Murals are sticky business for painters. Some won’t touch them. A bad mark has been the fugitive nature of many of the recent outdoor jobs. Some of the best of these have faded after only a few summers. Even indoor work can lose out when fashions change. Socially unacceptable and dated subjects have been put in storage, painted over, or even destroyed.
Another problem with murals is the commitment required. Not every artist has the stamina. John Singer Sargent’s murals at the Boston Public Library took more than twenty-five years (1894-1919) and were never completed. They had a more Byzantine and yet modern look than his impressionistic easel-work. He complained that they derailed his easel progress. Sargent painted most of the Boston murals in a big studio just off Fulham Road in London, England. Sailing the Atlantic regularly, he glued them to the walls in a process known as marouflage.
Sargent chose “The Triumph of Religion” as his subject. He wanted to show specific aspects of what he saw as the privacy of modern belief. He was drawn to the idea of personal statement. Murals have tended to carry the baggage of ecclesiastical needs. Their history includes the niceties of heaven and hell and various parables made clear for believers.
These days the mural has gone secular. Canadian painters Mike Svob and Alan Wylie have come up with a unique mural-making system. They produced their most recent one in a smaller but still monumental scale, with the final installation — a chain of casinos — being giclees of truly massive (8′ x 256′) proportions. Producing the work in easel-handy dimensions was a big plus for painterly quality. As the years go by and martinis get splashed and coin cups get thrown, the reproduced work can be renewed with ease and at modest expense. Mike and Alan have an excellent 10-minute video that describes their current approach.
Artists who are considering murals might do well to follow Mike and Alan’s lead. The originals might even be retained by the artist or sold in the marketplace. There’s something about the portability of easel work that makes it the art of choice. Murals sometimes stand as long as their buildings do.
PS: “Even though you have to prepare carefully, you want something fun and interesting to do as you play and manipulate the final work. Keep it alive while you’re actually doing it.” (Alan Wylie)
Esoterica: Sargent also painted murals for Harvard’s Widener Library and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In many ways he was a free spirit who preferred travel and the joy of loose watercolours en plein air. He became a muralist because he felt he should and he knew he could. He was casual and generous with his talent and the murals took their toll. The last of the museum panels was finished in 1925 and sent to Boston for installation. Planning once more to travel to the States to supervise, he told a friend, “Now the American things are done, and so, I suppose, I may die when I like.” A few days later, he died in his sleep at his home in London at the age of sixty-nine.
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Triumph of Religion’ (1890-1919) Boston Public Library
Philadelphia leads in murals
by Karen McLaughlin, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Philadelphia has a wonderful Mural Arts program that many urban areas would be wise to emulate. Philly murals comprise the most of any city in the United States, 2,700 and counting. Large and spectacular, these colorful murals illuminate many areas of our inner city landscape. Subjects range from victim rights to cultural understanding. If you’re ever in the city, take the physical tour, these are some breathtaking murals!
Giclees also vulnerable to deterioration
by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA
Artists who choose cheap materials are doing a disservice to themselves (their reputations) and their clients. They should insist that the client pay for quality materials, which will last a lot longer depending on the exposure. And, “giclee” is just a fancy word for “inkjet print” and we know they are as vulnerable to deterioration as watercolors — a condition equal to using cheap paints. I certainly appreciate that you are dealing with ideas in your letters. Nonetheless, the lasting expression of an idea is dependent on the lasting potential of the materials used to express the idea. In addition, we ought to mention the artist’s fiduciary responsibility to the client, an obvious though nasty aspect if there ever was one.
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. Many giclee producers are currently making remarkable claims particularly regarding “dry ink” processes. As much as a hundred years in some cases. Giclees that we’ve tested here are fading in much shorter times than that — although they’re not as fugitive as watercolours, which have legendary disappearing acts. Nevertheless, one has to consider and value the eternal reprinting feature of giclees. Perhaps a greater risk is the life — or potential obsolescence — of the disc.
Good acrylic and latex for murals
by Jacobina Trump, Indianapolis, IN, USA
I have made several very large murals in Miami. The sun and temperature are brutal to a mural, but they are still standing. I think it has to do with the good acrylic paint and the modern outdoor latex paints I used for the jobs, together with three coats of satin varnish. Making a mural has its specific challenges but is very rewarding. If you make them more in the fashion of a Trompe’l oeil they become part of the architecture and are outside of fashion trends.
