The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Centre Dome Mural


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Location: 9300 Quincy Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106
Neighborhood: Fairfax


              The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center has been listed among the "30 Most Architecturally Impressive Prisons in the World" (Google it).



May 2010. The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center under construction.


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Exterior view of the dome during construction. The underside of the dome or 'dome vault' is made out of 56 pre-fabricated 'Plasterform' panels. Plasterers would later fill in the joints to complete the vault. Then the center and outer rings, and 8 sectional double ribs would be added to complete the structure. The two cross lines are expansion joints. Total dome vault surface area: 1,347.74 square feet.


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Position of the dome within the Great Hall. Conceptual design for the dome mural.

Research and design


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Construction plans for the dome. Anytime you are doing a mural, you need floor plans and elevations to plan the job. A traditional mural is an extension of the architecture; they complement each other. Architectural plans help to construct the design so that placement and compositional elements become a harmonious part of the space. Using the architectural plans, I constructed this 3D version of the dome. A computer generated image like this one is ideal to study the space from every angle. Before computers I used to built scale models for the same purpose.


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One great advantage of the computer software is that you can do light simulations. In doing so I discovered that the roof top where the dome sits acted as a reflector. In other words, during certain hours sunlight hit the roof and bounced right back into the glass windows. As a result, the glass windows became strong light refractors into the dome vault -right were the mural was supposed to be. As expected, glare was a huge problem during the execution of this mural. Glare and dust are the worst enemies of an artist, though I think glare is worse because it detracts from the appreciation of the work. You cannot enjoy what you can't see. Glare is a big problem. Notice the top article from 1965. When initially constructed, the Harris County Domed Stadium, better known as the Houston Astrodome and nicknamed the "Eighth Wonder of the World", was almost a failure. Built at a cost of $259 million in 2014 dollars, the glare of the sun prevented playing daytime ballgames. The solution was to paint all the windows on the roof, which solve the glare problem, but killed the grass. So, how did they solved the grass problem? By inventing 'AstroTurf'.


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My first instinct to begin research for this project was to refresh my visual memory of the works of Ohio-born artist Robert McCall (December 23, 1919 – February 26, 2010). Bob was an exceptional conceptual artist, known particularly for his works of space art. For three months during a Washington DC internship, I used to pay a weekly visit to the National Air and Space Museum to study his six-story mural masterpiece "The Space Mural - A Cosmic View". Unfortunately for me, deep space was represented only as a background in Bob's work. While still impressive, it did not provide a parallel to what I had in mind. The problem with all the space theme artworks I found during my research was their opacity. Even when deep space looks entirely black, it has depth. Stars seem to float in and out of the dark. So I embarked in a course of action by which I would use the latest photographs of deep space and other celestial bodies as my design models, and then figure out a painting technique that would be me the visual depth and shimmering colors I envisioned.


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The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international co-operation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). It was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990 and remains in operation to this day. The imagery of space it has produced has revolutionized the way we see and understand deep space. For artists like me, it has been a godsend. Hubble image of the Butterfly Nebula (credit NASA, ESA).
Gas released by a dying star race across space forming delicate shapes like this one. Hubble photos are actually sensor recordings of light readings. In Hubble images, color is used as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye.


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This is an artist's illustration of a planet. When "solid objects" are the main focus of a composition, it is easier to recreate spatial depth and simulate a feeling of photographic reality. Deep space becomes nothing more than a secondary background. There are many artistic techniques to create this convincing effect when working on a small scale. Most of these techniques, however, become useless when working on large scale projects like murals. For example, you could use the bristles of a toothbrush to spatter white paint on a dark background and recreate a convincing image of deep space. Now, can you imaging the size of that toothbrush to do the same on a 1,300 square foot mural? This is a 'photo mural' of deep space. This type of mural is mechanically reproduced like wallpaper using actual photographs, usually with additional color enhancements. Except for the fact that they are permanently glued to a wall to qualify as murals, there is nothing traditional about them. They are simply enlargement of photographs; no painting is involved. Because of the speed and relatively low cost of the process, I have used this technology to reproduce some of my own designs for decorative projects.



Sandro Botticelli, portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, detail. This is an example of an exceptional master working paint in opaque layers. Today we use acrylic paints for this kind of painting. Since these paints dry very fast, are water-base and is almost odorless, they have become the medium of choice for most muralists, myself included. It is excellent for working on large scale projects and the medium allows for many more creative techniques. Leonardo da Vinci, portrait of Beatrice d'Este, detail. This is an example of a masterwork done in oil glazes by Botticelli's contemporary and fellow countryman. The technique helped facilitate a more 'photo realistic' finish. See the description below. I decide to use this glazing technique to do the mural because it served best the subject matter. It would take longer to do and demand more patience from the artist. But the results would be superior to doing the job with water-base paints.


