I was recently asked to paint a mural as a private commission, a lady wanted a false window painted on the wall of her dining room, looking out onto an imaginary cottage garden scene. She asked for an apple tree, a stone wall with an opening onto a view of moorland with some water in the distance, and flower beds with her favourite flowers. She wanted a sunny summer scene with bold colours to brighten up the room – quite a challenge, since adding a large picture to a small room will often make it seem darker. I have only painted a few murals in the past and the sheer size of the picture coupled with having to paint it directly onto the wall in situ certainly makes things interesting!
I began by sketching the idea to see if she was happy with it, and looking for reference for the window frame and open windows. We decided on a simple cottage-style double casement, without too many glazing bars so as not to obscure too much of the view beyond. I based the apple tree on sketches and photographs of the apple tree in my own garden.
My first step was to prime the area of the wall which would be painted, and measure and mark out the basic window shape (using a spirit-level – walls and ceilings aren’t often as level as they look!). I masked off the window frame so that I could freely paint the sky and background without worrying about spilling over onto the white frame. I would be working in acrylic paint, which is hugely versatile and dries to a durable waterproof finish.
After drawing out the main features of the landscape I began by painting the sky, then worked from distance to foreground putting in the underpainting – the basic tones and colours (one of the drawbacks of working in stages in someone else’s home is that the unfinished picture is there for all to see at every stage, so inevitably you get neighbours popping in and saying ‘well that doesn’t look very good’ when you have just started blocking in the background colour!).
The next stage was to start adding detail – the stones of the wall, the texture of the grass and gorse, the light and shadow on the tree trunk… The red hollyhocks in the extreme foreground also went in at this stage. Originally the picture was to include a terracotta plant pot on the windowsill, with a potted geranium, and I painted it in but the general consensus was that it dominated the picture too much, so I removed it and Carol decided she would prefer a jam jar of wildflowers, a reminder of the bunches of dandelions and other underrated flora sometimes presented to her by her grandchildren.
At this stage, the detail began to go in – and multiply! Carol requested a brown poodle standing on the lawn, and a black cat for her granddaughter, and then since she has two cats, one black and one black and white, the second cat went in, peeping around the gatepost. On my next visit, I was to add the ornamental tricycle planter, the original of which stands in the front garden of the house. A rusted cart wheel followed, and the idea of a donkey looking over the wall was discussed and then rejected.
By this time the painting was taking shape, and the comments from visitors changed to ‘Oooh wow!’ as they came to the doorway and caught sight of it – that was very encouraging!
Next came a fun part – removing the masking tape to reveal the white shape of the windows and frame. Before I removed the tape I painted the area around the mural with the wall emulsion so that I could get a smooth finish without having to cut-in around the finished painting. The warm sand colour really brought the scene to life, before I had even started on the frame.
The window frame was to be in a cream colour, like antique gloss paint after it has yellowed with time, and I decided to include decorative beading to give it more character. I also didn’t want to make it too perfect – it is the small blemishes which make a false window look realistic – the little shadows where the paint has run or knot-holes have been imperfectly smoothed.