The Gordon Square
Theater Ceiling Mural

"It's misery. Utter, complete misery."

John Rivera-Resto on how it
feels to paint a ceiling mural.

Spring 2001

"The Gordon Square Theater Murals"

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

When a renewed public appreciation for old theaters 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 had been originally done inside these structures was the rule and most of the artistic restoration was of decorative elements.

john rivera-resto in 2002, cleveland, ohio John Rivera-Resto inside his studio at the Gordon Square Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. 2001

What makes the restoration of the Gordon Square Theater 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's Goal:

To create original mural paintings in the highest traditions of Italian renaissance art.

The Place:

The Gordon Square Theater - Cleveland's oldest theater building, located in 6405 Detroit Avenue in Cleveland's West Side.

The History:

The oldest theater still standing in Cuyahoga County, the Gordon Square Theater 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.

the gordon square theatre in 1930s The Gordon Square Theatre in the 1930's.

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.

bob hope in the 1920s A young Bob Hope (standing on the right). He began his career in show business in the early 1920s, initially on stage.

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.

a vaudeville show at the Gordon A vaudeville show. A "vaudeville" (variety show) was a theatrical genre popular from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. A typical vaudeville performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill.

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 theaters 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 Theater, 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.

poster of the great depression The introduction and continued growth of lower-priced cinema dealt a heavy blow to vaudeville. Vaudeville theater chains swiftly became full-time movie theaters while others went out of business. The Great Depression, a severe and sustained, worldwide long-term downturn in economic activity that took place mostly during the 1930s, was the final blow to theaters across the United States. Productions decreased dramatically, audiences shrank, and talented writers, performers, and directors fled the industry to find work in Hollywood.

The Rebirth

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.

the entrance to the gordon square ceiling The restored entrance to the Gordon Square Theater

By 1997, with basic structural work and related services accomplished, the Gordon Square Theater 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) theater's restoration plan was the reconstruction of the balconies, decorative plaster-works, 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.

interior of the gordon square theatre Stage view of the Gordon Square Theatre.

Molds 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.

the main staircase The main staircase in a state of disrepair.

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.

plaster repairs detail Detail of ceiling and plaster mouldings during restoration.

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 caliber 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.

detail of plasterer on scaffolding repairing walls Plasterers resurfacing walls. As time decay set in, the original thin finishing plaster layer the goes over the rough plaster shell layer was almost completely gone.

Finding an artist fit for the demands of the job, particularly a "local" artist was a difficult requirement to fulfill. 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.

walls being sanded smooth Walls being sanded smooth. This is a very important step because uneven wall surface texture is distractingly noticeable on a finished painting.

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 muralist in the United States. And as luck would have it, John was also a Cleveland native.

james levin and volunteers in the 1980s

James Levin (seated) with volunteers during the 1980s. James founded the Cleveland Public Theater and arts complex (which includes the Gordon Square Theater) in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1984. This thriving Cleveland institution is located at 6415 Detroit Avenue on Cleveland's west side in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Preliminary Work, Conception and Design

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 unleveled 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.

conceptual sketch Original conceptual sketch. This very small image was John's only rendering to illustrate his ideas.

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.

bottom view of scaffolcing A wooden scaffolding with telescopic legs was constructed for the job.

Except for a few inch-size thumbnail sketch, 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. 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 Theater and the Gordon Square Theater was to be included in the composition.

the scaffolding's platform Detail of the painting platform. It was lightweight but sturdy.

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.

detail of painting palette support Detail of the painting palette support and the scaffolding's railing.

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."

detail of brush holder Brush holder. It was constructed to fit anywhere on the railing around the platform.

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.

detail of lamps Detail of lights. Various types of lamps could be turned on and off independently depending on painting requirements.

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."

platform extensions Extensions were added to the scaffolding platform to reach over difficult areas.

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. 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.

working form the scaffolding, view from below A tubular scaffolding was also used to complement the main painting platform.

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 colors 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.

john rivera-resto atop the scaffolding's edge You have to be fit and nimble to work hard to reach places. This is especially true when the ground area is irregular and full of obstacles and the ceiling is curved.

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 theater 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.

john rivera-resto on scaffolding, safety line detail John tied a rope around his waist as a safety precaution. Puerto Ricans like to say they are not scared of falling; but of hitting the hard concrete floor.

But at least the scaffolding problem had been solved to a satisfactory extent and work could proceed. Many visitors to the theater actually seemed 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.

measuring the walls Carefully measuring the walls and architectural features. All surrounding walls are measured and every feature on each wall carefully noted. The floor is also measured and the height of the ceiling taken a various point to discern discrepancies.

