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April 11, 2011

My Mural Painting Tips

Lucianna Samu

In a binder labeled: "things I'd like to try," I've kept page 16 torn from the Benjamin Moore book Paint Style for nearly 3 years.  Today, I relocated the treasured image which depicts a Rufus Porter mural into a file folder titled: "completed painting projects."  Yes indeed, thanks to the help of Esmond Lyons, the flag has been raised on my new, American mural.  While I'm not anticipating a knock at the door from The Metropolitan Museum of Art any time soon, I do think Rufus Porter would be as pleased as I am to see Esmond's interpretation of a Hudson River School landscape at The Peabody Farmhouse.


I'm a feeble artist at best, so I was quick to jot down every suggestion Esmond offered for mural making success.  For starters, to keep your work level, it's useful to run a grid over the wall.  It needn't be perfectly measured and precise, but the lines should be straight and level to keep your scene from having the dreaded look of sinking lopsidedness.  Pencil is a definite no-no for grid making and sketching out the scene, because it will bleed though latex and acrylic paint unless every bit is erased.  Chalk, charcoal, or a colored pencil, which will collaborate with your finished paint colors, is best.  Don't bother with the details at first, just get the background laid out, and then get to painting.

Esmond recommends that any mural needs to have what he calls a convincing background.  The "convincing" comes from suitable colors, chosen to suggest sky, grass, water and so on.  My collection of 4-inch throwaway chip brushes worked perfectly for slathering on a sky blue, drab green and "dead foliage brown."  Any brush you consider large in your own hand, will do the trick--you want broad carefree strokes of color.


Next, add a focal point to the composition.  Take a quick look here at the rule of thirds, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds if you're concerned about how to render a focal point.  The short story on that is, don't stick it right in the middle!  Esmond likes to add height to either corner, or the edge of the scene, to frame the perspective.  I've resorted to dragging a tree branch in from outside, and leaning it against the wall to get my scale right.  I've taped fake flowers to walls, collage style, and I own a myriad of bird, butterfly, flower and leaf stencils.  I rely heavily on these for anything that needs to appear realistic, and I do mean anything!  I place the stencils here and there in my scene, even sometimes cut them in half, flip them over, and follow the design around the acetate with colored chalk.  Instead of the typical pounced paint application, painting the designs in free hand, perhaps layering and highlighting if you can, will add authenticity, and artistry.

There's no need to invest in fancy brushes for the detail work.  You can buy a good assortment of inexpensive synthetic brushes at any art supply store.  One-inch throw-away brushes, my personal brush of choice, have longer bristles, adding less 'brushiness' and texture to the work and also have the advantage of holding more paint.  This helps to mix new shades and tones as you go. Esmond taught me that using soft colors for the distance and more vivid color in the foreground is the simplest formula to add perspective.  As you continue build detail, reduce the size of your brush.  The smaller foreground interest of your scene can be rendered with very small art brushes.  If, like me, you like a little surprise in the work, pieces of synthetic sponges, Qtips, even torn paper or my personal favorite, old Chanel eyeliner brushes, will all do the trick for adding fine detail.

More than anything, Esmond believes the colors and a confident approach matters more than our level of expertise.  To build your color confidence and keep your cost down, mix and match Benjamin Moore's 2-ounce color samples.  You may also try mixing your own left over paint colors in empty milk cartons or plastic cups or directly on paper plates.  If you are a novice and want to perfect you color mixing skill, write down which paint you mixed to arrive at each fabulous color you made.  Yes! bright blue, bright yellow, and an ugly brown plus a pinch of white, made your lovely turquoise.


By definition, a mural is any scene painted directly onto a wall.  So, for those of you who are on the move or apartment dwellers, you could tack a big piece of canvass to your wall--I've even used lightweight drop cloths.  You can take your fabulous creation with you and continue to add to it whenever you're of a mind to improve your colorful mood.  


Experimentation is our best friend.  If you can copy designs without needing to draw an outline first, then photographs, fabrics, even wallpaper or a favorite tablecloth can be stuck right to the wall with tape to help you get your composition laid out.  Plus a myriad of mural scenes are just a click away, the more surprising of which are all ready to go paint-by-number scenes.  Carbon paper transfers and stick on transfers are also a snap to personalize, especially once you have that stack of colorful paper palettes nearby!

Large chalkboards are a very good place for aspiring muralists to begin before graduating to more expensive and time-consuming work with paint.  There are dozens of mural scenes available as paint by numbers, carbon paper transfers, and stick on transfers, all of which you can personalize to suit the context.  When my children were young, I kept one wall in my house as a work-in-progress mural, and on rainy days we'd gather our brushes and open some paint.  We called it our Dr. Seuss day, and I learned important painting skills from the kids, who are eager helpers and very, very relaxed artists!  Once you come to associate opening a can of paint with the exhilaration of unleashing your creativity, you'll have relaxed enough to discover how pleasurable the process of mural painting is. 

So, relax, unleash your creativity and share your mural making tips and successes with us here--American traditional, gallery worthy, or otherwise!

Stay colorful,


Benjamin Moore Paint Style

Benjamin Moore Chalk Board Paint


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Thanks for the great tips, I paint murals as well and find that using a grid is not only great for keeping everything straight and level but really helpful for enlarging images onto the wall and keeping the proportions accurate. www.amyheitman.com

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