08 Jun

An Idea for Retirement: Painting A Mural

I’ve wanted to paint a mural for a number of years. While I actually made some progress on this mission while living in Oakland, CA, it turned out the spot I wanted to paint was a freeway underpass and I ran into serious permitting issues. On top of that, who the hell has time for painting a mural when working a full-time job? Ultimately I threw in the towel.

Now that we’re in the artist-embracing city of Asheville, NC, what better time to accomplish my dream of painting a mural! Since we’ve bought a house, but can’t actually move in until July 1st, I’ve got plenty of spare time on my hands.


How to Paint a Public Mural

Step 1: Find a good spot to paint!

The easiest spots to get permission are privately owned buildings. Unlike government-owned infrastructure, the private owner of a building can give you permission and you’re generally good to go without any permits. In selecting the wall, note that radiation from the sun will destroy a mural that faces south much faster than one facing north. Here is a great east-facing brick wall painted brown that I found in West Asheville:


Google Street View shows that back in 2012 the wall was painted white and repeatedly tagged with crummy graffiti. When I approached the owner (Rick from Al’s Art Craft), he seemed pleased with the idea of having a mural that would hopefully reduce the frequency of future graffiti needing to be covered up!

Step 2: Clean the wall

Use a scraper and wire brush to remove any loose or chipped paint, then wash down the wall with a brush and soapy water. Or even better, use trisodium phosphate cleaner (TSP). This step took me about 2 hours.


Step 3: Apply a primer

First, check to see if the existing paint is latex acrylic type. Apply some rubbing alcohol on a cloth and rub the wall surface. If some paint comes off, then it’s latex. If nothing comes off, then it’s probably an oil-based paint (not ideal) and you’ll need to cover it with a good bonding primer to ensure your paints stick well.

If the paint surface is already latex and in near-perfect condition (no chips or cracks, looks fairly new), then you can probably skip primer and start painting. Otherwise, pick up some good quality exterior latex primer like I did.  Some people recommend getting the hardware store to “tint” your primer grey, which can be a friendlier background color to paint other colors over. I used one gallon of primer to cover my roughly 100 ft2 of surface.


It took me about 3 hours to finish the primer. My roller sucked and I really had to use the brush a lot to get all the cracks between the bricks.


Step 4: Plan what you’re going to paint

I wanted to do a mural with a cat (since cats rule, dogs drool), so I started with a great picture of a cat breathing fire that I found on the internet. I took this image and converted it into a four-color vector image using Vector Magic, then using GIMP (free image-manipulation software, like Photoshop) I further modified the design and split the four colors into individual black and white pictures. Using a light projector, these pictures will highlight the areas that I should paint for each color. Since I’ve never painted anything before in my life and I lack artistic skill, this is the only way I could figure to get ‘er done. Think paint-by-numbers with four colors:

Step 5: Start painting!

I ordered high-quality 100% acrylic mural paints from Nova Color in California, but you can use any kind of 100% acrylic paint. Just make sure it has a lightfastness rating of 1, which means the pigment will last longer as the sun blasts down upon it over time. I purchased just over 2 gallons of paint and have roughly half a gallon leftover.


Setup your projector after sunset. I highly recommend using a tripod and specifically marking the spot on the ground where you have it placed. It’s essential that you can exactly replicate the projector setup each night, otherwise it’ll be near impossible to paint your color layers accurately. I make the mistake of balancing the projector on top of Bruno the 4Runner and it was a mother f*cker to replicate the exact setup each night.


Before starting, I projected an image with grid lines on it and marked the grid out with masking tape to ensure I could accurately setup the projector each night. After two nights of completing two separate colors, here is what it started to look like:


Next color is orange!


And finally the dark green:


Since I was on a budget, I did everything with a single 2.5″ angled brush. This is less than ideal and made it pretty difficult to do any finer points of detail. To anyone thinking of doing their own mural, I would highly recommend having smaller brushes!

Ok folks, here’s the final product:


In total, it took me roughly 24 hours to complete over six days. 5 hours for cleaning/priming and 19 hours for painting all the colors.


In addition to my personal time, the sunk cost for the mural was roughly $150 in paint. I had to purchase a ladder ($20 on Craigslist) that will continue to provide value, and a projector ($110 on Craigslist) that I plan to sell back the exact same way. The painting tools (rollers, brushes, etc.) will be used again to paint our new home in a month’s time.


All in all, it was a fun and rewarding project. I had lots of people stop to thank me and ask questions while I was working on it. While Asheville already has a ton of beautiful murals, I’m honored to be able to add yet one more to the area. Public art is awesome and I hope more people do projects like this all over the place to make our cities more beautiful!