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Preparing the Materials

We’ve talked a lot about ideas, teaching, and even planning. But how do you actually make a mural?

I’ll start with the nitty gritty details and numbers. Photos are at the end of the post.

Return to the previous post to review our design process.

Our Supplies List

For anyone who’s curious, here’s what we went through.

Item Source Price Quantity Total Cost
Markers and crayons (for workshop activities) Target $9.57 1.00 $9.57
Sharpies, pencils, and graph paper (for workshop activities) Target $18.38 1.00 $18.38
Hardiebacker Cement Boards Home Depot $10.97 27.00 $296.19
Tarps Home Depot $4.48 2.00 $8.96
Glidden Premium Paint – gallon buckets Home Depot $23.48 3.00 $70.44
Behr Pro Exterior Paint – gallon buckets Home Depot $24.98 10.00 $249.80
Paint rollers Home Depot $6.28 3.00 $18.84
6 pack extra rollers Home Depot $10.97 1.00 $10.97
15 piece brush set Home Depot $9.67 1.00 $9.67
4 inch flat brush Home Depot $3.85 3.00 $11.55
1 inch flat brush Home Depot $0.94 4.00 $3.76
foam brushes Home Depot $0.64 9.00 $5.76
Pour Spouts for paint cans Home Depot $0.98 5.00 $4.90
Scotch Blue Painters Tape Home Depot $6.25 1.00 $6.25
9″ paint roller Community Warehouse $5.28 1.00 $5.28
Paint Rags 10 pack Home Depot $3.97 1.00 $3.97
Glidden Exterior Paint – 1 quart Home Depot $11.28 1.00 $11.28
VandlSystem 1-gal. Anti-Graffiti Coating Home Depot $50.24 1.00 $50.24

Additional Tools & Costs

  • One ViewSonic projector, provided by the school; artists provided laptop to hook up to the project
  • Both artists own the Adobe CS Suite to compile the final mural design and the files to project each panel
  • A very creaky, old CRV (his name is Bowser, that trooper), after we foolishly and ambitiously loaded all of the extremely heavy cement board panels into the car
  • 2 broken cement board panels 🙁 (Thank goodness we were able to get extra)
  • Donuts and churros for our students who got up early to help us paint

See the post on Painting Days to review our process, from setup to workflow.

Additional Information about Our Materials

Cement Board: Pros and Cons

  • Pros: They are extremely weather durable, and their advantage over a material like plywood is that they won’t bow or warp with the humidity and climate conditions. Cement board is usually used in shower and bathroom installations, so it’s made to take a lot of exposure to different conditions.
  • Cons: They are brittle. We had to be very careful in their transportation. While they are sturdy and long-lasting, we did drop and break two panels in half.

Why didn’t we choose to paint directly on the brick wall? In the case of our building, it’s made with cream city brick, and the aged brick is crumbling and peeling. The surface takes paint poorly and the paint would easily come off the portions of the building that are built with the cream city brick. Additionally, since this is a collaborative piece with the students and neighbors, it was easier to set our project up outside and in the school’s garage. This allowed us to do a lot of upfront planning, to project sections of the mural on each panel, and not have to worry about having any students on a lift to reach high points on the building.

Time and Labor

Artists: There were two of us professional artists on hired for this project, Jenie Gao and Gabriela Riveros. In addition to 8 workshop sessions (2-3 hours each, for a total of 20 workshop hours), we spent 10+ hours outside of classroom time:

  • lesson planning
  • collaging and curating the student images to create the final design and creating the plan for executing the mural
  • planning, purchasing, and transporting the materials

And 34+ hours of actual painting time (we typically had 7-10 helpers at a time, varying based on the students’ class schedules and community members’ participation):

  • Monday, 6/20 from 8 am to 3:30 pm
  • Tuesday, 6/21 from 8 am to 3:30 pm
  • Monday, 6/27 from 8 am to 3:30 pm
  • Tuesday, 6/28 from 8 am to 7:30 pm (Community Painting Day, where anyone from the neighborhood and city was invited to join us)

Contractor: We hired a contractor to install the panels on the wall. Our contractor worked to install the lumber support beams and hang the panels between 8/2 and 8/4. We had three student volunteers help him transport the panels to the building, where they also got to learn about installation.

Total, we (the artists) had 50+ hours of contact time with the students for this project, 34 of which we spent painting the mural.

Students and staff unloading the cement board panels (5′ x 3′) from the car.


My car will be so relieved…lesson learned, don’t buy all 20-some panels in one trip. My car was practically resting on the tires.


Day 1 was dedicated to priming the boards. Everyone earned their ice, cold beverages that day.

Priming the cement boards on a hot summer day.
Priming the cement boards on a hot summer day.
Priming the cement boards on a hot summer day.
Priming the cement boards on a hot summer day.
Priming the cement boards on a hot summer day.

Final Notes

We bought most of our supplies at Home Depot. The benefit of this is that Home Depot had everything we needed and multiple options. It was also convenient. But there are community resources for more affordable paint (though you’re limited in your options for colors). Community Warehouse in Milwaukee is a great resource for affordable supplies like brushes, paint rollers, and other staples, and it’s always worth looking for bulk/resale type shops like this place in any city you might be working in.

