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   January 2010
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Process Points
Mural Art
Process and Problem-solving


Ever wonder how artists work on giant "canvases," like the sides of buildings, whole rooms, or gymnasiums? Start to finish, it's a process that not only involves art, but also fundraising, negotiations, diplomacy, and problem solving. This I learned from Kim Martinez, who teaches a course in mural painting at the University of Utah, and Trent Alvey, a Salt Lake artist whose normally large canvases just got bigger with a mural project at Salt Lake County's Central City Recreation Center.|0|

"Keep it yellow in the middle," cautions Kim Martinez to a student artist. "We don't want it to go orange."

Martinez is riding herd on 15 students from her mural painting class as they work on a mural spanning three walls and 213 square feet in the waiting room of the Primary Children's Medical Center's Pediatric Surgery/Gastroenterology unit.|1-7| This and similar guidance, through 18 hours of painting, will result, Martinez hopes, in a cohesive painting that appears to have been completed by one artist rather than 15.

I am there to watch the students' third and last day of painting. But a lot has happened to get to this point. Martinez prepares for this class by finding project funds; she's raised more than $70,000 in the last three years (monies left over are used to take students on field trips to New York, Chicago, and other destinations). Then she writes proposals, negotiates with facility owners/managers, and handles the legal concerns about access to areas that may be normally restricted (it took me nearly an hour to get through hospital security and to find the mural site).

Martinez has no trouble finding potential mural sites. "I receive about 15 inquiries a year from various organizations requesting our insight and skills, indicating to me that the community values the power of art and its ability to transform a community," says Martinez.

Students begin their work on the project with the creation of concepts for the mural. Each one paints a small painting, all of which are critiqued in class. Final selection of the mural design is left to the client. In this case, the staff of the PCMC unit selected the winning design - a brightly colored, surreal storybook landscape with treasure, dragons, castles, and pirate ships by student Chelsea Rushton.

Once on site, students use a grid to transfer the design to the walls, drawing with charcoal and adjusting the design as needed. Then students do an acrylic under-painting, using thin layers of Utrecht acrylic paint in colors complementary to the final design. These are techniques used by international mural painter Judith Baca, Martinez explains. Martinez had the opportunity to work with Baca restoring the Great Wall of Los Angeles and on a large-scale mural in the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas, Texas.

During the painting process the normally neat waiting room, covered in drop cloths, becomes a temporary studio filled with paint jars, water buckets for rinsing brushes, and butcher trays for mixing colors. One of the biggest challenges is keeping the students spread out, working in different areas, so that they are not tripping over one another. Martinez moves students out of congested corners and into gaps where they can work with some elbow room.

Occasionally supervising the process are Janice Carpenter, office manager in general surgery, and Gail Beauregard, the medical staff coordinator for the gastrointestinal and surgery units. It must be hard to imagine that this work-in-progress will be the completed design in just four more hours of painting, but that's the promise and expectation as Martinez takes a brush and demonstrates finishing touches on tree foliage: "When do I want volume? When do I want to flatten the form?"

There are other Martinez-led, student-painted murals around town, including the side of a building on 500 West behind the Rio Grande Depot, and a recently created mural in the Columbus Center in South Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, over at Salt Lake County's Central City Recreation Center, Trent Alvey is starting work on a mural in the gymnasium of the facility, which is undergoing extensive renovation.|8| Alvey was selected after submitting a drawing and responding to the County's request for proposal. After winning the contract, Alvey did additional sketches, enhancing the design in ways she thought were more exciting. But her client liked the original design better.

Though Alvey originally envisioned the mural would be lower-to-mid wall height, rec center officials wanted it to be high on the wall to avoid damage or vandalism. This created Alvey's first big challenge: how to safely and efficiently paint across the wall at a height starting about 10 feet off the floor. She decided to rent scaffolding to minimize trips up and down a ladder. Though the unanticipated expense was high (about $1,000/month), it would ultimately save time and injury, she reasoned.

This is Alvey's first mural painting, though she's accustomed to painting on very large canvases. Unlike Martinez, she doesn't have a pack of students to help her, but she calls on fellow artists Ken Davey, Patrick Munger, and Chase Leslie to help at times during the process.

Alvey uses latex house paint by Olympic, which has no volatile organic compound (VOC) fumes that could cause respiratory or other health problems. The newly refinished floors of the gym are protected from paint spills by large sheets of plywood. Alvey and her crew, unlike Martinez, are fortunate to have a nearby restroom for water and brush cleaning.

The gym's cinderblock walls provide a handy grid for mapping off the design. On the day I visit, Davey is painting large blocks of bright color as the background for Alvey's realistically rendered, black and white figures of kids playing.|9|

Alvey began painting the mural on November 8 and finished shortly before the holidays, just in time, she says, for her own painting exhibition and 3-D installation opening at Finch Lane Gallery in January. That exhibition, which includes light, sound, and performance, explores the nature of opposites, subject matter that happens to be exactly opposite of the refreshingly playful mural at the rec center.


