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There are as many approaches to a mural project as there are artists. But there are a few basic considerations every project should address. I’ve developed this methodology over my career that works well for me. Hopefully this will help you develop your own basic guidelines on how to create a mural.


Kick it off

Every project begins with an interested client approaching the artist with the prospect of creating a mural. The first thing the client wants to know is “how much will it cost?”. Pricing is one of the most challenging parts of a project, so you don’t want to fire off a ballpark estimate until you get some details first. I explain to my prospective clients that I’d like to have a kickoff meeting first to help me gather some information to formulate an accurate estimate.


Visit the space

It’s essential that the artist visit the future mural site. Take a camera, notebook, and a tape measure. Get some photos and measurements the future mural site. The surface should be clean, primed, and free of any defects like cracks or small holes. If any prep work is needed, discuss if you, the artist, would be doing the labor or if it would be the responsibility of the client. Make sure there is adequate lighting to work under and display the finished piece. This should be a talking point if there isn’t. Make sure there’s access to water and a sink for working and clean-up.


Discuss the materials and process

It’s nice to educate the client on the type of paint you’ll be using so you can discuss cleanup, odors, and drying time. Especially if you are painting in a public place during business hours. Discuss the times you’ll be able to work and how that works with the client’s schedule. Coordinate how you’ll have access to the space if you’re working after hours. Consider the possibility of creating the mural at your own space and installing it later onsite. (I once painted a mural on 10 - 4’ x 8’ Masonite panels at my space and delivered them to the client upon completion.)


Timing

Ask the client when you’ll be able to start the project and ask if there’s a hard deadline to complete it by.


Brainstorm

Idea generation is the most fun. Usually the client will have a rough idea of what they want. Your job as a creative artist is to offer suggestions that will build on their ideas and make the final piece more dynamic and visually appealing. If they don't have ideas, ask them some thought-provoking questions. For example: Who is your clientele? What are some things you’re most proud of? How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? That should get the conversation started and you can suggest imagery that depicts their core values. My client started with one simple request for the Alexions mural, he wanted his new logo painted large on the wall. I believed there was an opportunity to do something more special. His bar and grill is a community icon, rich in history, supporter of local organizations, a great sports bar, and has a friendly staff and colorful long-time customers. I suggested we approach the project as a montage of elements all relating to the establishment with his new logo front and center.


Creative Process and Presentation

After the kickoff meeting I begin the R & D (research and development) phase. I like to start with generic google image searches to get the juices flowing. At the click of a button I have tons of visuals at my fingertips. If something catches my eye, I’ll save it for later review. Then I’ll do some specialized searches for reference material and illustration styles.


I start with quick pencil sketches (thumbnail sketches) to work through ideas and compositions quickly. Once I have a good idea of what’s working, I’ll dive into photoshop and start a computer comp. Make sure your file dimensions are proportional to the final size of the mural. The comp should give the client a good idea of concept and content. I may even include an example of an illustration style to give them an idea of final execution.


It's nice to present your concept/s in person. Be thick-skinned about any feedback. It’s helpful to have your client engaged in the creative process. After they are excited about the direction, it’s an opportune time to bring up pricing and a payment schedule. Pricing is an individual thing and there are so many opinions and variables of how to formulate an estimate. My goal is to be consistent, fair, and make it worth my while. Don’t underestimate your value, even for family and friends. There are too many artists giving their work away which has added to the unfortunate commodification of art. Payment schedules can be run 50/50 (50% down and 50% upon completion). Or, 1/3 down, 1/3 halfway complete, and the final 1/3 upon completion. It’s important to get some money up front because you already have creative time and cost for materials before the paint even hits the wall.


Project Execution

The first thing you have to consider is how to transfer your design to the wall. There are a few techniques for this.

  • Grid

  • Projection

  • Tracing

The idea behind creating a grid is partitioning the original reference and the final wall in proportionally equal segments. The grid that’s created should be tight enough that you can break the complex image into simple pieces that you can isolate and transfer larger into its corresponding segment. This works well, but it is time and labor intensive.


You can project the image of your composition on the wall and trace over it. Different units can be used to project the original reference to the wall. Basic types of projection units work from a computer, opaque art, or transparency originals. The technique works well, but keep in mind you may need to work in a darkened room to adequately see the image. You also want to make sure the projector stays in focus and doesn’t move the entire session you’re tracing. I’ve used all 3 methods. I opted to do the tracing method for the Alexions mural because I was working while the business was open to the public.


Tracing entails drawing over an original reference image and transferring that to the wall. You need a transfer medium on the back of the original to make an image on the wall. On smaller pieces, you can rub charcoal, or graphite powder on the back. But for a large piece, I found large sheets of graphite paper to use to transfer the image.



I printed the original concept out to scale on a large format, black and white printer. I also created a grid over the original if I wanted to go into more detail later on certain segments or if a portion didn’t transfer correctly. This was later advantageous because the entire printout was too bulky and heavy to hang on the wall in one piece. I ended up cutting it, and just working on smaller slices at a time.





Time to Paint

I’ve used regular latex interior paint in the past and there are some pros and cons to that.


Advantages:

  • relatively inexpensive

  • covers large areas quickly

  • color match is accurate to the paint chip (which is nice if you need something color critical to match the surroundings)

  • House paint can be useful if the mural has big areas of flat color that do not blend

Disadvantages:

  • some types of paint have an odor (which may be undesirable in a restaurant or place of business)

  • The color usually dries back much darker

  • If you need to blend colors, it’s difficult to see your results until the paint fully dries

For my style of painting I prefer to use acrylic artist paint almost exclusively now.


