A new generation of pop artists

Live performance isn't just for rock musicians. A trend is emerging for painters to work in front of audiences, laying bare their creative techniques, says Emma Love
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The Independent Culture

Music gigs, theatre shows and dance performances are all, by their very nature, live. They're special events put on for an audience who has paid to come and watch, and who hopes to see something magical unfold on stage.

Art has always been different. When we think of art, we tend to think of an artist locked away in a studio taking weeks or months to perfect a painting, before it's seen on a gallery wall. Now though, it seems there's a growing trend for artists to go live, creating works of art in front of an audience, and often in limited amounts of time.

Take Beck's beer, which has just launched its new, limited edition, 2009 Music Inspired Art labels. In the past, artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and Jeff Koons have all taken their turn in decorating the well-known beer bottle; now for the first time, figures from the music world, Ladyhawke and Hard-Fi, are having a go. At the launch, an intimate Ladyhawke gig in east London, up-and-coming artists Alex Hearn, Hayden Kays, Dan White and Josef Valentino – as well as artist Sarah Larnach, who works with Ladyhawke on all the art for her album covers and who put their ideas for the Beck's label down on paper – were all given three hours to create a piece of art in front of the crowds (all the art from the night will also be going on show in a disused shop turned pop-up gallery near London's Carnaby Street next month).

Before and during Ladyhawke's set, the artists painted away in areas marked out like busking pitches, while people milled around taking pictures and chatting to them. Larnach, who had never done live art before the launch, believes that it's a way for artists to be honest with the public. "Visual artists have been coddled in not being expected to be on show in the past. It means as an artist you can't be all smoke and mirrors; you have to reveal your secrets and technique," she says. "I think maybe it's something that an audience deserves to see and it gives them a chance to understand how an artwork is created and who's creating it."

While there's definitely something fascinating about seeing artists at work (we've been happily watching street artists whip up caricatures for years) and a drawing materialise before our eyes, is this just the latest step in the Twitter generation's need for immediacy or a new, exciting form of art as a live performance? By witnessing each line as it is completed on the page, rather than simply being wowed with the final result, it becomes as much about the live act of painting or drawing as the art itself. Artist turns performer and the audience will hopefully find the art far more accessible and in-the-moment than in the more formal confinements of a typical gallery.

For one London-based artist, Kilford, known as "the music painter", his entire practice is based on painting music, live at big gigs. Kasabian, Paul Weller, Damon Albarn, the Black Eyed Peas and Baaba Maal have all had songs translated into art by him – and he also regularly does "guerilla sketching" among the crowds at festivals. "I see myself as a performer as well as an artist and I tingle when I'm painting live in front of people," he explains. "I'm not the first person to paint pictures in front of an audience, but now live art as a prominent form is coming to the fore. It helps bring people closer to art because they get to experience the creative process and become part of the equation."

Paintings like Kilford's, completed during the length of a song or a set of music, use different skills to those needed for producing detailed still lifes or complicated portraits. As well as having to work quickly, artists who paint or draw live need to be able to feed off the atmosphere of the crowd and use it to enhance their work. This way of working suits some – such as graffiti artists who have always had to work quickly to tag a wall before being caught – far more than others, as Terry Guy, founder of creative design agency Monorex and Secret Wars live art battles, knows only too well. For three years, he's been organising Secret Wars worldwide (if you can have live dance and MC battles, why not art battles as well?), where two artists are each given half a blank white wall, black marker pens and 90 minutes to produce the best drawing possible. As well as two judges, the winner of the tournament – who often walks away with £1,000 in prize money – is decided by an audience decibel reader.

"They're not graffiti battles because the artists don't use spray cans; I call them illustration battles," says Guy. "Artists can be anyone from a fine artist from Central Saint Martins to street artists and graffiti artists; it's a platform for any artist to come and perform freestyle. There's enough talent out there and they need a place to show."

As well as helping to raise the profile and confidence of often unknown artists ("not everyone can get on the stage in front of 1,000 people"), battles are fast paced, highly charged and the audience is involved in what's happening live. "The original point was to engage with the audience and that's the beauty of it. When we first started I didn't realise it would be this popular. The crowds scream on the artists just like at a football match."

Before the next round of inter-city tournaments gets under way in October, Secret Wars were one of the headline acts on the main stage at this weekend's Festibelly festival in Hampshire. It was an interesting choice to have a visual act alongside the traditional mix of bands and DJs, and one that perhaps shows just how popular live art has the potential to become, as a wider audience is made aware of the art form. Tom Broadley, co-founder of the festival, invited Secret Wars on to the bill after seeing one of their live art battles in London. "Crowd participation is something that we're keen on and we thought the battles would work well in between the music acts. It's taking art out of a gallery and into an exciting environment."

And that's what it's really all about – live art is just that, alive. It's full of energy and excitement and it encourages people to engage visually. The finished drawings might not compare to the greatest masterpieces but they're not trying to; it's a very different type of art. Instead, the creative process is part of the art itself and, as performances, they're good fun to watch too.

Beck's Music Inspired Art labels (www.becks.co.uk); Kilford, the music painter (www.themusicpainter.com); Secret Wars live art battles (www.secretwars.co.uk)