The John Ban Mural: beautiful Dubrovnik

"Creating a spectacular view of the
beautiful port city of Dubrovnik only
a step away from your dining table."

the trick is not to paint details, the trick is to detail the painting

Meet John Ban

It's all about the weather. Cleveland, Ohio is a great city built on the shores of Lake Erie -the world's 13th largest natural lake, also known as one of the Great Lakes situated between Ontario, Canada and the United States. If you were to ask any "Clevelander" about the wonders and highlights of their local town, the weather will most likely not be on the list. This is so because Cleveland weather is unpredictable and downright nasty at times. Winters are cold and snowy, summers are nice but short, the fall is chilly and windy, and Spring has an identity problem - it just can't make up it's mind about which of the other three seasons it wants to be. Then there's the lake.

The sweet water expanse of Lake Erie becomes frozen in the winter and this natural occurrence helps create a weather condition known as the "lake effect." In fact, all weather casters in the Cleveland area have an altar in their broadcast stations dedicated to the god -'Lakyfect'. Every time one of the forecasts by the weather prophets is flat out wrong -like when, for example, a sunny day was announced for the weekend baseball game and instead we get hit by a raging snowstorm, these sneaky individuals inform their viewers in the most nonchalant way that: -"The sudden change of weather was caused by (you guessed it!) the Lakyfect." And that's that.

It is only natural that most Clevelanders -let me rephrase that: most people in America!- dream of retiring to some sunny and weather-pleasant destination in the Caribbean or the South of France to enjoy "the good life." The beautiful Caribbean island of Martinique or the lovely radiant Mediterranean beaches of the French Côte d'Azur are always high on the list -not withstanding the fact that they have topless beaches for those of you who, unlike me, are interested in this sort of thing. Unfortunately for most of us the good life is very difficult to come by so we must make the best of it where we are at, wherever "at" may be.

mr. john ban

Mr. John Ban, 2009

My good friend John Ban wanted the dream. He wanted to sit with his lovely wife Leah in the relaxed company of friends to wine and dine while watching the sunset. He wanted it now! But leaving Cleveland, family and career was not an option. So he opted for 'the illusion' of the good life. If he could not retire to the south of France, than the south of France should come to him. He purchased a once 'summer house' on the shores of Lake Erie. The neighbours were as cool as can be and the view of the lake was second to none. In fact, if you were to walk thirty yards directly ahead from John's porch you would end up, literary (after a long drop), 'in' Lake Erie.

Not only did the Ban's new residence have a spectacular view of the lake, it also has the added advantage of being located a mere ten-minute drive from John's place of employment -Cleveland State University. "Professor Ban, John Ban" is the guru of many Cleveland professionals in the technical field of communications and studio production. Furthermore, when not involved in local commercial projects this versatile individual was also a high priest to one of Cleveland's chief deities: the god of baseball.

Back in 2005 John and I had been talking on and off about a feature film project I wanted to do: Bad Blood. Over the years we have kept in touch about each other's projects and from time to time we exchange professional favours. So when John moved into his new residence he invited me in for a look. had some ideas about what he wanted to do with the place and I volunteered some of my own. In the end, I promised to put all the ideas on paper and come up with some visual designs. John's only requirement was this: -"Make it look like a summer beach house on the Mediterranean; add a bar with an awning and let in the sun."

john ban mural detail by john rivera-resto, 2009

Detail from the John Ban mural. August 2009. Cleveland, Ohio USA.

Initial concept

Using an architectural rendering program called Punch! I produced conceptual renderings with decorative ideas for John's home. This was 2005, a couple of years before a free downloadable version of "Sketchup" -a 3D modeling computer program captured our collective hearts. Punch was primitive by comparison, but the simple images clearly conveyed what I had in mind and I made a collection of renderings illustrating several decorative schemes. However, the one idea that stuck in John's mind, was having a mural on the wall behind the dining room to open up the space.

early conceptual decor rendering In 2005 I produced conceptual renderings with decorative ideas for John's home. The images were simple but clearly conveyed what I had in mind. But the one idea that stuck in John's mind was a mural on the wall behind the dining room to open up the space.

conceptual ideal for a mural A panoramic mural would add depth to the dining area. John's house had a beautiful view of Lake Erie. The mural could be modeled on that view. So back them, I simply added a generic rendering as a "placemant" to give help visualize the mural concept.