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Oil glazing technique -by applying paint in thin, transparent tinted layers, the colors in all visible layers appear combined. A glaze must dry before another is applied so color saturation and tones build slowly. This facilitates the delicate rendering of details since oil mediums dry slowly thus allowing the artist more time to work.


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Oil glazing technique -luminescence is achieved when light travels through the glaze and is reflected back off of the opaque layer below. This increases color brightness and depth.


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A projection of the computer screen on the wall. This shows the mural design being created in Adobe Photoshop. The process is a collaborative one between artist and designer and the large scale view of the image allows for a better feel of the details.


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Final mural design.

Moving into the penthouse


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Cleaning and priming


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Hauling water in buckets up to the scaffolding was a daily grudge. Detergent and rinse water.



This got old fast. Working to find a better solution -but not there yet.



Problem solved. Rope pulley in place to hoist equipment and supplies. An electrical extension cord is also secured in place. In a construction site, dust is everywhere -even on the surface of a recently painted underside of a dome. So the first task before applying the primer was to clean the surface with detergent and then rinse with clean water.



Cleaning the first section. Cleaning completed.



First section primed, seven more to go. We used a water-base primer which we brushed unto the surface. I wanted the vault to have some "tooth" (roughness of surface) and brushing in a random pattern is the best way to achieve this. The dark coating had been sprayed on. This leaves the surface too smooth for my liking. It simply would not do for what I had in mind. Painters had applied the blue primer once the plasterers finished filling in the joints of the Plasterform panels. I had been consulted on what color they should use and I asked for a dark blue. Many people thought this was done to facilitate the painting of the mural and save time. After all, a great deal of the design was meant to be outer space. But the truth was that I had requested the dark color to differentiate the surface from the gray primer we were now applying. I didn't want to miss a spot and anything blue would stand out on gray.



A glaze painting needs a non-absorbent ground as its base. Oil must not be absorbed into the surface. For the effects of glazing to work the oil in the painting medium has to dry on the surface and in doing so become a firm transparent layer -like a very thin sheet of glass. Two coatings of primer on new plaster are necessary to seal the surface. I had the primer tinted to a light tone of gray that leaned toward the yellow spectrum. Since we would later glaze thin layers of bluish tint, the combined layers would then appear green (the reason for this I will explain later on in the narrative). Still, I wanted the gray to be light enough to reflect light through the layers of glaze. In addition, for coloring a painting, gray is also a more neutral base than white. The colors simply look better.



Painting a mural on a large surface is like painting on sandpaper. The surface will even out and become softer with each succesive paint layer. But at the beginning stages, it will simply eats bristles away. For this reason I use inexpensive brushes to start with. As long as they work well, there is no need to pay extra for a quality wooden handle. Brushes are one of the most expensive items in painting. The cost of artist's brushes in particular can break the bank. So the best way to extend their service life is to clean them well and store them properly. This is a daily routine.


Grid, transfer and gilding


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Applying a wash


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List of colors used for deep space glaze: raw umber, Prussian blue, and, in final glazes, a touch of Payne's gray. I varied the mix for each glaze by altering the amount of the colors and the quantity of medium used. Colors were measured by squeezing a line of paint on a palette and then “cutting” the needed portion. List of glazing medium ingredients: refined linseed oil, turpentine, and Cobalt drier. Measuring cups and eyedroppers were used for precision. For the final glazes, Cobalt drier was eliminated in favor of small quantities of Damar varnish. Mixing formulas were noted on the Daily Log so they could be recreated as needed.



A 'wash' is the fast application of a transparent paint mix which has been diluted in mostly solvent. For this first application the medium mix was heavier on turpentine and lighter on linseed oil. Since Cobalt drier had also been added to the medium, we had about 20 minutes of working time before the wash became tackier and unworkable. Outer Space is not a filtered vacuum of emptiness; it is filled with 'Cosmic Dust' (and gas), also known as "stardust". Dust is widely present in the galaxy. It shifts form, it moves, it's ever changing. Ambient radiation heats dust and re-emits radiation into the microwave band. It can be detected with Infrared light and its signature captured in images. We used directional brushstrokes to represent these dust patterns.



We painted around the larger galactic objects taking care to smooth their contours to simulate their radiation glow. For hundreds of smaller objects we simply painted over for speed of execution. Since the wash is very transparent, they were clearly visible for later treatment. The application of the wash is very fluid. We made sure to work the brushstrokes in a random pattern with subtle variations in value. This way we incorporated the one weakness of this painting method into the design, namely, the blending of edges as the wash dried and became unworkable. This is always a concern in large scale painting.



