A few months ago I worked an incredible wedding, complete with a stunning bride and groom, a delicious cocktail hour and an elaborate ballroom. To top it all off, they had one unexpected element to their wedding – an event painter named Katherine Gressel. In the corner of the room, Katherine stood observing the guests and beautifully captured the beauty, love and excitement of the wedding.
Fast forward several weeks later, Carly was telling me about this awesome artist I needed to check out on Instagram. Low and behold, it was Katherine! I knew I had to reach out and interview her for a post.
KG: I always loved art (I remember drawing nonstop in preschool!) and started taking formal art classes from a very young age, which were fortunately readily available to me growing up in New York City. I majored in painting as an undergraduate at Yale, where I also participated in several summer programs that involved plein-air painting and working from live models, including the International School of Drawing & Painting in Umbria, Italy–I think this program especially helped me develop the knowledge of color theory, perspective, and human anatomy necessary to paint live at an event. After college, I immersed myself for awhile in mural-painting, and apprenticing with muralists helped hone my skills in color-mixing and brushwork. I got my Masters degree in arts administration from Teachers College/Columbia which helped give me the practical skills to now run my own business, though I originally enrolled with the intent of working for arts nonprofit organizations, which I did for several years after graduate school and still do on a part-time basis.
I got into live painting almost by accident–a bride-to-be reached out to me in 2008 about painting her wedding after finding my work online. I added this first wedding painting to my website portfolio, which led to me getting hired for three additional weddings in 2009-2010. I had enough of a portfolio by that point to start marketing myself more deliberately and posted one paid ad on a wedding blog, which led to a modest number of additional jobs in 2011-2012. The real breakthrough came when the New York Times did a profile on live painters in late 2012, which featured my work in the online slideshow. Business literally tripled after that, and has continued to grow since then also thanks to additional advertising, social media and of course word of mouth! Now, live event painting is my full-time job, though I continue to take on other freelance and volunteer work mostly in the nonprofit arts sector.
L&H: It’s easy to see why you’ve become so successful. Your work is breathtaking. It seems like it would be such a long process though. What is your method for painting a live event?
KG: Every painting starts with a detailed consultation with the client, to find out what moment they want captured, and which people/details of the room and decor are most important to emphasize. On the day of the event, I usually arrive onsite about 3-4 hours before the actual party starts to set up and paint the background, so I can focus on adding guests during the event. I take photos for reference throughout, to achieve a certain level of detail in the key people. The painting is an integral part of the entertainment, since guests love watching the party they’re attending take shape on canvas. By the end of a party, the painting usually looks like a finished piece, but I most often take it back to the studio for additional fine-tuning (mostly to add more detail to people’s faces) and to allow the client to request any revisions necessary to be 100% happy with the final product.
KG: I always try to paint what I see, and stay true to the colors and textures in the room. I also try not to get too fussy with any one area of the painting, but to keep things in the background loose enough so that the most important people (in the case of a wedding, the couple getting married) can be the focal point. I also try to capture the gestures, colors and shadows of the people in the background as much as possible from life, though I often use photo references to fill in the details.
L&H: Who is your ideal client? What would you want to share with prospective future clients?
KG: My ideal client appreciates the unique value that a work of art brings to both the event itself, and to preserving the memory of a special day. I see my paintings as collaborations with my clients, and love it when clients communicate their creative vision for their wedding with me in advance so I can make the painting an extension of this creativity! For example, I had one bride who wanted her enchanted forest-themed cake and centerpieces prominently featured in the painting, and one couple who had their favorite Broadway singer join the band for their first dance and asked to include her in the painting. I love being able to capture these elements that make each wedding unique. I’ve also added many dogs and even some cats to paintings! I equally enjoy working with clients who like to leave it up to me as the artist to figure out how to portray their event creatively, and simply appreciate the value of an artist’s interpretation.
Even after painting almost 300 weddings (and painting at certain venues more than 10 times!) I still look forward to making each new painting feel fresh and unique. Each one starts with a blank canvas and is 100% inspired by the particular lighting, decor, and guests in the room that day.
KG: I couldn’t possibly choose favorites as I’ve worked at so many amazing venues! I think the best venues are the ones where the staff really treat each other, their clients, and outside vendors as family. I am partial to venues with natural beauty, or with some kind of historic or unique/quirky elements. For example I’ve really enjoyed painting wineries, barns, converted industrial spaces, historic-inspired mansions and ballrooms–even a children’s museum!
L&H: Do you have a favorite background? Do you do artwork beyond weddings?
KG: If I had to choose one, I’d say I especially love painting views of water in the background, having grown up in NYC also going to the beach every summer. I especially love painting the NYC skyline in the distance, and the views in Upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, with the mountains overlooking the Hudson River (I was a Hudson Valley bride myself!) My personal artwork can be viewed at www.katherinegressel.com, including cityscape/landscape paintings and community murals. In recent years I’ve been most focused on curating exhibitions of other artists’ work outside of the live event painting. I love supporting other talented artists in sharing their work with a larger public.
KG: I’m based in Brooklyn, NY and will travel anywhere, though most of my work is in the Tri-State Area and Philadelphia. I also frequently travel to Florida, the DC/Baltimore area, and New England. The furthest I’ve probably traveled is Playa del Carmen, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
KG: I’ve also painted bar/bat mitzvahs, birthday parties, corporate events, fundraisers, and intimate family gatherings. I’ve even painted a few marriage proposals! I also frequently paint from photos people send me of past events, family portraits, etc.
Katherine, Thank you so much for sharing about yourself and your beautiful artwork. Click here to visit Katherine’s website. For the most recent updates on Katherine, follow her on Facebook and Instagram! You can also check out what past clients have to say on her WeddingWire page. Images of Katherine by Hoffer Photography. Images of paintings provided by Katherine Gressel.