Steven McQuillin's Office Mural

The perfect job to try something new: Phosphorescent paints.
the waste management office mural splash

Summer 2009: A New Friend

Steven McQuillin is the founder of Steven Mc Quillin & Associates (, a consulting firm specializing in the preservation of historic buildings, neighborhoods and communities. The firm has been in business for over twenty years and is registered in seven states as meeting federal professional standards in History and Architectural History.

steven mcquillin and associates
Steve's firm:
Steven McQuillin & Associates. Over the years, I had the pleasure of meeting other historical preservation consultants and having really interesting conversations about the trade.

I met Steven through our friend in common, Jeon Francis, Office Manager of the Cleveland Rape Center and a local personality involved with many worthy causes. Steven was in the middle of doing an addition to his house and I dropped by at the right time. His new office was being completed and he was pondering what to do with the ceiling.

steven mcquillin Building Preservation Consultant
Steven McQuillin. While this was the first time I met Steven, during later conversations we discovered we had several friends in common.

I should note that Steven's house is an Ohio Historic Landmark known as Dover Farm, and was originally built in 1838 for U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Thomas Hurst (1806 - 1861). Not only has the place been lovingly restored, the property also boasts extensive gardens which Steven has worked on through the years to shape into a gorgeous setting.

steven mcquillin's house
Steve's house in Westlake, Ohio:
Dover Farm. Steven restored the house to its historical roots while adding all the amenities of a modern home.

dover farm ohio historical marker
Dover Farm was originally built in 1838 for U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Thomas Hurst (1806 - 1861)

The office addition to the house was located at the top of an octagon tower-like space toward the back of the structure, that opened up the ceiling to create magnificent views to the north and west “tower” section, with surround windows overlooking the back gardens. Built-in book shelves, cork flooring, marble-top desk and countertops of Brazilian Forest Web Brown, and a curved ceiling lead up to an octagonal central skylight.

steven's tower office
Steven's office at the top of the tower. It provided a great viewpoint to the back gardens.

Kate Dupuis, a stained glass artist, designed windows for the skylight plus panels for each of the upper sash of the five windows and panels for the two sets of double doors that serve the space. The structure was begun by Wayne Wright and finished by Ryan Donohue, who also did the interior finish carpentry. The final décor piece is a lighted ceiling fan hanging at its center.

stained glass by Kate Dupuis
Stained glass by artist Kate Dupuis. Kate also design panels for the windows and cabinet doors.

carpenter ryan donohue
Carpenter Ryan Donahue takes a coffee break and drops by to see me paint.

Steven, who is a thoughtful, soft-spoken gentleman with a very keen eye for detail, was debating the question of what to do with the octagon-shape ceiling. I suggested making it look like part of a glass enclosure, with thin wooden beams holding the crown. This way I could paint a visible sky that would blend naturally with the visible surroundings. I made a computer sketch, send it to Steven, he liked the idea, and so we ran with it.

conceptual design for office mural
Conceptual design for the mural. It looked simple enough.

At first glance you would think,-"this job looks simple". So let me pull you down from that fantasy: -"there is no such thing as a simple job". There is always something that makes everything more difficult than it looks. In this particular case, there were two factors that made the job harder to do. Firstly, since all the cabinets, shelving and desk were in place -and topped with expensive marble which tends to be brittle, I could not use scaffolding with adjustable platform heights -an important consideration when doing this type of "dome" ceiling, because they would not fit into the space.

detail of wall before the mural
This is the before shot of the ceiling before work began.

Secondly, the stained glass crown collected sunrays like a magnifying glass on a bug. The heat was suffocating at the top even with all the windows openned (there was no ceiling fan or AC at the time). So while I crouched and craned my neck and stretched to here and there adjusting to an ideal painting position (which took 3 times longer due to the fact that I couldn't make height adjustments on my standing support), I slowly melted.

study panel for faux stained glass
I photographed one of the stained glass sections to use as reference.

Now you, my discerning reader, would probably say, -"why didn't he paint at night to avoid the sun?" Well, here's the thing. This was the middle of a lovely summer in Cleveland, Ohio, but during the summer in this part of the world the sun does not set until 10pm. Since I was working at the 'Ban Mural' during the day (see Ban Mural entry) the only time I had left to do this job was during the evening hours between 6 to 10pm. But enough of me crying; let's move on with the job.

detail of faux stained glass
Faux glass was painted to replicate existing glass.

