Current Work: 2001-2004 Splash Pic
"It's misery. Utter,complete misery" - John Rivera-Resto, on how it feels to paint a ceiling mural.

CURRENT WORK: 2001-2004

"The Gordon Square Theatre Murals"

In 2001 John received a commission to paint the walls surrounding the staircase well in the inner lobby of the Gordon Square Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. In every respect -scale, complexity, preparation, execution, exhibition and design, this work is one of the most ambitious undertakings of its kind in this region of the United States.

When a renewed public appreciation for old theatres and movie houses took place across the country during the late 1980’s, the trend for most of the artwork being done was one of "restoration". Preservation of what have been originally done inside these structures was the rule and most of the artistic restoration was of decorative elements.

What makes the restoration of the Gordon Square Theatre unique –a work that is still very much in progress as of this writing, was not the decision to simply restore decorative elements, but, to the decision to "create’ new art for a modern audience in the grand style of a Golden Era. Once the facts that lead to this decision and its execution are known, you will realize how difficult but momentous this decision was. What follows is an account of this undertaking.

The Project

Original mural paintings in the highest traditions of Italian renaissance art.

The Place

The Gordon Square Theatre - Cleveland's oldest theatre building, located in 6405 Detroit Avenue in Cleveland's west side.

The History

The oldest theatre still standing in Cuyahoga County, the Gordon Square Theatre was built by the Hexter family in 1912. Architect George Grieher gave the stage double proscenium arches and boxes on the side and enough room capacity to seat 1,100 people on the main floor and balcony.

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During the early decades of the twentieth century "The Gordon" was the hub of entertainment activity on the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. All the great vaudeville acts of the time made a stop at the Gordon during their national tours. It is believed that legendary comedian Bob Hope began his career in vaudeville at the Gordon. Bob's family resided in Cleveland and it was there that Bob's father left his mark as one of the stone carvers who created the four "colossus" guarding the Hope Memorial Bridge.

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The Gordon Square survived World War I, prohibition, and thrived in the "roaring twenties" only to fall victim of the Great Depression. In 1932, after a failed attempt to turn it into a movie house, it closed. Subsequently it became a warehouse, a food market, and an auto repair shop. Various owners throughout the years changed the character of the building and by the 1980’s the space was condemned by the City of Cleveland.

The Gordon seemed destined for the wrecking ball until someone had the "insane idea" of bringing it back to its former glory in spite of the fact that many theatres were closing due to a national trend of diminishing support for the arts in the early 1990’s. Fortunately for Cleveland "foresight" won over "reality". The Cleveland Public Theatre, under the visionary leadership of Mr. James Levin, its founder and Artistic Director, bought the property in 1995 with the intent of renovating it as part of a plan to become a destination spot in the rejuvenation of the Detroit-Shoreway area.

The Rebirth

Loading Image.. Under the directorship of Mr. James Levin and architect David Ellison the first phase of the restoration plan for the Gordon was completed. This included a two million dollar reconstruction of the roof, floors, and electricity, water, heating system, and stage improvements. In essence, the building was made safe for public occupancy.

By 1997, with basic structural work and related services accomplished, the Gordon Square Theatre reopened its doors with the premier production of "Crowbar", an operatic work that cost its composer his life during the Nazi regime. And so, with this daring show, at long last, after sixty-five long years of darkness, the spotlights showed bright on the Gordon Square stage.

The Artistic Restoration

The next phase of the (ongoing) theatre's restoration plan was the reconstruction of the balconies, decorative plasterworks, floors and walls. This is the work that gives a place its "aesthetic look and personality", what the eye sees. It is also one of the most demanding tasks in terms of time and resources. All this work has to be done by hand.

Moulds and impressions of existing decorative elements have to be made in order to reproduce the intricate ornamentation. It is a slow and painstaking process with exacting demands that cannot be rushed, and, in a time when everyone seems to want a "fast pill’ to cure every ill, changing gears appeared like a return to the middle ages.

Like many restoration jobs, the task of the artisans and painters is to reconstruct what is already there. But when time came to decide on the look of the outer lobby and the inner lobby with the grand stairway areas, Mr. Levin took a bold new step. He would commission the creation of original mural paintings in the style that mirrored those of the Italian Renaissance palazzos. His grand vision was to have the "mural of the ages", an artistic tour de force that would require over two hundred personalities ranging from vaudeville to the present.

