In August of 2013 I was invited by the Headteacher of Rotherhithe Primary School to design and paint a mural, in conjunction with New Roots, a maintenance and landscaping company founded by Christopher Harrod-Green and his son, Robert, a very old friend of mine. Work on the mural was completed by the beginning of September by myself, Robert Harrod-Green, and Laura Harrod-Green.
The wall in question is located towards the rear of the school in the car park, facing on to Rotherhithe New Road. As you can see from the photograph below, we had quite a job ahead of us…
The size of the facing wall was 80 square meteres in total; a daunting prospect for one’s first mural, as you might well imagine. We were dealing with a variety of surfaces – brick, metal and wood.
It also became clear to us that this was not going to be a straightforward painting job. There would be the cleaning and preperation of the various surfaces, of course, but as the above photograph reveals there was also a mess of wires, grates and esoteric electronic boxes that would need to be tidied away.
The above photograph shows the loose wires in more detail. These would have to be trunked. Also, note the white doors. These were made of a flimsy plastic. Behind them lay a set of simple cage doors, concealing a store cupboard. We took the decision to remove the plastic coverings and replace them with sturdier wooden doors that would also accept the paint better.
This is the (very!) basic design for the mural. I did this with no reference to scale or measurements – it was based purely on one visit and the photographs I took. Naturally the design of the mural evolved and changed as we found ourselves in the very real situation of painting it. My intention regarding the various landmarks above was to do them as stencils; something I had never attempted before.
The design was inspired by a conversation with the Head Teacher, in which she iterated how the school is seen as the ‘anchor’ of the community, hence its use as the school’s logo. Indeed, with the area’s famous maritime heritage, one sees the anchor symbol repeated around several buildings in Rotherhithe. The idea of using the Thames as a focal point was also sparked by this conversation and keenly taken up by myself; Rotherhithe is situated at a very interesting bend in the Thames and the opportunity to include several local landmarks was too good to miss. This aspect of the mural would, too, evolve as we painted.
Finally, she also asked me to somehow integrate the school’s five ‘core values’ into the mural somehow, these values being “Caring”, “Courageous”, “Ambitious”, “Resilient” and “Empathetic”. The school has an additional motto of “Hope and Courage” which I would later incorporate into the design.
So, prepping the surfaces then…
That required a jet-washing, which is far more fun that it should ever be. In the above picture you can see our friend Chris Gage, who popped down to give us a hand with the washing. Despite only being commissioned to do the front of the wall, for the sake of completeness we felt obligated to do the grates on the side, since it would look terrible otherwise. We also took on the task of painting the small wall to the left of the substation, hopefully catching the eye of those approaching on the adjacent path.
The cleaning of the surfaces was made much harder by the presence of recently-killed ivy. The majority of it had been removed but, as anyone who has had cause to clear it will tell you, little limpet-like suckers manage to cling on and, in some cases, even penetrate through the brick itself. The only way to remove these reliably (according to Mr Google) is to manually scrape them away, though even this is frowned upon since it can damage the brickwork. Nevertheless, we endeavoured to clear most of these stubborn tentacles using various scraping implements.
Note, also, the partially constructed scaffold tower, which would be our passport to the top of the building. Great fun to swing around on but not, in any conceivable way, safe. Still, no real accidents were had, so there you go! Those skips were a right pain since they were too close to the wall, blocking our scaffold, so we got some guys doing work on the other side of the school to bring their small digger and drag the beggars out of the way.
Having cleaned the surfaces, the next step was to splash on some undercoat. We used white masonry paint, generously diluted both to make it go further, and also because it seeps into the cracks between the bricks much better. Plus, it also speeds up the whole process.
I surmised (correctly, it turned out) that the substation doors would have to remain black for reasons of health and safety so I deliberately didn’t include them as part of the design. We did give them a fresh lick of paint though, towards the end.
On the right you can see the door to the store room, which would subsequently require a complete stripping of all the existing paint, in preparation for the administration of my vision.
In the meantime, Rob was busy removing the sign and logo from the top and jet-washing that part of the wall. In the foreground you can see a metal night-safe of some kind set into the wall. It was quite, quite useless and Rob would later build a wooden box to hide it. Indeed, the wall was full of furniture, parts of it functionally pointless. The lights and vents etc. all received a fresh coat of paint.
