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'Paint Nite' Is Like College Happy Hour for Middle-Aged Women

Nancy Dunham

Most people think of me as a no-nonsense kind of person. I mean, really: How many people do you know who read Ogilvy on Advertising as a 10-year old kid? That’s the book written by the original Mad Men advertising king David Ogilvy. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I do recall the author and founder of the New York-based advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather told aspiring advertising execs to adopt a hobby.

“And that hobby,” he wrote dramatically, “is advertising.”

I’m not in advertising, not wildly successful, and not in New York. No matter; I live that advice.

Three years ago, my husband Wayne and I were eating Sunday breakfast. I had just finished my weekly phone chat with my best friend. I told him how Lisa, who lives in a different state, had tried and loved a local “Paint Nite.” Basically, it involved Lisa and her friends going to an area restaurant after work for a casual class where an instructor-led them step-by-step as they created a painting — while chatting, laughing and sipping wine.

“Do you think I’d enjoy that?” I asked Wayne.

“No,” he said immediately. “Well, you’d like the wine part.”

I had to agree. That kind of forced group fun is not usually my thing. My idea of a fun evening is a glass of wine and conversation with close friends. Or a concert. Even a movie. The thought of plastic-laden tablecloths and giggling middle-aged women seemed a bit too — well, corny.

Still, I thought, Lisa has a pretty cool sense of fun — she’s been a great yin to my yang for 35 years. I closed the online newspaper I was reading and searched for painting courses.

I learned there are all kinds of offerings. Some are homegrown courses. Then there are the official “Paint Nite” events, from a company founded in 2010 by two fellows in Boston. I looked at the online offerings for the “Paint Nite” courses. There were several in my area and some of the paintings — multi-colored flowers, vibrant sunsets, eerie moonscapes — were charming.

“Hey, what do you think about trying one of those Paint Nites?” I said to Wayne a few minutes later.

He looked up from his reading for a beat or two before he responded “Sure.”

“So you’ll go with me?”

“No.”

Relax, Have Fun, Don't Throw Things

A week later, seated at the green, plastic-covered table next to my close friend Kate I began to have doubts — like, ready-to-jump-up-from-my-metal-folding-chair-and-crash-through-the-wall-like-a-cartoon-character doubts.

“Oh, come on,” said Kate as I grumbled. “You will enjoy it. Relax.”

I should note that Kate is a professional artist and graphic designer — and an eternal optimist. She makes the TV characters Kimmy Schmidt and Phil Dunphy seem morose.

I stifled a sigh as the 20-something instructor bounded to the front of the class and began.

I will admit that the corny pledge at the beginning, which all 40-plus attendees were asked to recite aloud, almost lost me.

“I promise to relax and have fun, not to throw my art across the room, not to say ‘Mine sucks’ or ask anyone else to do it for me, embrace my artistic side, and [be] proud of what I create.”

Things improved when my glass of champagne arrived.

It also helped that Kate, artist that she is, had no qualms about chatting as we worked, even giving me a bit of one-on-one guidance that proved so helpful that neighboring attendees started asking for her advice. In fairness, the instructor was readily available with professional tips. But Kate’s persona is so magnetic others came for the guidance and stayed for a fun chat.

I started to get into it. In fact, I found myself likening it to a more adult college happy hour. I was so into it, in fact, that I didn’t realize until after I returned home that I had paint in my hair. And a red splotch on my favorite jeans.

Of course, my painting wasn’t perfect. That was OK — to a point.

“Nancy, there are no mistakes in art,” Kate said as I griped about my failure to paint a viable half circle. “Just do what works.”

Should I admit I “cheated”? That I broke the pledge? That I whined so much that the patient Kate finally drew the crescent for me? I did.

Still, when we left, I was proud to say that the painting was 99.9 percent mine. And yes, the evening was a bit corny. And a bit silly.

But I loved it. Just as I have subsequent classes, even those Kate didn't attend. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I hung my painting in our entryway hall. I smile every time I look at it — just as I do the red paint splotch on my favorite jeans that I haven’t tried too hard to remove.

This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.

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