On planning, and painting, a 4 X 8 foot mural
(for the first time)
As often happens in the life of an artist, I was asked to participate in an art project. "It'll be fun," goes the opener, followed by, "we'd love to have you participate." Sometimes, because you are bored or lonely or have eaten too much chocolate, you say yes. That's what happened to me in March, 2009. Charlotte Buchanan, Eureka Springs promoter extraordanaire, called as I was eating a candy bar while taking a break from a difficult and therefore absorbing painting. She chatted a bit and then, as I continued to stare at my difficult passage and wondered how I would solve the problem area, she asked me to participate in The Artery™, a mural project featuring local artists' work hung each Labor Day weekend in downtown Eureka Springs. "Uh, sure," I said, the sugar fogging my brain. When we hung up and the sugar (as well as the blood) drained from my brain, I was successively smacked in the head by serial realizations: 1) I'd never painted anything that big; 2) I am a watermedia painter who relies on washes; 3) I knew nothing about painting an outdoor mural that would hang in the sun, wind, sleet, snow, ice and sometimes excessive rains which bless northwest Arkansas almost every year. I freaked a little. Then a little more. I got online and read everything I could find about mural painting - including a very useful article in the Golden Paints (www.goldenpaints.com) archives. I studied books, talked with my friend and all-round paint guru Janet Alexander who used to be a rep for several artists' paint companies. I called Golden paints and talked with their rep, Mike Townsend, who gave me much solid and useful help and advice concerning their products. After much deliberation, I chose to use Golden acrylic paints primarily, in hues which have proven themselves over time to have outstanding archival properties, particularly regarding fading. That ruled out many of the favorites on my palette, including the cadmiums and the quinacridones, which are fine under normal conditions but not so great when exposed to direct sunlight. For a few colors there are no substitutes I like, such as cadmium red and dioxazine purple. I included them though intended to use them sparingly, thickly or in mixture with other paints. I planned the 4'X8' painting and ordered materials over the course of about a month. Then, the whole project came to a screeching halt due to . . . well, read the press accounts on The Artery™ website. The long and short of it was that the city council refused to reinstate the contract, and it wasn't until early July that they finally relented. By that time, most of the artists had focused their attention on other projects. We quickly regrouped, paid Charlotte for our pre-primed MDO plywood (signboard) panels and she arranged a bulk order - we got them a week later. I remember looking at mine the day we picked it up - lordy, it was big. I went to work gessoing, then realized that the sign board really needed a frame to keep it from warping over the years. So I ripped some treated 2"X6" boards and built a 2.5"X4' X 8' frame with cross bars. I then attached the plywood to it, counter-sinking the weatherproof decking screws and filling the holes with wood filler. Then I sanded the wood filler and applied more gesso, including the edges of the board. Once that was done, I painted the back of the panel and the sides of the frame with three coats of exterior grade housepaint. I devised an easel in the driveway using the metal frame of a swing, minus the swing, and some grooved boards to keep the panel from sliding. In a wind I clamped the board to the frame. It's usually so hot and muggy here in July that you feel a bit like you're in a Swedish sauna, but mira-culously the night before I was to begin the painting, a cool front blew through. I wore a light jacket the morning I began to paint! Before I began, I assembled my materials: brushes,
from a 3-inch wash brush to long-handled bristle brushes; scrapers of various sizes; paints; cups to pre-mix paints; spray bottles of water; and a wide-mouth quart jar containing a mixture of Golden acrylic mediums, GAC 100 (1 part) and GAC 200 (3 parts). Combined, they make a lovely, fluid medium. I needed to use my paints more thickly than I normally do to help them maintain integrity in the elements. The addition of the medium, though, allowed me much fluidity. I then mixed up some pthalo blue plus dioxazine purple and some medium in a cup with a little water.
I began the painting by brushing some of the the clear medium mixture, plus a little water, on to the top one-third of the painting. Then, using the 3-inch wash brush, I quickly and loosely painted into the wet areas with the deep blue mixture. As I got down to the dry area, I stopped and spattered different colors onto the painted area - oranges, yellows, purples even some green. I repeated the painting/spattering process down the length of the board. I let it dry. I took a bath as I was spattered, too. Did I mention that I had done a 13" X 26" drawing of a snow scene and shadows, dividing it into 8 squares, each representing a 2-foot square on the panel? When I was finished with the drawing, I took it to A&B Reprographics in Rogers, AR, and let them enlarge it to scale - the most time-saving step in the whole process. The sketch looked like this: But now I needed some tracing paper. And carbon black would hardly cut it. So I talked with fellow artist, Drew Gentle, a retired Los Angeles animator of some renown, if he had any light-colored tracing paper. He opened a drawer and pulled out a sweet little box with a roll of yellow tracing paper inside. "Here," he said. Off I went, and traced the image onto the board, 2-foot square by 2-foot square. Then, I began by lightly painting in the snow, then the sky. Here are some photos of that - JJ was very helpful as you can see. All was going well - until I got to the snow. Those of you who are painters know that snow is harder to paint than you might first realize. I struggled with it for a several days, but finally resolved it. John Willer, a friend and wonderful local artist with whom I have taken a class, sort of duels with the canvas using stiff bristle brushes and thick oil paint - not my style at all. But it was that image of him dueling with his white paint that bailed me out - I got the longest, biggest, stiffest bristle brush I owned, stood at arms-length plus 18 inches for the brush and pushed and jabbed and raked thick titaniam white plus zinc white and a little yellow across the painting. Quite a sight, I'm sure. I added a little red and some yellow here and there. Here's the finished painting - click on it to enlarge it for a better view. Once I was finished, I applied three coats of the Golden acrylic medium mixture plus some water to help it flow smoothly. This serves as an isolation coat between the painting and the varnish. The varnish can be removed if necessary back to the isolation coat, then reapplied, without affecting the painting underneath at all. I let this sit for 24 hours then applied two coats of Golden MSA vanish with UVLS - a clear, hard coat that gives some protection from UV light. I chose the satin finish and added 1/3 volume pure mineral spirits (not the low-odor stuff) to thin it down and help it go on evenly. It stinks pretty strongly, and the fumes are unhealthy, so I opened the window in the garage and I let this sit undisturbed for several days with a fan in the window to help eliminate the odor. To hang it, I used large eye-bolts attached to the frame and 3/16" stainless steel cable strung between them. My wonderful neighbor, Randy, who owns Zephyr Products metal manufacturers in Kansas City, fabricated two custom hangers which I screwed to the two-by-fours that were attached to the rock wall. I hung the painting between them, then secured the top and bottom with metal fasteners so the painting could not move in the wind.
What? You never saw a muse musing before?
I had so much help with this. Thanks to Charlotte for dreaming this up and keeping it going; to Betty Johnson, a fellow panel painter, who encouraged me and helped me laugh at myself; to Jim and Jean for their insightful suggestions; to Doug who let me borrow his truck for delivery; to Ken, Rick, Debbie, Bill, Robyn and Randy who helped me shuttle the heavy panel wherever it needed to go; to Drew, Randy and Charlotte who helped me hang the beast; and to Robyn, who always listens and believes. I took great care to preserve this work for a long time, and it should hold up indefinitely particularly it if is given a little protection from direct sunlight. It is for sale. Contact me for more information.
The day of the hanging. . .it was a scorcher!