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Making a mural? This is what you need!

Last month I got to work on a cool mural assignment again! This time I got to work at the new building of the Dutch police unions: the entrance hall, 9 meeting rooms and 12 doors. Do you ever make murals? Or are you curious what a mural assignment looks like from start to finish? In this blog I'll share my process and all my pro tips with you!

Nienke Vletter mural design process
Transfer the design onto the wall using a projector

How do you get mural commissions like these?

Of course my work can be found online: on my website, Instagram and Facebook. But I get most commissions through word of mouth. A client sees my work at a previous client or gets my name as a tip from someone who knows me.

Nienke Vletter design Mural Stabilo
Stabilo Netherlands headquarters

I made my very first mural (or rather, chalk wall drawing) in O-café, the coffee bar of the advertising agency I worked at the time. Then I also started working together with Viktor, who ran the company Chalkboard. And the ball kept rolling from there on out. From chalkboards and small walls to shop windows and eventually entire office buildings. Like this jungle wall in Groningen, this entire office (including the toilets) in Utrecht and the new Stabilo office. After all these murals in the Netherlands, I think it is time to go international, so Google HQ: call me ;-)

What I have noticed above all: with every assignment you share, another one comes along. Especially when I started doing bigger commissions and showing those online, the requests I got also became bigger and bigger.

Don't have any experience with murals yet, but would like to do so? Start with a wall in your own home! Or ask friends / family / cafes in the neighborhood if you can make something there for a friendly price. They get a nice wall, you get a great practice project for your portfolio!

How do you make the design for a mural?

My first murals? I drew those by hand, scanned the designs and edited them in Illustrator or Photoshop. Whenever the client wanted a (small) design change, the process started from scratch. You guessed it: this is not something I recommend to anyone.

One of my best business investments to date was an iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil and the program Procreate. Since then, I've been drawing the designs on my iPad, which makes changes so much easier. I make sure I have the exact dimensions of the wall beforehand so I can create the design in the right proportions.

Designing in Procreate

How do you put the design on the wall?

There are several techniques for getting a design on a wall. Freehand, working with a grid or...with a projector! This last method is my personal favorite. It allows me to get the design on the wall better and faster. Great for the client and great for me! Do prepare yourself for passers-by who will make comments such as 'I could totally do it like that' and 'Oooh, she can't draw at all, she just traces the drawing'. Offer these people your marker and suggest they try it for themselves. They'll usually shut up quickly ;-)

And here comes the answer to the most frequently asked question: 'Which projector do you use?'.

I've been a fan of my Philips Picopix for years, but unfortunately it's sold out and not produced anymore. If anyone has a tip for a good alternative: let me know and I'll add it to this blog!

What I like about the Picopix is that it's super small (about 15 x 15 cm) and therefore very portable. I have a tripod with it, so I can always position it correctly. I make sure the room is not too bright by turning off some lights or masking some windows. Are you standing in a place where the sun shines directly on your wall? Then you will have to freestyle.

This projector can handle quite a lot in terms of the size of the wall, especially if the space is large enough to allow sufficient distance. If the wall gets too big (or the distance is too small), I project the design in sections, sometimes by rotating the projector vertically. I open my design on my laptop in Adobe Illustrator, so I can easily zoom in and out at any desired percentage.

By the way, in the beginning positioning the projector often took me A LOT of time. Nowadays I know the right settings and it usually get it on the wall a bit faster. Nevertheless, it's always a time-consuming job, but the end result does get a lot better!

What to do if you can't use a projector? A good method for this is the so-called 'doodle method'. I haven't tried 'em myself yet, but know that many mural artists use this clever hack. This video clearly shows how to do this.

What paint do you use for a mural?

