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Painting a Mural: Anticipation and Agony

Saturday, August 14, 2021

 I am so overwhelmed with the experience of painting my first mural that I need to write about it while the feeling of flying is so fresh. Not only was it my first, but it was Liam’s first, too. I won’t lie—we were both pretty rattled at the prospect of painting on such a large scale. And so, too, were veteran artist Beth Nash, who often creates large format works, and organizer Bobby Rosenstock, another prolific and versatile artist. But Bobby asked me to work with him, and I jumped at the chance. His concept was for us to paint underwater life of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. Though I longed to paint some fish, I realized that I’d better stick to my expertise, which is birds and, to a lesser extent, mammals, which would spice things up nicely, since most people don’t consider birds and mammals underwater when they picture underwater life.

Hailey Bennett, Beth Nash and Bobby Rosenstock talk over our plans. I was to be Artist #4. 

 Over the many months between when I was invited and when painting finally began on August 8, I must have visited that tunnel, which passes beneath the Putnam St. Bridge in Marietta, five times. I’d walk through it, looking at the existing mural executed years ago by Marietta College students. It was pretty basic, as you can see, and it had been overwritten with some raunchy graffiti. It was past time for things to change. I’d look at the angry red scrawls of graffiti over those earnest little paintings, then up at the mayfly carcasses and spider webs coating the ceiling, and wonder how in the world we were going to make this change. The tunnel was so BIG!! How in the world could only four artists manage to fill up this enormous tunnel with images? How long would it take? Weeks? Months? Could I afford the time it would take to paint for so long? Could I even do this?

Liam at work. Photo by Michelle Waters


I decided to bring in Liam as my assistant, and that was the best decision ever. We have always worked well together, but I’d never gotten the chance to collaborate on a painting with him. He’d had a summer of not much happening other than helping me cut brush and clean the endless miasma that was our four-car detached garage/dumping station; he also cleaned out the living room closet, and cleaned his closet and room. We cut a hell of a lot of brush, too. As the time drew closer to the project start, we got more and more excited. That first morning when we started transferring our drawings onto the walls, it really hit me how BIG these things were going to be. We used a special borrowed digital projector, which was able to magnify the images though only a short distance from the wall. The sunlight pouring in both ends of the tunnel easily overpowered its bulb. We could barely see the images, and the projector kept spontaneously reducing them, too. It was frustrating but fast work to sketch out the faint outlines of each creature and then move on to the next.

I help transfer Beth Nash's spotted gar, dimly projected on the wall. Large. Very large.

 Oh my. So little to go on, but at least we had the basic proportions. At that scale, it would have been impossible for me to draw any of these things and get their proportions right. I had had such fun sketching out mergansers, kingfishers and river otters over the last few weeks. Seeing the otters blown up to 8’ long, and the kingfisher and merganser bigger than me, was mind-blowing.

Here are some of the sketches I did in preparation. 

Drake common merganser. Didn't make the cut.

Common merganser, hen

Friendly otter.

Otter 3. Didn't make the cut. 

Belted kingfisher, nabbing a fish.

We got all the creatures transferred onto the wall that day, and we commenced painting by about 11 AM. The surface had been power-washed and beautifully painted and prepared by the Marietta Rotary Club, with Bobby’s help. I was a bit surprised by the bright aqua background color. I'd been expecting a sort of muddy gray green, but I grew to love it as the work went on and I let go of my preconceptions of total realism. This mural was clearly going to be more about fun and pizzaz than research grade accuracy.

The Chroma brand acrylic Mural Paint we used was absolutely amazing—smooth as heavy cream, odorless, water based, and it covered beautifully with one coat. I couldn’t believe how nicely it went on, and how quiet and smooth was the concrete surface. This was going to be easier than I thought, I thought. I thought... 