Mr. Cliff Woodard, a consultant with Justice Planning Associates, Inc., paying us a visit. First section wash completed in one day.



We used a fan to help with the drying process and the dispersion of fumes. It also helped to cool us down since it was hot at the top. We moved sequentially from one section to the next. The lighten area going from top to bottom on the right side from the center is actually glare.



In spite of being a "fast process", it takes time to work the surface. Sections heavy with objects tool longer to complete. The beauty of working in thin washes and glazes is that you can control tonal value by how thin you spread the paint. This was ideal for working the gaseous form of the nebulas.



Since we had gilded the ribs in advance, it was relatively easy to apply the wash right up to the edge and then wipe any excess mix with a cloth. I knew what the work would look like at this stage, but still, I couldn't help being impressed by the abstract beauty of it all.



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Visitors


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My lovely wife Nancy came in to inspect. Naturally, she had to go up for a closer look.



She is my greatest fan and my worse critic. Upon inspection, she decided to "improve" on a few things.



My brother Ricky hates heights as much I hate water deeper than four feet. But challenged by Nancy's teasing, he had to "man-up". Puerto Rican honor was at stake.



For those not used to working on scaffoldings, climbing up can be a frightening experience. Once you make it to the top -and your heart gets back to normal, you feel wonderfully exhilarated.



The king of the universe! A fantastic shot to commemorate the moment. After all, how many people can claim to have touched the dome's vault?



Having saved the honor of all Puerto Rican men, the climb down is a much happier event. What can I say? Artists are babe-magnets!



Michael Thomas, founder and President of Justice Planning Associates, Inc. (JPA), during his first visit to the penthouse. Mike and his brain child.


Glazing layers of color


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Testing the first glaze. add text



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add text Our one and only mishap -which we quickly cleaned.


Color modeling and completion


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Zooming in to study small details. Image of deep space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.



Computer graphic of Hubble image showing colors of stars. Detail of finished painting showing deep space. While we had to saturate colors more to account for viewing distance, we managed to replicate objects as seen on the Hubble images.



We kept glazes sealed in plastic containers. For modeling objects, small amounts of paint were placed on disposible palettes. It takes very little paint to work most objects. Modeling objects -stars, nebulas, comets, etc., can be time consuming when considering that we had thousands to do. Fortunately, there is much repetion so get pretty good at painting them.




Objects remain very visible through the glaze. Once the glaze has dried, we begin to model objects with opaque color.



Next we glazed with tints all the objects modeled with opaque paint. Some will get glazed several times depending on how vibrant we want them to be. Variations in color intensity makes objects appear closer or futher away. Since objects needed to be seen from 50 feet down, we exagerate the intensity of the whites.



At all times we had photographic references nearby. Most of the object modeling was done with bristle brushes. For blending and softening edges we used syntetic fan brushes or our fingertips.



I use inexpensive 2 and 3 inch brushes to apply the initial layers of color on the nebulas. To soften color, I use a 4 inch brush at this stage. I mix colors directly on a disposable palette.



Painting over dry glaze is very easy. You simply tint areas of color to the desired intensity. If something does not suit you, all you need to do is wipe the paint away. To make my colors flow I used a clear medium mix with a few drops of drier. I needed the colors to dry within a day so that I could continue adding additional layers of tint. The more layers I added, the more vibrant colors became. Most of the time, I could not see what I was doing because of the glare. Unlike small objects, the four nebulas in the composition covered a lot of surface. Glare is worse on wet paint. Fortunately, Jim could take care of the smaller objects so that I could dedicate more time on the nebulas. This is one of the great advantages of having good painters on the job.



Painting in layers makes some colors appear to float over others. With every layer you model form and add new elements until the object is completed. Because of the transparency of the tints, background lights show through. Your final layers are color accents. These use very little medium and more opaque paint.



Glare can whitewash the most intense colors. We are now working later into the day. Glare diminishes as the sun begins to set. At this time we rely on our lamps for illumination. With better light control, we can work color accents and details.



There was no way to move the scaffolding for a quick peak to check your work progress without spending a lot of effort (or getting a hernia). Moving this monster was almost an impossibility for the two of us. Eventually the scaffolding would be moved to work at another part of the mural and then you could gauge your progress for day and take note of what needed to be done. Once you got back for the next round of painting, you continued where you left off the day before. By then the last glaze was dry and you could add more layers of color. At all times you are painting at arm's reach from the vault's surface, too close to be able to take in a large size object like a nebula. But having already modeled the form in the under-paint meant that you never have to guess where you are in relation to the object. All your concentration can then be dedicated to coloring.



