12 Key Steps to Leading Amazing Mural Projects

Have you ever wanted to start a mural project? Does the process seem too complicated and unpredictable to begin? I know I felt slightly intimidated before my first mural project. Since then, I have led 30 murals with student groups and learned some important lessons.

Here are 12 key steps that will help you lead a mural project once your group is assembled.

1. Generate a Theme

If you do not already have a theme, begin by showing images of other murals. Ask your mural group to name the images and messages in the murals they see. Practice identifying possible themes in your exemplar murals. Brainstorm and record possible theme ideas for your group’s piece. Generate a list of ideas on your board.

2. Brainstorm Content and Imagery

Write down as many ideas as you can from your group. Accumulate a list by asking what should be included in the mural. Try to get each group member to contribute something. Write down every idea even though you do not need to incorporate everything into the mural.

3. Create a Shape Proportional to Your Wall

Create a shape on your classroom board that is proportional to your mural wall. This will serve as the space for arranging and designing the composition together as a group.

4. Create Sketches of the Imagery

sketching

Using printer paper, pencils, and markers, have your group select images from your brainstorming list. Draw visual representations of the images on the paper, one image per paper. These will serve as visual references to manipulate as you negotiate the mural composition. Once the drawings are inked in with marker, tape them up around the composition.

5. Arrange the Composition

composing the mural

Ask your group to choose one image and discuss its placement in the composition. Would they like to see it on the left, right, center, high, or low? Leave the image taped to the board and then choose another image. Once you have a basic arrangement of the images placed in the composition, begin to advance the design.

6. Consider Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background

It is important to analyze how to create depth in a composition. I have found that illustrating the concepts of foreground, middle ground, and background can be helpful for making the design more sophisticated. Study murals that create illusions of depth and notice their changes in image scale and placement like the one below.

foreground, middle ground, background

Point out how overlapping images can help contribute to creating the illusion of depth.

7. Draft the Composition

drafting the mural

Lead the conversation while drawing a new version of the imagery. Start with one of the images taped on the board, and ask your group if it should be in the foreground, middle ground, or background. Use your hands to help your group determine the scale of the image and then draw out a quick version of this image into the composition. Make sure to utilize overlapping.

8. Finalize the Composition

Once you have a complete rough draft, have students draw out and color the newly decided composition. Once students complete this task, critique and a discuss final color schemes and imagery design.

9. Calculate Your Color Needs

color needs

Making your colors in advance could be the single most important step in the mural process. You can save time and avoid mistakes by looking at your colored design and calculating how much paint color you will need. Convert your sketch from inches to square feet. For example, if your background will require 10 square feet of paint to cover it, double that amount (most mural paint will require at least two coats to cover well). Some colors are more translucent and will need additional coats before becoming opaque.

10. Mix and Label Your Colors

Mixing your colors in advance, labeling them in an organized manner, and storing them in containers with lids will accelerate the momentum of your mural. Major spills and miscalculations can occur if students try to guess how to make the correct colors and amounts at the mural site.

colors

My strategy is to accumulate various containers with lids that hold 2.5 and 5 ounces of paint. If you double the ounces that a container holds, that is the number of square feet in paint (1 ounce=2 square feet). Larger containers, such as salsa or butter containers, can hold between 20 and 80 square feet of paint. Quarter gallon containers hold 100 square feet of paint. When making shifts in value or color, I label according to a number system. For example, if I am shifting the value in my sky colors, I label each color Sky 1, Sky 2, Sky 3, and so on.

11. Transfer the Sketch to the Wall

Some people make elaborate grid systems to transfer sketches to walls. I tend to keep my grids in sections of eight. I divide the height in half and divide the length into fourths. It is helpful to make copies of the sketch to tape up all along the mural wall so students have lots of visual access to the design and grid they are trying to transfer.

12. Streamline the Order of Operations

students painting the mural

When ready to paint, I stress two fundamental practices that save time and effort. First, paint from back to front. Paint the farthest background first and work your way to the foreground last. Second, when students are painting an image, begin by painting the darkest values of the image, and work to the lightest values last. These are general procedures and there are exceptions, but going back to front and dark to light can maximize efficiency and momentum.

