Seeing your artwork displayed across the side of a building, becoming the background for people’s lives as they go about their day, is just one of the reasons painting a mural is an achievement many artists seek. While the excitement of painting a mural is a thrill, the journey can be just as challenging as it is exciting.
If you’ve got mural-painting on your mind, you can use our first-hand experience of what it’s like to paint a mural from start to finish as your guide. Whether you’re dreaming of painting a mural or prepping to start painting, we’re laying out the things we learned and wish we knew beforehand to give you an advantage for your mural painting process.
What to Expect When Painting a Mural
Murals are often a great way to bring new life to a run-down or drab area. The mural we’ll reference as an example throughout this guide was commissioned in West Vancouver, Canada by the Ambleside Dundarave Business Improvement Association. The site of our mural was chosen to perk up a laneway between commercial spaces.
What was once an empty, unappealing wall is now a vivid scene from the late 70s that depicts the movie theatre that once stood in that space. Considering what your mural will depict is one of the most crucial parts of the process. Our mural, West Van Odeon, is a joyful throwback to a scene most members of the community can relate to.
Our Mural Painting Process
The concept behind your mural is crucial, but the technical details for executing the painting process are just as important. Here are the parts of our process that made our mural happen:
Exterior latex paint
We used archival images of the theatre along with brochures and advertisements of the 1970s era vehicles we would be painting. Without images of the theatre at night, we had to embrace the challenge of imagining the scene’s lighting.
How To Paint a Mural
Painting a mural is a process with many steps taken even before the painting begins. Experience is the best resource for mural painting, as the unexpected plays a big role in the process. Whether you’ve painted a mural before or not, the following steps will make your experience a bit smoother.
Step-by-Step Guide to Painting a Mural
You can consider this as your mural painting checklist:
Visit your mural site and take measurements.
Plan the mural at a smaller scale first, such as drawing by hand, on an iPad, or canvas. (We used both Procreate on iPad and created a small drawing on canvas before painting).
Get your mural’s concept approved by the person/organization that commissioned it.
Negotiate and confirm your project details, such as the budget, your fees, safety considerations, equipment rentals, and so on.
Ensure that the surface you’ll be painting upon has been power-washed and primed before you begin the mural.
Draw your image onto the wall. (We chose to use the doodle grid method).
Paint! (Tip: Choose a palette you’re comfortable and familiar with to make your life easier).
Manage your time. Your mural may take longer than expected to complete, so make sure you’ve given yourself the time you’ll need.
Pro-Tips for Successful Mural Painting
Painting a mural can be a little messier than what a step-by-step breakdown can convey. Your mural-painting experience will be easier if you know what to expect. We’re sharing what we’ve learned from mural-painting that will help prepare you for your own projects.
Be Confident, But Be Prepared
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and doubt yourself during any creative endeavor, but especially one that spans the size of a building. Part of the mural painting process is learning to trust your ability as an artist to see the project through to completion. Don’t expect an easy, predictable process—expect a process that will present you with a few challenges that will help you grow as an artist.
Laying the groundwork for your mural and taking the steps you can to set yourself up for success will make the process smoother. By setting aside some time to plan and consider the obstacles you’ll likely face (pedestrian traffic, storing materials at night, safety training and gear, etc.), you’ll be less thrown off when they appear. Preparation and confidence will go a long way in making your mural painting process a positive one.
Take all the technological help you can get to make your mural to the best of your ability—it will be in a very public place for a very long time, after all. Technology can be a great asset to making your mural come together much easier. We used Procreate to overlay our drawing with our doodle grid, helping us plan in detail before painting.
Consider the Community
Unlike painting in your studio, painting a mural often puts you in direct contact with the people who will be enjoying that mural once it’s complete. The community that your mural will be seen by is an integral part of the process. It can make your painting experience richer and even foster more interest in your mural if you try to engage with the community you’re painting for.
You can engage the community by considering what your mural will depict and whether it will resonate with community members. We chose to paint a scene that reflected the community’s history, which lead to interest and conversations about the scene we painted and memories relating to it. We also had regular visitors who were curious about the painting process and enjoyed watching it develop. Don’t neglect the chance to use your mural painting process as a chance to forge relationships with people in the community.
Thinking up creative ways to include the community in your mural painting process can serve to both create community connection and bring some welcome attention to your hard work. We created a poll on social media that would let people vote on which film would be listed on the marquee, ultimately allowing the community to decide the direction part of the painting would take.
The Challenges of Mural Painting
Painting a mural is an exciting and rewarding experience for artists, but it comes with plenty of unique challenges. Every creative endeavor has its obstacles and mural painting is no different—it’s the obstacles you’ll encounter that will likely be different from what you’re accustomed to. Knowing what challenges you can expect when painting a mural will help you meet and overcome whatever happens more easily, though.
We’ve described a few challenges you’ll definitely need to consider if you want to paint a mural.
Painting a mural has a unique challenge that’s different from the painting process you’re likely used to: painting on a surface in the outside world. Unlike a canvas, painting on the side of a business or some other functional outside surface will present unique challenges.
The mural we painted had two large concrete planters on each side, which made accessibility difficult for those areas. We were also painting on a slope with two ramps so we had to rely on scaffolding and ladders instead of a lift, requiring much more physical effort. Scoping out your mural site and keeping the potential challenges it will present in mind can help you prepare and have a smoother painting process.
When you work outside, the outside becomes part of your work. Paying attention to and dealing with the weather is an unavoidable part of painting a mural outside. While you can’t control the weather, you should try to plan for weather changes and plan around the forecast as best you can.
Pro-Tip: Expect weather delays. Most climates will have some days of weather that prevent you from painting. Consider the likelihood of weather delays when planning your painting schedule to minimize the stress of falling off schedule.
Safety and Legal Issues
It’s no the most glamorous or fun part of mural painting, but it may be one of the most important: make sure you have the proper permits and permissions before you move a paintbrush. You may need to check with the city or with the person/organization that’s commissioned your mural, but you definitely don’t want to have an unexpected legal surprise.
Equally, it’s important to figure out what safety protocols and requirements you’ll have. Make sure you have the proper safety gear and receive the safety training you need. Though we didn’t end up using a lift for our mural, we underwent fall protection training and lift training.
Taking Care of Yourself
One of the most easily overlooked challenges of painting a mural is the toll it can take on you. Painting a mural is hard work and can wear you down quickly if you aren’t mindful of your needs and limits. If you’re used to sitting comfortably for long periods as you work on a piece, mural painting may be a rude awakening.
From hot weather to climbing up and down ladders, painting a mural can sometimes feel like an endurance sport. It will help your painting process go a bit more smoothly if you’ve got some physical fitness to lean on during long painting sessions. Like any long day, other aspects of your life can fall by the wayside when you’ve expended all your effort. We relied a little too heavily on fast food after being exhausted from painting, so be aware that your usual willpower might be running low after a mural painting session.
What It’s Like to Paint a Mural
Every new challenge you take on as an artist offers you the potential to grow and improve your skills. Mural painting is a major challenge but comes with major rewards. We got the chance to try different approaches than we normally take to our work, like adding more detail to sections of the image that would normally be too small to work with in our regular paintings. Working with brushes as opposed to our usual palette knives was also an interesting change of pace.
If you head into your project with some knowledge on what to expect and a willingness to embrace the unexpected, you’ll have no problem reaching the exciting end: seeing passersby gaze up at a previously empty space and enjoying the lively new mural you created.