I set to work on an otter. My learning curve was very, very steep. First, I failed to understand that I had to let a coat dry completely before trying to paint over it, so at first I got some very blurry, amateurish results. Second, here I was painting opaquely, after an entire lifetime of painting with transparent watercolor washes. My old brain didn’t quite grasp what I should be doing, how to go about it. I had to paint backward from how I’m used to doing watercolors—starting with dark and putting light on top, instead of starting with light and building to dark. Third, my drawing had been flopped, so nothing about it felt familiar to me. Fourth, I had nothing to go on but the charcoal outline-no anatomical hints. I couldn't even see where to place the ears. Fifth, I was teetering on a ladder with my nose right on top of an 8' long otter and I couldn't tell what the hell I was even seeing or doing. I had to step backward and down off that ladder what felt like hundreds of times that day just to see what I had just done. Oh why couldn't I work standing or sitting like the other artists? Why did my otters have to be so durn huge and so durn high up?

With this perfect storm of factors, I went off the rails very quickly, and took the guardrail along with me. First I screwed up the foreleg, then I screwed up the otter’s shoulders. I failed to convey that the otter was twisting in space (a little thing I’d done that was fun to imagine in a small sketch but nearly impossible to re-imagine at 8’ long with nothing to go on). The sketch looked fine, fun even...

Twisty, problematic otter, author of my torment.

but what I had painted on that wall was something entirely else. I had no photo reference for it—it was just something I figured an otter could do in water, having a highly flexible spine and being weightless to boot. In painting it, I had gotten way too dark in color and couldn’t back up from there…it was a disaster. It looked like a cartoon to me, like Alvin and the Chipmunks. I couldn’t stand to have anyone see it, but there it was, a thousand times larger than life, right there in front of God and Marietta. One hind leg looked like a duck drumstick, and the shoulder was all bulgy and wrong, wrong, wrong...arrrrghh. I can't even bear to post this, but here it is, and it is awful. I wanted to curl into a ball.


I went to bed that night in great turmoil. I was failing this test in a huge, huge way. At 2:30 AM I woke up, my mind buzzing, asking myself how it all could have gone so very wrong. Usually when I wake in the wee hours, I make it a point not to turn on any lights or do anything but try to go back to sleep. This time I flipped on the light, trudged upstairs into the studio, pulled up my reference photos and my original sketches, compared them to this snapshot of the painting as I’d left it, and just got down and dealt with it. Ah HAH!! There it was—the massive left front leg that looked so messed up. Good grief!! I scribbled out a corrections guide for myself for the morning. There were 21 points to correct on it. Now we were getting somewhere! 

I scrutinized the photos I’d gathered of otters swimming underwater, and noted that they looked pale, almost silvery, thanks to the air trapped in their fur and the flattening effect of the water’s polarizing filter. That was that! I needed to completely paint over that monstrosity I’d committed. 4, 5 and 6 AM came and went. I tried to get a nap, but I was too wound up. OK. My day had started at 2:30 am, and I was going to paint until 5:30 pm—15 hours straight. So much for the carefree life of the happy artist! At 9 AM I marched into the tunnel and announced to no one in particular that I was starting over from scratch. We would just forget about Day 1’s work and start fresh. I mixed a pot of Otter Beige, grabbed a 3” flat brush, and swabbed that thing all over, obliterating everything that was wrong. Which was…everything. 


 With grim determination, I painted and painted, going over the same ground as yesterday. People filtered into the tunnel despite our having put up lots of yellow police tape and orange pylons asking them to keep out. They wanted to watch us work, and to talk, to us, too. Talk?? I’ve been working alone in my studio for more than 30 years and now I’m doing this super hard scary gigantic messy thing and I have to be nice and welcoming? I can’t engage in conversation while working. When I’m painting, I am deep in my right brain, and it takes an active left brain to answer questions. After my sleepless night, all I wanted was to be left alone to fix the disaster I’d created. 

The other artists understood perfectly, because we’ve all been there. They stayed clear of me as you would stay clear of, say, a spitting cobra or a snapping turtle. They knew I was out of my mind and would stay there until I was ok with what I’d committed on that beautiful aqua blue wall.


A photographer was coming at 1 pm. The heat was on. I fought off the constant distractions as best I could, set Liam to doing the base coat on Otter 2 and just grappled with that twisty chocolate cartoon chipmunk until I had it where I wanted it. It was Not Fun. 