Painting on the kitchen walls
by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal, QC, Canada
Some years ago, I had bought a tiny condo in downtown Montreal which served as a studio for me to paint. One very cold icy morning, having run out of canvas, I decided to paint on the wall instead. The challenge was invigorating. The only problem now is that I am so attached to this lone mural that I am loathe to accept any offers to sell the place. My heart is in it and I cannot sell my heart. Mike and Alan, where were you when I needed you?
(RG note) Thanks, Cheryl. You might photograph the wall, take the disc with you, have giclees made for all the walls of your future, and for your grandchildren’s future. Immortality?
by Sue Poole, Mill City, OR, USA
The administration of our small high school approached me one day with the idea… Would your art students like to liven up the halls with a few murals? I said we would think about it. One student enthusiastically wanted to paint Madonna’s face in the water fountain niche across from my room. Every time you took a drink, Madonna was staring down at you. This painting was executed at the same time Madonna’s controversial Sex book was published. As a result, the water fountain Madonna caused quite an outrage from the administration. I was asked to have her painted over. “Never!” I cried. During several meetings we haggled over what to do with Madonna. The mechanical superintendent came up with a brilliant idea. The idea was also agreeable to the student. So the next day they cut that section of the wall out of the building and gave it to my artist to take home.
Reproducing the Sistine Chapel
by John DeCuir, La Crescenta, CA, USA
“Murals to go” brought back memories of my work on the film The Agony and the Ecstasy where we created “to scale” (shy of a few feet) Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Being up close and personal with those huge images, even if we were just copying his work, was a breathtaking experience. We built it in Rome in Delaurentis Studios on the largest sound stage in the world at the time. We had three sets of fiberglass panels for the blue star ceiling. Other sections were made for the half-finished work we needed to show on camera. Completed panels were lowered and lifted into place as required. Obviously we were not allowed to film in the Vatican.
‘Digitally stitched’ mural
by Don Getz, Salem, OH, USA
I recently completed a 20×30 foot mural for my hometown, Salem, Ohio, celebrating their 200th Anniversary. The mural consisted of 54 ‘frames’ which illustrated outstanding events, over those 200 years. The illustrations were done in my ‘journal style,’ ink linework with watercolor washes — not on the actual mural, but in the form of 6 inch squares which were digital copies of my black line work, then printed on watercolor paper, which I then added the loose watercolor washes, then rescanned. The entire mural was then created by ‘digitally stitching’ all of the elements together and reproducing that on perforated vinyl which is the latest material for exterior murals, banners, etc. From my first meeting with the town committee to the time the mural was hung on the building was 45 days (the day before the big parade celebration on July 15th, 2006). There is no way that I could have designed and painted the mural on the building in that time period, as the building wall also had to be prepared, while I did the art. Longevity is expected to be six years, before noticeable fading takes place… however, with the limited days of sunshine in northeast Ohio, it may be several more years. The printing company is Digital Color Imaging of Akron, Ohio, who also produces the AWS Annual Exhibition Catalog.
by Rosemary Walton, OR, USA
My husband, Robert Walton, painted a 6,000 plus square foot mural on the side of the farm museum in Heppner, Oregon. I’ve spent a lot of time online trying to determine what is the largest mural painted by a single artist on site. I can’t seem to come to any positive conclusion. Do you or any of your readers have any idea what might be the largest square foot mural?
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
By those standards, my 263-foot mural in LA was a magical completion. We had 25 inner city youth from a counseling center (it was community service for the gang kids to repay society for their crimes) who learned to paint from the beginning. Start to finish, our hand-painted mural took 6 months to do, with only 10 weeks of youth work time, and all the rest up to my co-designer, James Garcia, and me to finish it up.
At UCLA, Judy Baca is teaching inner city at-risk youth to do the computer assisted execution of their murals onto giclee and substrates so that when/if the outdoor murals are damaged, they just have to print up a new one and replace it. Alas, there is possibly something missing in a copy of an original, but better to have a pretty copy that is really close to the original than a desecrated work of art exposed to the shame of loss.
by Dorey Schmidt, Wimberley, TX, USA
The letter on murals to go was right up my alley. I know only too well what happens to murals, since I have been researching the existing works of Texas muralist/artist James Buchanan (Buck) Winn, Jr. for a number of years. Buck Winn created murals on a grand scale as well, but finding them is a huge task, since there is often no record of what happens to the murals when buildings change hands, or, sadly, are razed for construction of parking lots, etc. The idea of conserving the originals by using reproductions is a typical New World solution, and certainly less expensive than the hundreds of thousands of dollars which have been spent restoring the works of a single large mural. But murals are such a great amalgamation of art and history that they must be preserved for future generations.
