A few months ago, I was asked to paint my very first mural and gladly took them up on their offer. Their desired concept was easy enough: they wanted mountains and sunflowers, right up my alley. Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, there is no shortage to inspiration to go off of, so sticking with the local landscape, I decided on an blue ombre mountain-scape background with life sized sunflowers on either side of the mural. Since this was my very first mural ever, I had A LOT to learn about what works and how to transfer my small drawing onto a 15x6ft concrete canvas. The purpose of this post is to give people who are interested in painting murals a realistic look on how to start the process. If you have any tips, tricks or corrections about my process, PLEASE let me know! I know this is a long post, but I will list all supplies, cost and time spent painting at the very bottom!!
Where The Hell Do I Start?
Luckily, I happened to know a few friends in the mural painting business which really helping connecting with them because I wasn’t finding much on the internet about detailed, step-by-step outdoor mural tutorials. Well, there was PLENTY of tutorials about using spray paints, but knowing that there was going to be a huge learning curve, I decided to stick with my trusty paint-and-brush method. And I’m sure that using spray paint is a very effective method, however, they are pretty expensive and considering that I didn’t really know what I was doing, I didn’t want to risk wasting time and money.
I did happen to stumble upon one artist on Youtube who shows his process for painting murals, but all of his work is for indoor walls. The particular wall I was painting was an outdoor retention wall made of VERY rough concrete, so I just decided to wing it. One of the best tips I got from him was to start with buying 5 colors of latex paint: red, blue, yellow, black, and white. Starting with primary colors, it makes it easier to create custom colors without having to buy 13 different gallons of expensive paint. We all know how primary colors work, right??
Paint And Brushes And Rollers, Oh My!
For my mural, I needed a lot of blue for the mountains, so I got a full gallon of blue. I knew I was painting quite a few sunflowers, so I also got a full gallon of yellow (which worked out well because it would also be used to make the green stems and leaves). Now, as we all know, red is a VERY powerful color. I only needed a little to make a darker yellow for the petals of the sunflowers, so I only got a quart of red which I hardly put a dent in. I decided to get a full gallon of white because it’s the best to blend with and to add highlights and then I went with a quart of black because I didn’t really need much of it. Come to think of it, I never even opened my black paint ha ha! I suppose it’s good to have for future projects though…
Once I had my paint, I needed to figure out what I was going to use to actually apply the paint with because the paintbrushes I had at home were way too small to cover a space that size. (note: I ended up using my small brushes for some of the fine details) I ended up getting both a 2in and a 1in paintbrush with a chiseled edge because it helps make crisp, clean lines when painting. I also got a paint roller in the standard 12in size as well as the smaller 3in roller. Keep in mind that it’s so much easier to buy a few extra rollers to make using multiple colors easier. I think we are all guilty of just throwing roll covers out on account of what a pain in the ass they are to clean. Save yourself the headache of accidentally mixing the wrong colors together and buy a few extra roll covers. Between Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree, I really didn’t have to spend much on these.
Things To Keep In Mind:
- If you are going the primary-colors route: MAKE SURE YOU ARE GETTING THE PUREST TINT OF EACH COLOR. I know paint samples are pretty, but ALL of them are a blend of different colors and it makes mixing your own colors so much more difficult. Skip the pretty color swatches and get right down to pure color business.
- If you are using colors like purple and magenta, just buy a custom blend. For some reason blue and red make a weird muddy brown-purple color and you will waste a lot of time and paint trying to figure it out. The same goes with any obscure color that might be one of your main colors. That way, you can blend the custom color with one of the primary colors to add shadows, details, and highlights.
- DON’T use water to thin your paint. There is a product called Thin-x Latex paint thinner for about $7 and it slows dry time and thins the paint a little. I didn’t personally have to use this product but I noticed when I re-used a brush I had previously cleaned and “dried out” that water got trapped in the bristles and made my paint drip terribly. That led me to believe that water + latex = disaster.
- There is a reason why they put “indoor” and “outdoor” use on the label. The price difference for outdoor paint is minuscule compared to how well it holds up against the elements: just get the right stuff.
- Don’t forget a base coat (or two)!! This is super important because concrete is VERY porous, just like a sponge, and it absorbs water like crazy. The solution?? Get a base paint that is water proof (or some version of that concept). I made sure to get it in white because some base paints require you to tint them with color. White is the best AND it’s already mixed. This is the same paint that I used to blend my other paints as well. It worked just fine. Realistically, an outdoor mural is going to get beaten up by every season. Wear and tear is bound to happen, but a good base coat will make SUCH a difference.
- When you are painting, step back periodically to make sure everything is to the proper scale for your concept!! I cannot stress this enough. The cool thing about murals is that they are meant to be viewed from far away, so don’t go crazy trying to make everything perfect up close. No one is going to be viewing your mural from 3 inches away.
Other Supplies I Used:
- A plastic drop cloth. You. Will. Need. This. Trust me.
- Painters tape. It’s great for securing the drop cloth and creating a protective border for details.
- A few cheap plastic tupperware bowls WITH lids. This makes it so easy to save/re-use extra paint that you’ve custom made. Touch-ups and corrections are inevitable. I suggest that you store them in your fridge for a better shelf-life because cold temperature slows dry-time.