Designing the mural

Fast forward four years to 2009. I was now a man in preparations to get married. John and Leah were enjoying life in their house by the lake, but the house still lacked something: a mural. So, John and I agreed to exchange services -he would film my upcoming wedding in Puerto Rico, and I would paint the mural. And that was that. And so, in the late summer days of 2009, I setup shop at John's house and painted the mural shown in this pages. By following the images and captions below, you will learn how I did the job. Enjoy.

before image The dining area consisted of a table with chairs and a high back corner bench. I planed to incorparate the furniture into the composition by painting the mural on the back wall. The concept was to create a space where you could "admire the view" from the dining area.

mural-architectural-framework To create the illusion of an opening for the view, I designed an architectural framework in which to place the panoramic view. This framework was design to life-scale, as if there was a balcony opening with a railing and a cloth awening extended over the balcony area. This rendering was grided, with each square representing 12 inches.

mural design Naturally, the most important part of the mural was selecting the view. By now, John's thinking had evolved into having the painting say something about his cultural heritage. So, a view of the beautiful port city of Dubrovnik in southern Croatia was selected. I situated the composition on the city's disctinctive old town and its well preserve buildings and churches, which qualify as historic museums.

Preparation Work

Murals are planned in advance. It takes time and experience to develop the skills needed to produce paitings that look good on a large scale. There are many ways to paint murals because no two jobs are the same. John's mural was going to be in an interior space, on a relatively smooth plaster wall, in a location with good natural light, but also with a lot of reflected glare. Since the place was being lived on, I decided to use water-base paints because of their low VOC and fast drying qualities. This would allowed me to work fast but would limit my ability to do tonal gradiations which are one of the greatest strenghts of jobs done in oil-base paints. This meant that I had to paint using techniques that would get me similar results using water-base paints in order to produce a mural in a realistic looking style. No problem.

paper-layout-for-design-transfer This was a demanding composition because of the amount of detail. But regardless of complexity, all murals begin with the creation of a paper drawing, called "a cartoon", which I will transfer onto the wall. For this purpose I use a 36" roll of inexpensive "butcher paper". In my working method, the original design, done on a smaller scale, is drawn to actual scale on the paper, using charcoal sticks on the initial stage and finalized with permanent markers. On other jobs, I simply draw the design directly on the wall using the grid as a guide. On others, I combine both methods.

charcoal_sticks I use charcoal sticks for drawing and marking because they leave no greasy residue on the wall -like a pencil does because of the greasy graphite in its lead. I can easily wipe of the charcoal lines with a dry cloth without fear of dirting the painting. Once I'm satisfied with the charcoal drawing, I fix the lines permanently using "fluid ink" (diluted paint).

-light_weight_water_level A plastic water level is one of my most important tools in a muralists arsenal. I have a collection of levels of various lengths, from water levels to laser levels. But this is my favorite because its lightweight and easy to maneuver. A level is crucial for creating accurate grids as well as for adjusting the perspective lines in the drawing. Also, the fact that its orange helps to find it fast in all the clutter.

end_lift_block_1 The next most important tool, is the "mahl stick". This is an inexpensive stick or thin pole with balls or pads at the ends. They are usual about 36 inches long, though I have made some of longer lengths. The mahl stick is a great aid for drawing straight lines or for resting your painting hand on it to avoid touching the surface while the paint is still wet. In mural painting, where everything is larger in scale, the use of a mahl stick is imperative.

end_lift_block_2 I make my own mahl sticks by cutting a strip of wood to the desired lenth, and then glueing pads at each end. The pads will rest on the surface, preventing the rest of the stick from touching the wall surface. I run a brush along the edges of the stick to paint straight lines. Periodically, I sand the edges smooth so the brush handle can glide effordless along the stick.

color-palette-for-ban-mural I prepare a painting color chart for the mural immediately after completing the design. My color choices tend to be limited and "controled". This means that I stay within a more muted palette that will keep me away from ending up with a "billboard" effect of glaring colors that make an image look unnatural. Once selected, I mark each color to their corresponding area in the mural, such as: sky, buildings, forward buildings (fbds), wood, floor, etc.

kneeling_foam_pad Unless you are a masochist for pain, a kneeling pad is a must! I use a dense foam pad that came as padding in an appliance box. You will spend a lot of time painting at floor level. A kneeling pad will ease the discomfort to your knees and your back. Believe me, you will be grateful later in life for this precaution.

