* Spirited Art: 1925 Gunbarrel Road, Suite 115. 531-6278. www.myspiritedart.com/locations/chattanooga
* Gogh Paint & Party: 3260 Brainerd Road. 697-1823. www.goghpaintnparty.com
* ArtsyU: 5084 South Terrace, Suite 15. 321-2317. www.artsychattanooga.com
* Brush Paint and Sip Studio: Mobile unit, no physical studio. 504-9053. www.brushpaintandsip.com
Sitting at an easel during a group painting class at Spirited Art on Gunbarrel Road, I was faced with a crisis of artistic conscience.
Studio owner and instructor Emily Hopper was patiently guiding me and my 27 classmates through each step of recreating the evening's subject: a "super cute" bird nest on a peaceful, baby-blue background.
The instructions were extremely detailed, making for a process involving only slightly less hand-holding than a paint-by-numbers kit, but Hopper encouraged us to feel free to take artistic license whenever we felt inclined.
"[Your painting] by no means has to look like ours because art is an individual thing," Hopper explained to me while setting up each station before the class. "We have people change things about the painting constantly, and we encourage creativity."
The occasional deviation aside, there was an unspoken promise that, if we followed the plan, we all would walk away with an acrylic painting depicting something fairly close to the image on the online order form.
My work-in-progress, however, looked like nothing so much as a pair of sickly, dirt-covered pistachios floating in an aquamarine pond. What little artistic instinct left over a decade after my last high school art class was quietly suggesting I pack up before the shame became overwhelming.
Then, I took a sip -- more of a mouthful, really -- from the glass of merlot at my left hand. Suddenly, the lines didn't seem poorly defined; they were organic. My "eggs" weren't dirty; they were speckled. The paint wasn't heaped in clumsy layers on the canvas; it was textured.
It's amazing what a little alcohol can do to muffle the inner art critic, Hopper jokes, so long as you follow the rule not to confuse your beverage with the paint water.
"The BYOB [bring-your-own-beverage] aspect contributes to this being a fun night out," she explains. "It also helps people who are very in their box every day -- very analytical, type-A people -- to loosen up, take it a little less seriously and enjoy the process more."
Painting parties, or BYOB studios, like Spirited Art have become increasingly popular in the last several years. Spirited Arts is a Birmingham, Ala.-based franchise, and Hopper opened the Chattanooga location last July, joining an increasingly crowded field that includes a handful of similar studios around town.
It's not hard to see the appeal. With such detailed instructions, even complete artistic neophytes can leave with a painting, a fuzzy feeling of accomplishment and maybe a bit of a buzz.
When Leslie Lakey opened Gogh Paint & Party about two years ago in the Art Warehouse on Brainerd Road, she was one of the first in the area to offer art classes with an uncorkable twist. As is the case at Spirited Art, most of Lakey's clientele are women -- not that men aren't allowed.
"I think that women are just more open to it," she explains. "I guess men don't think it's manly, but the guys who come knock it out of the park every time they're here."
Each studio's subject changes from night to night. The bird nest is one of 400 paintings offered by Spirited Art and the sixth undertaken by my neighbor Stacey Campbell, a nurse who was sharing a bottle of wine with her friend Jennifer. While she doesn't consider herself artistic, Campbell says she's proud of every painting she's completed at Spirited Art.
"Whenever I post pictures of these on Facebook, people who don't come here are like, 'Wow, you're so talented,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I know,'" she confides, laughing.
The alcohol -- Spirited Art has no set rules on what kind you can bring -- is as much a social lubricant as an artistic one. Locations like Spirited Art bill themselves as an ideal activity for dates, team-building exercises or girls nights out.
Because the instruction is so thoroughly choreographed, each painting is designed to require a minimal amount of effort, creating a relaxed, congenial atmosphere. Long before we took a 15-minute break, the concentrated expressions and furrowed brows gave way to smiles and easy laughter.
"Spank your brush -- just spank it, spank it, spank it," Hopper instructs us, the class tittering in response.
That relaxed state is what Hopper says she strives for with every group. If you allow the wine or beer to work its magic, it's surprisingly easy to get swept up, creating something passably beautiful almost on autopilot.
By the end of the 21/2-hour class, my bottle was half-empty, and my dirty pistachios had been replaced by what even a stringent art critic would have described, if grudgingly, as a birds nest. Helping people like me overcome their inhibitions and be creative is what Hopper says keeps customers coming back time and again.
"You leave with something super-awesome that you didn't have to put a whole lot of brain power into," she says. "We're going to tell you exactly how to get there without you having to struggle to figure out what to do."