Making a 106-foot-long, 781 square foot painting is no small feat. I can’t just show up with some brushes and a few tubes of paint and crank it out in a day or two. Although still a painting, this painting is totally different from the ones I usually make, requiring extensive planning and forethought. I begin every painting with lots of drawings and compositional sketches, but things always flow and change once I have the paint on the canvas. This project doesn’t afford me the same level of flexibility for a few different reasons. First, it’s enormous. Everything is scaled up, including the amount of time it takes to make adjustments. Painting, repainting, and making small adjustments isn’t really an option. Second, I’m using latex exterior house paint instead of my usual oil paint – and lots of it. Latex paint is thin and watery, and can’t really be laid out on a palette and mixed the way oil paint can be. I have to select and map out distinct colors before I even start painting. And third, it’s a commissioned, publicly viewed work of art. The design must meet my own high standards, yes, but it is also about creating something amazing for the client and for the community. And that’s a tall order.
All this being said, I started this painting the only way I know how: with a pencil and a sketchbook. I first began planning this mural with my friend Elena. Elena is the one who introduced me to the project, and she was originally going to paint it herself. However, she soon accepted a job in Nicaragua and later another in Guatemala so the project fell to me. We had discussed ideas of abstract color shapes or stripes, but a second meeting with the condo board at Engleside revealed their interest in an image that referenced the location of the condo – within historic Arlington and along Lee Highway, the pathway to Key Bridge and to Washington. And that’s when I looked to my sketchbook. After soliciting the condo residents for their ideas about Washington and Arlington landmarks, I filled pages of my sketchbooks with simplified and geometric representations of these places. I later solicited the entire Arlington community for more ideas through my Facebook page and blog.
But before I could get very far, I looked to my other favorite and fundamental tool of image making: Art History. With the help of my former painting professor, John Lee, I selected a few key artists from whose work I could draw influence. The first was Aaron Douglas, American painter and Harlem Renaissance muralist. Douglas’s complexity of overlapping shapes had always inspired me, and I felt that his adeptness at depicting history would lend itself well to my project. I also looked to the work of
Charles Sheeler, “Canyons,” 1951
Charles Sheeler, another 20th-century American painter. Sheeler is perhaps best known for his precisely made paintings of the Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit. However, the paintings of his I’m most interested in are semi-abstract and made up of overlapping shapes of buildings. Both Sheeler and Douglas use rich purples and ultramarine blues in their shadows, which I adore. Lastly, I looked to contemporary artist and Virginia native Ryan McGinness.
I stumbled across his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and was blown away by his silkscreen prints created with layers and layers of simplified icons representing prominent pieces from the VMFA’s collection. Geometry and simplification, paired with a layered and overlapping aesthetic became my goal for the design.
Okay, so by that point I had my ideas nailed down, but ideas are just that: ideas. Executing those ideas is a whole other story… I’ll get to that in my next pos