Paints and Brushes

preserving-base-colors The next step of preparation is to mix your paint to create each color in your color chart. For this mural I used waterbase paints -mostly "house paints" acrylic latex emulsions, because they clean easily with water, are very durable, and have low VOC. They also dry very fast, and, compared to artist's oils, are inexpensive. However, when I also add artist's acrylics to my mixes when I need a vibrant or more intense pigmentation. Once a mix is ready, I store it in a recycled plastic container.

containers-with-colors During the painting process I keep my new color mixes separated in plactic drinking cups. These mixes are created by mixing paints from my base colors. However, I never introduce any new colors that are not in my original paint chart.

preserving-temporary-mixes Once I'm done with a mix, I seal the cup with tape to prevent it from drying. I discover that this easy and convenient method keeps paints fresh for days. If the day is hot, then I spray a little water on the paint before sealing them.

#4_brush My brush of choice for detail work is a number 4 soft bristle brush with a "soft grip" handle. I use it for "inking" the drawing, or for outlines and detailing. The soft grip handle makes it easier on my fingers, especially when spending hours holding it.

brush_label My brush choice changes with each job, depending on the type of paint use and the type of wall surface. A concrete wall has a stronger "tooth" than a smooth plaster one. The more tooth, the harder your brush bristles have to be. Brushes are expensive so I tend to use inexpensive ones during the initial stages of the painting. So, once I settle on a brush choice, I usually buy half a dozen of the same kind.

bristle_wear Notice how, even on a smooth painting surface, the tooth of the wall will eat away the bristles on a brush. In this image, all four brushes are the same, but notice how the bristles get shorter as they get used. For painting large areas, I also use inexpensive white-hog bristle brushes.

old-brushes After the bristle wear down, I keep them to use in painting effects, such as wood graining. For the latter stages of the painting, I use better quality brushes. It surprises some when I tell them, that the most expensive item in mural painting is the the paint, but the brushes! Therefore, my solution, is to use cheap disposable brushes as far as I can. When the painting is completed, no one can tell which brush was used.

paint-brush-and-water-container You use a lot of water to keep your brushes clean, dilute paints or to create painterly effects. This is especially important when you upgrade to your better brushes. At this point I use artist's synthetic nylon bristle brushes, which are perfect for water-base painting. At the end of the day, all brushes get a thorough cleanup with "The Masters" brush cleaning and preserver. This soap does magic for your brushes.

Photographic References

view-of-dubrovnic I make extensive use of photographic references. For this job, I have photos of the port of Dubruvnik seen from an overhead panoramic view which I used to base my composition. When painting known places and landmarks, you have to be precise or viewers will notice the differences immediatedly, and this will take away from their enjoyment of the painted illusion.

-view-of-dubrovnic I also made use of a photo detailing the architectural landmarks of the "old city" section of Dubrovnik. However, I combined this view and that of the port in my composition in an entirely new arrangment. In short, I rearranged the town. However, the trick is to do it in such a seamless way that people will assume that is the way it really looks.

carved-post-1 In addition to photos of city and architectural vistas, you need photographic references of textures and objects you want to recreate -especially for items that are painted life-size in the foreground. For example, three carved wooden post were a prominent feature in the mural so I made sure to have good photos to guide me. I also had refence photos for the awning. Nowadays it is a breeze to use Google Images for finding photographic references. You can also do so the old fashion way, by looking at printed material for photos, or by taking your own photographs. For achieving realism and trompe l'oeil effects, photos are a must. There is absolutely no excuse for lazy painting.