The wall received two coats of white masonry paint to compensate for the dilution (the above picture is after the first). In the centre of the main wall you can also see the galvanised-steel trunking placed by Rob to tidy away the wires, and on the very right of the picture you can see yet more, as well as the wooden box built to contain the mysterious electronic device that was just hanging there. The plastic has also been removed from the cage doors, and work, by this point, has already commenced on the new ones…
The next step was to apply a bit of colour. For this coat we chose the cheaper option of masonry paint, once more. The suppliers were unable to mix us the colour we wanted but the one they did give us looked better in any case, so everyone won there. Rob was particularly happy since it’s also Millwall’s colour. Actually, we were quite lucky with the colours we chose – the same shades of blue we used can also be found elsewhere throughout the school, as well as on the neighbouring blocks of flats. Quite by chance, honestly, but a result nonetheless.
Above, as I apply the blue you can see our friend Ollie helping out by whitewashing the door, having stripped it earlier in the day. He was extremely hungover on this day but he still went for it – well done, son!
As with the white masonry paint, we were able to dilute the blue without any corresponding loss of colour, which was most handy. By saving some we were able to use it to cover up mistakes when applying the finer detail later on.
Here you can see the completed wall – two coats for the masonry paint, once again – as well a seemingly gratuitous topless-shot of myself. In fact, I am busy painting the newly-constructed doors, one of which can be seen in the foreground.
If you refer to the design near the top of this article you can see that I intended the blue of the bottom of the wall to fade into a lighter blue for the top, beneath the sign. On reflection we decided that since the sign was in a kind of brushed silver, the top colour should mirror and support this. Thus we chose a pale, almost silvery lilac for the top. As for how we implemented the fading design, well, that comes later…
The next step was to draw the shape of the river on to the wall. In order to prepare for this task I had printed off a photograph of the wall and drawn the river on to it (as well placing the various landmarks). It was rough but served as a guide for where the major points should fall.
The first step was to draw a chalk outline. In order to facilitate this, Rob hit upon the genius idea of attaching a large piece of wood to a broom handle and attaching two small brackets that could hold the pieces of chalk. This would ensure a consistent size for the Thames.
While it worked well at first, sadly the chalk proved far too fragile for this method. Nonetheless, I continued to use the plank of wood as a measure for how wide the outline should be.
Having drawn the outline in chalk, we next went over the outline in white acrylic. Normally I would leave the outline of any painting until last, but since we were nearing the end of the day I didn’t want to take the chance that possible rain might wipe away the chalk.
The mismatch in the positioning of the river at the point where the left wall joins the main wall is a result of me trying to be clever with the alcove. I later sorted this out. To the right of the image you can see the brand-spanking new doors attached to the cage store-room. The trunking has all now been finished as well, and is ready for painting.
While we had used the cheaper option of masonry paint for the backdrop of the wall, for the actual mural proper we went with acrylic – more expensive, perhaps, but with a wider range of colours, and bolder shades at that. The colour chosen for the river was “Cobalt Blue”.
As with the masonry paint we were able to dilute the acrylic without any corresponding loss of colour. This was handy as diluted acrylic is much easier to apply to brickwork. Where we had to apply it to wood we found it best not to dilute it, due to dripping and also the grain of the wood showing through.
Unfortunately, having reached this satisfying point, we then found ourselves rained off for a day. Rather than let this stop us, we instead decided to focus on getting the stencils drawn and cut out, beginning with Canary Wharf and the anchor that would be used to represent both Rotherhithe and the school itself.
The stencils were hand-drawn in pencil on A1-sized card and cut out with a craft knife. We had also purchased a range of acrylic paints in varying colours with which to hand-paint the stencils. The manager of the art shop we used threw in a few tins of spray paint as well, since we had been such good customers of his and, in retrospect, I wish we had worked entirely with spray paint for the stencils due to its ease of use on both brick and wood.
That said, the subtle gradations of colour I was able to achieve with the acrylics by mixing them did give me a far greater range of colours then if I had been working entirely with spray cans; for instance, Canary Wharf above was done entirely with by adding white to the basic grey acrylic.
