Diary of a huge Mural project – armed with a few brushes and a pot or two of paint, it’s amazing what you can do
Trudging through the back streets of Peckham didn’t exactly seem to be the fine art super highway I had expected when I took on this covert project for Science Ltd of London. At first glance the email seemed to suggest this was a specialised operation : a sign mural was needed… it had a multitude of straight lines and needed to be executed, and I quote… perfectly.
In the February gloom, mid Monday afternoon I rounded the Peckham back-streets and saw surprisingly a very new smartly bricked industrial estate boasting a dozen or so workshops, 180cm tall avant garde numerals, as you’d kinda expect, and bright clean and tidy satin steel shutters.
I was ushered in and required to sign a confidentiality agreement immediately. We then entered what can only be described as a fine art factory. A beautiful one at that. Scattered around the first 100 square meter studio area were several canvases and artists applying colours and intricate layers of some kind to the murmur of minimalist modern trance music.
All rather funky and overtly uber cool.
My task this day among these talented minions, was to create the perfect sample. One square meter of enlarged graph paper as a graphic mural, directly onto the studio and later that month, all being well, the gallery wall. The gallery was to be the Tate Modern, London.
This journey actually started high up in the mountains of Italy, where I live with my wife Caterina and 3 daughters. An email arrived in late November asking for this strange obscure artwork to be quoted.
The design would total approximately 100 square meters and occupy 4 walls of the massive 3rd floor exhibition area of the Tate. The head of exhibitions for Science Ltd set out the requirements in concise terms. Perfect, perfect and more perfect.
I hadn’t got a clue who it was for I was just fixed on the task being set out –
Immediately I whirled about how to apply such a design in paint, 4 meters by 8 apiece. What would be the methodology, how could I guarantee perfection, who would comprise my team, what would be the hurdles and challenges. It was a long list.
Tucked up in an 11th Century village in the heart of the Apennines on the Tuscan hinterlands and in early December, the snow was due and it drifted in to about half a meter in one night. The fire was hot and my mind filled with central London and as I had just found out: Damien Hirst.
My career as signwriter started in 1981 and filled itself with pub signs pausing after 10 years until October 2011. For some inexplicable reason I fancied climbing up the ladder again!
It’s easy to explain really having spent too long as product designer in front of the computer. I wanted it real again. This certainly was just that… and some way unreal as well.
What struck me immediately about Debbie my contact at Science was the high level of communication used to set out the project. I didn’t want for information at this stage whether at 10 in the evening or six in the morning, she was at the email creating the information flow that would define what was needed and not.
8 emails came my way from the design office of Science in December and 33 in January as the stakes upped.
The graph design was being set out in illustrator by her designers as we spoke and the crucial information regarding weight of lines was still to come.
… 5mm I think is the line weight with heavier borders…
I slumped back getting my head around 2km of 5mm lines rendered perfectly. Could it be done??
Assuming the wall surface would be pretty rough with its 12 years of history upon it I knew masking was out.
Debbie stated it was done before in a show in New York a decade previously and it seemed to have been painted by hand. Could I make this happen with a lining brush.
The timeslot was confirmed as just 8 days on site.
For some inexplicable reason a grabbed one of my kids markers and set out a grid in pen. Fine tuning the edges by brush and the result was super clean and quick. Wow had I got this down in one single swipe?!
I would need to control the TM on this by making a series of fool proof studio samples. By elimination I went through the production options. Masking vinyl posed risks with bleeds and tearing the wall surface. Mask tape again was too unpredictable, quality issues persisted and time consuming. Vinyl was ruled out by the client along with wallpaper… it had to be painted by hand… to look like print. Could it be a marker and fine tune solution… ingenious and quick!
The dimensions arrived early December and to my relief the weights were 25mm with 50mm borders.
I stayed with the pen struck edges and a one-stroke fill. That’s it! Fast clean efficient and manageable.
My first studio sample came through 95% clean. The sole problem was matching exactly the colour of fill to ink edge. That remained the task of my first visit to Science studios. I tracked down high spec rulers with 2mm surface offset, central handles and applied some neat non-slip pads. In Italy such tools are standard kit and come reasonably priced in Obi, a B&Q type of hardware store.
LONDON – TESTING
So things were looking good as I surveyed the wall and dropped my sample making gear off in the studio awaiting the arrival of Julian Brown (163) my long standing right hand man for these types of projects.