The grand re-opening of the Central City Recreation Center will be held on February 10. "Waiting for a Call," the University of Utah mural project under the direction of Kim Martinez, is located in the Primary Children's Medical Centers Pediatric Surgery/Gastroenterology waiting room. Trent Alvey's exhibit of paintings and installation opens at Finch Lane Gallery on January 8, 6 - 8 pm.

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Hints 'n' Tips
Choosing a Paint Box


Paint boxes come in a lot of shapes and sizes. They have been around for a long time and over the years innovations and improvements have been made to make the job of the plein air painter more practical and enjoyable.

Let's start with the basic box, usually in 12x16 and 16x20 sizes, with a lid containing slots for panels. With the smaller size, the artist would typically sit out in the field on a stool with the box handle fastened to a belt or rope around the waist and paint away. (Not exactly the most convenient way to work, but it got the job done). The alternative was to mount the canvas or panel on an easel, which would require the painter to bend down to the ground whenever a tube of paint or tool was needed.|1| This situation was remedied by further innovation in the form of the Gloucester or Anderson Easel, a good wide based set-up that can more than handle the task and is still in use today.|2| It was designed to accommodate the 16x20 box that was then mounted on the easel. This eliminated the need of constant bending and the accompanying back problems. This particular configuration was used in New England quite a bit, which enabled artists, like Edward Redfield, Aldro Hibbard, Anthony Thieme, Emile Gruppe', to execute larger paintings in the field while standing.

During World War II, a French prisoner of war named Roger Jullian invented the Jullian Easel. This rig combined the easel with the box making it a lot more convenient out in the field. Today, there are several different varieties, including the full box |3| and the half box.|4| This is an excellent way to go with the added feature of portability, off the ground work station and ability to handle small to mid sized canvases. There are several knock-offs to the Jullian, but I would suggest that if you are considering one of these you stick to the brand name. Besides being a great box, the Jullian is also inexpensively priced when compared to some of the other high-end systems. Since both can be used on a table without extending the legs they are also good for the classroom or studio. These can be purchased at most art supply stores.

A variation on this idea is the Russian easel. They always remind me of the french easel turned backwards, which means always having the back leg right in the area where you want to stand. I've never been impressed with the arrangement, but some like it. I'm not really sure how long this easel has been around, but I have seen at least one photo of an artist using it, circa 1940's.

Open Box M is a great company for paint boxes. They have a large variety of pochade boxes and several different configurations of palette/panel holders that fit on the bogen tripod. When this box came along it was a real innovation which is now a standard fixture for on location painting.|5| I have had the 10x12 version for years and love it, especially for backpacking and travel. You can even order one of these in a waterproof box that can go just about anywhere (including rafting trips in Alaska, which I have done). The only disadvantage here is you're back to a box on the ground, but this has been overcome to some extent by brass brush and knife holders that can be mounted to the panel holder. It's a little more pricey than the Jullian, but well worth the expense.

The next easel/box is the Soltek, invented by artist Jim Wilcox of the Wilcox Gallery in Jackson Hole Wyoming.|6| This one is fairly new on the scene, but has made quite an impact on the plein air community since its inception. I don't own a Soltek, but many of my students do and all seem to like it. Like the French Easel it is good for either indoor or outdoor work, has an off-the-ground work station, and is lightweight and portable. Like the Open Box M, the Soltek is one of the higher end brands out there, but well worth the price for both experienced and inexperienced artists alike.

One last easel I was recently made aware of by my friend, artist John Poon, is the Coulter Plein Air System, produced by the Art Box and Panel Company.|0| At a mid-range price it is a unique design that has been around for at least ten years, but only advertised through word of mouth. It is light-weight and uses an innovative palette/panel holder that mounts on to a tripod.

Of course if you are good with wood and have the tools to do it, there is nothing wrong with making your own paint boxes and easels to suit your personal needs. I started out years ago, by making my own equipment and I still have several of these boxes in my collection, including my studio easel and another box I currently use outdoors. And there is always the possibility of a trade as well. A few years ago I was looking for a 6x8 pochade box for hiking, but wasn't really thrilled with the prospect of making another box. Luckily, I was able to make an art trade with another friend, artist, Paul Kay, to do one for me like he made for himself.|7| It's been a great addition to my collection of gear and something I use whenever the occasion arises.

As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities out there depending on your personal preference and financial situation. The list of easel/boxes I presented here is not exhaustive, but reflect the ones I have been most impressed with over the years. If you are still not convinced about what would work best for you, talk to other artists and see how they like their equipment or try googling "pochade boxes" or "paint boxes" and see what comes up. There is sure to be something out there for every taste. Until next time, enjoy the winter painting.


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This article is one of a continuing series of Hints 'n' Tips articles about plein air and studio painting by Utah artist John Hughes. Hughes teaches landscape painting at Salt Lake Community College. A new class (2900-001)begins on January 13th.

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