I did use the spray can on the anchor-stencil, seen above, and all of the “values” that would later be placed strategically along the wall and around the side.
Now, earlier on I mentioned the blending of the light blue of the lower wall into the pale mauve of the top. This, too, was achieved by stencil. I created the following image on computer at A4 size, printed it off, pasted it to card and cut out the circles.
The intention with this was to replicate a kind of ben-day-dot effect along the wall. Also, they look like lovely little snowmen.
Meanwhile, around on the side wall I got rather enthusiastic with my anchor-shaped stencils of varying sizes…
The next stencil to go up was the Millennium Dome.
In order to get a circle that big I had to draw around a handy nearby-bin. Such improvisation would become the order of the day, particularly when it came to the school values, of which one is visible above: “Resilience”. For each stencil I was effectively having to come up with brand new methods of typography, using manual technical-drawing skills that I had let become rusty after years of freehand-cartooning and lazy Photoshop work.
Next was the Thames Barrier – a late addition to the design, hastily drawn and cut-out when we realised that there was a lot more wall than we reckoned with!
One notable aspect of hand-painting the stencils was that, with my hasty brushwork and increasingly frayed brushes, the edges of each landmark would be rather messy and blotchy. This can be seen most clearly in the preliminary image of Canary Wharf further up the page.
Luckily, Laura was there to go over the stencils with a fine brush, using the background colour to smooth off the edges. The Thames Barrier was the first to benefit from this, hence the crisp edges seen above. I had no wish to hide the fact that these were stencils – indeed, I wanted it to be obvious, and defining the edges like this was the perfect touch.
The box has also now found itself adorned with an anchor, albeit one done in negative. This is achieved by taking the part of the stencil that you cut out, sticking it to the wall, masking off a square around it with tape or card and spraying with wreckless abandon. There are countless fancy techniques you can achieve with this method but I am still quite the noob.
Visible is yet another one of the school values: “Empathetic”. I do like the “P” and “C” in that one.
One side-effect of using relatively inexpensive card for your stencils, as we did, is that the paint utterly destroys them, as the above scene of carnage can attest. Some of them were reusable, which was a relief – mainly the ones that had only suffered spray-painting. The thickness of the acrylics when applied by hand proved too much for the carbon fibre – especially with all the thin little lines I had included in my stencils.
Which brings us to my bête noire; my white whale; my nemesis; the stencil I had been putting off for ages. The stencil I never really thought I’d have to do.
It was time to do Tower Bridge.
My apprehension regarding Tower Bridge was mainly to do with its size. I had merrily painted the river on the wall without a care for its dimensions, hoping only that it would be bold and visible. It turned out that the width of the river on the mural was roughly a metre and twenty, meaning that the span of the bridge had to be at least that; and, in order for the whole thing not look awkward, the towers that give the bridge its very name would have to be utterly massive.
Like I said, I was intimidated. My card was only A1-sized. I panicked.
I was an idiot. The idea came to me in the bath, like all ideas do, and I cursed myself for a fool. Tower Bridge may have to be large, that was true, but it was also symmetrical; do one side and you’ve effectively already got the second side!
This was the preliminary result. The towers themselves are composed from two seperate stencils; one for the main shaft (ahem) and another one for crowning peak. The bridge and walkway sections are the same singular stencil, just repeated across. In this instance I began on the north side of the river and worked across from there.
As mentioned previously, the hand-painting method really takes its toll on the old stencils so, bearing in mind how many times I would have to reuse these ones, I had to be a little more careful with my sloppy painting. The railings, seen at the lower left, were particularly tricky, as you might imagine; they were like crusty blue tagliatelle by the end of it.
To the right of the north tower you can see the first of the school’s values; “Courageous”. This was done with the ‘negative’ stencil effect, as seen with the anchor on the box.
Also, below the south tower you can see what looks like some sort of blue box materialising, perhaps with a wheezing, groaning sound…
However, before we continue with the saga of Tower Bridge, we should probably check in with Rob…
Ah, there he is!
Meanwhile Rob was busy covering the top of the wall with a clear acrylic coating to aid with weather protection, as well as bestowing a lovely shiny coat to the wall. That done, we felt confident in reinstating the signage to better give us an idea of the finished product.
