Kate (Finally) Paints a Mural

If you’ve ever taken on a painting project, whether it’s an artwork or a bedroom, then you know how good it finally feels to dip your brush in the paint once all the prep work is finally done. When I cracked open that first can of paint, I felt like I was practically finished; I was into the good stuff. I had been looking forward to that paint from day one. You should know that I’m in love with paint: the texture, the smell, the pigments. Oil paint is best of course, but I still have a particular fondness for latex house paint. Working with it made me feel closer to the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-20th century.

I ordered samples of all the colors I’d picked out at Potomac Paint in Arlington, and giddily opened them up one by one when I got home. Color at last! I decided to paint one color at a time, moving methodically across the entire surface of the mural over and over again. I started with the lightest color and moved down the scale I had created for myself. This way, when I inevitably made a mistake, I would easily be able to cover it with the next color. Dark covers light much easier than light covers dark.

Interior paint on the left vs exterior paint on the right
Interior paint on the left vs exterior paint on the right

On the first painting day, I rolled out a paper drop cloth, readied my brushes, and considered my options. My drawing was all straight lines and sharp divisions of color. I had made myself a giant paint-by-numbers, now what was the best way to paint it in? I could either put down miles of painters tape, use a something like a 2×4 as a straightedge, or simply try my hand at cutting directly to the pencil line. Option number three is what a professional house painter would do. As my dad so kindly informed me, “real painters don’t use painter’s tape.” No pressure. “Real” painters don’t use painter’s tape because it takes longer to tape everything off than to rely on a steady hand. To my surprise and delight, I too found success with this method. I realized that using tape or a straightedge would only slow me down. Besides, I could easily paint over any mistakes once the paint was dry (and believe me, there were mistakes). Once I painted all the shapes’ edges with the brush, I went back over the whole thing and filled it in with the roller.

As I flew through the first and second and third colors, I remember thinking to myself how straightforward the rest of the work was going to be. With my painting process worked out and my colors all picked, what could possible go wrong? And then there was what I like to call the interior paint fiasco. To spare you all the gory details: I used the aforementioned sample-size jars of paint to paint all the edges. I then purchased gallons of the same colors to roll the inner portions of the shapes I’d painted. Paint samples only come in interior paint. Interior paint changes colors when exposed to the elements. Exterior paint does not.

So I mentally cursed myself for being so naïve as I painstakingly repainted the first four colors of the mural, setting myself back a couple of weeks. In the end, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I discovered how much better everything looked with a second coat. The bumpy, holey concrete wall sucked up a lot of paint and made it difficult to get full coverage.

With this little hiccup behind me, I hoped to finish the project without any further drama. Now five weeks into the painting process, I went on vacation. When I returned ten days later, everything was suddenly wrong! No, nothing about the mural or the paint had changed while I was away. But having some time away from the project gave me fresh eyes and I didn’t like what I was seeing. The colors were all wrong (to me and only me, of course). I had five colors left to paint, and I felt that the colors I had picked out needed to be more vivid, more purple, and darker. So I returned once again to my friends at Potomac Paint and asked them to show me every purple imaginable. I eventually picked out some Benjamin Moore purples, which were considerable more vivid than the C2 colors I’d selected previously.

Choosing new paint colors
Choosing new paint colors

I also took this opportunity to fix another problem with the color that had been nagging me for weeks. The second color I’d painted was far too blue and was destroying the overlapping/translucent effect I was going for. After making these edits, the mural was finally beginning to come together.

I faced many challenges throughout the course of this mega-project. But my greatest enemy? The heat. Arlington summers brought me ninety-degree day after ninety-degree day. The paint dried in mere minutes, even on my brushes as I continued to paint. Once I ran out of light at the end of the day, I returned home to painstakingly wash and pick out every last piece of dried-up paint from the bristles. Paint in the open container I held developed a skin after an hour of exposure, and became viscous and thick. Conversely, the heat afforded me the ability to second-coat areas almost immediately after I’d painted the first, speeding the job along.

But while the paint was drying, I was melting. I tried to avoid working during the heat of the day as much as possible, and became acutely aware of the exact time of day when the shadow of the wall would disappear and leave me exposed to the sun. I applied sunscreen constantly and donned a giant, dorky hat (worth it). I always kept water with me and tried to remind myself to take breaks in the shade every now and then. Many thanks to all the friends and family who brought me cold drinks and helped me carry the 8-foot ladder (my second-greatest enemy, especially at the end of a long, sweaty day).

As I worked my way through the colors, I edited and repainted constantly. I ultimately abandoned the plans I had printed out for myself and began to work more intuitively with the color system I had developed. I changed the colors in some areas over and over again, refusing to stop until it was really right. And before I knew it, it was done. I had imagined finishing this mural for months and months so its actual completion was almost surreal. I enjoyed (nearly) every second of painting this mural, so finishing it is certainly bittersweet. Stay tuned for information in the coming days about the mural opening event… and for finished photos of the mural!

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