Julian was rock solid and had a career as display director for large balloon marketing operators and turned out the Wembley Stadium sized Virgin Atlantic balloon in a mean 5 days.
Briefing Julian was fairly straight forward because of the 163 factor (his IQ) and the warm freshly plotted drawing measured up perfectly. The first job was to trim out marker ports from the layout so that the drawing acted as a key-line guide: no trace off for this job as the Dulux Brilliant White matt wall surface needed to remain spotless. How happy I was that the Tate would be using Dulux as it has nice membrane surface and some extra flow medium added for a smooth finish. All valuable help in the big picture.
The drawing marked out and ruler in hand I started to strike in the marker lines.
We used the Tria Letraset marker B37 colour blue and though itself an uphill task supplying the 50 pens needed for the whole project the fresh nib flowed sweetly across the wall.
Nerves kicked in.
I used my breathing to control the tremor.
It wasn’t perfect yet.
There were surface undulations that caused tonal variations.
I felt the tension rise in my chest and neck. I didn’t want this… I didn’t want this to be happening.
I wanted perfection.
With the grid set out I started to mix the opaque Pelican casein Plaka that I had been recommended but to my surprise it seemed quite dull compared to the pen and Pantone match-up swatch. The blue we needed was the mid tone of the B37 marker. But the marker was showing slight variations… as they characteristically do.
Oh shhhhit…. This was not absolutely where I wanted to be heading.
2 problems now.
Firstly the softer tonal characteristic edge and secondly a slightly dull colour match.
I added spectrum blue from my art bag and fortunately the colour boosted up to within a whisper of the bold original we chased.
John Harking was the art studio manager whom I needed to impress and after a few second of meeting John I knew he was my biggest challenge. Hard, black and white … there was no BS with John.
And John had entered the room.
‘Let me know when you have something for me to see…’ came his soft Dundee tone, meaning that what he saw at a distance was not what he had in mind. It was not what we had in mind either… but I pressed on cutting in with opaque blue , one-stroke and completing the grid.
Stepping back it wasn’t too bad.
It was clean. But then there were those occasional soft edges. I trimmed in.
‘This is pants Julian…’ I said dryly.
An hour later Julian and I had 2 pint on the table and a series of vernaculars littering the place shaming even the most hardened Peckham clientele sipping at the bar.
I don’t like trashing products but even the opaque had failed to cover.
We had a grid with edges that were fluffy, solids that were thin, colour dull, and only the trace off process as a success.
‘How the hell am I going to cut this in perfect Jules? Jeeze I need this to work here!’
Jules turned his pint glass… he’d seen this all before when we worked on cutting edge paint finishes together for interior design queen Tricia Guild in the nineties.
‘It’s a total mosh Jules…!’
‘The main point is the coverage issue’
We knew we couldn’t make it cover and the TM per meter was already over an hour. That meant we had at least to achieve 1.5 hrs per meter to get to 150 hours to have the grids all done in one week. This needed 4 people on the work.
‘Nick! Got it!…’
‘2 coats!… one slash coat one over coat job done!’
He was right.
Next day I went into the studio and double coated. I’d got Johnsons matt emulsion and colour mixed the blue spot on and it was going from a total fail to looking 98% the good. John Haking had other ideas.
‘I don’t like these edges can you get these edges sharper?’
The other thing I decided in the pub was to ditch the penned edge.
The second sample I had set out in 20 minutes.
I was using masking tape. This job was a masking tape job… cue John Pope, the other central figure in this project.
Julian mentioned cutting whole squares in masking using a rad roller (I had my doubts) and John had described how to make masking tape create the perfect edge… the perfect edge… how could I believe that?
Strimming in the masking tape I started to cut trim out the over laps forming up the final grid for painting. This felt better.
John had told me by over-painting the masking tape with white background it sealed all the spider leg leaks when dry … then by applying the blue the tape would peel off leaving perfection.
I struggled to believe this so with doubt and fear I did exactly what he suggested.
Peeling off the tape reveal an exquisitely sharp grid, Bold colour and nearly perfect!
I was delighted. John was right.
2 fails persisted.
The trims had to me exact and the masking was so pale it was virtually impossible to secure 100% accuracy and success. Secondly the paint still needed minor second coats. And there were a few leaks… but all said even John was moved within a whisker of accepting the sample.
‘Can ye get rid of these tiny trim errors?’
