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 only places where advertising is still painted — it’s an original work and it changes up about once every six weeks. I 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 a huge Batman (or a huge anything) on the side of a building.
So, with in-progress pictures, let’s make a Batman.
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.
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.
It took four guys about five days of sunrise-to-sunset painting to complete The Dark Knight Rises. They were battling direct sunlight during a particulary nasty New York City heatwave. (High humidity and temperatures approaching 100 degrees.) Still, when we talked to Dan at the foot of the building (in the only bit of shade he was going to get all day) he shared a boyish excitement at the idea of painting Batman. He said, “I love painting sci-fi/superhero/fantasy. Particularly wild lighting effects, intricate technical gadgets, and portraits. When I get a face just right its a great feeling. I also love painting CGI animals—like for Pixar or Disney—they present an interesting challenge.”
The wall is repainted at a remarkable pace about every six-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.”
The process is clearly 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. Still, Dan says that portraits do require special attention and are reserved for the lead painters on the crew. I asked Dan who he has painted most often and it was, as I had guessed, Johnny Depp. (Did I mention that I have been obsessed with watching this wall over the past two decades? Cripes, Alice in Wonderland looked like a lot of work.)
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:
Irene Gallo is the Art Director of Tor Books.