But by the end of the second day, I had something I at least was not ashamed of, and Liam had made huge progress on Otter 2, which was the better drawing of the two anyway. He did all the grunt work, did a much better job on the many square feet of fur than I had, and all I had to do was waltz over at the very end and tweak the face, eyes, and paws and show him the scumbling effect I wanted to achieve on the tail, which I couldn't reach anyway.

 It was awesome. It was like having an extension of myself who could actually do these things right, without overworking them. And at 6'3", could also reach them!



 After painting approximately 16’ worth of muddy otter brown, Liam and I were dying to get into a little color, something lighter and brighter. All around us, the other artists were painting wildly colorful fish. It was time to move on to something Other than Otters. 

I'd done the worst first. I was ready to have a little more fun now. 



I’m reminded of Whistler’s Peacock Room. He needed to paint the ceiling, but didn’t want to do it from scaffolding or a ladder. Instead he covered the floor with mattresses and had special brushes made with long handles so he could lay on his back and paint from the safety of the floor. I think he used opera glasses for the fine detail stuff.

I find the need as well to stand back and see how things are going, but as yet haven’t tackled anything on the scale that you have! Huzzah to you and Liam!

It is true humility to share your struggles and solutions so openly, and I am fascinated by the process. To get to work with other artists, especially your son, must be both heady and high-pressure!

Hoo boy! I've been given the opportunity to do a mural before, but never did it. I suspected a projector had to be involved but didn't have one, and figured I'd just have to eyeball it with chalk until it looked right, jumping back to check every third heartbeat. Sounded impossible. This is fantastic. With you all the way! And I'd forgotten about scumbling, but not about the inability to talk to anyone while painting. Yeah, you sort of hear someone talking, and then there's this big mechanical switch you probably have to climb up to on a ladder in your brain, and thunk it off, replay tape, answer the question, and then switch back on again. Leaving your interrogator persuaded you got there on the Special Bus.

Thank you for reminding me of Whistler’s Struggles. Major goal in life is to see that room. Yep, getting up and down off that ladder literally hundreds of times—my legs are still talking about that at night.

Thank you, M! It was very hard to post that first crack at it but I learned so much and wanted to convey what goes along with the fun of being a carefree “talented artist.” Writ very, very large.

Speak Artist to me! This is in part a confessional to the people who must have found me incredbly unaccommodating and grumpy. Not an apology—an explanatory defense. I’ve heard of public mural artists who wear large conspicuous headphones for the express purpose of not having to explain why they can’t chatter away as they work. All that said, it’s mostly a blast and I would have been much nicer had it been easy to do. And next time you’re asked, DO IT, Murre. Do it. You will love it. Mwah.

So glad you took advantage of this opportunity...we'll definitely go by it next weekend.

Enjoyed the ride even if you maybe didn't. Nice job, both of you! Fun collaboration :-).

Well, when things go pear-shaped you just gotta do what you otter.

How beautiful it is!

I hear you, big time! Did my first (and probably last) mural a couple years ago. Part of a series of quilt murals that is on-going here in Paducah. They are not painted directly on the wall, however, but instead on lengths of primed Pelion which is then pasted onto the wall. The mural took 1 1/2 years to complete, over 900 hours in total. Talk about losing your mind!! I thought for much of the time that I was in some permanent lower circle of Hell, destined to spend the rest of my days painting over stitching that was a prominent feature of this particular mural.. Unlike yours, which you’re doing in one coat, it required 4-5 coats, which meant I repainted it that many times!! First coat was what’s called color mapping, then you paint over that with umbers and ochres to ensure the final colors read right in the sun, and then the final coat(s) are the correct colors with details of shadow, etc. I had helpers which made it all possible, but the end result was my responsibility.

I didn’t have people talking to me while I painted, for the most part, though my helpers and I developed fast friendships and learned to work well together. It was way outside my wheelhouse since like you I am a watercolorist. So I had to learn very quickly how to paint with and handle acrylics, including color mixing and matching of tones from the original quilt. A very humbling and strangely rewarding experience. It was hung in November of last year and dedicated on Veteran’s Day with a ceremony.

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