Tue
Dec 11 2012 10:00am
This is How You Paint 150 Foot Tall Hobbit Dwarves

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

For those of you that missed the 150 foot Batman post, I couldn’t resist this redux, now with a 100% more dwarves! 315 Park Avenue South is exactly halfway between my apartment and the Tor offices. For nearly two decades I’ve watched an anonymous group of painters create 150 foot movie poster murals on the side of the building.

I’ve always wondered how they construct the image and what it might look like from up close while it’s being put together. It’s one of the very few places where advertising is still painted — it’s an original work and it changes up about once every six weeksI even joked that one day I would sit outside the building all day and wait for the crew to come out.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to stalking. As luck would have it, I ran into Dan Cohen, one of the principle painters at Art FX Murals, at the Illustration Master Class, who was able to fill me in on the process of how one paints on the scale of a New York building. 

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

It turns out it’s constructed pretty much the same way murals have been done since the middle ages. A life-sized rendition of the artwork is broken down into a simple outline. This is called the cartoon and is, in fact, where the modern use of the word “cartoon” comes from. Holes are punched through the outline to form a dotted stencil that is then gone over with a charcoal pounce. By the end, they have the wall mapped out with the most basic shapes and proportions in place. (If you look carefully at the picture above, you can see them with the scroll of white paper in which the cartoon has been etched.)

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

The oil-based paint is then mixed to match the larger portions of the painting, leaving the subtle blending and mixing to be handled ala prima on the wall. Each painter has a print-out of the design strapped to their arm, like a mini shield, that they use as a guide as they flesh out the details.

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

It took four guys about a week of sunrise-to-sunset painting to complete The Hobbit. The process is physically taxing but there seems to be real joy in being able to work so loosely and so large. At the distance the viewer is seeing the work, the giant brush strokes all tighten up, making the image look crystal clear.

I have seen them paint countless images over the years but I wondered if The Hobbit presented them with a particular challenge. Dan said, “The hardest part was, as usual, making sure all the faces and expressions were right on the mark. It was especially hard on this one because there are thirteen faces, and it can get more difficult to get them right on the first try, especially after multiple twelve hour days. But, thankfully, we did!”

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

I asked Dan if painting portraits on such a huge scale was more difficult than on his smaller personal works, “Funny thing is, it is easier for me to paint a huge portrait than a smaller one! I think that as a portrait gets smaller, the little details that capture a person’s personality get smaller. At a certain size, those details get impacted more by a little jiggle of the brush, the shape of the brush, even a stray bristle. Large portraits are more forgiving, as long as I am able to manage the extreme close-up perspective.”

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

The wall is repainted at a remarkable pace about every six to eight weeks. I asked Dan if he ever regrets painting over pieces, “After so many years it doesn’t affect me anymore. Plus, it’s a great way to get over the preciousness of my work! I do have favorites: Clash of the Titans, Inception, Wrath of the Titans, Terminator, Iron Man, Transformers, Spider-Man 2, to name a few.”

As I went by each day to take pictures people would stop and chat—I was amazed how many of them seemed to have been watching the wall change over the years and noticing the anonymous guys up on the rigging painting it. In an age where nearly all of signage is done through digital applications, it’s a pleasure to see artisans at work.

More pictures of the painting in progress:

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

How all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit were painted onto a 150 foot tall wall in New York City

“Everything I do on the wall has somehow impacted my personal work. I think a major effect is the increase in speed and confidence when painting, that is necessary when doing a giant mural for the commercial world. There isn’t a lot of time to weigh options when there is 100’ left to paint and a deadline is looming. I have learned to trust my instincts, which has transferred to my studio when executing a painting... though I still have a lot to learn!”

The other painters on the Art FX Murals team: Van Hecht-Neilsen, Eddie Garcia, and David Osborne.


Irene Gallo is the Art Director of Tor Books.

16 comments
Steve Scherdlow
1. Steve Scherdlow
They're still transferring the cartoon by pouncing charcoal through punched holes? That is one persistent technology.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
This totally blows my mind (the Batman one was really cool too).
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
Did you send a camera up with them for some of those shots or did they let you come on up? Heights of that sort don't agree with me, so many kudos for all involved there.
Steve Scherdlow
6. GL Patterson
Truly amazing and great to see! I live in Texas, so having the opportunity to see the New York paintings is fun. My grandchildren loved this one, too.
Irene Gallo
7. Irene
@4 Steve Halter: Dan took the shots on the scaffolding. All my shots were taken from the relative safety of 23rd street. It would be tempting to go up there but I’m sure there are one million insurance issues against it.
Noneo Yourbusiness
8. Longtimefan
very awesome post. I liked the Batman one as well. Feel free to post more of these as it is facinating.

Thank you for sharing.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
9. supergee
I preferred the one of the Sex and the City woman straddling the Empire State Building. Beyond King Kong.
Steve Scherdlow
11. Carl V.
That is just amazing. Love seeing the perspective of very small looking humans to the massive figures coming alive from their brushes. Even seeing evidence of how they do it doesn't take away the almost unbelievableness.
Ron Garrison
12. Man-0-Manetheran
What a cool report! Thanks. I had no idea this was still being done by hand. Tiny humans and giant dwarves. Precious.
Kevin Maroney
13. womzilla
Thank you for this--that billboard wall is an unheralded landmark of the Flatiron neighborhood and it's nice to get a close-up inspection of it.
Steve Scherdlow
14. Charles G Lindsay
Very cool! I had no idea advertising was still done like this in the first world - I've seen photos of film murals in India and Africa, which are sometimes unintentionally comically bad, but not these! Perhaps those are done freehand, and not with the punched paper and charcoal pounce. I'd like to see how the punched paper "cartoon" is made - maybe a follow-up article, Irene?
Steve Scherdlow
15. AwesomeAud
They are amazing paintings. I was wondering how the wall was prepped; they can't simply be painting over the previous mural. After all, 20+ years of painting times 10 coats of paint a year would add up!
Steve Scherdlow
16. Hoot N Toot
Excellent article, great shots, thanks! The painting is amazing, I can't believe they redo the paintings every six to eight weeks, incredible.

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