Matching Egos

Traditional mural painting is an enterprise that is measured not in days or weeks but in years; but the reward is that the results dazzle for centuries. Few people realize how difficult and taxing painting murals can be - even fewer people read historical art treatises to know otherwise. Painters of this artistic calibre need not only years of training in their craft but must also be scholars in subjects such as architecture, history, and geometry (perspective) to accomplish this kind of art. They also have to be great portrait painters, which is one of the most difficult specialties of the arts.

Finding an artist fit for the demands of the job, particularly a "local" artist was a difficult requirement to fulfil. Even more challenging was going to be the task of raising the funds to pay for the job. Mural painting is a very expensive art that in past centuries remained the domain of the powerful and the wealthy. Even today mural paintings done in the exacting traditions of old are a luxury limited to the few. And in the face of uncertain economic times when funding for the arts has to be raised by private means and community support, taking on such an ambitious enterprise seem as "unsettling" as James Levin’s initial conception of purchasing and renovating the Gordon was in the first place.

But fortunately for Mr. Levin, he already new the painter for the task, John Rivera-Resto, an artist and personal friend who had already achieved notoriety for his magnificent "Thinkers Mural" at Cleveland's Playhouse Square. Schooled in the style and traditional techniques of renaissance art and the French neoclassical style, with thirty years of mural painting experience under his belt, Rivera-Resto is considered by many as one of the top-ten muralist in the United States. And as luck would have it, John was also Cleveland native.

Preliminary Work, Conception and Design

Loading Image..The walls that were destined to serve as the first canvases for murals at the Gordon were those enclosing the grand staircase in the inner lobby. But after decades of neglect they were in a bad state of repair. The original paint had flaked away and the plaster designs had crumbled in places beyond recognition.

The ceilings were cracked and water damaged; the terrazzo floors were unlevel and full of crevices. The roof and windows had been fixed but the heating system had not been completed. Painting had to be postponed until proper ambient temperature could be maintained.

Plaster contractors had to resurface the walls and the ceiling with a thin coating of fresh "mud" before painting could begin. After the plaster was allowed to "cure" the walls were sanded smooth and washed by volunteers and then given several coats of primer as preparation for the painting.

While the walls where being refinished, James Levin and John worked out ideas about what and who to include in the mural. The creative process was a back and forth collaboration in which Jim "conceived" his ideas for the work and the John "visualized and interpreted" ways to represent images that will ultimately communicate the ideas.

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Except for a few inch-size thumbnail sketches (like the one below), no master drawings were produced as guides for the paintings as Rivera-Resto's prefers to do all his sketching mentally (see 'Interview' page for John's description of his design process). Instead, written notes were made of what the painting would look like with detail descriptions of who were going to be people to be represented on the paintings.
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After months of thought a final conception consisting of a 360 degree panoramic mural on the walls surrounding the staircase was adopted. The murals would contain over two hundred personalities. Just about anyone with a history in the Cleveland Public Theatre and the Gordon Square Theatre was to be included in the composition.

In addition John also incorporated the ceiling to the final design. Naturally, there was a lot of supposition. Achieving the ideal depended in great measure on the acquisition of references, which are not always available. But the final concept was "locked" and green lighted.

Like many other tasks in life, painting would also begin "at the top". The ceiling had to be painted first and it would set the tone for the architectural features that would be added later on the lateral walls. However, including the ceiling in the design was not in Mr. Levin’s original imaginings nor proposed by the architect, David Ellison. The suggestion came from the artist himself -and there was a certain amount of persuasion to be done. Jim and David were anxious to see the work completed in a shortest amount of time possible.

John comments: "I wanted to do a ceiling -a great ceiling- and this was my chance. I had considered the difficulties and was sharp enough to know that it was going to be a difficult task. Of course, I underplayed this down in our discussions, and naturally, this came back to bite me in the ass, fore never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it was going to be as bad as it got. But doing the ceiling was necessary for aesthetic and conceptual reasons. Without it, the illusion of space on the surrounding walls would have been destroyed. It was not just a caprice; it was an essential element in the composition. And it almost killed me."