- A HANDFUL of paint mixing sticks. These are typically free at the paint section at Lowes or Home Depot and after chatting with the gentleman who was assisting me with my paint, he gladly let me take a bunch of them.
- Chalk. It’s great for sketching your concept on the wall before you begin. Keep in mind, if you’re sketching out something that will be painted blue, use BLUE chalk. I was an idiot and sketched out my mountains in RED and well, that got tricky when it blended into the blue to make a gross purple effect. Not cool. If all else fails, just use white. I like to use the jumbo-size chalk because it doesnt break when you sketch on concrete but it only comes in tinted colors, hence my use of red as I stated earlier.
- 13 gallon trash bags. They come in packs of 50 for $1 and they make clean up a breeze. It took me a few days to paint the mural, so each day when I was done, I just tossed the brush in a small trash bag, tied it up and the next day, the paint was still wet since it wasn’t exposed to air all night. I also stored my actual paint rolling trays in trash bags for the same reason. And if I dropped it or it got knocked over, I wouldn’t have a giant blue mess to clean out of my car when transporting everything around. Seriously, it was life-changing.
- Small paper water cups. Like I said, I started with primary colors with the intent of pouring a little bit of each paint to create a secondary color. What I did not consider is how difficult it is to pour a SMALL amount of product from a heavy gallon-sized can full of latex paint. With the cups, it made it easier to scoop out an appropriate amount and add it to one of my tupperware bowls. When I had enough paint, I just threw the paper cup away, easy-peasy.
- TOWELS. I scrounged up every single stained towel I could find to use for this mural and I swear I used pretty much every single one by the end of this project.
So How Did It Go?
Honestly, it was WAY easier than I thought it was going to be. In total, it took me three days because it was October in Western North Carolina and the weather was ALL over the place. Cold, windy, rainy, and unpredictable. Also, I didn’t think about the fact that I needed to paint a really good base coat and let it dry fully before proceeding with color, so that pushed me back a day (oops). Turns out, my awesome base coat kinda filled in all the crevices and left me with a smoother surface, so that was a welcome surprise. After that, I just listened to the entire Incubus and Kings Of Leon discography and got lost in the mural.
To achieve the ombre effect, I started out with white paint in my rolling tray and slowly added a little blue to make the lightest shade for the sky. From there, I sketched out each layer of the mountains with chalk and with each section, from top to bottom, I added a little more blue to make each shade a little darker. Once I got to the bottom, I added a smidge of yellow to turn my darkest shade of blue into more of a hunter gree/ teal color. This was used for the “ground” and I also added a few evergreens in that same color. Once that dried, I marked out where I wanted my sunflowers and painted a solid white sunflower shape to cover the darker blues from the background. To get different shades of yellow, I poured plain yellow into one of my tupperware containers and added very small amounts of red to darken each layer of petals. I ended up using brown acrylic paint for the center and made a bright green for the stems and leaves with my latex paint. When the green dried, it was a little darker than I intended, so I added a little extra yellow to my green paint and blended it in for some highlights.
Next time, I will be a little more careful about how dark my color palette is and I will also add more bright white highlights and maybe even some black lines to help distinguish the details.
Thinking back, I totally see why people typically use spray paint to create murals: it’s easier to layer details on wet paint and it dries a hell of a lot faster than latex. Overall, I figured it out pretty quickly and found that the paint was easy to work with and blended beautifully. The downside is that now, I want to cover the walls in my house with whimsical flowers and patterns. No surface is safe anymore.
The Nitty-Gritty Details:
I happen to have a Lowes, Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree right next to each other so I didn’t mind running around from store to store. I’m sure I could have found everything I needed at Wal-Mart just fine.
- One gallon of outdoor exterior primer in white $23
- One gallon of exterior paint in blue $25
- One gallon of exterior paint in yellow $25
- One quart of exterior paint in red $13
- 2in paintbrush $6
- 1in paintbrush $3
- Paint roller set $5
- 3pack roller covers $3
- 3in paint roller $1
- 2pack 3in roller covers $2
- Dropcloth $5
- 13 gallon trash bags $1
- Tupperware $8
- Paper water cups $1
- Chalk $1
- Painters tape $2
Show Me The Money?
So now let’s talk money. This experience taught me A LOT about how much my time, effort, and energy is worth. In the end, they kinda screwed me and only ended up paying me the $350 deposit (long story). After taking out the cost of supplies, I only got paid $200 to do a 15x6ft mural and that is, quite frankly, total bullshit considering I spent about 20 hours doing everything. As a professional artist, $10/hr for a massive piece of artwork just doesn’t cut it. I will say that it was my mistake for trusting that the full payment would be honored through a text agreement. Final piece of advice: print up a contract and get a signature on the agreed upon project and payment. Also, GET A DEPOSIT BEFORE YOU BUY A SINGLE THING!! Next time, I will make sure that I am appropriately paid because I was feeling a little bitter afterwards. I feel like overlooking these details were my only true mistakes in this entire process.
I hope this helps all of you who want to get into the mural business. I will definitely be doing many more of these in the future, although I hope they are indoors next time! Like I said in the beginning, I would LOVE to hear feedback on anything mural-related!! I am sure there are a few better ways to paint an outdoor mural or maybe a few painters hacks to consider so let me know if you have any tips, tricks or corrections!! Happy painting!!!
This is the completed mural!!!