Have you seen our new YOUTHTOPIA headquarters mural? It’s epic, right?? Well, I’m a bit biased because I co-designed and painted it with our graphic designer, Yogi Rukman over the course of 2 1/2 weeks. It was a ton of fun, but it definitely took way longer than I expected. If you want some tips on how to make your own mural or to learn about our process, then read on! 

Make the design.

Our first step was creating the design. Given that this mural is situated right in front of the main staff room, it was important to have Melati and the team’s input. And that’s definitely what we got! Over ten revisions later, we settled on a design. Here’s Yogi and my original ideas, and here is the final result. Can you tell what we changed along the way?

Here’s some important tips to consider when creating the design: 

  • Who is the audience? A mural for a children’s room and a mural for a political protest will look quite different.
  • What’s your budget? Should you stick to one or two colors, or do you have the funds to buy the whole rainbow? Knowing your budget can also help you decide the size of the mural. 
  • What is around the mural? If the mural is in an area with lots of greenery, using a green palette might not stand out as much as an orange, red or yellow color palette would. This also means that if you’re going for a more subtle design, picking more muted colors or ones that match the surroundings might be the way to go. 
  • What are the dimensions and will the mural be positioned? Art looks different depending on where you stand, and especially if the surface isn’t flat. It’s good to have an idea of how your mural will look from different angles (close, far, center, side, etc.).
  • What are you painting on? Concrete, drywall and metal all require different paints and will produce different results.
  • How much time do you have? Really detailed murals can look great, but if you only have a bit of time, it’s better to be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Who is involved? If you’re making the mural by yourself, it will be more time-consuming but also likely more consistent. You as the artist know your skill level, style and desired outcome, so that can lead to a more cohesive result. On the other hand, it’s nice to involve others so that they, too, can experience the joy of painting. Plus, you’ll finish faster and, as they say, “the more the merrier!” 

Next step: Create a budget.

Before I get too ahead of myself with design elements, what’s a mural without any paint? We made a budget by estimating our required materials, including: 1 paint roller, 1 paint tray, 6 paintbrushes of various sizes, 2 bottles of paint thinner, and lots of paint. With lots of greenery in our mural, we bought two large green cans and one small dark green can. We did our best estimate with the rest of the colors, but figured that it’s better to start with less paint than too much. It turned out that our estimate was pretty spot on! We had small container(s) of yellow, black, dark blue and purple, and big container(s) of light blue, red, green and white. We ended up buying more paint thinner (it’s a life-saver) and another big white can, but pretty much used up the rest of the colors.

If you’re looking for ways to save money, it’s easiest to use the materials you already have. Instead of buying new paintbrushes, we brought some brushes from home. We found leftover paint thinner and used old takeout food containers and bottles to mix the paints. It can also be more affordable to minimize your color palette. One way to do this is to buy primary colors (Red, Yellow and Blue) and mix the rest of the colors from there. While this is likely cheaper, I really appreciated having small containers of other colors because it saved a lot of time.

Start sketching.

This was probably the scariest part. After spending so much time drafting the design, what if the final mural didn’t look anything like our illustration? Furthermore, our shipping container office is not a flat surface. That makes drawing animals, words and anything detailed a bit more challenging. 

If you’re really nervous about transferring the design to a real wall, then you can always find creative ways to project or trace your design. There are many cheap phone projectors out there nowadays that, when used at night, are probably good enough to give you a basic outline. You could also print out sections of the mural or sketch the important parts on large pieces of paper and use that to transfer the images. Alternatively, you can create a grid and correspond each square from your design to a square on your actual mural. At the end of the day, the mural doesn’t need to be an exact replica. So take a deep breath. Trust that if you’ve made the sketch once, you can probably make it again.

Begin painting.

There are lots of different ways to do this, but we started by painting the background and then moving forward with the next layers (leaves, flowers, soil, branches) until we got the front ones (animals, text). It is probably faster to do a “paint by numbers” style mural all at once, but given the size and challenges of moving the scaffolding, I preferred to complete the painting section by section.

We also had lovely volunteers from Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Save Soil and our own headquarters team join us for several painting sessions. It made painting more fun and we easily painted more in an hour than I did in three.

Finishing touches. 

There is always more that could be done, but at some point you need to call it quits. At some point, you’ll know when it’s finished, and if you’re still “fixing” little things for several hours after that point, then it’s definitely time to move on. I should know, because I stayed until after 5pm almost every day of the 1 1/2 mural weeks just adding “finishing touches!” 

When you’ve finished your mural, it’s time to sign it! Don’t forget to take photos with everyone involved and be proud of what you all accomplished. Murals make spaces brighter and more joyful, and hopefully this is one that everyone will get to enjoy for a long time. Personally, I’m really happy with how our mural turned out, even if it doesn’t look exactly like the original design. It was a ton of fun, a great learning process and such an honor to co-create for the beautiful YOUTHTOPIA headquarters! 

Amy Spencer Harff is a current Youthtopia intern and Thomas J. Watson Fellow traveling the world to research the intersection of art and the environment. In the past eight months, Amy has spoken with over 100 artists, activists, scientists, academics and politicians across four continents to better understand how art can change our minds about climate change and inspire environmental action. To find out more about her research follow @amyspencerart and visit www.amyspencerharff.com