(RG note) Thanks, Dorey. Dorey’s story of the discovery of one of the Winn murals is here. It’s not a sorry story.
Mural in a week
by Andrew Judd, Toronto, ON, Canada
An artist friend Malcolm Jones and I collaborated on a mural for Harley Davidson. We used the same idea, creating giant giclees printed up from smaller originals. We had one week to complete the job — no kidding! The original art was done using a combination of computer work in Corel Painter and then hand colored with watercolor (egg tempera specifically). The originals were scanned and sent off to the client for enlargement. They reside on the walls of the Trevor Deely motorcycle dealership in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Translating easel work to large-scale
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Sargent’s murals show what is often a big problem with murals — they tend to be line drawings rather than paintings. The methods used and their sheer size often lack unity and painterly qualities. Sargent was the king of the painterly style and his murals are as dry as stale toast. The medium did not suit him well. Someone like Joaquin Sorolla could have produced a mural-sized painting with paint quality. He attacked huge subjects en plein air using large long-handled brushes. These huge paintings are as energetic and painterly as small paintings. I think it would be difficult to sustain the energy needed to produce a large mural, especially for a painter like Sargent. I think of all the great paintings that Sargent never did because of those Boston murals.
Change of heart
by Skip Dyrda, Sarasota, FL, USA
For the last 6 weeks, I’ve been setting my alarm to 5:30 a.m. so I can get to my job site in downtown Stuart, Florida as the sun comes up. Not so that I can see a nice sunrise either. Mostly because I’m working hard and fast, outdoors, trying to paint ‘between the raindrops’ and trying even harder not to become fried by the hot Florida sun. Last night I quit at about 8 p.m.. That’s one long day. When you recommend to other artists to, in my opinion, take the easy way out, I was upset… and wide awake, for sure! And then I watched the video you provided. I love those guys, Alan and Mike. And their work! I’m no longer ‘steamed.’ I was pleased to see that they did indeed actually paint something and they did it very well and even more importantly, they had fun doing it.
Down it came
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
Your warning about the impermanence of a mural makes me think of the tragedy of Diego Rivera’s enormous, almost-completed mural in New York — the Man at the Crossroads fresco. It was demolished in 1934 for including a portrait of Lenin. He refused to change it because it was “true to history,” yet Rockefeller didn’t want to be politically incorrect. Down it came. Such a shame.
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I was asked to submit a proposal to the Children’s Hospital for a mural design competition. Much to my surprise, I was short listed to the five finalists. I went to a general meeting with the other design teams. They all were in small groups, very serious and with laptops, expertise and experience. I was sitting there alone with my chewed up pencil and coil ring sketch book and I thought “…I’m going to write them the nicest letter to thanks them for this opportunity when I don’t get this.” But I paid attention to the client’s needs, looked at the colossal wall that was looming over me and went at my proposal. I met with the design aesthetics committee a few weeks later and made my pitch. I said people went to hospitals because they are in need of care and are feeling stressed. I wanted to paint something beautiful that people could look at it and feel better. I had all the heads nodding. The next day they called me and told me I got it. I was thinking “Oh no, now they are going to find out how I don’t have a clue what I am doing.” The painting took a year to complete and was done on the floor of my studio. How I was going to install a 40-section painting on a 40′ x 60′ rotunda wall 20 feet off the ground was beyond me. I worked very diligently and brought in the mural on time and on budget and learned more than I could ever hope for.
by Eli Marrero, Puerto Rico
Trompe l’oeil Murals are a great way to fool the eye when used in harmony with the architecture or decor of the building. I am a muralist and have painted murals for many years. I can tell you that with today’s high quality acrylic paints and uv protection clear coats, murals can last longer than in the past. Use the best products for the best results. Certain pigments will last longer than others under the sun. Do your research and use the proper preparation of the wall surface before painting. This will ensure that your paint will adhere to the wall. I recommend Golden’s website, they have great information on outdoor mural preparation and painting using their products. You can always use mosaic tiles or al fresco technique if you want a finish more permanent than paint. Using the giclee printed mural method is a great way to keep the work saved in a digital format for future use. It is also a good option for commercial venues where a hand painted mural is not in the budget. I found myself in a situation a few years ago were I was approached by a designer who wanted an estimate for a mural project. This was for a new building being built. When we spoke again about the project the designer had a cheaper alternative that included scanned images and a final printed mural.
