May 25, 2022

Kristen Leal’s father wasn’t able to walk her down the aisle.

Having passed away the year before, he missed her big day. Yet there he is, in a picture of her first dance hanging in her kitchen.

Thanks to Emily McDougall’s art.

McDougall paints weddings — her web domain is — standing at her easel for up to 10 hours, watching, chatting, brushing her canvas with acrylic until the night is long and often delivering her piece before the bride and groom depart.

“I’m not a musician, but I would assume that it’s a similar feeling to going out on a stage and having everybody cheer for you,” McDougall says.

Live event painter Emily McDougall poses with her art.
Emily McDougall poses with her art.
Nicole McMurray/Courtesy Emily McDougall

McDougall is 27. The bubbly, bespectacled blond has a son, a fiancé and a day job as an accounts payable clerk.

She started painting weddings in December 2018 after a flash of inspiration.

“I was on maternity leave from my job,” she relates, “and I was at the gym, and I thought about all our friends getting married and I was like, ‘I could paint weddings. Oh my goodness.’

“The light bulb went off and I was like, ‘This is a great thing. Like, I wonder if anyone does this.’ So I go home. First thing, go to Google — wedding painters. ‘Agh, damn, it already exists.’ So, ‘Oh, my million dollar idea, it’s gone!’

“But then I started digging some more and I found that it’s really popular to have done in (the) southern U.S. — and not so much up here.”

McDougall found only one other artist around who painted weddings, so she decided to try it (there are at least two in Toronto, Olga Pankova and Paul Dolgov). She charges $1,750 or more for a live event painting.

McDougall’s been an artist since she “could hold a crayon” — working in pencil the longest, then oil paint starting maybe five years ago. She switched to acrylic when she decided to paint weddings. It dries faster and doesn’t force the artist to plan out the whole piece before putting brush to canvas.

She paints in the evenings after putting her son to bed in their Kitchener home — “As soon as he’s sleeping, I’m painting” — brushing out portfolio pieces to display at wedding shows (her clients take home her originals) and practice pieces too.

“I would love to be able to do it full time, when I get to spend more time with him, watch him grow up more. (It’s) definitely motivating — to be able to do something that you love and then show him that I can succeed doing what I like to do.”

She contrasts the scant banter of an office setting with the vibe of a wedding.

“I might work 10 hours in a wedding, but it flies by every single time.”

It’s a sensation customer Kristen Leal can relate to.

“The day feels like it happens both at hyperspeed and in slow motion and it’s so incredible to have this beautiful snapshot of a moment that we can have on display.”

She relates that McDougall arrived early at the reception venue and painted the background, then photographed the first dance and painted from that reference through the dinner and speeches, delivering the finished piece at the end of the night.

“One thing that she did that was really beautiful was she used a photo reference of my father, who passed away last year, and she actually painted him into the photo, which was very, very special.”

McDougall says, “You’re capturing their wedding, and maybe their first dance or their exit from their ceremony, but you’re also capturing their family, and that’s a super intimate environment to be in.”

She loves the first dance especially, and the parents’ speeches.

“I cry every time. I’m painting and then wiping away my tears; it’s so cute.”

But not only is she sharing in the family’s joy. The guests are sharing in her art.

“How many times (have you) seen a songwriter write a song, or an artist make something?”

Artist Emily McDougall paints.
Emily McDougall paints.
Yildiz K Photography/Courtesy Emily McDougall

She says it’s fun when the painting’s finished — she turns it around and puts light on it; guests come up and exclaim that they see themselves or their tables.

Leal says, “I had a lot of people coming up to me during my wedding and in the days after saying how cool they thought the painting was and how great it was to actually have the painter there and Emily was very, very social and very engaging with the guests.” 

So she adds to the evening she commemorates, leaving memories and a memento that endures.

“People hang up their wedding photos and people rewatch their wedding videos,” McDougall says, “but with a painting, you have it, it’s a prominent piece of artwork in your home that you’re going to experience and see every day.”

That’s why Leal and her husband chose to hang it in their well-trafficked kitchen.

Now her father as well as her mother graces the walls of her married home and blesses her union.

“I could not be happier with the piece of art that she gifted to my husband and I.”

Newlyweds pose with a painting of their first dance by Emily McDougall.
Kristen Leal and her husband pose with Emily
McDougall’s painting of their first dance.
Courtesy Emily McDougall.

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