On 30 March, Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons posted a selfie on Instagram holding up a painting of two vases – which he made himself.
In the caption, Parsons told his followers that he created the artwork with the help of an online art class. “They’re doing live classes via zoom and, quite to my delight, I was not only able to figure out how to use zoom, but I also painted this in the process!” he wrote. “No museums are asking to display my first still life painting, but I feel just a little bit more peaceful from the process … and I got to see real life other people who were also taking the class – a real gift right now!”
Parsons is not alone. Thousands of us have been turning to Zoom, the video conferencing platform, to get a creative workout. From life drawing art classes to small-town museums, pandemic cartoons and upcycled sculptures, it seems to be the perfect answer for cooped-up creativity in our current quarantine.
Parsons took his class with Art Studio NY, which hosts painting classes, from watercolors, to oil, acrylic and a “fear-free drawing 101”. The school’s virtual art classes draw the likes of international students (one artist recently tuned in from France). “It’s really amazing to see people coming together from every corner of the earth to make art together,” wrote one of the teachers on Instagram. “In uncertain times like these, this is the least we can do to help keep our spirits alive and our feelings united.”
Some art schools have also been putting their curriculum online. The New York Academy of Art, known for classically training artists, is one of them. Their live model drawing classes have been held on Zoom since March.
“We did it out of necessity,” says the school’s operations director, Mike Smith. “We wanted to see if it would be a good thing for the community, to not only do classwork but talk about art, make drawings and paintings from a live model and see each other.”
Their nude drawing session held every Friday has been a success. “It was a little weird at first,” he says. “It’s not the same as being in the same room but you’re still dealing with a live person as you would in a class.
“It’s a great bridge for these times,” he adds.
Drawing a person through a screen is obviously an entirely different experience but brings up a range of interesting challenges, according to one artist who takes part in the Academy’s Zoom classes.
“How can you interpret the moving figure through technology?” asks Eliana Perez. “In terms of figuring out light, shadow and depth of field on a flat screen, it all comes to how much you know your subject and your tools. But once the model is posing, everyone is concentrated and you get lost in that mood – the same feeling from a real drawing session.”
But where will all this quarantine art go? The South Arkansas Arts Center in El Dorado, which is hosting a regular stream of art workshops, has an idea. One teacher, Kelly Campbell, who is hosting a watercolor class called Little Landscapes Everywhere, claims that a selection of the Zoom paintings will potentially be included in their summer exhibition, Under Quarantine: Art Created Under Unprecedented Circumstances.
The University of California, Berkeley, is offering free Zoom art classes, among them DIY sculpture classes where garbage is upcycled into art. From paper clay sculptures to collages and homemade play dough, drawing teacher Vanessa Ditullio shows students how to make metallic bouquets from cut-up recycled cans.
The Jamestown Art Center in east Virginia is hosting virtual art classes, including their everyday drawing class with Lisa Barsumian, who encourages students to draw everyday objects – cups, spoons, shoes, vases – with black ink on paper. It isn’t just about putting the creative lens on our surroundings, but the sense of community that happens when we’re being creative collectively.
“During this time, it’s important that we support each other and come together through the arts,” she says. “Drawing together in a group, even if virtually, creates community. Right now, we need our community more than ever.”
Over on the west coast, Long Beach-based arts studio Inspyr Arts is offering visual art classes online that appeal to tweens, from an anime class, which teaches the Japanese anime style of manga comics, to video game illustration. Meanwhile, museums are hosting online classes, such as the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, which is offering at-home classes for students, while the Princeton Art Museum is offering weekly drawing classes on Zoom, featuring a different artwork from its art collection (a curator reflects on the artwork in a corresponding lecture, as well). The Frist Art Museum in Nashville is offering art history lectures and virtual talks with curators, too.
New York City has a long history with the art of cartooning, which is the topic of one class hosted by the Upper East Side’s 92nd Street Y community center. Cartoonist Josh Bayer is teaching cartooning and illustration via Zoom, from anatomy to shadowing and building what he calls “a vocabulary as a cartoonist”.
Some artists are also hosting classes straight out of their apartments, such as the queer artist and comedian Alex Schmidt, who is hosting – and posing in – a selection of Zoom classes. Schmidt poses with props to a carefully selected class of cis women, trans and queer folks, and recently wore a platinum, 18th-century-esque Marie Antoinette wig.
Artists might even see famous models. Christophe Nayel – the same life model who posed for the viral painting of Bill Clinton in a blue dress, which was bought by Jeffrey Epstein – says posing from home is not uncommon. As one of the longtime life models from the New York Academy of the Art, he’s happy to keep working.
“I have been modeling for nearly two decades for art classes at the academy,” he says. “My first Zoom drawing session was great, because I just love being around artists, working with them and inspiring them; I was happy to be able to offer my services to everyone at this difficult time.”