Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Home Is Where the Art Is

Residential murals can add a Classical touch in a unique way.

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By Nicole V. Gagné
The tradition of painting images onto the walls of one’s home appears to be almost as ancient as the tradition of having a home, judging from prehistoric cave paintings that have been discovered. Certainly, the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome cherished the practice – it wasn’t just their grand public spaces that were ennobled with pictures. Although residential murals have always had their adherents throughout history, in recent years they’ve become more the exception than the rule, with commercial and institutional spaces dominating the commissions. A growing number of homeowners, however, are experiencing the unique joy of seeing their vision realized – and then getting to live with that realization every day. This article looks at three different mural projects from around the country to give some sense of the range of possibilities open to the visionary designer.

Palm Beach Odyssey
In 2003, artist Glennis McClellan and her New York City-based firm Big Mural Design Studio completed two contrasting, Classically themed murals for a home in Palm Beach, FL. "The client had requested Classical subjects, which are always a pleasure for me," she remarks. "I’m constantly aspiring to paint in a Classical way, and with each painting, I get a little closer. So I pitched the images of Circe and Odysseus and Diana and Cupid, and he loved it." The former, measuring 19 ft. wide by 6 ft. tall, depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus confronts Circe, the sorceress who has transformed his shipmates into pigs.

The challenge was the space they would enliven: a long, narrow bathroom. Its narrowness persuaded McClellan to set "the mural’s composition low, near the horizon line, and paint it as a grisaille. It was better without color. In a relatively narrow space, a full-color image at that length would have made the bathroom feel too dense and crowded. Also, the bathroom tile was monochrome, which went well with the grisaille." McClellan further incorporated the tile wainscoting into the mural by using it as a wall and "breaking the edge" of the painting, to draw the viewer into the scene. She also relied on the bathroom’s mirrors on the opposite wall, to reflect the mural and add space and dimension to the bathroom. "Doing it in grisaille instead of color made the painting go more quickly. It took me about a month and a half, as opposed to the Diana-and-nymphs murals, which I spent about five months painting," she says.

This 19-ft.-wide painting of Circe and Odysseus was executed by Glennis McClellan in grisaille. Full color would have made the image too dense and distracting for the narrow bathroom space in which the mural was installed.

Like Odysseus and Circe, the Diana and Cupid mural was also painted on canvas in McClellan’s studio: "But the walls there weren’t tall enough for the height of these pieces," she relates, "so I had to paint them sideways! I’d stop periodically and take photos of them, which I’d study to make sure the work was coming out right, and then resume painting." Collectively, the mural grouping measures 20 ft. tall by 45 ft. wide. Three principal images dominate: a statue of Diana, virgin goddess of wild animals, chastity and the hunt, here guarded by a leopard; Cupid and one of Diana’s nymphs having a rendezvous; and Diana and her nymphs bathing, with an overhead Cupid being punished for his aggressive affections. "After the three main murals were painted, they were shipped to the location and applied to the wall like wallpaper by professional wallpaper hangers," McClellan describes. "Canvas can stretch or shrink somewhat as it’s being hung, and so I prefer to be on-site to supervise the operation. If I have to do additional painting around the murals, as with this project, then of course I have to be there as well. I had white canvas primed and gessoed, which was hung in the other areas, and I painted them on-site: the faces with alternating swags, the peacock, some ceiling details, the stonework around the windows and the marbleizing on the side of the staircase. I had to spend a couple of weeks completing the murals.

This detail from McClellan’s Diana-and-Cupid mural reveals the clandestine meeting between Cupid and one of Diana’s nymphs. The broken stonework, along with the drapery and urn, are clever trompe l’oeils. This mural, which took McClellan approximately five months to complete, was painted on canvas in her studio.

"I prefer the luxury of spending that much time working on-site," says McClellan, "which is one reason I do more residential than commercial work. A public project is inevitably more stressful. There are usually more complicated space considerations; the hours can be varied and awkward, working around the site’s business hours and commercial clients seem to always want everything done too quickly. Plus, commercial projects tend to be fairly elaborate, requiring me to hire a larger staff. I wind up spending more time as a supervisor than as an artist, which is not my preference. I want to put in more time painting."

New York Pastoral
A very different type of residential mural was designed by William Mensching, the director of murals at New York City-based EverGreene Architectural Arts, Inc., a firm widely respected not only for its restoration and replication of decorative painting, but also for its original work, from color schemes to murals, private and public. The commission came from a New York City homeowner who wanted to bring the landscape of Italy into her apartment. "She wanted something very pleasant and pastoral," Mensching recounts, "that would create the effect of sitting in an Italian villa and looking out onto a lovely hillside. So I designed and painted a small version of the mural. I didn’t attempt to re-create any specific historical painting style but rather evoked a romanticized view, a stylized realism, by adapting various elements from a range of different landscape photographs. Many things in the mural, however, I completely invented, such as the fountains and vases. I also included two types of hydrangea bushes, which the owner loves – they are her favorite shrubs."