The nebula is done but you have to wait for the sun to move and the glare to go away. M82 Galaxy, completed.



All our visual references and painting masters were kept inside a bucket until needed. For the final accents we used paint directly from the tube with very little medium.



As work progressed at the penthouse, so did the construction work at the hall below us. The on and off noise from the metal saw and was so excruciating that we felt like being trapped inside a giant ringing bell. This weekly torture was absolutely disorienting. No matter how much I tried, I could not block the noise. When we reached our endurance limits, our only recourse was to stop and head for the nearest coffee bar.



Orion Nebula, in progress. This supernova was the most complex object in the mural. I began applying colors layers right at the begining of the glazing stage. By the end of the project, I was still working on it. It would eventually take over 20 glazes to complete it and many long hours.



The width of the supernova was sider than my reach from the scaffolding. So I usually worked on one side for as long as it took and then move the scaffolding a few feet to work on the other side. Listening to music and audio books helped block the noise level.



The height of the scaffolding was not enough to reach the center ring. So we had a wooden platform constructed for us to stand on it. This was one of those occasions when I made sure my harness was on and connected to a safety line. When you are painting with the head tilted back, blood does not circulate freely to your brain and you get dizzy; some artist experience temporary blindness. This happened to the great Michelangelo while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and it also happened to me while painting the ceiling of the Gordon Square Theatre. So what you do to avoid it is paint for five minutes and then rest for five before painting again. After modeling and tinting objects in deep space, we added additional dark glazes around them. However, some areas were left without further work and other we darkened more. This practice of making variations in the dark tone made small objects appear to shimmer and at the same time recreate the clouds of stardust floating in space. Many of the "smaller" objects are over six inches in diameter. Upon close inspection you can see beautifully modeled distant galaxies of all shapes.



While a section waits to dry, the scaffolding is moved around to work on other sections. In time we complete a rotation and end up where we started. By then the paint in that section has dried and is ready to receive another glaze. Once done, the cycle begins again.



The mural looks entirely different depending on the time of day and the seasonal weather. To avoid strong glare -though it is unavoidable, it is best to see it during overcast. I discover that in late summer, around 3 pm or just before dusk, one can really have some fabulous viewings.



Monster glare. After completing the deep space areas, we applied a second coating of gold paint to the ribs.



During one of his visits, Mike Thomas mentioned that the gas cloud on this object did not look as violet as in the Hubble reference image. He was right. I had applied the appropriate tint but as the thin glaze dried and became transparent, the strong blue under-glaze kept coming through. This however was an easy problem to correct. All I had to do was paint a stronger violet glaze over it using less medium. By the end of the day Mike got to see the transformation. That's the beauty of painting in glaze tints. Milky Way Galactic Center showing ionized gas, completed.



Detail of the comet. On the right day, deep space objects look amazing.



When I paint, I mostly see numbers. It is as if my mind were assigning numeric values to color tones for me to make judgment calls by comparing the value of one to another. -"Is this red as intense as the blue? Is the orange next to the green raising the vibrancy of the violet? Okay, that's a 6 and a 9 so I should tone done the value of the nine or raise the value of the 6. But, if I place this 4 next to the 6 it may bring the intensity of the 6 and make it look like a 9 -piece of cake!" Yes I now, I can drive you mad. But here's the clencher: -in school, except for geometry, I hated math! Almost there... just one more glaze to go. While I do judgment calls and final touch-ups all around, Jim is a appying a thin coating of Damar varnish to bring back the intensity of some colors that go flat when as the oil dries. That's the nature of oil painting. Once done, the mural looks radiant.



Sometimes when it's late, you mind gets the better of you. So... to thank the great people of Morous Brothers Construction for all their help, I leave them with their company logo floating somewhere in outer space.



Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, completed. Done! And we did it in 10 weeks instead of the originally allotted time of 14 weeks.



Jim is a very happy man and grateful to had been a part of this experience. To celebrate he had his 5,233rd cup of coffee. Victor, a former icon painter in his native Russia but now a proud member of the Cleveland Painter's Union, moves in to marbleize the columnettes in the drum section of the dome.



Marbleize completed. View of the windows.



At times the light refracting on the vault acquires beautiful colors. With the mural completed, it was time to pack and get to the next job.  All in all, this was a fun job. I just hope next time I stay closer to the ground. At 52, I'm beginning to feel a little too old to be climbing up scaffoldings.



The finished mural -though not the best photograph. My advice? Come see in person.



The Great Hall of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center.

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