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Painting Murals – surface prep – Expect the Unexpected

Painting Murals - surface prep - Expect the Unexpected
by Raette Meredith

One of my favorite types of commissions is mural work.  I love transforming huge, plain walls into colorful works of art. I realized I wanted to paint murals when I lived in Ventura near Surfer's Point (one of my favorite surf spots back in the day) and the Ventura County Fairgrounds. It was the first time I ever noticed a mural - really. I mean I saw them but didn't really pay attention before that moment.

It's not that it was the style I admired necessarily, it was the size of the canvas. A huge drawing pad 18"x24" was no longer a huge drawing pad, it was a scratch pad. In drawing classes, I felt limited by the tiny window in front of me. It only made sense. The bigger the better.

desire to paint murals cemented in when I saw Wyland's Whaling Wall in Laguna Beach. I knew at that time that I didn't just want to paint, I wanted to paint huge fine art. Not just a paint by numbers type of mural, a true piece of artwork.

For a mural to be considered fine art, it must last. As with any type of painting job, excellent surface prep is critical. Now, if the client is does not want to pay to have the surface prepared correctly, then it is important to have some kind of disclaimer signed by them, acknowledging that the painting will not last more than 5 years.
Here in Redding, CA the summers are extreme. The sun is horribly damaging to anything that is exposed.

Three years ago I painted a mural for a client on a beautiful piece of plywood. It was very smooth, and primed when I got there. I did not choose the primer and have no idea what was used. Running my hand over the surface, it appeared ideal.

I was happy to be painting again, so I got started. Once complete, I sealed the painting with a crystal clear uv protecting varnish. A non-yellowing varnish according to the label.

Well, it turned out beautiful, the client was pleased and I moved on.

Three years later, I receive a phone call from the client. The paint is cracking, chipping and peeling from the surface. Now the wall is west facing, and again, the summers reach 110 in July easily, so we knew it wouldn't last forever, but  the chipping and peeling had me stumped.

As I chipped away the loose pieces of paint, I noticed that where the cracks started, there were fine hairline cracks that followed the natural grain of the wood. It seems that the temperature fluctuations here in Redding caused the wood to expand and contract ever so slightly which, created air bubbles under the paint. This is what caused the cracking.

So what is the solution? We went to a sign shop to find out what kind of surface they use for outdoor signs. We ended up using a special signmakers' plywood that is surfaced with a veneer of a composite like masonite or hardwood. (no grains=no cracking!) It is also primed when you purchase it. 

Under normal circumstances, a mural will not be painted on plywood and then hung outside like this one. Usually you will be painting directly on a wall made of stucco, brick or composite siding. Occasionally however you will run into a wood surface with natural grains. Cracking in the paint from expansion and contraction is something to think about.

Raette is an artist and the creator of ARTAZINE magazine both online and in print.
Here, she is working on a mural in Cottonwood, CA during Summer 2009.

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