamless spectrum of low sun on cold water or clear ice. Others looked like patchwork quilts, one patch of bright color cheek-by-jowl with a different color. And it was clear that there were as many ways of mixing green as there are artists.
In spells between instructions, students worked on the assignment of the moment accompanied by music from a portable player. Several people chuckled and mentioned the pea-soup fog outside as Webster played "My Girl." "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside …"
'We don't want to leave'
After a short break to refresh beverages and visit the bathroom, the project continued. Painters added snow and hills to their work. When the time came to put in the barren trees. Webster turned her canvas upside down.
"I just blew all your minds, didn't I?" she said. Painting the straight trees upside down was perhaps easier, but it also meant that any drips would run toward the top of the canvas, creating the illusion of the narrowing trunk.
Nine o'clock approached and Webster told the crowd to wrap things up. "What if we don't want to leave?" said one painter.
"That's between you and Hard Rock," Webster replied.
Everyone finished off their projects, some not as complete as the painter may have wanted. They compared and complimented one another's work, often with laughter and always with smiles. Then they gathered on the stage for group photos.
Webster, the child of a military family, came to Alaska from Atlanta, Georgia. Her degree is in sociology, but her heart is in art. "I go into a craft store and, man, I want to buy the whole aisle."
She's totally self-taught, she said, and has dabbled in everything from home decor to jewelry. The Paint Nite job appealed to her because it lets her interact with people. "I think I am genuinely a people person," she said. "I just want to see people happy. And I like the energy I get from doing this."
Paint Nite is not the only "paint and sip" business out there, but it's been particularly successful. A Bloomberg article credited the company with "saving the American bar."
It's a winning proposition for everyone involved, said Capka. "It gets people into bars on slow nights. It's fantastic for local artists, who don't always have an easy time making a living; they can pursue their passion and get paid for it. The people who come leave with a painting that they've done, and they may never have done a painting before. Plus they have a great time."
There's also a wider economic benefit. Capka works with Michael's craft stores in Anchorage to supply 1,200 canvases for his events and "hundreds of bottles of paint." Acrylic is the medium of choice because it's easy to work with, easy to clean up and "doesn't have any bad smells," he said.
Webster said that in the few months that Paint Nite has been going in Anchorage, she's seen increasing numbers of return customers. "Once they come, they're hooked," she said.
The easygoing and fun atmosphere, made all the easier and fun with a drink or two, is part of the reason. "You don't have to buy the paints or brushes. You're just having fun with friends," Webster said.
But she also believes that her students very much enjoy what they learn.
"They're getting the experience that I missed when I was teaching myself these things," she said. "There wasn't anything except art school or semester-long art classes. Not a lot of ways to just dabble.
"Social painting gives you an avenue for that option."