These were virtually impossible to eradicate.
‘Yep no problem… these will be snagged out…’
ON THE ROCKS
On returning to the mountain I set up my team of 4. The emails continued unabated and I decided to survey the Tate walls and set up a final 4 meter sample paint at the Science Studio.
Phil Monk met me and we ascended into the enormous empty level 3 gallery. The oak floors absorbed the acoustics of our footsteps as we passed full height windows and St Pauls across the water.
Phil seemed a nice bloke but we stayed in formal remit. The wall surfaces were orange peeled but not as bad as I had feared. Phil informed me that we could have 14 days access which for me made the whole project guaranteed success. With 14 days we could do anything!
Finally I headed back to the studio to meet Remi and Julian for the final sample push.
The 1m x 4m layout was firstly to be trimmed with marker ports. I had one final colour check and 1 m grid to set out while they cut. I needed to be absolutely sure of the time motion of the new process.
I had to prepare myself for the studio manager. ‘John, this today is all about process… that will create the quality and timescale… of course I can produce a perfect sample… but unless I can double check the process the timeline could blow out’.
John today had fewer words than ever it seemed. His butterfly wing paintings were behind and the distractions mounted.
As I set out the original 1m x 1m drawing John spoke out. Then we marked out the wall with the 4m drawing.
‘N’ya can’t use that older version drawing they’ve all been changed…!’
I quickly went over the new 4 meter drawing and yes the internal cube dimension was now 168mm x 170mm.
‘It should be 170 x 170 John!’
Shit hit the sample wall!
After 20 minutes the CAD tech arrived and confirmed the 4m drawing was a dud.
We continued by setting out 2 panels and test ran a great product on Remi’s recommendation. Enter the now famous FrogTape!
This green tape claimed to be leak proof and 100 clean low tack tear off.
We tested and it was a great success… save for the price.
This sample was also about test running new flat steel rulers for solving the fine trim edges that persisted in the last sample.
Remi was the man for this process and brought the sample to about 98.5% perfect.
‘I can still see these tiny errors… much better but this is no good and this and this…’ Mr. Harking left the room.
Remi was stunned. The finish was visually perfect at 3 feet. Harking wanted it perfect at 3 inches.
So did I.
With 24mm green Frogtape we were laying out the horizontals then the verticals and fine trimming out the cross-over waste. The trim had to be absolutely 1000% perfect. Otherwise we had to fine cut in 0.03mm high build errors which was virtually impossible.
This also added time because each grid ‘cube’ required 8 perfect trim cuts.
We had come very close and this was the final yet crux of the whole project.
We headed off on our trains heads whirring with the days highs and lows.
… Julian’s Cube mask idea, Johns sound painting technique, Remi’s fabulous skills… we needed to find a super uber final solution.
Pulling out of Peckham Rye station I texted Jules… I’VE GOT IT!!!
Elisa Massari is good friend, great designer and AutoCAD specialist based in Piacenza Italy – Elisa was our 4th team member and was about to do a truly fantastic job.
We flew into London Stansted together and met Julian in Victoria for an eat and greet.
‘Jules… this is the final solution!’ I immediately started and told him just how we would nail it.
‘Yep I think it will work if we use rollers…’
‘I want to use brushes… easier to control..’ 163 sipped his beer unconvinced.
‘Jules you can use rad rollers no problem.. I prefer brushes that’s all’
The first task having set up our towers was to trim out the drawings and draw up the largest mural on the South wall. Jules and Elisa trimmed out. The ports intersected the linear intervals allowing us to mark each intersection directly to the wall with fine pencils. We couldn’t use chalked up drawings in case of chalk staining. Trace-up leaves too much staining too… so the ports were the logical device.
Remi and built towers and I marked up the top left start point on the wall and top line horizontal.
With two towers abreast we decided (inexplicably) to use the 4m drops horizontally and grid out 4m x 4m in one hit with Remi and I on top level while Jules and Elisa covered the lower half.
The walls were out. They were MDF construct erect on alloy frames. They dipped and buckled causing the horizontal layout to distort and liquefy almost across the uneven surface. The first mark out had wanders of up to 4mm.
We knew that this first stretch would likely show up teething errors – so it wasn’t unexpected. It also meant we all looked inward at how to make our marking up absolutely perfect.