Painting the Mural

colour_palette_for_sea I paint in layers. Whatever is farthest from the viewer, gets painted first. So I began painting the sky and the sea. Everything else will overlap on top layers and so on. I used to tell students: "Read the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible. Just follow the order of creation. That's exactly the order for layering your painting."

sea-color-mixes Blending color gradiations on large areas with water-base paints is not easy. So I pre-mix a base color with a highlight and a dark variation. Then I paint the entire area with the base and let dry. Then, using large brushes and a lot of water, I paint the light and dark variations into a seamless transition.

blocking_small_islands After completing the sky and sea sections, I began modeling the islands seen near the horizon. Again, I paint in layers. I first apply a base color, let it dry a bit (at times I speed thing up with a hair dryer), and then layer another color over the first one so build shape without doing any detailing.

detail_of_island_modeling Next, I begin to "detail" the painting. This means that I add other colors or mix variations to build up the illusion of "something", such as a tree line, of a forested area, or a sandy beach. But the key is to keep the detailing blur and impressionistic -because it's too far away! Let the viewers brain finish the detialing in their heads. Your paint smuge will look like trees and geographical features as their minds tries to make sense of it and completes illusion with the closes things it can relate -in this case, foilage.

Base_mixes_for_greenery I keep my paints very fluid to achieve the layering effect. Notice also the use of old brushes to achieve the smudges and blurred painterly effects with the paint. You get better at it with practice. In time you will overcome the tendency to overwork the effect by "sharpening" and "focusing" the details instead of keeping them blurred and impressionistic.

adding-waves Once the inlets are painted, you work on detialing the sea around them. As noted before, I stick to my color palette, using the light color variation of my mix. I'm doing hardly any blending of color. It's all one color over the other and letting the viewers brain do the blending. You will also benefit from photographic references at this stage. Just blur your vision when studying a photo and you will get the idea. And remember, less detailing is more on the final effect.

recycling-plastic-containers I keep my secondary mixes sealed in small plastic containers. I mix enough for later use, but you don't really need a lot of paint. In this particular case, my paints were almost at ink consistency to be used only for fluid detailing, almost like a water color.

horizon_detail Finished detail of the sky, the sea and the inlets. Those soft color gradiations are easily achieved using the layering (aka glasing) method. My glasing medium is only water -some artist use a commercial clear glazing medium. But if you let the previous layer dry, water is all you need. That's the beauty of painting with latex emulsion paints. They basically form layers of thin plastic that dry very fast so you can work fast.

mural-detail-8 The wooden carved columns were next. A base color of ochre was applied, then they were outlined to bring back the drawing. And lastly, using the same paint used for the outline and a wide brush, shading was applied using water to blend the darker tone into the base color. The shanding only took a couple of minutes without much finishing in preparation for the next step: wood graining.

mural-detail-7 Using the no. 4 brush, I did the wood graining using the same paint used for the outlining and the shading. Using the reference photos as a guide, wood graining is a simple thing. By dipping the brush in water, you can achieve a variety of color intensity from opaque to transparency.

mural-detail-5 I continued woodgraining the top section of each post and the wood in the awning section.

mural-detail-4 After woodgraining the lower sections of the posts, this part of the job was completed. Later on I came back to add a few highlights with a lighter tone.

mural-detail-3 I completed the architectural framework of the mural which consisted of the carved posts, top beam, two-tone awning, and a paneled half partition by the dining section. Architectural elements like this look impressive without having to put too much effort into the painting. A simple color scheme of base color, with a lighter and a darker tone of the same, are enough to model any shape into a convincing three-dimensional form.

