In general, the stereotype of a painter is that of a solitary figure, probably dressed in black, cooped up in his studio and creating work in isolation. This typecast might explain why the act of live painting is so fascinating for audiences. The opportunity to see an artist working in the flesh is a chance to witness the creation of those ubiquitous things we generally only see after they have been made.

The art of the improv: Nicole Potter has been live painting with Snake Oil Medicine Show for two years.

Snake Oil Medicine Show has always understood the visual appeal of live painting and has been incorporating painting performances into their shows for over a decade. Committed to promoting peace through music and art, the band has been known to invite projectionists, puppeteers, dancers and jugglers onstage, encouraging a general sentiment of free expression and "creative anarchy." This Saturday, Dec.12,  the band performs at the Emerald Lounge, and for a visual kick, local artist Nicole Potter will be painting live on stage alongside them.

"Live painting is very different from studio painting for many reasons," says Potter, who has been painting with Snake Oil for more than two years. "Painting under the lights of the stage can be tricky, but the biggest reason is that the energy of the room effects the painting." She adds, "The audience loves to comment, give a quiet thumbs up or ask questions, which makes live stage painting more of an interactive art exchange."

Listening to Snake Oil is a vibrant experience even without visuals. Their music finds Appalachian bluegrass and old-time synchronizing with early jazz styles, reggae, post-new grass and warped psychedelia. Fronted by sparky fiddle player Caroline Pond, the five-piece band has shared the stage with the likes of Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck, Michelle Shocked and David Grisman, to name a few.

For 12 years artist Phil Cheney performed with Snake Oil, creating live paintings until 2007, when he passed the brush on to Potter. "My work was greatly affected by the creativity of the musicians, and their ideas," says Cheney, who now works as an illustrator in Asheville. "Musical notes would turn into colors for me, almost lighting up on the canvas."

Improvisation is key when producing a live painting, and Cheney should know. "One time, only, out of hundreds of performances, I actually did forget to bring my paint brushes," he says. "In the spirit of the musical language, I improvised and used one of Billy Seawell's drum brushes to apply paint. It's made out of wires and very strange to use."

For Potter, the biggest concern when she began painting in front of an audience was that she'd freeze on stage and not know what to paint, or that the spectators wouldn't like her work. She started by mostly painting abstract work and later switched to painting elephants – subject matter that seemed to resonate well with the animal lovers in the audience. "Now I switch it up by painting members of the band, or their instruments," she says, "and sometimes my paintings are inspired by the landscape and people from where we are traveling to."

Time is also a huge concern for Potter in determining the final outcome of her stage paintings. "I try to paint one complete piece for each show to give the audience the full experience of the artwork," she says. With a performance lasting anywhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours it is expected that some careful planning be necessary in producing a piece, but Potter confesses to the opposite, saying, "I have become less concerned with tiny details and just have fun." 

And just what does Potter plan to paint for Saturday's performance? "I will let that be a surprise," she says.

Snake Oil Medicine Show plays The Emerald Lounge Saturday, Dec. 12, at 10 p.m. $10.

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