"Perspective" is an art technique for creating an illusion of three-dimensions (depth and space) on a two-dimensional (flat) surface. It is what makes a painting seem to have form, distance, and look "real". 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.

taking careful notes Making detail notes is crucial for creating detailed prints. Everything is sketched for clarification; nothing is left to chance.

The study of perspective and how to place objects in a 3-dimensional 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 theater with its four sides opening to the roof. At the center of the "new ceiling" would be a small dome with an opening at the center. 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.

creating large paper layouts The architectural notes and sketches are turned into a master plan done to scale. Then "actual-size" layouts (large-scale drawings on heavy paper) are created are later transferred to the ceiling. A mural may require from only a few to perhaps hundreds. It all depends on the complexity of the job.

A working model

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 built 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 (nowadays study-models are done by any number of 3-D modeling programs).

a practical model of the ceiling A cardboard and plaster model of the ceiling design. Nowadays there are many 3D modeling software programs that can do a "virtual model" with perfect precision.

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 help us distinguish form, it also helps us distinguish depth. John explains: -"Artists who paint illusions of the physical world can achieve this level of reality not because they know color, but because they understand light. In essence, an artist paints with light."

reference photograph of ceiling design from the model Reference photograph from the scaled model. The model was lighted exactly as required to achieve the desired effect. Model photography is as much of an art as is creating the model. If a design is done with 3D modeling software program, additional rendering software can generate photo-realistic images showing lighting in virtually any condition and situation. Both methods can be effectively used when properly done.

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.

Drawing on the Ceiling

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.

drawing grid line on the ceiling Flexible rulers were used on the curved ceiling to create a series of guidelines.

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 centered 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.

drawing the design by using the guidelines as reference points. Using the guidelines as reference points, the design is drawn on the ceiling.

The ceiling design included the representation of a "balustrade", which is a railing with spindles (balusters) 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 center 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 spindle was drawn to fit the required degree of perspective, and so on with every detail of the drawing.

layouts being transfered to the ceiling The paper layouts are positioned into place and secured with tape. Then the drawings are traced on the ceiling. Gloria, one of the volunteer artists, works at tranfering an inscription at the center of the design.

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).

tracing the inscription Tracing layouts above your head is tiresome work. Since the transfer has to done with greater accuracy, the process can take a while. Peggy Krysinski, a bank loan officer by day, became a welcomed volunteer artist by night. She had the ability to hold this uncomfortable position for quite some time.

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.

detail of drawing with templates Drawing aids and templates are used to either correct or add further detail to the drawing. Since one loses sensitivity in the hands when working for extended periods of time, tools and pencils are secured with string to the wrist. You wouldn't want to climb up and down a scaffolding every time your pencil falls.

Signs of Pain

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.

michelangelo Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1568). "The greatest artist of all time"

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. 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.

michelangelo sketch of him painting the ceiling of the sistine chapel No, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on his back -and no disrespect intended to Charlton Heston's portrayal of Michelangelo in the 1963 film "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (though the real Michelangelo would have been a more interesting fellow to watch). This is Michelangelo's own sketch describing the misery of painting upright with his head turned up -a condition that left him blind of a month! John also began to have vision problems. His doctor told him this was a form of eye disease induced by the many hours of gazing up. To correct the problem he gave his eyes and neck a minute rest (and massage) for every five-ten minutes of painting.

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

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.

paper layout for the balusters The perspective for each baluster was slightly different. They were drawn on paper and the drawing was transfered to the ceiling.

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.

nancy lewis tracing the ballusters Nancy Lewis volunteered in the evening to help with the drawing. It took some time to do the tracing. Once the drawing was done, the lines where made permanent with a fine marker and drawing templates.

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.

John Rivera-Resto gazing at the ceiling Looks can be deceiving. John's head is only six inches away from the ceiling. Being this close distorts your vision of the work. This is one of the reasons why traditional mural painting is done according to a systematic procedure. Everything is planned in advance.

But the fact that mural painting is a slow process works in the artist's favor 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."

color palette for the background colors A base-color value scale from light to dark was painted on a wall. Colors are best analyzed on site under actual lighting conditions.

Painting Begins

Mr. James Levin had the honor of painting the first brushstroke. So, with a bold line of cobalt blue the Gordon Square Mural went into its second phase: under-painting. In this stage the artist paints his design in basic colors, 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).

James Levin had the honor of the first brushstroke James Levin had the honor of the first brushstroke.

