Sheila Foley, an artist by training and teacher by profession, often scours Craigslist to see if there are any freelance gigs she can pick up. A few years ago, she saw a listing that intrigued her, and the idea stuck.
A woman was looking for an artist to create a painting in the presence of her wedding guests that captured the scene. Foley had never heard of such a thing, but she liked the idea so she looked into it.
“She sent me a link to a couple of artists who were doing it on the West Coast. I looked and thought ‘I don’t think I could do that.’ But I tried it on the wedding of someone I knew for free, just to see if I could do it, and it worked, and I liked it,” Foley said.
Foley didn’t get that original gig. But she’s been doing it ever since, and has done about 20 events in all. She has learned and perfected the process, meeting with the client at the venue about a month in advance to figure out the logistics — how she’ll transport her equipment, where she’ll set up — and learning a little more about the subjects. Often the paintings are commissioned as gifts.
“On the day, I get to the venue, set up my easel, start with a basic color over the whole canvas of the overriding color scheme, and then I just start sketching in stuff with a neutral tone of paint,” said Foley. “I don’t really sketch with pencil because there’s really no time, and then I start painting the background before the guests arrive — about 1, 2 hours before. When people start arriving I start painting people in. I do take reference photos as I go, and now that I have an iPad it makes life so much easier.”
Recently she painted a party for Christina Giordano at Hillview Country Club in North Reading. Giordano was celebrating her graduation from Suffolk University Law School. Foley, who had painted a portrait of Christina and her brother when they were very young, was invited to the party as a guest, and offered her services as a gift.
“I was fascinated,” said Cathy Giordano, Christina’s mother. “I had a little bit of time before most of my guests arrived and I saw her sketching in the background pastels. And the next time I really got a good look was after everybody pretty much started to leave. . . . I have no artistic talent whatsoever, so to me it was almost miraculous what she could do practically in the blink of an eye.”
“It’s one of those gifts,” said Christina Giordano. “She made it with her own hands and it’s very hard to replicate her style and her technique. Her eye is very good, so it’s one of a kind. So it’s that much more special.”
Foley completes about 75 percent of the painting at the event and adds the remaining details back at her Woburn studio, referring to the photographs she took. She likes interacting with the guests while she’s painting.
“A lot of [artists] get annoyed if people come up and talk to them,” Foley said. “But I’ve painted outdoors enough times that I’m used to it. And I’m a teacher, so I’m constantly interrupted. It doesn’t faze me in the least if someone comes up — especially if they’re complimentary.”
There are times, though, when event painting can be a challenge.
“At one wedding some people thought it would be funny to bring dogs in at the end,” Foley said. “And at the end of the night there was a chef doing burgers, and he was right next to me, and the dogs went right for us.”
“But at least they’re acrylic paints and they’re not going to stain anything. It wouldn’t have been good if a dog paw went through the canvas or something, though.
“So, it’s unpredictable that way.”
Foley, a Woburn native now living in Stoneham, knew back in the second grade she wanted to be an artist. She was one of the first students admitted to the art program at Framingham State College before beginning her teaching career in 1976. She works in many media – oil, acrylic, pencil, pen, water color – and genres – portraits, landscapes, seascapes, illustrations, trompe l’oeil. Event painting is her most recent addition.
“My favorite one was in Newport, the Viking Hotel,” she said. “The bride was the client and she gave it as a gift to the groom. She told him there would be a surprise, so he didn’t know anything. She didn’t even want him to see anybody come by with an easel or anything, so they snuck me in through the kitchen.”
“And when the groom finally found out what the surprise was he came up to me and said, ‘I’m so glad you weren’t an Elvis impersonator.’”
Caroline Henderson of Wakefield saw the painting Foley did at her very first event, and she was so impressed that she asked her parents for a painting of her own wedding. Jane Henderson of Cohasset commissioned Foley to paint the reception of Caroline’s wedding to Charles Curran on New Year’s Eve in 2012.
“[Caroline] was very excited and so was I” Jane Henderson said, “because I had been to so many weddings and I had never seen this done. So I thought it was a real unique thing to do at the wedding.”
Foley “really captured the magic of the evening. Everyone was very impressed, and I heard the comment ‘how unique.’ They had never seen this before.”
“The guests really enjoyed watching the progress of the painting through the reception.
“The people in the painting look exactly like the people. It’s not just an image; it’s us. She was right on. It’s really perfect. I look like me. My husband looks like my husband. Charlie’s parents look like them. It’s just really special.”
Since many of her paintings are done as gifts, Foley doesn’t often get to see the finished product given to the recipient. Occasionally, though, she is there for the presentation.
“The most memorable reaction I had was when one of the brides cried when she got the final painting,” Foley said. “Then you know you’ve hit the mark.”