Retaining Wall Mural
Location: Carstairs Memorial Complex, Carstairs Alberta
Written by: Rob Jabs
I received a phone call. “Hey Rob, have you ever done any public art?” I had painted a motorcycle for a client. Now he was asking if I wanted to paint a mural outside the Carstairs Memorial Arena. What followed was some frantic research on murals. Over the years I had developed an understanding and comfort with painting motorcycles but I knew nothing about murals. I researched pricing, contract proposals, and products. I called Createx , Liquitex, and Nova Colours. Local Artist Dave Thomas generously offered guidance and advice. I spoke to Donna from Maple Airbrush who, as an artist with mural experience, was encouraging and helped facilitate the largest Createx order I had ever placed.
Art has been a part of my life since I was a kid. I graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Fine Arts degree in the early 90’s, and it was during this time that I tried airbrushing for the first time. I remember seeing Chuck Close’s iconic 1967 self portrait at the Art Institute of Chicago and thinking “I want to do that”. Unfortunately none of my professors knew anything about airbrushing, and I was left alone to figure it out. Additionally hyper realism and commercial art were vilified as lesser forms of art. We were indoctrinated with the dogmatic ideology that only artist’s can appreciate true art, that art needs to push boundaries, and only abstract art has value. I began to question my desire to be an artist. After graduation I was disillusioned and decided to seek a different career.
Over the years I was continually pulled back to art. There were sporadic periods where I would manically engross myself in drawing and painting and then do nothing for extended periods. Over time the frequency of projects started to escalate and eventually I set up a studio.
The idea of doing a mural was not something I had ever pursued. I had turned down previous work, based on the fact that I could not accommodate it within the studio. The proposed mural would have been the largest single project I had undertaken. The site was less than ideal. A retaining wall 4 feet by 80 feet located within a parking lot. The challenge was that the images needed to read from the roadway, 200 feet away, but could also be viewed from less than a foot away. After meeting with the client, and doing some research I proposed a design that I thought would complement the space and maintain consistency with the arena’s name. My proposed design was intended to pay homage to Canadian WW2 recruiting art.
The first day of airbrushing was an unmitigated disaster. I drove home with a sick feeling that I was in way over my head.The wind would gust and paint would end up 2-8 inches from the intended location. I would make adjustments, only to have the wind abate, resulting in a blast of paint causing colour over-saturation. Things were going so poorly on day one that I wanted to quit. The overspray was uncontrollable, the wind would rip masking off the walls, and my compressor was tripping the buildings breaker every time it kicked on. Apparently a compressor and Pop machine will trip a 15 amp breaker.
As the days wore on I adapted my approach. I started buffering the Wicked Colours so they were opaque, thus reducing concerns about overshooting the intended colour value. I under-painted large sections of the project with a brush to speed things up and reduce the need for masking. I reserved the airbrush for final details after everything was blocked in. Transparent colours choices were determined by how dramatically the inevitable overspray would impact the surrounding colours. The first half of the mural was definitely the hardest, the second half was smoother, and by the end I was accurately anticipating and making adjustments for problems before they arose.
As a new Muralist I learned the following during the Carstairs Mural Project:
In the end the project represented a vast and steep learning curve. It took me outside my comfort level and left me extremely grateful to be part of an art community that is so willing to offer advice and encouragement. While I have never been happier to abandon (art is never finished) a project, I look forward to the opportunity to do another mural