How to Paint a Mural (and Why I Changed My Mural)

Dun dun dun… A wall mural! They look intimidating to tackle, but they actually aren’t. I promise. There are a myriad of ways in which one can go about painting a wall mural all with a fair amount of ease, and I’m here to help this process move smoothly.

I think the question I’m most often asked, especially with large-scale projects like a mural, is “how do you know what you’re doing?” and the answer is quite frank, and it’s that I don’t. And sometimes, that doesn’t work for me.

I wing 99% of the things that I do, and you can too. Creating comes with a fair amount of internal waxing and waning. I can guarantee you that there will be a part of the process where you step back, look at your progress, and mutter something like “oh, shit” to yourself. This is part of the process, and you just have to trust that it’ll pan out okay for you.

Let me tell you a quick story about the time that I spent a very long time painting a mural on my wall, only to decide that I didn’t like it.

Why I Changed My Mural

The inspiration for my first mural, an interpretation of a Roberto Burle Marx piece, came to me from an internet search for wall murals. I found one I liked and I went for it.

I painted it on my wall, and I loved it. It was so freaking cool. In just a few hours, I had taken my dining room from all-white and semi-sterile to a colorful explosion of organic movement. It brought a new sense of life into the space in a way that wasn’t there before.

The more I sat with it, though, the more it felt misplaced. It was beautiful and intriguing and garnered a whole hell of a lot of praise from folks both in real life and online, but it didn’t feel like it was mine. I love to create and take a huge amount of pride in my creations, and the fact that I didn’t create this focal point of my house felt fraudulent to me. This is in no way saying that anyone who doesn’t create their own piece or draw inspiration from others is a phony — I personally just wanted the challenge of designing my own piece for my own home; something that fit the space’s design better and came from my brain.

I had this mural in my dining room from September 2018 until June of 2019. Not that long in the grand scheme of things I suppose, but I sat with it long enough to tweak it a little, change some decor, and still decide that you know what? It’s not workin’ for me.

This is where I tell you that it’s okay to spend 12+ hours working on something, only to find out that you don’t love it. It’s okay to erase and begin again. The best thing about a mural (and most things inside your home) is that it’s not permanent. Do not settle for something in your home that doesn’t make you feel joy. This is hugely important, and you’d be shocked at how it will affect your day-to-day life. Being with something that you love will always be better than settling for something you like, even if you spent a lot of time on it.

Changing my mural took about a week from design to execution all said and done, and most of that time was spent creating shapes and messing with colors on my iPad.

And now for the good stuff:

How To Paint A Mural

I have painted a few murals in my house, but for today I am focusing on the two types of murals I have tackled: a colorful, geometric design that I designed on my iPad and translated on the wall, and an organic design from an image I found on the Internet that I projected onto the wall and traced.

What You’ll Need

Step One: Find Inspiration

This isn’t really advice on how to find inspiration, but you can go ahead and read a post I wrote about how to identify and develop your home’s style and it might give you a good jumping-off point. For my mural, I was inspired by natural scenes: clouds, rainbows, hills, the sun and moon, etc. but I wanted the mural to be abstract and geometric. The original mural here was too organic for my taste and felt a little chaotic for this room once I had it up, so I knew I needed something simpler.

Step Two: Create a Design

This is a lot like selecting a tattoo (except way less permanent): something you’re going to most likely see every day, so choose your design and color scheme wisely.

Pick something that will compliment the rest of the room’s design. In this step, sometimes I will map colors based on my intuition, which is usually me holding paint samples next to each other. Sometimes, I’ll use good old-fashioned paint and paper. For my current mural, I used Procreate on my iPad.

My second mural design, created in Procreate

Like I said before, my first design was inspired by Florence Lopez’s bedroom, as portrayed here in this Wall Street Journal article. It fit the space at the time, but after about a year I decided to change it to a design of my own.

Step Three: Choose A Wall

This is a pretty easy step, and you likely already have one in mind, but if you don’t: pick a fairly large wall if possible. If you can pick a wall that is void of doors or windows, even better, but be sure to incorporate them into the design if this is unavoidable. You can see how I did this with my hallway door in the design above.

Step Four: Prep the Space

After a fresh coat of primer

Ensure that your wall is wiped clean of dust, cobwebs, and if necessary, sanded and freshly primed. Tape the edges if you need to.

In this photo, you can see my old design underneath a thin coat of primer to help make the deep greens and bright warm colors easier to cover up. Before the primer, I had lightly sanded some of the paint so I had a smooth surface to begin with.

Step Five: Map It

This part can be tedious since it involves attention to detail and taking your time. There are a few ways that you can map a design. The three most common practices are image projection, the grid system, and freehand. The best practice depends on the scale of your project and your confidence in your skill level. If you map your design using a grid, you will need to set your design into a grid square in proportion to the wall that the mural is going on.

In my Roberto Burle Marx mural, I projected the image onto the wall using a digital projector and traced freehand. That particular mural was very organic, so getting the lines perfectly straight was not an issue and I had a lot of leeway.

My initial mapping with lines and tape

In this most recent design, shown in its early stages here, I freehanded using my iPad as a reference but with the help of a few other tools.

I used my laser level to create straight lines with my pencil and a long straight-edge. This made sure the lines were crisp and even. I taped them up to ensure they stayed as straight as possible, which you can see in some of these progress photos. For the circle and half-circle details, I did the nail-and-string trick to trace their outlines.

Once your lines are on the wall, you can either use a photo as a reference for color-mapping, or use a pencil to lightly mark where the colors need to go on the wall. Don’t worry much about the pencil marks showing through the paint; it should cover easily enough.

If you have ever done a paint by number, this step and the beginning of the next step may have a vague familiarity.

Step Six: Paint

Woop woop! If you’re using painter’s tape, “seal” your tape by running something stiff (like the spine of a book or a putty knife) across the edge of the tape to help prevent paint from seeping where you don’t want it to.

Cut into the elements of your design by painting the outline first and then filling in. Take your time and be patient. This is where switching between your short-handled brush and your artist brushes will be useful.

When you’re finished with the bulk of your painting, take a step back. Use this moment to both admire how badass you are, and then notice the areas that could use a little touching up.

In the second mural, you’ll notice that I completely changed the color on the right from bright blue-turquoise to a green color from my old mural once I saw it in the daylight. I did this because of my staunch belief in only living with things that you love, but also because the green was actually the color swatch that we used to pick a tile color. The whole room felt more cohesive with just the swapping of one minor detail.

The Final Cost Breakdown:

  • Paint samples will run you about $3.75 each (I used 8 in my second mural, 6 in my first)
  • Paint brush, about $5 each (I always have more than one so I don’t constantly have to clean brushes when I’m working)
  • Artist Brush set, about $5
  • Painter’s tape, about $7

It costs substantially less money than most people think. Just remember to give yourself permission to stray from the final product if that’s what your intuition is telling you. It’s okay to hate it in the end. It’s okay to change it eventually.

If you take a stab at your own mural, please share it with me!

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