But this under-painting 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 color 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.

james levin paints the first stroke with cobalt blue With a stroke of cobalt blue, the painting stage began.

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 secco" is painted over a dry surface (secco means dry). Both techniques have advantages and disadvantages that can be exploited by a skilled artist. When painting al fresco water-soluble color 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 color almost impervious to the passage of time.

paint pigments Paints get their color from powdered pigments. Each color is extracted from different sources. Therefore, depending on the availability of the source, some pigments are more expensive than others.

mixing a color from pigment powder and water A color pigment is mixed with a binder -such as water, alcohol, oil, resin or wax, to create paint. For traditional fresco mural paints, pigments are mixed with water.

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 secco using oil-base paints in most cases. Adding goldleaf details and delicate glazes was done by this process. The main disadvantage of painting al secco 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.

applying a coating of plaster Fresco murals are painted over a coating of fresh (fresco) plaster. Image from Mariani Affreschi Academy.

transfering drawing into fresh plaster A drawing being transferred to the fresh plaster surface. Image from Mariani Affreschi Academy.

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 gold-leaf 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.

painting on wet plaster Paint is applied to the wet plaster. As the plaster dries the paint becomes permanently bound to the surface. Only what an artist can paint in one session is plastered. The plaster will take 8 to 10 hours to dry. Image from Mariani Affreschi Academy.

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 (polymer) 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.

detail of a fresco painting in progress \ The drawing is outlined with paint and the paint is "sucked" by the fresh plaster. Then colors are rapidly applied in layers, with each layer building up form. Detail from fresco painting at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery.

fresco mural at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery. The artist works the painting until the plaster is too dry to absorb the paint. Additional detailing after the plaster dries is referred to as being done "al secco", which is the Italian word for dry. However, al secco painting is not as permanent as "fresco", because the paint is not absorbed by the dry plaster. Detail from fresco painting at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery.

Detail of fresco painting at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery in Northern California. Detail of fresco painting at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery in Northern California.

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.

detail of classical column The following is a reconstructed digital visualization of what Leonardo's work could have looked like using the colors from the recently discovered copy of the Mona Lisa at the Prado Museum.

Applying the Under-painting

The colors for the under-painting were mixed and packed into plastic containers. They were labelled and sealed until they were needed. The under-painting 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 under-painting 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.

paint mixes Paint mixes were packed in sealed plastic containers and labeled. Inexpensive white bristle brushes were used to apply the underpainting.

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. One day at a time, gradually, the design began to emerge like a patchwork of color. Some areas were painted in a middle tone, other in a darker tone, and some in lighter tones.

base colors being applied Base-colors being applied to ceiling sections. The water-based paint was rapidly absorb by the plaster surface making the paint dry within minutes. On occasion, more than one coating was applied to achieve a more uniform finish.

The predetermined lighting scheme decided the intensity of the tone that was applied to a singular section. The most complicated task in the under-painting 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 under-painting!

nancy lewis applying underpainting Painting of base-colors (underpainting) progression. The initial stage in the painting process, similar to applying solid color to parts of a coloring book, allows for fast coverage of large areas and thus bring out the entire design for early evaluation.

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.

applying a base coat to the ballusters After base coating large areas, smaller areas such as the balusters were carefully covered with two layers of base-color. The layers were kept thin so that the line drawing would not be rendered invisible. One advantage of outlining the drawing with a brown permanent marker is that the marker's ink is solvent-base and keeps showing visibly through the paint.

base coat on the ballusters
Detail of balusters with base color coating.

Crack Problems

As the under-painting 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 under-painting 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.

broken plaster and rusted latice Water had leaked inside the wall rusting the metal lattice. This in turn cracked the plaster shell.

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.

graining with a sponge Adding grain texture with a sponge. It takes practice to get is just right.

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 surface 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.

texturing the perimeter of the mural Texturing was continued all around the perimeter of the mural.

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 re-plastered. 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.

applying new paint layer Several semi-transparent layers of faux-texture were apply to simulate a finish with stone aggregate in the mix.

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. 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.

faux cracks Faux surface cracks were added and blended with the real ones.

Painting in layers

With the under-painting stage completed, the oil painting phase began. John's first step was having the assisting artists add several layers of color to the 'outer frame' of the ceiling mural that had been textured. The procedure for adding color 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 under-painting remains visible.

ceiling painting progression Painting progression. Volunteers Gloria and Peggy trace the letters of the inscription design on the ceiling.