Reaching the Coconut

Painting murals on a ceiling as a physically taxing job. An essential requirement for a muralist is to be physically fit. The next requirement is to be able to solve the problem of how to reach the walls and ceiling to be painted. The Gordon had a very difficult layout. Scaffolding needed to be erected but the stairway covered most of the floor area. Even the flat surface area on the wings of the staircase was too narrow to accommodate traditional tubular scaffolding (towers). To complicate matters The Gordon was running shows so public access and safety was an added concern.

John comments, "Like in the old island fable, the problem was not breaking the coconut; the problem was reaching it". After analyzing all available resources and finding them unacceptable, he proceeded to design and construct his own scaffolding. John explains, "I needed a good size platform to support myself and the equipment. But the platform needed to be a modular design that could be configured to various dimensions: 8 ft. x 8 ft., 4 ft. x 8 ft., and 4 ft. x 16 ft. In addition, railing needed to be attached for safety reasons, and the legs supporting the platform had to extend or contract to irregular heights when placed over the staircase.".

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John's final design was of a lightweight scaffolding made up of square "telescopic" legs that could extend and contract to various measurements, and a series of cross braces to keep them in place. The scaffolding was constructed out of 5/8-inch plywood that was cut and glued into four-sided hollow posts, one post fitting inside another. Half-inch carriage bolts held everything together.

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Two 4 ft. x 8 ft. platforms that could be arranged side by side to form two configurations, or used independently to create a third, were also constructed. 3 ft. high railings were attached once a platform was raised to the desired height. Railing attachments to securely hold a painting palette and a brush holder were also added, as well as a series of lights for illumination.

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Once the scaffolding was built and erected on site, ladders with extensions were used to further increase "the reach". Painting a representational mural is not simply covering a wall with paint. One does not begin by painting from a corner and moving on one direction.

When painting murals the artist goes back and forth from one section of the painting to the next adding or balancing colours and tone, or working on one area until the paint on another area dries and is ready to be reworked. The larger the area to be painted the larger the reach has to be. Consequently, the larger the painting platform is, the better for the artist.

Unfortunately, John did not have the luxury of reach that was necessary and this meant dismantling the scaffolding and moving it from one area to the next and then back again - a laborious and exasperating task. Making matters more complicated was the fact that during certain productions at The Gordon the scaffolding had to be removed to pacify the "artistic sensibilities" of certain directors (never mind that it was obvious to everyone that the theatre was in a continual state of restoration and that the work was nowhere near the main stage). Diplomacy is a critical skill most artists overlook.

But at least the scaffolding problem had been solved to a satisfactory extent and work could proceed. Many visitors to the theatre actually seem more impressed with the ingenious scaffolding design than with some of the shows, some made notes of its construction. Even when the scaffolding was placed over the staircase, access from the ground floor to the upper level was not interrupted. In fact, the final look of the erected scaffolding, which had been painted white, was quite aesthetic.

Creating a Perspective Blueprint

The next step in the process was creating blue prints of the site. To do this careful measurements are taken and a scale drawing of each wall and existing architectural feature was carefully prepared. From the completed blue prints wall elevation drawings were made and, by using both the floor plan and the elevation drawings a perspective design was created.

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"Perspective" is a mathematic science that allows the artist to represent three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional flat surface. A perspective drawing is one of the hallmarks of traditional western art but one of the least understood tools of the modern artist. Art schools today, including many of great repute, barely scratch the surface of this important skill within a week, if at all.

The study of perspective and how to place objects in a 3-dimensial environment is an art in itself, with benefits to all kinds of artist, from the illustrator working on a simple design to the computer generated effects artist working on multimillion-dollar feature films.

John's perspective concept was to "extend" the height of the ceiling by adding another elevation to the theatre with its four sides opening to the roof. At the centre of the "new ceiling" would be a small dome with an opening at the centre. The intention was to create an illusion that people standing on a flat uncovered roof could look down in the stairwell and see what was going on below.

Drawing on the Ceiling

Loading Image..The perspective design was done to exacting detail in order that the transfer of the drawing to the ceiling (and later on to the walls) would leave little room for error. However, The Gordon soon presented some very serious problems. To begin with, the ceiling was not flat but curved in a low arch. And, it was not perfectly square but slightly skewed. Not only was it out of symmetry, but also all four corners sloped at different angles.

