It’s one of the world’s most iconic expressions of a night sky: a bold yellow moon, a milky expanse of stars and gradated shades of blue alongside the swirling silhouette of a cypress tree and a distant sleeping village.
“The Starry Night,” created by Dutch maestro Vincent Van Gogh during a stint in an asylum in the south of France in 1889, has long been celebrated as a world-class example of post-impressionist art.
However, for the children gathered in an art studio in Tokyo one recent Sunday, it represents something a little different: a chance to get messy with squishy tubes of paints while working on a very grown up canvas and an easel.
Welcome to ArtBar Tokyo. The studio, located on a quiet street between Daikanyama and Shibuya, is devoted to all things painting for grown ups and children alike. The small, buzzy space has bright artworks hanging on every inch of its concrete walls, while all other surfaces — from tables to sinks to floors — are paint-splattered in a suitably hip Jackson Pollock kind of way.
The concept here is simple: a teacher guides participants — each seated at their own canvas and easel — through the recreation of a painting masterpiece, color by color, layer by layer, in a fun, relaxed setting (drinks are served and Siri is the on-site DJ).
The art inspirations vary wildly, from Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” to Munch’s “The Scream” (popular among kids, apparently). There are also countless classes — all bilingual — focusing on different painting techniques and themes, including Paint Your Pet, Pop Art Fuji and freestyle sessions.
I’ve brought my two daughters and a friend to try their hand at acrylic painting, and “The Starry Night” is (not unambitiously) topping the agenda for the two-hour session.
After a warm welcome from Californian teacher Naomi — sparkly, enthusiastic and brilliant at connecting with kids — the girls wrap themselves up in paint-splattered overalls and are each given a palette upon which they’re instructed to squeeze about half a dozen different colored paints from tubes.
But before painting, it’s history time. Naomi holds up a portrait of Van Gogh and asks the group, made up of nine children aged between 5 and 9: “Who knows who this man is?”
It leads into a fun conversation about the Dutch-born artist as Naomi, in easy terms, explains his painting style and shows the children an image of “The Starry Night.”
The children seem undaunted by the task at hand, and after picking up some snacks and drinks from the corner, they excitedly return to their easels and set to work against a soundtrack of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
First, Naomi instructs them to pick up their big paintbrushes and paint a large yellow circle for the moon in the right hand corner of their canvases. She helpfully paints every step on a canvas at the front of the class, alongside an image of the original, for children to reference throughout the session.
And so the fun begins. The following 90 minutes or so, Naomi cleverly builds up the painting and the children follow in their own way — from the various shades of blue short strokes in the sky to the vertical swirls that make up the cypress tree. “We start with the lighter colors,” she explains, as the class diligently daub paint strokes onto their canvases. “It’s all about layering the colors to create more depth.”
Despite the neatly deconstructed process — which makes it very accessible for both children and beginner adult painters — the class feels like the antithesis of dogmatic. Naomi is enthusiastic and supportive of all the children’s efforts, encouraging them not to have any set expectations and to follow their own creative instincts.
“Actually you can use any color you like!,” she exclaims at one point. “If you want a pink sky, no problem! I’m going do a blue one here but you can use whatever color you like.”
Finally, when the children are happy with their paintwork, they giggle while waving paint-splattered hairdryers above their canvases, to speed up the drying process. Then the finishing touch: The canvases are laid flat on the table and pastel crayons are produced to create a final ethereal layer across the top of their mini masterpieces, before the kids proudly sign their names in the corner.
Painting mission accomplished, the children relax for the last 15 minutes or so, sitting around a table where they are offered the choice of drawing pictures, making bracelets or playing with clay.
As they sit nibbling on snacks, sketching, making things out of clay and chatting, I take a moment to survey their painting masterpieces lined up on the next table, and I confess, I’m deeply impressed.
It might be a setting a million miles from the asylum where Van Gogh brought to life his original nocturnal masterpiece, but here the little artists all managed to create rich, warm and instantly recognizable versions with painterly panache — even if one or two have pink skies.
ArtBar Tokyo has its main studio in Daikanyama, which has daily classes, and a second space in Sendagaya. There is a weekly after-school kids technique class (¥4,000) for elementary school students on Thursdays and regular kids classes on weekends. Mommy & Me classes (¥6,000) are monthly and kids-only sessions cost ¥3,500. Minimum age is 5. For more information, visit artbar.co.jp.