By CAMILLE MORE
ATLANTA — In the open corner of Park Tavern’s covered patio is painter Erica Arndts.
She is surrounded by her easel, canvas and art supplies, while studying the sketch of her subject this week on her iPhone: late American singer-songwriter, Merle Haggard.
With the paintbrush in the other hand, she begins stroking the canvas with brown paint for another evening of live-painting for the third week of Sunset Sessions.
Arndts in the beginning stage of painting Merle Haggard Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Atlanta. (Photo by Camille Moore)
This is the second year for Sunset Sessions. The free, weekly music series held at Park Tavern in Atlanta from April to September offers Atlanta residents musical acts from diverse genres.
Arndts, who is a server at the restaurant, began painting at the music series last year and returns painting some of her favorite musical artists for the 20 week music series.
Arndts first fell in love with drawing when she was a young child flipping through the encyclopedia, drawing pictures of insects and bugs with her colored pencils, she says.
Artistic blood runs in her family, and although her grandparents never taught her any skills, she still received their artistic knack through genes, she says.
“My grandmother was a painter but passed before I was born, and my grandfather and I have different styles,” she says. “He is a more traditional painter, where I paint really really wild stuff.”
Arndts’ “wild paintings” decorate the wall of her Atlanta condo, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (Photo by Camille Moore)
Her first artistic awakening with a paint brush was in middle school.
She was forced to pick up the new tool in art class and felt uncomfortable and intimated to the foreign concept, she says.
Once in high school, she was reunited with her elementary art teacher, Francine Riley; Riley was then her high school art teacher. Their excitement for paint produced an artistic, special bond, and Riley took Arndts under her wing.
Riley was a mentor and pushed Arndts to explore different types of mediums. After finding her new love, Arndts never created with a colored pencil again.
“Screw the pencils,” she said.
Adding Color to Sunset Sessions
The concept of her live-painting at Sunset Sessions happened thanks to social media after one of the owners, Paul Smith, and general manager, Christopher Gwin, saw a glimpse of her Instagram account.
After years of painting, her Instagram is flooded with numerous likes and comments from her 14,700 followers.
Before Arndts started painting at Sunset Sessions, Park Tavern once had a resident painter at the restaurant. Word-of-mouth spread and management offered to set up a stage for Arndts to paint during the music series.
Her response, “Absolutely.”
“I owe them so much,” she says. “They have given me this platform, and I do what I want creatively. They don’t tell me what to paint.”
“Scary as Hell”
When the day came to paint her first painting last year, she reflects on the trepidation and apprehension she conquered.
“I can paint and let my hair down and it will be fun,” she says. “But then I did think, what if this painting does not turn out well? What if I can’t capture the essence of their face? But once I got the first one done, it was a rush and for the next one; OK, I will make this a little easier so I am not sweating bullets, but it was scary as hell painting my first piece.”
The Allman Brothers Band was the first painting she did last year for Sunset Sessions. The painting hangs on a wall in Park Tavern in Atlanta. Photo taken Sunday, May 1, 2016. (Photo by Camille Moore)
The night continues, and the music grows louder with The Higher Choir singing and jamming on stage. While Arndts is fully immersed in her painting of Haggard, people are stopping to look and admire the progress of her work.
Arndts half-way done with her painting, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Atlanta. (Photo by Camille Moore)
“I am a little uncultured and maybe should know more about the guy she is painting, but her painting skills are great,” says fellow Park Tavern server Jon Gardner. “But the Prince painting she did last week was [expletive] amazing.”
Photographer Jason Locklear, who has lived in Miami and Las Vegas, is accustomed to live-painting but still admires the talent Arndts produces.
“Ericas’ paintings are always awesome, and she customizes her paintings a lot,” he says. “I’ve been taking pictures at Sunset Sessions the past weeks, and you can tell she puts a lot of thought and detail when designing her paintings.”
Learning from Experience
“When people hear live-painting, they think I am painting it as I go,” she says. “But I sketch it out at home first. I wish I were talented enough to come up with ideas on the spot. There are artists who can come up with something and are brilliant. Maybe for me, it’s a nerve thing, but I don’t want it to look like crap; I am a perfectionist.”
Arndts says she learned last year that knowing where she is at in a painting is also key. She tries to paint the eyes first because there is a light on her, and when it changes colors — pink, purple or yellow — it changes the color of her sketches.
“So if I don’t have the face done, I get really nervous,” she says. “So that’s my first thing. Once I get the face done it’s a huge relief.”
Less is more is another secret she incorporates when live-painting. She says allotting the right amount of time to paint in her four-hour window is a tricky task depending on the details of the painting.
“I am learning to scale back in the detailing so I can finish it on time,” Arndts says. “I painted Led Zeppelin last year and didn’t even come close to finishing it, so now I learn to keep it simple even though what I consider to be simple, someone else may consider immaculate.”
Sunset Sessions is from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., so when she’s painting a complex canvas, she starts painting around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. Arndts says her goal is to have it finished or 80 percent finished and then detail the rest later at home.
“That’s why I have my phone out,” Arndts says. “I use it as a guide to make sure all things I need are in front of me to have everything as perfect as I can.”
The final band and headliner for the night, Marcus King Band, finishes its set, and concert-goers walk toward the exit. The remaining crowd is fans of the band waiting to speak to the band.
Arndts’ painting is almost finished — minus a few details — and she walks up to lead singer Marcus King to show him her canvas painting of Merle Haggard: one of his musical inspirations.
“I think [the painting] is incredible,” King says. “Merle Haggard, Prince, David Bowie — we are losing a whole bunch of people. Seeing the artwork on paper is such a beautiful thing because art comes in so many different forms and so many ways and styles, you know?”
The final reveal of Arndts painting of Merle Haggard, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Atlanta. The only thing left is to add the finishing touches when she goes home, she said. Photo by Camille Moore
Self-Doubt Not Welcomed
Arndts says one of the harder things about live-painting, in her mind, is what people are thinking.
“I feel vulnerable with putting myself out there,” she says. “It’s similar to a comedian on stage. People are not going to like it, people don’t know what you’re doing or the people really do like it.”
But then, she says another part of her enjoys the wonder and mystery to live-painting.
“I like the challenge, but it is nerve-wracking painting in front of other people,” Arndts says. “[Live-painting] brought me to be more comfortable with what I am doing, owning it and not caring what anybody thinks. Don’t have self-doubt at all.”