I use acrylic markers for murals because they work well on most walls. And it prevents messing around with paint and brushes. I regularly used the Posca markers, but now I often choose Molotow markers, because they are refillable. Instead of having lots of half-empty markers, you just fill them up again. And do you / the customer want a specific color? That is possible too. You can buy separate tubes and mix your own colors. This is a bit of a hassle, so if possible I try to do this beforehand. Tip: always do your mixing near a sink, in case you spill the paint or knock over your recently filled marker. I speak from experience ;-)

Are you going to paint larger areas of color? Or do you need to work on very coarse walls? Then it is better to use a brush. You can use the paint from the markers and the refill tubes. Because this paint is slightly diluted, you often need less than you expect! Pour the paint into a cup so you can hold it easily.

Are you making a design on a window? You can also work on glass with the acrylic markers. They are somewhat water resistant after drying, but you should not rub it very hard. Does it have to last for several years and therefore be really water resistant? Then you can choose paint markers by Edding, but even better is working with the special sign paint 'OneShot'. This can be done on glass, but also on painted surfaces such as doors. Do not forget to bring some turpentine. Working with OneShot does require some practice, but the result is great.

What else do you need?

Recently I got a perfect toolbox that holds all my materials (just from Ikea by the way :). And it always contains:

  • Babywipes (absolute pro-tip, this will get all the paint off your hands, floors and even the wall if you're quick)

  • A level and tape measure (to make sure your design is straight on the wall)

  • Painter's tape (useful for sticking it on the wall as a 'ruler')

  • Garbage bags (to cover windows and floors, for example)

  • Enough extra markers and spare nibs (annoying if you run out of paint halfway through your assignment)

Everything within reach with a DIY toolbelt

I also always bring a long extension cord for my laptop and beamer and a small folding ladder. If I have to paint higher than 2 meters, I ask the client to arrange a staircase. Usually these are present in office buildings. Do you need to paint really high on a wall? Then you will have to rent scaffolding: take this into account when making a quotation.

Any other smart tips?

Where is the wall?

Always ask for a few good pictures before you make an offer. Or even better: make sure to check the wall and the space yourself beforehand. Is it a smooth wall in a quiet office building or a coarse plastered wall in a busy café? This will influence the time you need to complete the job.

Be flexible

Prepare yourself for it: mural making is always full of surprises. I have stood in crowded exhibition halls among all the workmen, in a corridor of a nursing home full of rollators, in a scorching hot hallway of a roadside restaurant at a height of 3 meters behind a vending machine, sat on a cold concrete floor in a converted farmhouse, fallen through the floor of a new lunchroom, etc. etc. Every job is different, so flexibility is a handy trait.

Enlist help

Painting murals is an intense activity. From standing high on the stairs to lying low on the ground, it beats a session of power yoga. If you usually sit at your desk like me, it's intens for your body to spent all day on your feet painting. Especially when it comes to large assignments that take several days to complete. Two to three days is usually the maximum, after that it is harder to get a straight line ;-).

My solution? Ask for help! I have a several colleagues that I can always call for these kinds of jobs (hello Anne, hello Astrid). Not only is it nice to finish a job in 2 days, it is also a lot more fun! And because I know they deliver the same quality as I do, I don't have to worry about anything. So ask someone whose skills you know you can trust, because you are always ultimately responsible to the client.

Book a massage

When I have a multi-day mural job, I always try to take the day off after to get some rest. Highly recommended: book a massage that day. Your muscles will thank you. Even better: I received this massage pillow from my family for my birthday this year. I a huge fan. For the price of two professional massages I now always have a firm massage waiting on the couch for me when I get home. From my feet and calves to my back and neck: a-ma-zing!

Want even more tips?

I can definitely recommend following the ladies of Pandr design. Not only because they are badass women who make cool work, but also because they share a lot of great tips on making murals and the business side of things. Also highly recommended is the blog of mural and lettering artist Lauren Hom.

So, those were all my tips about murals. What else would you like to read a blog about? I am very curious! Let me know in the comments or send me a DM on Instagram!

PS Some links in this article are affiliate links. Are you going to purchase products, like the markers or the projector? Then you can support me by ordering using these links. It won't costs you anything extra, but I'll earn a small percentage of the sale. Which gives me room to write many more of these blogs :-). Thank you in advance!

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