Four lamps were positioned at each of the ceiling's corners, but none was equidistant at the precise distance from the walls. The main lamp, which would later be replaced by a chandelier, was off centred by half a foot - too obvious to go unnoticed by the naked eye. So John had to make a perspective design to fit perfect symmetry and dimensions, and then adjust it to the less than perfect conditions of the ceiling, and then readjusted to give the illusion of perfect alignment and symmetry when seen from below.

The ceiling design included the representation of a "balustrade", which is a railing with spindles of the same design as the actual wood spindles in the Gordon's staircase railing. Each and everyone of these spindles had to be drawn in relation to the viewers point of view at the centre of the staircase, which meant that no two were alike but seen at progressing angles to sustain the illusion of reality. Slowly and patiently each spindled was drawn to fit the required degree of perspective, and so on with every detail of the drawing.

Loading Image...After the perspective drawing was completed, measurement scales were prepared on strips of paper, which would be fixed to the painting surface and used as marks for the guidelines that were needed to redraw the design on the ceiling. Water levels were also used to make reference points on the surrounding walls. Then, string lines were used in combination with weighted lines to triangulate angles.

Chalk lines are the preferred tools to transfer guidelines. To do this, the artist positions one end of a chalked string on a marking and the other end of the string is held by an assistant on another mark. Then the string is snapped against the surface thus creating a chalk line. But the ceiling surface at the Gordon presented another problem. Since its shape was arched the chalk line could not be used for most angles (chalk lines only work on flat surfaces).

Further complicating matters was the condition of the ceiling's surface. It was not evenly smooth -as it appeared from the ground, but was rather an uneven surface full of bumps and depressions. Even with the use of a flexible wood straight edge it was extremely difficult to draw straight guidelines. Finally, after a slow and arduous process John acquired a laser level to assist in the task.

A laser level projects a beam of light that, with the proper adjustments, can connect two marking points on the ceiling while being operated from the ground. Now all the assistance had to do was to trace the laser beam to make accurate markings.

Once the guidelines had been set, the process of transferring the design to the ceiling surface began. After months of work with the assistance of several volunteers, the perspective guidelines that were to become the architectural framework for the mural were completed.

Completing the Transfer

Loading Image...The next step in the process was to "ink" the drawing on the ceiling using permanent marker and fluid acrylic paint. The guidelines that are not part of the design proper are erased or painted over. What's left is the finished drawing. At this stage individual elements such as the balustrades are also added. Utilizing exact measurements extracted from the guidelines on the ceiling, detailed drawings were rendered in the studio on layout paper to actual size. Then they are positioned on the ceiling in their proper place and trace on the surface with the use of graphite paper.

On occasion some of the layouts were "pounced" and then dusted off. Pouncing is a very ancient process in which a drawing done on paper is perforated along its lines with a sharp needle or a pounce wheel (similar to a cowboy's spurs or a pizza cutting wheel). Once perforated, the drawing is fixed in place and then "transferred" to the surface by rubbing the drawing with charcoal dust, which upon entering the small perforations leaves a mark on underneath surface. When the paper layout is removed a design is visible on the wall.

Loading Image...Mural painting is a type of art depends on extensive preparation before the painting stage begins. As may notice from these pictures, the artist is so close to the wall that his or her perception becomes disoriented. What's more, the tilting back of the head for extended periods of time can make one dizzy.

Unlike "easel artists" working on smaller paintings, the muralist working on large scales cannot "step back" to see how the whole thing is shaping up (unless he continually removes the scaffolding to take a look -which is impractical). His (her) whole focus is limited to the small portion of wall within his reach. Therefore, a muralist does not have the luxury of making mistakes or second-guessing options while standing thirty feet above the ground. All his thinking is done in the planning. If an error is made, there is only one option: to erase what has been done and begin the process anew.

But the fact that mural painting is a slow process works in the artist's favour because it allows time for reflection. John comments, "I do not climb a scaffolding until I know exactly -in my mind- how the finished product is supposed to look and what is my task for that particular day. Some of the details may be a little fuzzy, but I know enough to be certain where I am heading for.".

