How to Paint a Mural

Not really, but I’ve been watching a lot of How To with John Wilson on HBO, and in the spirit of digression and the way these posts kind of meander and waltz their way through things, the nod feels very apropos. Why teach a thing directly, when the diversions are just as important?

This is the first mural I’ve ever painted, so I’m not here to teach anything. I didn’t even know I could do it until three days in, after the first coat of paint was down and the stencils were on the wall. From there it built up slowly, one brush stroke at a time. The entire thing–four walls in a great friend’s yoga studio in Providence, RI–is based on photographs I’ve taken over the past decade or so. The project took two weeks to complete and pushed me to the limits of my artistic abilities.

I should have taken more pictures of the process, not just the finished product. It’s nice to see how things are made, to see how someone builds their craft from the ground up. I think a part of me never records those details because they would lay bare the mental chaos that comes with creation and because I’d just be showing how little I know, how circumspect and subjective art really is. Maybe that’s a worry a lot of us have. Maybe we’re all imposters here. Anyway.

I started with a simple base layer of three different colors–blue, green, and yellow–randomly thrown on the wall. From there I sketched the mural in charcoal. Then I painted the hot pink undertones that would bleed and burn through the final piece. Then I painted the rest.

The man looking up into the trees is from an image I took during my time in photography school, nearly 15 years ago. A self-portrait in a snow-covered forest outside of Boston. It was also the first section I painted on the mural.

Throughout the process, different shades and subtleties became noticeable the longer I looked at my reference images. It’s incredible, everything we fail to see at first. Photography schools should teach a semester of painting. The benefits of seeing things progress and unfold slowly are immeasurable. It’s a nice balance to the often brunt force of photography.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a comics artist. Or maybe just any kind of artist. Or maybe I’m not really sure what I wanted. In my mind there was a job where I could just sit on the floor and eat cucumbers and draw whatever I felt like with an old yellow pencil and that was the job I wanted. As training, I would try to draw everything I saw as perfectly as possible. I threw away every mistake, so I threw away almost everything I drew. I would get frustrated at my inability to show things as they were. My dreams faded before my young eyes. I was a slow learner. It took a long time to learn art isn’t about showing things as they are.

I still don’t know what art is about–I just know it isn’t about that. Or it is about that if you want it to be about that, but you don’t have to want it to be about that. Or something. Who knows. Google it.

It took 16 days to finish the mural. While I was painting, I slept above the studio. I would work all day with little else on my mind. At the time, I knew I was in the middle of a very special moment–I had no other responsibilities, nowhere else to be. I was with friends. It wasn’t cucumbers and an old yellow pencil, but it was something just as good.

There’s very little that’s perfect about the final piece. Maybe a small section here or there on the wall with the bamboo forest. An errant brushstroke or two elsewhere. But also, maybe not. Perfection is fleeting and it moves in tandem with the rest of life, ebbing and flowing. So there’s no How To here. There’s no right or wrong way to go about any artistic pursuit. You just feel your way through it in the dark and hope it says one small thing to one person somewhere, at some time.

4 thoughts on “How to Paint a Mural”

  1. I totally understand that feeling of being an imposter–not with painting, but with other creative projects. We know more than we think we do! Anyway, you did an amazing job on this mural! The subject matter, color, and perspective create just the right mood for that space. Well done!

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