Tuesday, April 30, 2013

ten things i learned painting houndstooth on a barn

1. This was the first outdoor painting project where I had to take an object (a tree) into consideration when figuring out what to paint.

My first idea was to paint a series of wave/wind motifs on the areas of the wall to the left and to the right of the tree. In other words, knowing that the tree would partially obscure whatever would be behind it on the wall, I chose to paint nothing behind the tree, using the tree as a kind of anchoring image around which the wind/wave motifs were placed. This was the wrong approach for several reasons, especially when a tree is involved, because the tree keeps changing. It’s small and bare in winter and full and green in spring and summer, so its image is always changing. When I designed the initial mock-up, I worked from a photograph of the wall I took when the tree was green, designing around that green space, not fully realizing the tree would change seasonally, which would affect the balance of the whole design.

2. Another problem with my initial wind/wave motif idea: getting the images transferred to the wall. I printed the image on long sheets of bond paper. (I had to tape three pieces together because bond paper is only three feet wide.) Getting those gigantic paper templates up on the wall on a breezy day and tracing them was a big pain, especially at that height (twelve feet in the air). But my mom and I eventually did it.

3. The third problem with the wind/wave motif idea: the images were essentially magnified line drawings. Once the images were painted, and we stepped back to see how things were looking, it was clear that the lines of the drawings clashed with the linear texture of the sheet metal on which we were painting. The sheet metal was ridged. The lines of the images and the lines of the sheet metal conflicted. Lesson: the texture of the painting surface contributes to the final image and needs to be taken into account at the initial conceptual stages.

4. So I painted the whole wall black again and started over from scratch. In trying to determine what image to paint next I took three things into consideration: 1) ease of image transfer to painting surface 2) image interaction with ever-changing tree 3) image interaction with texture of sheet metal. I thought about it for four months until I came to the conclusion that instead of thinking in terms of images I should be thinking more in terms of patterns. The space called for a pattern covering the entire wall. That way, as the tree grew and died back, it wouldn’t affect the overall image, and by making a smaller, more manageable stencil, the pattern could be easily transferred.

5. The patterned texture (houndstooth) would also have the benefit of being visible from a long distance. (The wall can be seen from I-10, but it’s about half a mile away, so it needed to be readable from a distance.)

6. Making the mock-up with houndstooth was easy. It took me less than an hour. But executing the idea would take months. What would the stencil be made of? Cardboard? Plastic? Ridged sheet metal? How tall? How wide? Would it have to be three-dimensional to fit against the ridges and grooves of the sheet metal? At this point, my friend Richard agreed to help, and we actually started to construct a three-dimensional stencil. But that turned out to be as difficult as trying to fold a slice of Swiss cheese, and when he suggested a two-dimensional stencil, we agreed to give it a try.

7. Once we’d made the stencil, and we’d traced our first pattern on the wall (me holding the four-foot-tall stencil firmly against the wall, Richard tracing up and over the ridges alongside the contours of the stencil) I exhaled. I knew it would work. At that point it was just a matter of tracing it 54 more times, then painting them all in.

8. I learned what a Texas Spiny Lizard is.

9. No matter how precise the mock-up, the final piece is always going to be different in unpredictable ways. And that difference can be so jarring that the whole project can seem like an utter disappointment at first. But then you just stick with it, and you adjust to the new reality.

10. It’s tempting to try and use a bigger brush than you should, thinking it will make things go faster, but it’s better to use the right size brush. Better to slow down, use the smaller brush (the size the details demand) and enjoy the experience. It will take as long as it takes.