He adds, "The work process is methodical and laborious and you constantly reflect on the things you need to get the job done: money, time and talent (quality of work). One seldom has all three, so I normally go for the last two and hope that the client can provide the first.".

Signs of Pain

Loading Image...The great Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when he was in his twenties. He worked sixteen hours days, seven days a week, for a period of four years (he actually complained of having to rush through the last two). Contrary to popular myth he did not lay down to paint (this myth is the result of a mistranslation of a written eyewitness account).

According to his own writings and a personal sketch he included in his journal, he stood on his scaffolding and craned his neck up as he painted. All the time he complained about his back, his neck, and having paint fall all over his face. His also had to stop work for a over a month when he lost he sight due to eyestrain. And, to make things even more painful, he was not getting paid.

It didn't take long for John and his assistants to understand how Michelangelo felt. Simply by looking a many of the pictures in this section one begins to feel a muscle cramp. John has always been careful to stay in good physical shape. But an artist approaching fifty will feel his age in every joint and muscle.

Loading Image...He began the design transfer to the ceiling with a brace around his torso to keep two cracked ribs in place (notice the picture where he is stiffly bending over his light table as he works on a layout). The ribs healed but the pain in the lower back remained. He also has problems with his right knee due to a previous injury, and his sight is bad (his right eye in particular) that he cannot see clearly beyond a few yards. Eye glasses help but John only uses then when he visits the cinema. So he does not see what he has painted on the ceiling when he looks up from the ground. For the most part, John tries his best to ignore the aches and pains and continues on.

All the assistants that helped with the initial stages of the painting, most of them volunteers: Nancy, Peggy, Gloria, John, Alex, and Sophie, had to tie their pencils and other instruments with string to their wrists so that when the blood drained for their fingers, and all sensation was lost, these items wouldn't fall to the ground. They also understood what back pain was all about.

There is always back rubs and massages -a suggested treatment in everyone's lips, but John has an aversion to being touched. The only thing that keeps him going is laying his lower back on a hot water bag. The heat provides welcome relief from the pain. When asked how it feels to work on such a wonderful painting, his response is, "It's misery, utter, complete misery." He means it; now you know why.

Completing the Transfer

Once a working layout was complete and all design issues resolved, John used the finished drawing to construct a 3-dimensional representation of the ceiling painting (he is also an experienced model maker). The simple scale model was build out of cardboard and plaster. Next the model was lighted to simulate the time of day that was the intended setting for the mural, and a series of photographic studies were made.

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The resulting photograph is one of the most important pieces of reference data in the creation of a realistic looking painting. It is the way lights and shadows are portrayed that gives two-dimensional shapes their three-dimensional form.

We can say that the eye distinguishes objects because of the way light and shadow surrounds them in. Not only does light helps us distinguish form, it also helps us distinguish depth. John explains: -"An artist who paints an illusion of the real world can achieve this not because he knows colour, but because he knows light. In essence, an artist paints with light."

An important consideration when deciding on a lighting scheme is deciding the position of the sun. For the Gordon mural John decided to position the sun low on the horizon so that its sphere is reflected on the small dome of the painted ceiling. With the position of the setting sunset, every feature and figure represented in the mural had to be illuminated (and shadowed) from that light source.

Painting Begins

Mr. James Levin had the honour of painting the first brushstroke. So, with a bold line of cobalt blue the Gordon Square Mural went into its second phase: underpainting. In this stage the artist paints his design in basic colours, without concerns for light and shadow. The intention is to cover the surface rapidly and to have a concrete idea of what the design would look like (it is very hard to perceive three-dimensional form by simply looking at lines drawn on the ceiling).

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But this underpainting also serves a more practical purpose: it provides a base color from which to build up form by the later application of light and shadows, as you will see later on. A colour scheme was decided early on in the process for the architectural framework of the mural. The paint was mixed, the mixing proportions were noted for later remixing, and a reference sample palette was painted on a wall.

A Word About Paints and Painting Techniques

Every mural is different and the painting process is particular to each artist. Renaissance murals were done using one these techniques: al fresco and al seco, or a combination of both. Painting "al fresco" is a very ancient process in which paint is applied directly over wet (fresh) plaster. "Al seco" is painted over a dry surface (seco means dry). Both techniques have advantages and disadvantages that can be exploited by a skilled artist.