Look closely (some of these photos are poor quality due to being taken towards the end of the working day, as light failed us) and you can just about see that the trunking has been painted green.
The idea here was to replicate the Docklands Light Railway. Sticklers might well argue that it, in terms of our map, the location is well off. They might also well argue that the colour is perhaps more suited for the District Line.
Lighten up, guys! It’s only electrical trunking!
Another late addition to the design was the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which is almost an Accidental Partridge. This was a relatively simple stencil to do, though I did once more have to make use of my trusty dustbin to draw around.
Here you can see the anchor-party that the area representing the school has become. Also visible is the developing All-Seeing-Eye above Canary Wharf, and the final two school values: “Caring” and “Ambitious”.
Meanwhile, the side wall was also being decorated with the school’s values. It has to be said, using spray-paint is incredible fun…
By this stage, I had moved my ‘studio’ outside, the better to respond to ongoing threats…
…Ongoing threats such as the addition of the school’s motto above the electrical sub-station via the means of yet more automatically-drawn stencils…
If you look just above the motto you can see where the metal trimming along the top of the wall has been painted black. This was in order to better frame the mural, as well as neatening everything up.
Also, the All-Seeing-Eye was now complete, plus Canary Wharf had now fully benefited from the Laura Harrod-Green treatment and found its edges neatened up nicely.
We were nearing the end now, but there was one final touch I wanted to add; a literary flourish; something to stick in the kid’s minds; something evocative.
I could have added crass words of my own, but thankfully inspiration struck on the tube into work. Or rather, I read a poem on the tube into work and immediately realised that it would be perfect. The poem in question is “The Conversation of Old Men” by Thom Gunn, and the full text is below:
He feels a breeze rise from
the Thames, as far off
as Rotherhithe, in
intimate contact with
water, slimy hulls,
dark wood greenish
at waterline – touching
then leaving what it
lightly touches; he
goes on talking, and this is
the life of wind on water.
Rather than use the whole poem I selected certain lines; like a charlatan, those that would fit my intended theme…
But what of Tower Bridge? Well, it just needed a few last touches…
And what’s that underneath it…? That blue box appears to have fully materialised…
So, we really were reaching the end now (after thinking we were reaching the end for several days!). There remained one last task to do, before slapping clear acrylic over the whole thing and sealing it for future generations to puzzle over.
This was a far more prosaic task – a stencil pointing people towards the main office of the school. I include this purely because it was the one stencil I bothered to photograph before giving it to Rob to cut out, and I find all the pencil lines rather pretty!
Also seen is yet more of the black bordering done along the metal work. It’s worth noting that the wooden panel upon which the “Main Office” stencil has been applied is brand new, the original one being completely rotten. Rob managed to remove it after many fun hours with a hammer.
The last few things to do were to touch up the edges of the river to make sure everything was as smooth as could be, and also use the light blue masonry paint and cobalt-blue acrylic to mop up any spillages that might have occurred over the weeks.
With that done, all we had to do now was apply the sealant, though there was one final stencil that had to go up…
In addition to painting the mural I have also been busy painting a few little bits and pieces on the fence of the school’s attached creche, which is also in the process of being redeveloped by New Roots.
This is Mr Spider……And this is Mr Spider and one of the Mr Bees. Mr Bee is incomplete in this picture, having since received a black outline to better delineate him. Oh and yes, Mr Spider does have Spider-Man eyes (black costume, obv).
Sadly, what I don’t have a picture of is the top of the fence where Mr Spider has his web, along with several dead flies. Hey, it’s all for kids!
Below is the preliminary stage of Mr Wasp. All of these were drawn with chalk prior to painting. This fence certainly proved a challenge, due to all the irritating overlapping slats. The rotten nature of the occasional slat didn’t help, soaking up the paint like a sponge. That yellow needed about three coats! Still, hopefully it was worth it. Mr Wasp lives! So far my final contribution to the fence is this familiar little fellow… Gnashee!
On the whole, I must say that this whole enterprise has proved to be one of my most rewarding experiences and a great way to spend the summer. It’s forced me to dig deep and call on skills that I thought were long gone, and working alongside your friends is always going to be better than the alternative. Now, I’m just looking forward to the next project…