Mensching’s prototype was then scaled up by EverGreene’s staff of artists and painted on canvas as a mural measuring 9 ft. tall and 25 ft. wide. After he did some finishing work on the full-sized mural, he had it shipped in one piece to the site and there supervised its installation by EverGreene professionals. A few more minor touchups provided by Mensching on the installed mural, and the job was done – and then was later expanded, when EverGreene created 12 sets of complementary images to adorn the panels of the doors in that room.

As with so many residential mural projects, the secret to success is a close relationship with the person who has commissioned the work. "I worked very closely with the interior designer and the homeowner to define the colors used in the mural," Mensching relates. "The color palette I worked with was muted, with very close values; a very controlled palette, you could say. The intention was to create something that would be in complete harmony with the room. The way the mural works with the colors of the drapery, wood flooring and the painted and glazed surfaces is a source of great satisfaction to me."

That satisfaction is of course shared by the homeowner, and the uplift that she receives from her EverGreene mural is, for Mensching, one of the special joys inherent in creating residential art: "Every job, residential or commercial, has its own unique set of challenges and restrictions. When the mural is residential, the homeowners live with it and it can become very precious to them, which is very important to me. So often, with a commercial project, a hotel lobby, say, the work just becomes part of the background for people. Of course, those murals can have a special impact of their own, which has its own rewards!"

Working from memory, imagination and various topographical details from several different photos, William Mensching of EverGreene Architectural Arts created this romantic view of an Italian landscape – complete with hydrangea bushes, a favorite of the homeowner. Photo: courtesy of EverGreene Architectural Arts

Climbing Inside a Pyramid
For homeowners in Novato, CA, the dream wasn’t an Italian landscape, but rather the glory of ancient Egypt. Artist Lynne Rutter, of San Francisco, CA-based Lynne Rutter Murals & Decorative Painting, had converted their upstairs room into what she calls "a total Egyptian environment, with no plain surfaces; everything was made to look like rusticated stone, with the ceiling a sky with gold stars." In creating this unique space, Rutter became concerned with the enclosed stairway that led up to it."It seemed wrong to me to go through an impersonal space and then--boom!--into this gorgeous room. So I had them move the door from the top of the stairs to the bottom and then completely reworked the stairway to create the effect of entering a transformational space."

Rutter would make another total Egyptian environment out of the stairway: two walls, each about 14 ft. long and that slant from an 8-ft. height at the top of the steps to 13 ft. at the bottom, plus the ceiling and the inside surfaces of the doors. "My design was based on the relief work at the entrance to a pyramid, and I don’t think the owners completely believed me at first when I described what it would look like. But after I showed them pictures of the bas-relief sculptures on pyramid walls, they were all for it. Those works were originally created for narrow passageways, as half-carved wall murals to define a space where a full-sized statue wouldn’t fit."

"Trompe l’oeil" means, literally, "fool the eye," and that’s exactly what artist Lynne Rutter has done with her majestic Egyptian-themed mural for a California home. The hawk-headed figure in this detail shot is the kingly god Horus, but the image isn’t a carved relief; it’s a two-dimensional painting, with the shadows painted in to conform to the effect that the on-site lighting would have on a relief carving. Photo: courtesy of Lynne Rutter Murals & Decorative Painting

Rutter decided to paint this mural entirely on-site, because "even if I had painted it in my studio, I still would have needed to work in the space itself to create the proper shadowing based on the actual light source there. I spent about a month on that stairway. After the wall was resurfaced so that it was very smooth, I drew the figures on the wall. The space was too narrow for me to set up a projector, so I scaled the image up using a grid system, which was exactly the way the ancient Egyptians would have done it. Once I had all the figures in place, I then put a faux finish over the mural to make it look like stone and gave the other surfaces within the stairway the same treatment, segmenting the surfaces of the doors to create an effect of stacked stone slabs. Then I began really carving with paint, adding shadows and highlights based on the lantern at the top of stairs as the major light source." The homeowners, taken with the spirit of the project, replaced the wooden stairs with limestone. Now their visitors really feel like they’re climbing inside a pyramid.

"Their teenage daughter thinks it’s really cool," notes Rutter – a reaction that comes close to what is for her the true value of painting residential murals. "With a residential mural, you get to have a real relationship with the person who’ll be living with it. A commercial job tends to be impersonal. Often, I have no idea for whom I’m really working, so I create something for the public, for the masses or to realize a specific visual effect. When making a mural for someone’s home, I get to know the people and can produce something specialized for them. I really think it makes their lives better to be living with these murals. In this particular project, I even wrote a message of happiness always to the owners, all in hieroglyphics."

With their varying subject matters, styles and techniques, these three mural projects take us a very long way from the world of cave painting; but when regarded in terms of their personal impact on the people who live with them, the distance seems a lot smaller. In both instances, a personal sensibility has been externalized and made more real, to improve both the aesthetic, psychological and spiritual needs of people in their own homes. Whether that home is a cave, an apartment or a house, the positive effect on the lives of those people is incalculable.

Click here for a list of mural artisans
Click here for a list of decorative painting specialists