Murals in Hong Kong
by Elizabeth Briel, Hong Kong
Murals can often be much more than the vision of an artist “made large.” They can reflect the values of a community. Somehow, working this way, the project — the result — is larger than the ego of one artist. By their nature murals can be as transient as sand paintings. Often made with inferior-quality paints, they fade in a summer or two, but the process of painting can be almost as important as the result, within a community.
One of my many jobs is as an artist working with the Hong Kong Mural Society. One of my responsibilities — in addition to painting — is to promote our work. I’ve set up a blog for our latest and future projects. We have made many murals in HK’s housing projects (did you know 50% of HK’s population live in housing projects?) and in schools across the territory. They bring artists and students of different cultural backgrounds together to make a unifying project. My colleague told me about one mural painted in a part of HK where it was difficult for the elderly to get out and about, due to financial and physical constraints. They like to hang out near the maritime underwater scenes painted by the Society near their housing estate and get their “seashore fix” that way!
At the moment I’m in Macau — the Vegas of the East — painting faux marble pillars at the brand new Venetian hotel. It’s continuing a tradition of nearly two thousand years of faux marbling. This is a different kind of large-scale painting that, again, has more to do with the art director’s ego than my own. Sometimes it’s a relief to be an “artisan” rather than an “artist,” to simply be able to enjoy the process of painting something beautiful in layer after layer of paint, rather than be overly concerned about the end result.
Nothing for the reputation
by Rod Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada
The two murals I completed for the then new Market Square complex in Saint John, New Brunswick went up in 1983. The Trade and Convention hall where they are still installed was massive and at 8 x 40 feet they are hardly more than an afterthought way up there on two facing walls. Probably just as well, as I have been ambivalent about them and think they did nothing for my reputation as a fine artist. Also, some of the other artists who were contemporaries on this project have fared badly over the years, defaced sculptures and that sort of thing. At least one work of art has vanished entirely. So much for the agora! At least my murals are too far off the ground to invite annotations or additions.
Enjoy the past comments below for Murals to go…
Town of Cochrane Community Mural Mosaic
mixed media painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Yma Rosenthal who wrote, “I do murals with my students in an effort to teach teamwork, sharing of space, and ideas.
And also Jeannette Gysbers of Edmonton, AB, Canada who wrote. “Thought you may be interested in murals “to go” in a somewhat different way: a giant mural that can involve over 100 artists and once it has been on display at some key venues, the “tiles” are auctioned off to individuals.”
And also Harry Robbins who wrote, “As a school teacher I see murals as opportunities for collaborative painting, teaching, and personal expression as well as legacies that are more public than framed works. As they are large works, you can really get into the brushwork to put some paint on the wall without being sent to a parental time out. To inspire, teach and use full body brushwork is the joy of mural painting.”
And also Alfred Muma who wrote, “Taking the mural concept and rendering it as a mosaic such as a ceramic tile mural has its own artistic rewards. I enjoy the challenge of creating on a large scale and wouldn’t consider blowing up a painting as a short cut.”
And also Caroline Stengl of Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “I spent 8 solid hours on a ladder in the hot sun yesterday, painting the last parts of my second outdoor public mural. I’m finally finished! I’m so sore today I can barely move! You don’t mention the sheer physical pain involved in mural painting.”
And also Kristine Paton who wrote, “Alan and Mike could receive royalties if the murals were also being reproduced as smaller giclees and sold to visitors to the casinos. I myself recently completed a 30″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas which was gicleed to 10 ft by 10 ft and is now installed over the door of a local art gallery.”
And also Annette Wolfstein who wrotem “I’ve been telling friends and students to suppress the urge to paint on walls (we all have this from when we are children) and paint on large canvases instead.”
And also Anonymous who wrote, “Outdoor murals are practically unheard of in Europe. We have enough problems with graffiti here.”