This mural was done with acrylic paints (water-base paints) plus a pint of metallic bronze oil enamel paint. The walls had been primed but in some areas the surface was very dry and absorbent so I applied more coats of primer as need. If you do not balance the absorbency of the surface, the finish will look dull in areas and with more sheen on other areas. Ideally, you want the surface to be "almost" non-absorbent, with just enough "tooth" to take paint easily. This is what a good primer does. Once I was satisfied with the surface, I painted the dome surface 'sky blue' and then proceeded to paint cloud formations spiraling upward toward the center.

detail of swirling clouds
The swirling clouds seem to rotate around the dome.

The clouds were painted with a large brush and the edges soften with an airbrush. The idea was to keep them soft and go for mood. They were intended only as background with a slight sense of movement. The sky in Northeast Ohio is not dramatic. In fact, Cleveland skies tend to be rather grey and depressing in winter. They are a far cry from the intense blue skies and glorious cotton white cloud formations I loved so much while growing up in a tropical island. And so, when painting the sky, I tried to keep it real to the actual setting.

steven mcquillin inspecting the work progress
Steven used to stop by from time to time see if I needed anything and check on the work progress.

Painting a lot of "white space" was also important to successfully apply the final step -as you will see by the end of this reading. After completing the sky, I drew "wood ribs" where two sections of the ceiling met, and extended them to the drum of the skylight. The ‘drum’ is the octagon extention that support the skylight at the center of the dome. A ceiling fan would later be suspended from its hub.

conceptual design with ivy leaves
A second conceptual design show ivy leaves climbing up the wooden ribs.

To emphasize the beauty of the stained glass motif, I extended the design into the drum area, replicating the same pattern. Since the look of stained glass constantly changes with the day, depending on the position of the sun and cloud overcast, I picked the look that represented the time I was painting it, roughly between 6 to 7pm. However, I used a bronze-color metallic paint in the background area of the motif so that the highly reflective finish would mirror the sunrays of the changing day and thus have a closer correlation with actual lighting conditions.

detail of ivy leaves
Detail of wooden ribs and ivy leaves. It's a very simple idea but very effective.

Painting jobs on location are usually never boring. There are always interesting people to meet and make the day go faster. This job was no exception. While I was painting, Brian was also completing the finishing touches on the woodwork. Not only did he do a fantastic job with his craftsmanship, but also had me in stitches as I listened to stories of his misadventures –which for one so young, are indeed many. Another visitor was Penny, Steven's adorable pooch, which is not only a great listening companion, but also a great admirer of my art (I could tell just by the way she kept looking at it!).

sunlight coming through stained glass
When sunlight was refracted throught the stained glass, beautiful patterns were projected all over the space.

Well, the painting progressed through a couple of weeks as I worked each ceiling section. I painted the wooden ribs and added some ivy leafs "climbing the dome from the outside". It's a very simple decorative idea but one that works well in the type of design.

glow paints Phosphorescent paints have come a long way. They are very effective and quite easy to use.

The final step to complete the artwork was the most unique. Using phosphorescent paint, I painted a "night sky" which is only visible when the office goes dark -as in totally and completely dark. For the phosphorescent paint to appear its most brilliant in darkness, ideally it should be applied over a white surface. You can hardly see the phosphorescent paint during the day on a white background. This is why I used the cloud formation to get as much "white areas" as I could get away with.

Detail of starry night sky. Stars painted with phosphorescent paint are almost invisible under normal light. But when the lights go off it's magic!

However, during the night, when all lights are out, you can't see the ceiling -but you can see brilliant stars! The illusion is as if the roof was to disappear thus revealing a sky full of shinny stars. The effect is so realistic that it fills one with wonder. You actually go -"Wow!" It is also very therapeutic as one can release stress by just sitting in the dark starring at the firmament.

steven's pooch Penny
Penny, one of my greatest fans! She was a loyal listening companion and a great admirer of my art. I could tell just by the way she kept staring at it!

The mural and the office were completed almost simultaneously. Several weeks later, Steven celebrated an open house party to inaugurate his beautiful new office. All in all, it was a "simple job" with a lot of satisfaction to all involved. If you find yourself in Westlake, which is about fifteen minutes west of the City of Cleveland, Ohio, give Steven a call and come by to see the office. He will be happy to give you a tour.

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