When painting al fresco water-soluble colour pigments are applied to the surface while the plaster is still wet. As the plaster dries the pigments fuse deeply into the surface (through a chemical reaction) which make the resulting colour almost impervious to the passage of time.

In fact, renaissance patrons demanded that a mural done al fresco had to last at least a minimum of one hundred years! Painting al fresco demands great skill, speed and experience of the artist. The work has to progress in a precise and orderly manner because only a small section of the wall surface can be worked on before the plaster dries.

The traditional muralists painting frescos had very time for painterly details so many reworked their frescos by painting over details al seco using oil-base paints in most cases. Adding goldleaf details and delicate glazes was done by this process. The main disadvantage of painting al seco was that, since the paint was on the surface and not imbedded within the surface (as in frescos), it would fade, crack and flake off in time.

According to renaissance standards, painting al fresco, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was the stuff that proved what real masters are made off. But the choice of techniques was rather a matter of the demands of the job -such as size and detail, and the depths of the patrons purse, since al fresco was the more expensive process.

An interesting anecdote about the Sistine Chapel ceiling was that Pope Julius, who commissioned the murals, although extremely pleased with the results upon the public unveiling, asked Michelangelo to reworked the painting by adding goldleaf to the figures (this was very much in fashion during the time). Fortunately, Michelangelo convinced him that the work was just fine as it was since most of the pious characters represented on the ceiling scenes would not be able to afford it.

Modern painters paint directly on a dry surface primarily with paints not available to the ancient masters, like acrylics. Acrylic paints are basically "liquid plastic". Water-base household paints (such as "latex") come under this variety because the liquid part of the paint (the binder or medium) is a viscous chemical derivative that dries into a clear plastic film.

Acrylic paints are also water-base but have very strong pigment, which is the component that gives paint its color. They are fast drying, have a good opaque covering quality, and allow for easy water cleanup. When they dry, they are very tough indeed, and, when applied over a properly primed surface can be long lasting.

The more traditional type of artist's paints are called "artist's oils". Oils (Oleo), as they are simply known, use organic oils such as linseed oil, or poppy seed oil (though linseed is more traditional) as its medium. The use of oil, naturally, slows the drying rate of the paint and reduces its opacity. In other words, the oils makes them more "transparent" it will take several coats of oil paint to achieve the opacity of acrylics. This is an oversimplification but you get the idea.

But in oils it the transparency quality that makes them ideal for the representation of light and shadow. One can add layer after layer of a particular pigment until one achieves, if skillfully done, the desire level of darkness and shade. And, since oils dry at a slower rate an artist can take time blending the paint until all signs of the artist touch - the brushstrokes - disappeared from the painted surface. If you need proof of this painterly effect, look at a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa.

Applying the Underpainting

Loading Image...The colors for the underpainting were mixed and packed into plastic containers. They were labelled and sealed until they were needed. The underpainting is done with large brushes, preferably Chinese hog hair white bristle brushes, which are adequate and inexpensive.

For the painting of the Gordon mural John decided to proceed with his practice of using acrylics for the underpainting and then complete the painting with layers of oils. This is a technique he has used to great effect in many of his best works and one that would also allow him to achieve a great level of visual realism.

To be able to reach the entire ceiling meant moving the scaffolding setup around the area. It takes a minimum of four people and several hours work to dismantle and reassemble the wood scaffolding. So additional volunteers: Ricky, Daniel Ray, Abner, Carl, Willy, David, Selina and Jay provided a helping hand.

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One day at a time, gradually, the design began to emerge like a patchwork of colour. Some areas were painted in a middle tone, other in a darker tone, and some in lighter tones. The predetermined lighting scheme decided the intensity of the tone that was applied to a singular section. The most complicated task in the underpainting was painting the spindles in the balustrade. The painting had to be precise and there were a lot of them. On average it took an hour to do one spindle. That's an hour with your head tilted back - and this was only the underpainting!

In large-scale paintings one begins with large size brushes and works its way down to the tiny and very expensive sable brushes. This is not only a very practical procedure but also a sound economic principle. Painting a wall is like painting on sandpaper -the constant friction of the bristles with the surfaces eats away the brush.

