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.

Thailand | Beach Triptych


Pretty sure this was just a simple accident at the time, but I like how it all happened. I probably wasn’t even thinking about it when I cut the film. All of those small things that just add up. Makes me want to leave my digital camera at home more often.

Remain in Light

An older picture of a tree. Reflected in water. On Con Dao island in southern Vietnam. Been thinking a lot lately. Trying to get the Year of the Dragon off to the right start. Somehow this seemed appropriate.

Vietnam Photographs: Age & Texture

Anyone who tells you developing film is like riding a bike is lying. It’s been three years since I last spooled a roll of black and white. I first tried again the other day. About an hour into it I was sweating and cursing my decision. Two hours into it I was ready to give up. Three hours in I finally had it. Three days and several rolls later, I’m finally getting the hang of it again. Now it feels good. It feels right. I’ve missed the smell of fixer on my fingers. I’ve missed dust and water spots and all the other headaches that come along with the process. My New Year’s resolution was to shoot more film for my personal work. I’m just starting to make good on that.

I’ve never been much of a technical photographer. I like mistakes and errors. I try to put feeling first and not really worry about the syntax of things. So that’s where I’m trying to go with these new images. They’re rough sketches, but I like them as a beginning. And for now that’s all that really matters.

A Hanoi Love Story

Earlier this week I was asked to shoot some photography stills for a new music video being made for a song called “Hanoi Love Story”, by the artist Tri Minh. I’ll be one of a few different collaborators on this project. I haven’t seen any of the other work yet, but I’m excited. It should be a fun experiment. It also feels good to be working with other artists; it’s something that doesn’t happen often enough around here. Photographers/videographers of Hanoi, unite and take over.

The above three images are outtakes from one of the “scenes” I was shooting. The theme was loose. A love story. And with an hour to shoot it, I just focused on getting some good pictures that could be edited down into some kind of vague or metaphorical storyline later on. Since they’ll be mixed with video, I was playing around a lot with motion and blur and other things that I think of when I think of cinematic qualities in things. Rightly or wrongly. It was fun. In the end what else really matters?