Once an area has been 'glazed,' John proceeded 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.

faux and real cracks being painted

Faux cracks were painted to blend with the real one until it was impossible to tell one from the other.

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 colors 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.

faux and real cracks

Faux and real cracks on "texture" stone.

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

Photographing the Models

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 images were printed in black and white and used as references for creating working drawings.

models posing for reference photograph Models were lighted and posed after determining the right viewing angle with the help of the scale model and perspective drawing.

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 coloring.

model posing for reference photograph Andrew Kaletta posing for a reference shot. Using real models is invaluable for capturing lights and shadows as well as the desired pose.

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.

It is lonely at the top

Since the viewer would see characters that were (in the final illusion) twenty to thirty feet above the ground floor, John did not concentrate on detail or color 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.

mural in progress Painting progression. John states that there is really no pleasure in painting a ceiling mural.

detail of baluster painting progression Detail of baluster painting progression. Semi-transparent paint was applied in layers. Notice the difference between the balusters with only still in base coat and the ones already glazed.

applying glazes to the balusters Each baluster was modeled with highlights and shadows until a three-dimensional effect was achieved. This photograph is deceptive because it gives the impression that the painting surface is in front of John. He is actually painting very detailed work on the ceiling above with his head tilted back.

It would take John months of slow progress to work the many details that made up the (painted) architectural framework of the mural. Patiently he labored day by day adding layer after layer of paint to balustrades, faces, and details -and constantly massaged his neck and back. He believed that when the surrounding walls were completed in murals, the viewer would not even bother to look up at the ceiling. But painting the ceiling was a necessary task to complete the illusion. For the time being, one can only imagine it.

A close-up view

The following images will give the reader an intimate view of how this delicate work was done. Please keep in mind that lighting conditions were so bad in such a large and enclosed space that good photography was almost impossible. The images shown here were only intended to record the progress. The working method consisted in having characters traced unto the ceiling and then most painted in grey tones, like a black and which photograph. Then, color was added in layers. For example, notice the character of 'Curly' from The Three Stooges in the early stages of being painted and on the final image.

tracing curly The image of Curly is traced on the ceiling. Once painted, Curly would appear looking down from a medallion that supports a central chandelier.

curly's portrait in gray tones Curly's portrait is then painted in gray tones. Color will later be added in layers.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot Chico and Larry have been added and modeled in gray under-paint.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot Detail of one of the corners. The illusion of depth is complete, the original ceiling has disappeared.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot Faux texturing, geometrical pattern and subtle variations of color value add incredible visual attraction to the ceiling.

detail of handles Other figures are added: Mr. Mark Wagner on the left, and architect David Ellis on the right.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot Nancy B., one of the Cleveland Public Theater's past Board Presidents was one of the first to pose for her portrait.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot Dancer Sarah Morrison modeled for one of the corner muses.

detail of handles One of the four groups of characters looking down from a balcony.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot

The sign being held at the right has the date of the theater's founding.

detail of pon-poms and empty flower pot View of the mural's progress from below.

Funding Frustrations

Sadly, one of the realities of community organizations like the Cleveland Public Theater is that they are required to compete for public funding. The value of the work that the theater 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 was at an all time low. This meant that work on the mural had to stop, often for too long a period.

the lewis apartment main mural by john rivera-resto, 2000

It was also very hot at the top.

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 took him away from the Gordon mural. Sometimes these commissions -like the Italian Village Restaurant mural (see the link in the Murals page of this website), are a welcomed change of pace from the tedium of long hours on a scaffolding. It felt frustrating to complete an complex mural like the Italian Village in thirty-six days but then spending a month working on a single series of spindles. All in all, he would have preferred to complete his work at the Gordon.

the lewis apartment main mural by john rivera-resto, 2000

The ceiling appears much higher than what it actually is. The mural works well as an optical illusion.

So, in between the occasional commission, John returned to the Gordon to continue the work. It was even more frustrating when people could 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 theater and help in the funding and patronage of this work in progress. The photographs in this page speak for themselves.

the lewis apartment main mural by john rivera-resto, 2000

The finished centerpiece of the mural. A chandelier was later installed at the center of the round medallion.

the lewis apartment main mural by john rivera-resto, 2000

John Rivera-Resto at the completion of the Gordon Square Theater Ceiling Mural, December 2004.


The ceiling mural at the Gordon Square Theater lobby was completed on December 2004. The original plan was to continue the mural on the surrounding walls. However, the project was placed on hold due to a lack of funds, and in time, it was abandoned.

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