Therefore, it is preferable to begin with your cheaper and expendable brushes. To date, in the Gordon mural, the largest single item expense (aside from the scaffolding) has not been paint but brushes.

Crack Problems

Loading Image...As the underpainting progressed, problems began to appear. The plaster surface of the ceiling was very porous and dry, and, in spite of three coats of heavy primer, it continued to absorb large quantities of paint. Ideally, for the technique of oil glazing to be effective, the painting surface had to be non-absorbent. This meant adding more layers of underpainting to problem areas.

But the worst problem was cracks that began to appear all over the ceiling surface. The cause of the cracks, for the most part, was due to corrosion in the metal lattice that served as support for the plaster shell. Over decades of neglect water from leaky roofs had been the culprit for the corrosion.

The roofs had been fixed, but humidity had remained trapped between plaster layers. As the metal corroded it expanded exerting pressure on the ceiling’s plaster shell. And with changes in humidity and temperature, the plaster shell began to dry out and shrink creating cracks in the process. If the problems were not corrected, eventually, sections of the ceiling would fall off to the ground below and the mural would be ruined.

During the resurfacing of the ceiling, only a thin skin of fresh plaster was applied to smooth out surface imperfections. The intention was not to replace the original plaster unless it was loose or broken. The plaster shell felt solid. However, as the surfaced began absorbing the paint the humidity levels were also affected. And, upon careful examination, it became obvious that sections of the ceiling would not hold.

All work on the mural was stopped until the crack problem was dealt with. John systematically test drilled the ceiling’s surface and determined that a dozen areas of the ceiling’s surface had to be replastered. This meant removing the plaster in the damaged areas and applying fresh filler. So he put the brushes and paint away, picked a chisel and a trowel and set to work. After several weeks of patchwork, painting was resumed.

Not all the cracks on the ceiling were eliminated. This was an impossible task that could not be accomplished without redoing the entire surface. But the ones that remained did not pose a significant threat to the rest of the ceiling, as the plaster shell was now solid and stable. Instead of worrying about it, John decided to incorporate these minor cracks into the design.

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Since most of these cracks appeared along the edges were the ceiling met with the sidewalls, the idea that the walls were old was incorporated into the design. ‘Adding’ more cracks and giving the painted architectural surface a ‘distressed’ look accomplished this. Applying layers of paint with a sponge created the illusion of texture. The cracks would be added later.

Painting in Layers

With the underpainting stage completed, the oil painting phase began. John’s first step was having the assisting artists add several layers of colour to the ‘outer frame’ of the ceiling mural that had been textured.
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The procedure for adding colour layers is as follows: linseed oil is rubbed over the entire surface in order to create a ‘slip,’ and then the paint (which is very pasty) is applied in a series of dabs, which are blended into the surface to a more or less even look. Some areas receive more pigment, others less. The layer of oil paint is semi-transparent so the texture of the underpainting remains visible.

Once an area has been ‘glazed,’ John’s proceeds to create the illusion of cracks on the surface by rubbing away paint with the use of a chisel shape rubber stylus. Then they move to another section and repeat the process, which can take weeks.

The painting advances in systematic fashion. When the first layer of oil paint dries –a process that will take from several days to a week, another layer of paint is applied, the cracks are reworked, and so on. The new layer is allowed to dry and the process begins again. Another layer of paint is applied accentuating darker tones in one section, lighter ones in another, sometimes allowing less texture to be visible, or perhaps leaving a section altogether undone.

Loading Image... How the work proceeds is up to the artist who at all times is conscious of the final effect he intends to create. This process of painting by adding layers of paint can produce jewel-like colours in the finished painting. But to achieve these results it is necessary to apply five, ten, even twenty layers of paint, depending the requirements of the intended illusion.

In essence, a mural painting of this type is not just painted, but to a certain extent repainted over and over several times. The process is irreversible. It has to be done right the first time because the delicate glazes can never be reproduced again.

As a layer of oil paint dries the intensity of the colour becomes lighter and more transparent. New layers of colour will build up intensity. During each layer lights and shadows are worked and the different sections in the mural are ‘colour balanced’ until a uniformed gradation of value is achieved.

Photographing the Models

Loading Image... As the ceiling mural began to take shape, the people who were to be portrayed on the mural began to be scheduled in for posing. The camera and lights were placed using the perspective drawing to determine the viewing angle (measured in degrees with the use of string and protractor).