Advantages:

  • Little to no dry back (what you see is what you get as you’re working)

  • Little to no odor

  • Like latex, it cleans and thins with water

  • Available in many colors

Disadvantages:

  • Dries fast

  • More expensive (There are various grades of acrylic artist paint. The inexpensive brands tend to not be as opaque as the more expensive ones. That can mean multiple coats to get deep rich colors. It’s a trade-off to consider.)


Painting approaches vary as much as the individual artist. I’ve used many techniques over the years. For the Alexions mural, I opted to take small sections and work almost to completion. I was confident enough that I could hit the values accurately without doing an underpainting. Working light to dark, I built up colors and values on top of each other, thinning the paint with a bit of water when I needed to to create transparent glazes. At the final stages, I did also work lights over dark, fine-tuning values and punching up specular (brightest) highlights.




Protecting the Painting

I should mention that the bulk of my mural work has been interior. There are additional material considerations one should take when creating an outdoor mural so it will not fade or deteriorate. Although acrylic paint is durable on its own, I like to put a couple protective coats of varnish over it. There are different sheens available. The gloss sheen is sometimes desired but it accentuates imperfections in the wall and can cause a glare depending on the lighting. I usually use a semi-gloss or matte.

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

Statue of St. Francis gets a facelift from a professional restoration artist.




My pastor, Father O'Shea approached me to create a statue for my home parish of St. Winifred in Mt. Lebanon, PA. I was an ambitious 22-year-old senior in college who had just returned from a semester in Florence, Italy studying fine-art. With only one formal class in sculpture and a few small terracotta pieces under my belt, I enthusiastically but naively agreed to the ambitious task. Father O'Shea wanted a statue of St. Francis to go in an outdoor garden that a boy scout wanted to create as his Eagle Scout project. One piece that immediately came to my mind was a powerful terracotta sculpture that I saw in Bologna, Italy called “Compianto sul Cristo morto” by Niccolò dell'Arca created in the late 1400s.



“Compianto sul Cristo morto” by Niccolò dell'Arca


Development and Logistical Challenges

I wanted to create a unique composition of St. Francis, not the typical standing saint with a bird in his hand. Father O'Shea had given me a copy of the saint's life story and I decided to depict a touching story about how Francis saved the villagers of Gubbio from a stray wolf who had been terrorizing the town. I chose to portray a kneeling St. Francis intimately addressing the feral animal. The statue was created to be larger-than-life sized scale, (the kneeling saint is approximately eye-level with the viewer). I forget now how many boxes of red terracotta I carried into my parent's basement which became my studio over the next few months. I built it in the technique I was taught, approximately 2.5" coils that were scored and joined with slip. My father constructed a base with handles for me to build on. The dimensions were designed to fit safely out of the basement door and into the Belgium block grotto the boy scout had constructed on the church site. The sculpture also had to be designed to deconstruct into four pieces to fit into the largest kiln in Pittsburgh at Bidwell Center to be fired.


After the statue was completed and "leather-hard" (a term used to describe clay that has dried to 15% moisture content), it had to be moved to the kiln. Leather-hard is a very fragile state so my father designed a series of support straps, braces, and padding for transport. Even with all the precautions, St. Francis's arm broke at the elbow during the trip. Knowing it had to be assembled later at the site it was inconsequential, but I still had to make sure the pieces were fired at the same time so they shrank at the same percentage.


St. Francis was fit in the large traditional indoor kiln, but it wouldn't accommodate the wolf. The kiln was not available for a consecutive fire. It had already been booked months in advance. So, the technician at Bidwell suggested an outdoor residual salt kiln for the wolf, so they would be done at the same time.


The statue was fired, transported, and assembled on site. I painted it a color of natural terracotta to hide the seams.


Maintenance

The sculpture that had inspired me in Bologna was created the late 1400s. The famous Chinese terracotta soldiers dated back to approximately the late third century BCE. I had hoped St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio would also stand the test of time as an outdoor installation. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. I began to notice small surface cracks within 5 years. Moisture seeped into those cracks and froze and thawed. Over the years, the surface cracks progressed into structural cracks. I had hoped that treating them with a slurry of hydraulic cement and a coat of fresh paint every few years would prevent further deterioration, but the statue continued to atrophy. I was worried that the damage would compromise the structural integrity of the entire piece which it eventually did.


The Calvary to the Rescue

I came to the realization despite all the research and physical repairs I had done, St. Francis needed professional help after 25 years. I consulted various professional restoration companies who worked with terracotta. A few came out for site visits and oddly offered conflicting advice on the best techniques and materials to use to fix it. When I tried to contract professionals, nobody wanted to commit to the project. I even considered tackling the repairs on my own again, but the suggested professional materials required special certification to use. I finally found a local, professional restoration artist, Michael Belman, to inspect the statue. Michael is the Objects Conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and he and his wife have a fine art conservation business. http://fineartconserv.com. He assured me that he had restored many terracotta pieces over his career and was willing to offer his services.


The back-end of the wolf had separated into fragments. Michael salvaged the larger pieces he could and treated the porous material with a strengthening solvent.


Fragments from the wolf

Treating the front paw of the wolf


Hind end of wolf

After the treated pieces had dried, they were re-assembled like a puzzle and cemented together with a two-part epoxy.


Re-assembling the fragments

Now that the wolf was structurally sound again. He began the task of cosmetic repairs. Michael added a stainless steel mesh to help reinforce the statue and create a surface to add more epoxy. This time he added a colorant to the epoxy that matched the terracotta.


The bionic wolf with stainless steel mesh


Nearly completed repair

The epoxy had a very short open time, but Michael was able to smooth it out with mineral spirits. After the repairs had a fresh coat of paint they were barely noticeable. He did a great job, I am truly grateful.


A special thanks goes out to my Mom, Tina Panza, who insisted on funding the restoration project. My Mom has been an active member of the parish since 1971.


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