A Mural Comes to Life

Step by step, here’s how these giant paintings become part of the urban landscape.

Check out the video above for an animated look at how a mural gets made.

Philadelphia’s iconic murals number in the thousands and represent 35 years of creating public art, but how did they get there? We wanted to learn more about the process because CSL Behring is sponsoring a new biotech-themed mural to be unveiled June 2. James Burns, a staff artist with Mural Arts Philadelphia, explained the long and careful process that ends in a finished work of community art.

  • The first step is obvious: Choose a blank wall as a canvas. The new biotech mural will be installed at 11th and Sansom streets.
  • Invite a lot of input during the design phase. Ideally, the artist’s vision will mingle with ideas from many stakeholders, especially community members, to create a final design. For the biotech mural, Mural Arts Philadelphia involved local school students in the brainstorming and painting.
  • Scan the design into Photoshop to create a digital file. There, the artist can use a filter to “posterize” the design. That turns the large-scale mural into something like a coloring book page. The simpler shapes will make it easier to paint by number later. Next, the artist overlays a grid pattern, breaking the design into 5-foot-by-5-foot sections. Artist Eric Okdeh designed the biotech mural and managed all phases of the project.
  • Print out the entire mural, in 5-foot-by-5-foot panels, on parachute cloth painted with concrete primer. Number each section square to avoid what Burns called “beyond nightmarish” confusion when it’s time to install.
  • Paint each 5-foot-by-5-foot section, according to the artist’s color plan. It takes a village to create these murals, so “paint days” invite all people of all ages and artistic ability to participate. Volunteers will find an “alphabetized color buffet” of paint in ready-to-use cups, Burns said. It’s easy to follow the artist’s color plan, he said. Volunteer painters will find the process relaxing and foolproof, he said. If anyone veers off the plan, the artist can make touchups later. Or better yet, the artist might welcome the unexpected splash of color and decide to make it work. 
  • Let the 5-by-5 sections dry. Sometimes a hairdryer is needed to hurry along heavily saturated areas. Roll up the painted sections and store them, hoping they don’t stick together.
  • Test out the design by arranging all your finished section pieces to spot any problems. Artists check for continuity, so that if a certain shade of green was used on panel #1 for part of a leaf, that same shade should be used where that leaf continues on panel #2.
  • Prepare the wall by priming it and drawing a grid to accommodate all the 5-by-5 sections. A scaffold or a hydraulic scissor lift will help you reach the highest points. The CSL Behring mural will be 127 feet by 60 feet. It helps if you’re not afraid of heights, Burns said.
  • During installation, glue each section onto the wall in the right order, starting at the top left of the overall design. Smooth the panel on the wall with a squeegee. Layer on a clear coat to seal the work. Hope for fair weather with temperatures above 50 degrees. Expect to be very tired when it’s all over.
  • Celebrate the unveiling of your mural and enjoy being part of a Philadelphia tradition! CSL Behring looks forward to sharing this new addition to the Mural Arts catalog. Work on the new mural will finish just in time for BIO 2019, an international biotech conference to be held in Philadelphia June 3-6.