Thousands of aspiring artists — including writer Tracey Tong — have Carleton Place’s Janet Beath to thank for their new COVID hobby
Some artists create art, and others, like Janet Beath, create other artists.
During the course of the pandemic, the artist population has exploded, thanks in part to the Carleton Place resident, who taught thousands of people from all over the world — many of whom had never before picked up a brush — to paint everything from a scenic landscape to a cartoon emu.
Beath — or Paint with Janet, as she is affectionately dubbed by her fans — became something of a household name during the pandemic, and at a time when some took a lower profile, the 58-year-old’s popularity soared.
In its first five years, the Paint with Janet Facebook page had amassed 1,200 followers. However, in the past 18 months, the page experienced “exponential growth,” thanks to 15,000 followers — “more than the population of my little town.”
Beath isn’t surprised that painting became so popular during pandemic. “While being isolated and with the miracle of the Internet, people were able to explore new hobbies or expand the old ones,” she says, and online classes allowed family, friends and work buddies who were geographically far apart to come together for a couple of hours of fun.
A professional artist for more than 35 years and an art instructor for 25, Beath, who is primarily self-taught, has been involved in art as far back as she can remember.
In her 20s she began selling photo-realistic, hand-painted fleece and T-shirts through her business, Art for Wear, and showcasing her work at juried art shows. She’s taught teachers how to instruct; private school students according to guidelines from the Ontario curriculum; and worked with people living with intellectual disabilities, emotional trauma, and autism spectrum disorder.
Six years ago, a friend asked Beath to accompany her to a paint night social art event in Ottawa.
“I said ‘no, but I will run one,’” says Beath. “Next thing you know, she has me booked in at a bar in Almonte, with 20 attendees waiting for me to make them into artists.” Paint with Janet was born.
Through her classes, she teaches everything from how to draw a line; to shading and perspective; to colour theory. She and her students work with different media: acrylic, watercolour, pencil crayons, wax crayons, pastels and charcoal. “I love the teaching aspect of art, seeing the progression of learning and how people surprise themselves with their ability,” she says.
But art is more about learning hands-on skills. “Students studying art acquire knowledge, skills and qualities like creativity, self-expression and communication,” says Jeff Stellick, executive director of the Ottawa School of Art. “Being able to express oneself will build confidence. Learning different art media and techniques allows students to use several different levels of ‘intelligence’ (linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, etc.) as well as developing a personal intelligence that helps them to understand themselves and others. Students are able to develop a higher order of thinking skills, creativity and problem-solving ability.”
Students also learn the joy of work through art, continues Stellick. “Work done to the best of one’s ability and for its own sake, for the satisfaction of a job well done… can be one of the noblest expressions of the human spirit. The art is the visible evidence of work carried out to the highest possible level.” Also, by studying art of all types, students are exposed to a wide range of human values and concerns, says Stellick. “This gives them the opportunity to see how art can express the highest aspirations of the human spirit.”
Beath was still teaching when the pandemic hit Ontario in March 2020. A friend suggested that she move her classes online, and by April, people were taking her classes from home — free of charge. At first, the learning curve of teaching online was a “steep uphill climb in a snowstorm. Technology terrifies me,” says Beath, who had to upgrade her laptop, camera and Internet. She also had to learn how to live stream and use a wide variety of video platforms similar to Zoom. But in the end, the challenges — which included coming up with new ways of painting with materials people already had at home during a lockdown — made her a better teacher.
The classes were a near-instant hit, drawing up to 500 participants of all ages per session. Her youngest students, only a few years old, learned the same techniques as adults. “I only use simpler ways of explaining to little kids,” says Beath.
People can take up art at any age, says Stellick. Also, “there are no age limits on learning about art and art techniques. One of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, Betty Goodwin, didn’t start taking art classes until she was in her 50s.”
Something magical began to happen in Beath’s classes — new connections and friendships, and moments of happiness during an otherwise bleak time. “My followers started looking forward to chatting with others who were on, even though they couldn’t see them… It was a new form of socialization and contact that people embraced. Even if they don’t have time to paint that evening, people come online just to say hi.”
The offer of free painting classes could not have happened at a better time. The pandemic was a stressful time for many. Beath, who has a degree in sociology and works in the social services field, said she “received countless messages from people around the globe saying how much I have helped them deal with their mental and physical trauma… There is so much going on spatially with art that it fully occupies the brain and gives your emotions a moment of rest,” she says.
Bernadette Cox, who began painting with Beath in 2016, says art helps her to set aside everything else that’s going on in her life — at least for a few hours. “You kind of… get in the zone and just say ‘OK, for the next hour or two, I’m going to be right here with the painting,” says the Ottawa-area resident. “I just have to be happy. I don’t have to worry about anything I paint. What’s important is that I have fun. Sure, if we can turn out a beautiful painting — and we often do — all the better, but the goal is to have fun and get immersed in what we do.”
In addition to being a break for restless minds, art also helps people manage anxiety, builds self-esteem, helps with pain, and builds communication and problem-solving skills, says Beath.
Although she recently resumed offering a limited number of in-person classes, she plans to continue the online classes (her past lessons live on her Paint with Janet YouTube channel) that have brought joy to so many during a difficult time.
“Nothing makes me happier than to see someone who has never touched a paint brush stand a little taller, be amazed with their own hands, be empowered to try new things and move forward with other goals, dreams and aspirations,” she says.
Paint with Janet’s tips for beginning painters
Start with the basics Use primary colours and white and black.
Don’t wash your brush between colours “I will use the colours in a certain sequence that naturally blend,” says Beath. “If you want orange leaves on your trees, add a few dabs of red, then lots of dabs of yellow with the same brush. You will get beautiful hues of orange with natural depth and highlights.”
Hold your brush in different ways Since a brush looks and feels similar to a pencil, people will hold it like a pen or pencil, says Beath. Try dabbing, using more or less pressure or holding it perpendicular to the canvas instead of using a pencil tilt.
Use something different than a brush “Since going online, I was trying to think of things people have at home that could replace a palette knife,” says Beath. She suggests substituting with a thin piece of cardboard.
Always finish off with a few dabs of white “If your painting doesn’t have those lovely white highlights, it looks dull and drab,” says Beath. “Think of that beautiful white highlight in your eye which brings you to life. If you left it out, we would be like sharks with those lifeless eyes.”
Don’t worry, be happy “It is a painting, not a photograph,” says Beath. “We should never be hard on ourselves, especially when we are learning. Adults tell children that all the time, and we need to heed our own advice.” — Tracey Tong