Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Speaking of murals

Once upon a time I thought it a good idea to offer my illustration services as an item for our kids' school auction. My work is mostly editorial illustration, but with a paucity of publishers and editors among school families, I suggested painting a mural.

I pictured bunnies and butterflies and sunshine for someone's child.

The winning child, or his family, wanted Spider-Man®™ and The Incredible Hulk™© instead.


Into the deep end of trademark violation I dove. Again. Instead of asking permission, like last time, I'd ask forgiveness should the moment warrant.

This is the final sketch I used for reference. I decided to place our superheroes high above our city, on a sort of busman's holiday, maybe fighting political crime in the capital. The Hulk©® is after Spider-Man®©, or maybe they're both chasing/escaping the same thing, I don't know.

The Hulk is clinging to the curved glass front of 300 Capitol Mall. Sacramento's iconic Tower Bridge, now painted gold, rises just behind him, spanning the lazy green Sacramento River.

The building that houses a branch of Drexel University and shores up the south end of Old Sacramento is right behind Spidey, with the Capitol Mall rolling by it and Interstate 5 going crossways underneath. On the Yolo County side of the Sacramento River is the ziggurat-shaped building that now houses state offices.

All of this performed without a safety net or the cool tool known as Google Maps®©™. Thank you, you're too kind.
(Aside No. 1: Research took me to many different iterations of Spider-Man®™, who changed proportions and outfit design with each new artist. No other superhero seems so malleable. Sometimes Spider-Man™® looked like the prototypical space alien with  oversized head; sometimes he seemed boneless. I went with a more wiry version over the Everyman shape from the 1960s Spider-Man®© cartoons, and the tendrilous gnarly twhippy web stuff.)
To prepare, I made a cartoon in the original sense, a giant drawing to fit the wall, made of big sheets from the end rolls of newsprint taped together. I blocked out the figures on the sheet of paper, then scribbled hard with dark graphite over the lines from the other side. The idea was to tape the cartoon to the wall, trace over the lines and transfer the image to the wall's surface. Michelangelo and those Renaissance dudes had apprentices punch holes along the drawing, and dab at the holes with little bags full of chalk dust, thus tracing the drawing to the wet plaster of a fresco.

Alas, no apprentices, plaster or patience.
(Aside No. 2: What is the story with these superheroes, anyway? Literally, what is the story? On the outside looking in, superheroes seems to live parallel and concurrent adventures, rather than a single story arcing from one comic book to the next. So when I read in the news that a major character will die or transform in some real-world headline grabbing way, I think, so what? Superman seems to be dying, marrying, divorcing or coming out of the closet simultaneously.
(Maybe — just maybe — those news stories are just ways to get people to buy $4 comic books.)
Halftone dots suggesting full color.
My original plan was to build the mural's color with dots to mimic the halftone dots used in printing comics. I would even paint the mural in the four core printing inks, cyan (a middling blue), magenta, yellow and black. Into thin plastic cutting board sheets I cut holes in a grid pattern with a die punch — hundreds of holes. The bulk of my time went into punching those damned holes.

On site, all these preparations went out the kid's bedroom window. The cartoon proved difficult to affix to the wall, so I ended up eyeballing from the sketch to block in the characters and the background.

The halftone dots wouldn't work, either, not without a lot of time and a lot more experience. In printing, the dots are laid down in precise grids, and the dots at differing sizes to create the illusion of image and density of color.

I painted the characters in full color instead, outlining them in black — ironically, the solid color that comic book publishers wished they could do. I painted the background a bit lighter, leaving large expanses of the pale yellow pulpy-paper color of the walls, and painted dots to suggest halftone dots. It became a little Roy Lichtenstein.
(Aside No. 3: It's been a whole year since the last creation myth movie for Spider-Man®©™. When's the next one coming out? Tick tock!

The same for the Hulk™®. Think of the three dozen A-list actors denied the right to star as David/Bruce Banner. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you're next, and hurry it up. Robert Redford ain't getting any younger.)
The project was at once fun and challenging and strange. Fun because it was drawing on a scale I rarely get; fine cramped gestures with a pencil became grand gestures of my arm, brush in hand, gliding paint along the wall. Challenging to handle all the logistics, preserving the perspective and life of the drawing at a large scale, keeping the carpet and furnishings clean, staying focused.

Strange because I was a fly on the wall, or rather bouncing about in angular patterns in a strange room in someone else's home.

Nothing weird, mind you. Just different. I was living each day to the cycles of other people's lives, hearing halves of ordinary phone conversations, trying to decipher noises. Did someone come into the house? Did someone leave? Is the house empty? What was that noise?

I don't know how tradespeople do it, working in others' homes. If I was smart I would have put on headphones and gotten lost in music. As it was, I became anxious for the school bell to ring and made sure to clean up early to get out of the family's house to retrieve my kids before they did.

Finally done, I got good reviews from the boy's mom.

Shortly after, she hired me to paint something for a daughter's room, something simpler: Silvery purple clouds drifting across the rose-colored ceiling, an unseen setting sun lighting their edges orange and pink. All gesture and scrubbing.

On the way up to the daughter's room the first day of painting, I passed the open door of the boy's room. The superhero mural was almost entirely obscured by stacks and stacks of bins for toys and odds and ends. Spidey looked like he was thwipping desperately to avoid the imminent suffocation by Legos™©. The Hulk® had already succumbed.

What none of us really worked out is that this mural wasn't a gallery piece but the periphery of a living, breathing, very active kid and all his stuff. Spider-Man™ and the Hulk©® proved no match.

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