The Art of the Demo: How to Successfully Give a Live Painting Demonstration

By Denise Ivey Telep in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Recently I had the privilege of being asked to do a live painting demo for a local Creative Artists Association meeting. It was a compliment to be asked, and I immediately responded with an enthusiastic, “yes.”

I have painted in front of people before, many times at community mural events (and often while working with students) and I didn’t anticipate any issues. I’ve also been painting for over 30 years, so I rarely even think about what I do as I work. Little did I know that THAT would be my biggest problem. . .

No doubt the day will come when you will be given the honor to do a painting demonstration for a group, or simply asked by a colleague to explain your techniques at the easel. Here are some things to consider:

Understand your painting process

Arriving early, I talked with some of the members and got a feel for the group. They were warm and genuine and interested in seeing what others do to create. After being formally introduced, I shared a brief history and then began to paint a landscape—from a photo I had taken—to show how I go about painting water and reflections.

Here was the problem. . . I’ve been painting with acrylics since 1971, and no longer have to think much about the “issues” of fast drying paint, or paint that dries darker, or the way that acrylics tend to lift up when painting over a wet area. I compensate for these things naturally, out of habit, and until this live demonstration never even considered explaining them.

I quickly found out that creating a painting while explaining WHAT I was doing and WHY I was doing it was a very daunting task.

I also never realized that I do not speak much when I paint. I think and mix and decide and test and adjust and decide again. . . and then place another stroke and adjust that one, and decide once more and (by impulse) move around in my work, covering different areas layer by layer, quickly and nearly automatically.

The entire process is completely subjective and very fast. Without ever taking the time to slow down and explain my actions to myself, how could I ever explain it to others?

I have since become convinced that to truly know yourself as an artist, you have to know your entire process. This means talking your way through a painting—through every decision, out loud—and really getting to know exactly how you paint. Once you do, you’ll be able to explain it to others.

Focus on what you know and love

As soon as the questions started coming I knew I was out of my element. I found myself pausing to answer the concern of an artist before continuing on with my own creation. I couldn’t do both.

As a result, the demo became more of a discussion on the profession of art and the artist’s place is in society. These topics are my passion, and my inability to “demo” my painting process actually gave me the chance to share this with the onlookers.

I believe that part of any demo needs to include the reason you paint, the reason you believe in art, and the inspiration behind why you would do this for free.

Get mastery of yourself

While I was struggling to paint and answer questions, one person asked, “What do you do when nothing is working?”

“Like now?” I replied. The laughter signaled our mutual understanding. I continued, “In my opinion, artists have to be professionals. It’s a head talk game. If you can master the voices in your head, you can press on and reach an acceptable solution, because you know you can do this. The solutions will come.”

This position comes from years in graphics where deadlines do not wait for self-indulgence. Other professions have the same no-nonsense attitude. I have yet to hear of a brain surgeon who says to his assembled team, “Shoot, I’m just not feeling it today. . . guess we’ll pick this up again next week.”

For their sake and mine, I chose to master my head and stop talking and return to what I do, by just painting. This ability comes with experience, but it also comes by focusing on ONLY what’s important. I pushed out the distractions and concentrated on a smaller area of the canvas. . . eventually arriving at a positive painting experience.

Don’t try to do the entire painting live

After I was done painting, a gentleman in the front row gave me a bit of advice. He said, “It’s a good idea to do a demo in thirds. Cut your canvas visually in three’s and have your sketch or underpainting process in the first third, your technique or style in the second and the almost finished portion in the third.”

This info was worth the price of admission, all by itself! It makes perfect sense. . . The number of times I’ve made a full-sized painting in under two hours is exactly zero. What made me think I could demo my technique, explain my thought processes and encourage others while arriving at a finished product in less than two hours?

What I know now is that I will set up my canvas in advance, paint some of my stages ahead of time, and leave a small section of each stage for a live demo and discussion. This way distractions are minimized and the end result supports the process.

Be willing to be less than perfect

If I had known how tricky it was to do a live painting demonstration before accepting the responsibility, I may have never said “Sure, I’ll do it.”

But growing and having new experiences will never happen if we think we have to be perfectly prepared thoroughly for every new endeavor. It’s like waiting to leave your driveway to go on a trip until you’re sure that all the lights are already green.

Never turn down an opportunity like this, thinking you have to be perfect before explaining your process or style. Anxiety comes from pretending you’re someone that you’re not and worrying about appearances – but there’s no need to dp any of that!

Being authentic in what you are experiencing, even in difficult situations, is one of the ways that artists “live the process” and help other artists grow as well.

Continue to verbalize, even on your own

From this situation I found that many of my artistic decisions are instinctive, and I never considered the “why”. Being forced to verbalize to an audience really encourages greater knowledge and understanding for all parties!

I suggest talking out loud to yourself today, as you paint, as if you had an audience. Explain why you are adding a color, or why you have changed the composition and so on. You will begin to realize how much effort goes into one painting and how unique your process really is.

Really being able to explain yourself is a revelation. If you start doing this now, there is no doubt in my mind that you will discover a new sense of pride in yourself, in what you do, and what you know. Not only that, but when the time comes that you need to put this skill into practice in front of others, you’ll be more than ready.


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