Glidden and Behr both had affordable options for exterior paint, semi-gloss. We went for semi-gloss because it’d be easier to wipe down if needed, without being maddeningly reflective in the sun like glossy paint would have been. It’s important to tell your paint mixer which colors you’ll be using as your primer or on top of other coats, as some colors are more opaque while others need to be mixed with a primer to be used on top of other paints.

Final Design: Mock-up

Once the students finished researching and drawing a variety of native crops and migratory species of butterflies that live in Wisconsin, we (Gabi and Jenie) got together to collage them together into a final composition.

Our goals:

  • creating a design that reflected our collaborative effort and unified our styles in one beautiful composition
  • creating a plan that made good use of the space and was practical for our supplies budget and time frame. We estimated 4 painting days and $800 for the mural supplies. You can see the breakdown of our supplies here.

Here is the final mock-up of our mural. Now we were ready to get supplies and start painting.

Collage of Escuela Verde Root Drawings FINAL_lowres
The students’ and instructors’ drawings collaged together in Photoshop for the final design, to be 12 x 30 feet.
Collage of Escuela Verde Root Drawings FINAL_lowres_grid
We divided the design into 24 5×3 foot panels, the size of the cement boards we would be using. The plan was to set up a workflow with a projector for each of the panels and then space on the ground and floor to finish painting and detailing each panel.
Final text design by Jenie Gao. We came to a consensus on the words, “Our Stories Share the Same Roots,” to drive the message of our mural.
Photoshop mock-up of the location and scale of the mural once installed on the building.

Why butterflies, roots, and triangles?

The following video shares an exercise we did with our students at Escuela Verde.

In one of our workshops, we learned about fractals, and how this mathematical set can explain all the diversity that we see.

What is a fractal?

A fractal is a repeated, geometrical shape. It is itself repeated, and this repetition results in the complex patterns and systems that we see. We can see examples of fractals all throughout nature, and in our own, human-designed systems.

An example of a fractal.
Examples of fractals in nature.
Examples of fractals in nature.

Final imagery for the mural

After all our discussions of the role immigration plays in our markets, economics, and cultural development, we decided on two “images” to represent our ideas:

  1. Crops that now grow natively in Wisconsin, that have traveled to different regions as people have migrated and agricultural societies have developed.
  2. Migratory species of butterflies that travel thousands of miles every year, and are essential to the health of our ecosystem. The fact that the Butterfly Effect is a concept related to fractal theory is a nod to our explanation of diversity, via fractals. (The butterfly theory states that small causes can have large effects. When and where a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane occurs on the other side of the planet.)

We combined our imagery via the shared patterns of root structures, butterfly wings, and their underlying tessellations.

Crops drawn by Marysol Bermudes.
Butterflies by Isabel Castro.
Question Mark Butterfly by Jenie Gao.
Butterfly with roots by Marysol Bermudes.
Yellow sulphur butterfly by Gabriela Riveros.

Visual Problem Solving: Practical & Conceptual

Our top question: How do you create an image to match your image with your message?

Our goal for our students and curriculum: 

  1. to learn how to dissect and image
  2. to learn how to work backwards from a goal, to find the right images to represent your concept

Breaking Visual Problem Solving into Workshops

The “practical” side: Image Composition

1 workshop focused on Image Composition. We studied examples of different techniques artists used to weight or draw the viewers’ focus through the piece. We created our own compositions from still life objects. Each student received two objects to use as reference and had to try and come up with a composition that conveyed an “opposite” sense of what the object was. How do you draw a feather to look heavy? A small bauble to look large? A stable, symmetrical container to look off balance?

Here are some of the results.

Drawing using a a sunflower and eagle brooch for reference, by Isabel Castro.
Drawing of a jar on the edge of the table, by German Vasquez.

The “creative” side: Image to Concept

We did a number of different exercises and games to flex our creative skills, including:

  1. Doodle Wars and improvisation
  2. Identifying metaphors and common themes through sharing our own immigration stories
  3. Studying the metaphors in existing artworks
  4. Studying how different murals have incorporated the wall itself into the design
  5. Researching different subjects related to our theme of immigration.

We ultimately chose to incorporate different migratory butterflies and crops that are grown in Wisconsin into our final imagery.

Our list of different migratory species of butterflies and crops that grow in Wisconsin.
One of the students’ thumbnail sketches of different possible compositions.
A composite sketch by student Isabel Castro of crops grown by different cultures in Wisconsin, with different roots.

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Doodle Wars

Talking about our concepts is one thing. But how do you translate words into image? Where do you even begin?

We spent a day exercising our creative chops and spontaneity. We started with the improv game, “Yes, and…” Good improvisation depends on trust, and the purpose of the game is to foster collaboration. The rule is that whatever your partner throws down as a prompt, you follow with, “Yes, and…” to continue building the scene. If you disagree with your partner and kill their prompt, you effectively end the scene and the story.

Translating that same idea into image, we played the drawing game, Doodle Wars. Everyone draws on the same large sheets of paper, and every minute, a timer goes off and you have to move to another spot and create a new drawing in response to what somebody else has already put down. The goal is to be quick, keep moving, and keep expanding upon the scenes that already exist.