Before beginning a mural project of any scale, remember doubt and anxiety can be a natural part of the process. Murals are usually permanent and public, adding more pressure to the project. If you follow these key steps and have complete confidence in yourself and your students, you will successfully execute a stunning mural painting!

What are the key concerns or questions you have about your specific mural project?

What kinds of advice would like to receive or offer others?

Matt Christenson

Contributor

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

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  • Claire S

    Thanks so much for this! I’ve been wanting to do a foam mosaic mural with my 5th graders on a large piece of laminate I found but haven’t been able to organize the process in my head. This helps a lot!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Claire! I’m so glad this helps. The foam mosaic mural sounds like a fantastic project! Good luck!

  • Informative article! Thanks for taking the time to document your process. My 8th grade Scenic Design crew creates a 36’x10′ mural yearly and I’ll be sure to incorporate some of your ideas this year!

    • Matt Christenson

      Wow! 36′ x 10′ is no joke…is it directly on the wall or is it installed? Do you use scaffolding or ladders? I’m glad this article could provide some insight…sounds like you have a pretty solid operation goin’ on! Thanks for sharing!

      • We have a stage with no curtains, so the backdrop needs to be very large. We paint it on two 36’x5′ sheets of white Tyvek, into which I’ve installed grommets (think shower curtain : ) 36″ apart. On the cinderblock wall, my husband and I installed “L” hooks on which to hang the mural. Tyvek works well because it’s light weight, can be removed and rolled up for easy storage, and can be used two years in a row by painting on the reverse side. It’s not very porous, so I find we use very little acrylic paint to cover the surface. Here are some pictures of our process:
        http://sjsartstudio.blogspot.com/2014_03_01_archive.html
        http://sjsartstudio.blogspot.com/2015/03/sound-of-music-scenic-design.html
        Someday I hope to actually paint a wall mural in our building!

        • Matt Christenson

          Wow! I LOVE the Sound of Music backdrop! I’ve heard various muralists speak of Tyvek and who great it is to work with…I’ll have to try it out sometime. Good luck with hitting the wall sometime in the future! Please let me know if any questions come up…

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  • Majken

    Wow, Matt! Thank you so much for making this effort. I will soon start my first mural project and am nervous about it. But now that I read your article on this, I’m so relieved! I know I will manage it now. Thanks again. Brilliant work!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Majken! I’m so glad that this article was helpful for you. First mural project! That’s big time. Please feel free to reach out if you have any other specific questions. Good luck!

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  • Lanita Southard

    A business owner in my town, has asked if my junior high art students would do a mural on one of the walls at her business. I am super nervous! Im not sure how to go about choosing the students. I have three classes of 8th graders, averaging 25 students each. We are one day in the class now, and I am not familiar with a lot of the students. I have not had a chance to discuss this with Admin in my building yet, so Im not sure that it is even going to happen, but the district has been talking a lot about authentic learning and this would definitely fit! I need to have a plan when I go to the Admin. Ideas on how to choose who gets to work on the mural?

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Lanita! This sounds like an amazing opportunity! A few questions come to mind. How large is the wall? How many students will you need? Also, have you considered asking for volunteers? It seems like this would take place outside of the school day/hours, so I would recommend to take photos of the wall, show it to your classes, and see how many students would be interested in that kind of work. You may just narrow it down like that. Best of luck!

  • Jonny Popovich

    hi matt, this is amazingly helpful, thank you so much. Given an average wall size, maybe like the one in this example, how long does it take to complete? i have a group of high schoolers for two weeks (I am teaching an elective course that is comprised of four two-week modules, and each module is distinct, so the mural would have to be started and finished in the two weeks. I do, however, have 2.5 hours each day with kids) So I’m wondering if you think this is feasible in that amount of time, or perhaps if you just recommend simplifying it in some way if not. Cheers

  • Jessie

    Do you have a suggestion for a type/brand of sealant for an indoor mural in a school? I was reading about 2 step varnishes that can be removed if needed, and I wasn’t sure if all that was necessary for an indoor mural. Thanks for any suggestions you might have!