A Manifesto for Live Painting

Michael Garfield
4 min readApr 26, 2018

We are live painters.

Some of us are studio artists who get a rush from taking our process out into public. Most of us got our start at concerts, where the dynamism and interactivity of the live music environment inspired and motivated us in ways we had never felt before. What all of us have in common is our love for making art in front of people — the intensity and immediacy of it, the excitement and energy of a live audience, and the opportunity to collaborate across media with each other and our favorite musical acts.

On stage with Beardyman at Earth Frequency Festival 2017

It takes a special kind of person to be a live painter. It’s one of these emergent 21st Century art forms that remix performer and audience — exposing the mystique of the artist and inviting everyone else into the party. Most of us are used to — maybe even tired of — explaining what we’re doing to unfamiliar fans and promoters. Being an artist is weird enough; but being a live painter requires a person to actually thrive on the combination of fear and wonder that people inevitably bring to encounters with the strange.

Alongside the artwork of Stephen Kruse at Art Outside 2014.

Neither a movement nor a school of art, exactly, it exists on the cultural frontier in a kind of exuberant lawlessness. There is no consensus among concert promoters about how to field the growing number of live art requests from concertgoers who feel the call to “graduate” from spectator into participant with no clear roadmap or elders to guide us. Some recognize the value of the inspirational experiences we create — the way we can help them “build their brand” — and are immensely grateful to have us. Others — those who do not see the long-term benefits of cultivating a rich creative community — grudgingly accept us as an unpleasant reality of the changing times…or, worse, treat us as pests to be kept out of “nice” venues and events where they would prefer to keep a clear boundary between “producers” and “consumers.”

We are, generally speaking, opportunists who will make great sacrifices to our personal comfort and security to share our gifts with the world. And so, many of us are veteran shapeshifters, moving from paid gigs with artist credentials and production budgets to “renegade” sets where we have to sneak our gear past security, or act as diplomats between venue owners, bands, fans, and production crews.

Double-sided live painter lineup at Art Outside 2012.

Once upon a time it was so rare to see a painter at a concert, some were happy to pay for the novelty alone. Then the empowering message of live arttook hold, and more and more events got so overwhelmed with requests they made a policy against it. No clear gradient between amateur and professional exists, like it does among musicians. Sometimes we’re considered vendors. Sometimes we’re considered press. It is our burden as “early adopters” to constantly assert our value, and to rise to the occasion by being both better artists and businesspeople. Rarely — but more and more all the time — a festival will notice that the live painters are part of what keeps the fans coming back, and will decide to feature visual artists on an equal standing with the music. Some of us have agents, now, and corporate clientele. But even the most seasoned pros still believe in live art’s potential to tear down the barriers between us — to invite everyone into the creative process, and destroy the toxic falsehood that a creative life is out of reach.

Painting with Tourmaline Todd and Omar Chow at Paint Jam ATX

After decades of treading in awkward cultural limbo, live painters are finally getting their moment in the sun. With landmarks like the recent appearance by Further Collective at Yahoo! and massive showings of forty-plus artists at events like Gratifly and Rootwire Festivals, 2013 will be remembered from coast to coast as a time when something shifted for live art — a gathering and focusing of identity and intent that launched us over the threshold into legitimacy as a cultural movement.

We hope you will join us.

Morgan Mandala & Randal Roberts at Electric Forest Festival.

Originally published at SolPurpose.com

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Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness! Biologist turned philosopher, host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast, ex @sfiscience ex @longnow.