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The Big Wall

By December 9, 2021December 10th, 2021Art

I was one of just fifteen artists to be selected to participate in the 2nd annual street art festival, “Colfax Canvas” which took place over Labor Day weekend, 2021.

I got the address and headed on over to count bricks.

When I saw it, I had to re-convince myself that I could do this. The task of painting a wonky, 28’ X 26’ wall was pretty daunting, especially considering that this would be my very first big wall. Not to mention, I hadn’t painted a (much smaller) mural, on any level, in over 20 years.

But, when you throw your name in a hat, you’d better be prepared to wear it!

1540 Florence St. Aurora, CO 80010

I wasn’t about to show up with only an idea and some paint.

As much as I’d love to be able to freehand a big wall, I’m not there yet. I may never be. I’m a planner and I’m bent on an ambitious level of realism. I knew that I needed help, a completed design, a process and to feel prepared on day one of the event. I had two weeks to figure, all of this, out.

Since the festival is fairly new, I worried that it might be fraught with issues. It started off in a time crunch. I got the email congratulating me for being accepted to the event, just 3 weeks before the festival. A week later, they wanted my paint order, and I had only just met my collaborator. Luckily, choosing to use house paint bought us some time, since we didn’t need to get in on their sponsored spray paint order.

My Mentor

Larry Polzin, Stargazer Creations

I would not have been able to do this without the help of Larry Polzin of Stargazer Creations. He is the man who painted the dog and cat on either side of the grain elevator at the Purina factory, in Denver. Yeah, HUGE. So, I knew that he’d have the fool-proof method to, somehow, get my design onto that big wall.

Not surprisingly, given his generous and kind heart, he immediately accepted by sharing suggestions and guidance, when it came to timelines, processes, vendors, tools and materials. I took notes. Throughout the process, he was there for me, whenever I needed him, despite the immediacy of nearly every step along the way.

The Collaborator

All seven murals in the festival were collaborations. I was paired up with April Villas Werle, an artist from Montana who depicts the Polynesian landscapes of her family’s heritage, in a subtly colorful and symbolic style. Normally, she renders black and white hands as actors in her landscapes, but this time, at the request of the committee, I was to paint a figure or portrait and she a background.

Collaboration with a complete stranger presents unforeseen opportunities as well as challenges. We went back and forth, round and round before settling on a concept. The lessons learned, her meticulous work and the sheer square footage that she covered, made it all worthwhile. 

A Process

Once April and I had decided on juxtaposing our own designs for each aspect of the finished piece, I made my choice and spent around 30 hours working on rendering the figure, digitally. Mind you, twenty or so of those hours were spent spinning my wheels, just trying my best to figure out how to translate my artwork into a mural, done with house paint! 

I tried to limit my colors, but after all of the details, the anti-aliasing done by photoshop and my haphazard color sampling of those blended colors, I ended up with hundreds of them! I’d been warned about the mud created by mixing house paint, from Larry, so I knew I had to seriously simplify my art. Based on the reference image that I’d selected, I decided to concentrate most of the detail in the light, even though the largest percentage of the figure was in the shadow. This made the shadows quite abstract, which I had to convince myself was “ok”.

With the color count down to just 12, it was time to point it up. I vectorized my drawing, so that it would scale up without becoming pixelated. Using Illustrator, I traced the work which isolated each of the 12 colors into their very own shapes. 

When it came to buying paint, my hope was that I could just match those colors up, using HEX #s on the Benjamin Moore website. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple; colors on the screen look very different in life. With the patient help of the manager at Lucas Paint, we got pretty close. But how could I be sure that they would work, before buying and using them? Not to worry, I figured it out—my scanner!

When I scanned in the first choice of paint chips and applied the colors to my design, they were close, but not a perfect match. Colors that should have had soft meetings, were harsh in places.. Through a process of carefully selecting, scanning and digitally applying new colors I was able to get a pretty good idea of what would work. In the end the color scheme became more brilliant and fit for a mural, because of this process.

Next, I needed to get the artwork onto the wall. Projections just weren’t possible in this environment. So, I leaned on Larry and went the route of the old-school, sign painter.

I simplified my art, even further, to produce fine outlines (guidelines) in a series of 3 foot wide architectural prints that I had done at Kinkos and brought them to Larry’s. When I showed up, I found that he had crates filled with stir sticks, paint can openers, rags, used brushes, empty cans, etc. all ready for my daunting week of work, ahead. (While I was there, I recognized his space, and had just put it together that he was that guy who hooked me up with signboard in 2001, from a phone call at random, looking for sign material advice). What an Angel. For real!

Next, he introduced me to the electro pounce! One by one, I attached my printouts to a table made of metal. A small wand with an electric current running through it, zapped tiny perforations, as I dragged it along every line in my printouts. These were to be my templates, for the start of my mural.

I was finally ready for day one, on the wall. It had been primed the night before and due to some miscommunication, scribbled on by my collaborator. I fired up the boom lift (man, was that fun!) and re-primed my ground. By attaching my paper templates to the wall, in pre-determined coordinates, one at a time, I pushed loose charcoal through the little perforations with a pouch made of rags. When the paper was removed, dotted lines were revealed, clear enough to work from. I cut the templates to fit recesses, and it worked, on both brick and wood substrates. Using clear-coat, spray, I secured that I wouldn’t loose my hard work to wind or rain. 

Without knowing how long all of my paint application would take, I worked fast, from the darkest shapes to lightest. Finding the subdivisions within those shapes using an iPad that I had securely attached to the railing of the lift with an Octa iPad holder. Once I mapped out all 12 of my colors, I did a second (and in places a third) pass, referencing the original photograph for more detail.

The colors looked just as expected, once they were side by side with the exception of one that needed a tad bit of adjustment and another that I ended up replacing. The colors with the most blue in them popped a lot more than I’d expected (maybe because of the blue sky above).

The finished work was done, and of course, never quite done. Unlike studio work, these projects have a finite timeline, so I had to let it go.

Colfax Canvas was a great experience. The festival itself was great fun! I met cool peeps, enjoyed music and stayed engaged in doing my work, in this public space. It was an experience well worth repeating. Despite delays, once the project started up, the organizers did a fine job. I was impressed by their organization, availability, and calm, especially considering that it was only their second year.

There was a small stipend from the festival, thanks to its sponsors, but the most valuable and unexpected pay-off came in the form of interaction and appreciation, expressed by festival goers and especially the residents that will live with this work on the walls surrounding their daily commutes. Being able to contribute in this way and have my work seen and land for people was infinitely gratifying. With this newly acquired knowledge and experience, I’m sure to do it again. Besides, I got a little hooked.

I’m proud to have decorated North Aurora with a determined young female, fully and completely doing her thing, bringing a taste of the coast to this land-locked state. I feel even more connected to the greater Denver community that I’m blessed to be a part of.

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