This wall was the first learning curve. The printed drawing was absolutely perfect in accuracy and quality yet the walls caused it to meander. But was it perfect? We realised the heat of the plotter could distort the paper by a millimetre or two across short distances causing long run wanders. Even a knee on the drawing cause minute stretch patches and distortions… but the accumulative effect created 5mm outs here and there – and that was not on the cards.
Our marking to the line had to be more than spot on. We also needed to double check each of the 1m borders with spirit levels.
After the first 4m x 4m section was marked out we decided to revert to using the drawings as first intended as vertical drops. The errors diminished as gravity assisted.
I adapted rulers… and kept thinking the methodology through.
After the first morning we had got to 1pm with one wall marked out. Good stuff had happened and a few minor bad things too… but I was stressed and transfixed with what I now had to do. Prove the system I thought of on the 6.15 out of Peckham 3 weeks before would work.
Yep fact is it still hadn’t been done! 98% was not good enough for the staff of Damien Hirst.
I had bought 24 rolls of extra wide 100mm masking tape.
By masking to the left boundary of the vertical the tape occupied 100mm of the internal cube. Then by masking the right side it overlapped and occupied the full aperture of the cube overlapping by 30mm in the centre.
By masking the full 4m drop in one hit the cubes were completely masked in ‘columns’.
This was done with me at top, lining up and the team pulling the roll to the bottom with the tape lining up automatically to the vertical markers.
This was then ‘tapped’ and rubber bladed in flat.
Then the columns needed to be cut horizontally forming our 170mm cubes. Whereas the 24mm tape required 8 fiddly corner trim cuts, this system required one full cut to and bottom in order to complete the masked cubes and by default form the perfect grid lines.
8 impossible cuts became 2 perfect slices and the trim errors became history!
The real plus was labour time came within the golden 90 minutes per metre.
That‘s what I texted to 163 on the 6.15 out of Peckham Rye but would it work at 1.15 on Platform one at Tate Modern!?
As worked on the top 5m scaffold tower, completing the very first blue coat overlay, the team stood back down below.
We watched the paint dry… finally at 1.45 I picked the cube centre seam and peeled it at 30 degree oblique angle. Then the other half to complete the reveal.
Turning to the crew below I said just one word.
The first wall was completed in under 3 days. The pace picked up and 3 walls were dusted off in five.
This was exceeding our TM expectations.
A good job too because there was a fair bit of snagging from the first wall and we needed to revise the blue coat technique… most tiny bleeds were on the horizontals due to moisture build-up… and yes Jules was right – rollers were the first order. By dry mist coating the blue on all the tetchy horizontal areas we eradicated the errors by 90%… 5 mist coats were needed however.
THE ONLY SNAG WITH SNAGGING…
The walls were pretty rough and the Dulux never arrived – instead the painters had used cheap tosh which kept us busy for 5 days tough snagging because the cheaper paint has rough surface membrane and combined with the orange peel wall surface we could never eradication 100% errors. We estimated 3 days for snagging and 2 days for getting a few jars in at the Founders Arms next door.
Remi had to be on his Kings Cross mural by day 6 and Elisa home by day 7.
Jules and I had the final East wall done in a sharp 2.5 days just the two of us and it was 99% snag free. Not because we are ‘dream team 163’ but because we had outgrown the stress , got used to the fatigue and plain gotten pretty good at it. Methodology and practice is oil to the machine.
Phil Monk was consistent in offering support along with Kerstin (my boyfriend’s a signwriter too!)
The whole Science team were superb. And we love Damien Hirst!
For the last 3 days I was flat on my face signwriting 120mm Helvetica Light tag lines at 115mm off the floor which was a killer.
Debbie arrived with Ollie the installation manager on second last day but flat out on the deck our first and final meeting was rather too short…
But the extra 3 days snagging nearly pushed us over.
John arrived at Tate as planned on our last working day, Sunday March 4.
Due in the room at 3pm for final check (I don’t want to see more than 5 errors…!) there was no sign of him. Jules and I were to busy to care, desperately behind on the final eye-level snag through.
Frog tape in hand I tasked Julian to find me just 5 errors a-wall and tick tape them while I chased his tail.
3.15: No John Harking…
‘Jules give me another 5 errors! All way around!!’
We couldn’t find them… nor could John when he arrived at 3.26
‘Bloody security kept me locked out for 26 flippin minutes…!’
Standing in and standing back Mr. Harking finally turned.
‘You knuw it looks greyt dunyou?!’
It’s what I do.