Arts & Culture

Like a paintbrush with your concert? Symphony has it covered

Dan Dunn in action.
Dan Dunn in action. Courtesy

Though he’s had millions of views on YouTube and been a guest of Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres, none of that prepared Dan Dunn for what it would be like in Houston last year.

Dunn, who achieved fame by painting large portraits of celebrities and other figures in a matter of minutes, “choked up in tears” during a rehearsal with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s just such a powerful thing to put the art and the music together in something that’s never been done before,” he said.

Dunn is a master of “speed painting.” He has received much acclaim for his lifelike portrayals of figures like Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

He will paint eight works in Wichita on Saturday during a Wichita Symphony Orchestra pops concert, the third stop on his nationwide “PaintJam” tour. Only Houston (his hometown) and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. came before.

“There’s a very strong visual arts community here,” said Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. “This is kind of the next effort on our part to reach out to those people with a different kind of art. This will be quite an amazing thing.”

The PaintJam

Dunn said he has made a living from drawing people quickly since he was 19. Back when he studying fine arts at Sam Houston State University, he drew caricatures at Six Flags in Houston.

“I’m an entertainer, I think, at heart,” he said. “I always enjoyed doing caricatures, having people around watching me draw.”

He spun off his own caricature business in Houston called Caricatures Ink.

Eventually, he shifted his focus to painting – he said he was inspired by the works of Denny Dent, a renowned speed painter who did works at locales as varied as Woodstock 1994 and President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremonies.

He developed his own speed painting show, PaintJam, and performed for the first time in Atlantic City in 2007.

Footage from that performance made its way to the fledgling, where it went viral. That original video now has more than 1 million views.

His high-energy performances often include dancing and painting to a rhythm – by the end, he said, he is covered in paint.

It’s a physical workout; it really is.

Dan Dunn, speed painter

“To be able to do eight pieces and each one’s got something a little different, I’m exhausted by the end of the night,” he said. “It’s a physical workout; it really is. I normally do three pieces and I’m exhausted.”

Dunn has performed at halftime of a Houston Rockets game, the pregame show at the 2009 Super Bowl, the Smithsonian, and of course on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and “The Rachael Ray Show.”

He’s been to 29 countries and has helped raise more than $3 million for charity by auctioning off his work, he said.

“We’re very excited to be in Wichita, performing and doing the show there,” Dunn said. “I’m currently busy doing corporate shows and charity galas full-time; now to do this, this is the real fun stuff.”

Speed painting and the Symphony

Reinhold, the Symphony’s CEO, said he hopes bringing in the speed painting experience will draw first-time symphony-goers, then leave them hooked on the music.

It’s no coincidence that “PaintJam” is the first concert of the symphony’s season, which extends through April.

It’s not asking a whole lot of us as listeners, but it will definitely keep us enthralled.

Don Reinhold, Wichita Symphony Orchestra CEO

“It’s a good introduction, and it’s also an evening that people can enjoy simply for its entertainment value,” Reinhold said. “It’s not asking a whole lot of us as listeners, but it will definitely keep us enthralled.”

The concert on Saturday will be a “very traditional pops program,” Reinhold said, which means you can expect music from John Williams (of “Star Wars” and “Jaws” fame), John Lennon and “The Music Man,” as well as other pop classics.

Although the symphony woos new audiences with its pops concerts, there is much value to be had in its more traditional concerts, Reinhold said.

“These works of art have a great deal to offer us even as our world changes, and I think that’s where we struggle sometimes as people living in the 21st century,” he said. “Sometimes it just helps to reenvision these old masterpieces in a way that connects to our contemporary lives.”

Even Dunn said he must often combat short attention spans from his audiences. That’s why he frequently rotates his canvas – to keep the audience guessing.

“I’m dealing with two problems – one, a society ... that doesn’t have an attention span to watch much of anything, and two, it has to be entertaining on stage,” he said. “If I take too long or you see it coming down Broadway what it is, it’s not entertaining, but I can take you one way and have you think I’m painting one thing and all of a sudden it’s another thing.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

Dan Dunn’s PaintJam at the Wichita Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

What: Speed painter Dan Dunn will paint eight pieces accompanied by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra

Admission: $30 to $75

More information: After the concert, the paintings Dunn produced during the show (and during rehearsal) will be auctioned off. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s educational programs. Tickets to the concert are available at, by phone at 316-267-5259, or in person at its box office on the second floor of Century II. Box office hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.