Several full-body pictures were taken as well as close-ups of faces and hands. Later these (digital) pictures were printed in black and white and used as references for working drawings.

After all the reference pictures for a determined group were collected, a working drawing of the final composition was done in the studio. Later on, tracings of each individual in the drawing would be made and transferred to the appropriate place in the mural.

Volunteers served as models for dead characters and for the statues of the muses that would be placed on the corner niches represented in the mural. The artist decided what the finished appearance of a character would be. John also determined the pose, the manner of dress, and the final colouring.

Since the viewer would see characters that were (in the final illusion) twenty to thirty feet above him, John did not concentrate on detail or colour at this stage but on the atmospheric impact of the entire composition as determined by tone and value. Nevertheless, each character had to be an accurate portrait; they had to be recognizable figures.
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It is lonely at the top

After the glazing of large areas was completed, John began working on the decorative details and on adding the figures. This is the part of the job that only he could do. So the volunteers and assistants were dismissed and he went back to the scaffolding.

It would take John months of careful progress to work the many details that make up the (painted) architectural framework of the mural. He knows that when the surrounding sidewalls of the mural are completed, the viewer would look up to the ceiling and ‘believe’ the illusion that he is creating on the ceiling. But for the time being, he can only imagine it. For now he works the days patiently adding layer after layer of paint to balustrades, faces, and details –and rubs his neck and back.

A close-up view

The following pictures will give the reader an intimate view of how the delicate work is being done.

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Each character is traced onto the ceiling and then painted in grey tones, like a black and which photograph. Then, colour is added in layers. Notice this example of ‘Curly’ from The Three Stooges –still at an early stage of the painting. At the centre of the composition, he is up to no good.

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This is a finished example of a character in the mural. Nancy is one of Cleveland Public Theatre’s past Board Presidents and one of the first to pose for her portrait.

Funding Frustrations

Sadly, one of the realities of community organizations like the Cleveland Public Theatre is that they are required to compete for public funding. The value of the work that the theatre does in the community and in Greater Cleveland is immeasurable. But in spite of its overwhelming success with the public and the critics, funding for this type of art organization is at an all time low. This means that work on the mural has to stop, often for too long a period.

The initial funds to begin the mural project dried up very fast, being used mainly in the purchasing of paints, supplies, equipment, and the construction of the scaffolding. So to supplement his income, John has to accept other commissions that take him away from the Gordon mural.

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Sometimes these commissions --like the Italian Village Restaurant mural (shown in another section of this website), are a welcomed change of pace from the tedium of long hours on scaffolding. It can be frustrating when he completes a whole mural in thirty-six days but spends a month working a single series of spindles. But all in all, he would rather complete his work at the Gordon.

So, in between the occasional commission, he returns to the Gordon to continue the work. It is also frustrating for him when people do not understand why it takes so long to do a ceiling. This page in part is an effort to answer this question and to educate others on what it takes to get the job done right. And perhaps, someone might decide to become a patron of the theatre and help in the funding and patronage of this work in progress. The following photographs speak for themselves.

A finished section of the mural (left) and the still not completed centre section. Once the ceiling is done, a chandelier will be attached to the bronze medalion.

Notice the completed cracks in the plasterwork and the light effect on the balustrade. As paint glazes are added, the three-dimensional illusion appears real. The ceiling looks high –but it is merely an illusion created with paint. Compare the photograph on the right to the reference picture of the scale model.

John estimates that the ceiling could be completed in a few months. That would be September of 2004, if he can work continuously on the project. The side murals (the areas primed in pink) are actually the main focus of the Gordon mural. This part of the project will be considerably easier to paint and faster to complete. John believes that once these areas are painted, no one will take notice of the ceiling.

For additional information on the Gordon Square Theatre Mural Project, please contact the artist by e-mail or the Cleveland Public Theatre.

The Cleveland Public Theatre

Ohio’s Leading Alternative Theatre

6415 Detroit Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44102
(216) 631-2727


The ceiling mural at the Gordon Square Theatre lobby was completed on December 2004. Photographs will be posted on this page as they become available. As of this writing (March 2005), the project has been placed on hold awaiting funding.