The one thing you have to decide in advance before painting them, is, where is the main light coming from so you can adjust your shadows and highlights accordingly. I you want to change the color later on, all you have to do is apply a transparent glase made by a color and clear medium.

mural_in_progress This (very bad) photograph, shows the mural at this stage. Notice the mini-scaffold I use as my working table, which has the convenience of being on casters for easy movement. The floor and a section of the ceiling are protected from paint splatter or spills with a layer of clear plastic secured with masking tape. Also take notice of the dining table in relation to the painting.

table-area-detail-2 This photo shows that section of the mural with the table and chairs removed. Since they were going to end up covered up, I did not spend much time in detailing this part of the mural.

mural-detail-1 This photo enlargement will give you a good idea of the finished section of the mural showing adjoining balconies and terraces overlooking the bay. Notice how a limited palette of colors can achieve vibrancy and realism when the forms and elements in the composition are properly modeled. What's more, all the soft shading was done by layering thin coats of paint thinned with just water.

mural-detail-2 This second enlargment shows what can be achieved with good photographic references. While most of the painting was freehanded, I made good use of the water level and mahl stick to correct my perspective and to produce straight lines.

blocking_greenery The next step was to tackle the boats in the bay. They are docked along the pier and seen at a distance. So they were treated in the same impressionistic fashion as the inlets.

drawing_buildings Some boats were rendered moving in and out of the bay adding a little movement to the composition.

harbor-detail-2 Detail of boats docked in their pens. The very simple addition of plumes of foam with a few brushstrokes, help sell the illusion of movement of boats on the water.

dubrovnik-historic-harbor A photographic reference was used to model the boats on the harbor.

close-up_detail_of_boats All the boats were painted in a "three-stroke" manner, consisting of a base color to create their shape, a darker tone for cabin windows and sides, and a lighter tone for cabin tops and sterns. Adding a darker shadow to the water completed the illusion.

-xtreme-closeup-of-boats Detail showing a close-up view of the boats. Notice the transparency of the paint and the simple impressionistic brushstrokes to create the illusion. Still, when seen at a distance, the boats look convincing.

modeling_greenery After completing the harbor and boats, I proceeded to paint the green areas of foliage. They were painted in the same manner as the inlets, except that the contrast between darks and lights was intensified since they were seen at a closer distance then the inlets.

detail_of_charcoal_drawing Background buildings drawn in charcoal, are now "inked" with green paint after the perspective lines were corrected. No further detailing is done because this will be added later with paint in an impressionistic manner.

mural-detail-9 I continued to "wash" green areas of foliage around the buildings. This is done fast with a large brush and no attention to detail. The intention is to have a coating of a base color that will dry fast so that I can add other layers of color on top and model details.

blocking-detail Next I block the background buildings using three base colors to represent the lighted side, the shadowed side, and the roofs.

three-dimensional-cube Buildings are nothing more than geometric shapes. So a block and a lamp are a great aid to determine which side is lit by sunlight, which is the midtone, and which is the shadow side. Keeping things simple is a great way to get a lot of forms done without wasting time on details.

-blocking-progression The blocking of background buildings is completed and ready for detailing.

detailing-buildings Detail showing the addition of detail to the background buildings and foliage. Don't fall in love with detailing. Keep it simple and move on. Leave the fine details for the foreground.

close-up-of-building-detailing From here on, it's all a matter of replicating the process. Think in terms of lights and darks, keep detailing of things like windows on buildings limited to a single stroke, pay attention to the perspective of every building for the placement of architectural elements -and stick to your color palette.

detailing-of-background-buildings The process is repeated with the middle ground buildings...

detailing-foreground-buildings ...and the foreground buildings. It is here where you will spend most of your time.

john ban mural detail by john rivera-resto, 2009

The foreground buildings representing some of Dubrovniks most prominent architectural landmarks were painted in detail, with soft blending of shadows and reflected lights and impressionistic accents that added texture and detail.


At this stage of the painting, I made a significant change to the composition. John -the client, liked the renderings of the foreground buildings so much, that we forgo adding a metal railing over this section as was intended in the original design. Instead, I added stone steps that lead from the floor level to the scene below.


Stone posts and metal railings were added to the right side of the mural to incorporated the steps into the design.

the original design

Unfortunately, I don't have a photograph of the finished mural as we found it impossible to successfully capture an image of the artwork without the problem of heavy reflected light glare on the walls. The position of many murals in relation to the surrounding windows and walls is a big problem when trying to light them properly to be photographed. Sometimes they can be artificially lighted and photographed at night but this also presents the same problems with glare and, as in this case, does not always work. So, here's an image of the original design as a reminder of what the finished product may look like.


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