Making Murals, Making History
A Mural Making Guide for K-12 Teachers
by Tony Osumi

Part 1

Murals are more than just giant paintings. Teachers should think of murals not only as art projects, but as an interactive process that blends collaborative grouping, history, current events, local communities, social change, and leadership skills. Below are some thoughts on what I believe makes a successful mural and a step-by-step introduction to mural making for K-12 teachers.

The following tips are for acrylic paints, but the mural making process can be applied to any of the art materials teachers find at their schools, including markers, crayons, butcher paper, etc.

Seven Great Things A Mural Should Do:
1. Give students a voice and a platform to express themselves. Murals should reflect the history, experiences, needs, and aspirations of the mural makers and the local community. It is important that everybody has a role to play--everybody’s ideas are considered. This is especially important for our students who have not found success in academics, but have other strengths ready to share.

2. Bring people together. Making murals using collaborative and democratic methods, provides a tiny microcosm, a working model of the world we want to build. Even though we can’t create total unity and cooperation among all people, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t paint and aspire towards it. With this in mind, as an organizing tool, murals can bring students, parents, and school staff personally closer together.

3. Have a meaningful message.
Murals should not only be aesthetically beautiful, but should also educate, challenge, and inspire. At their best, murals are layered with meaning and speak to wide audiences, unveiling their messages over time. Some messages are literal, some symbolic and abstract.

4. Build success and hope. Participants not only learn how to make a mural, they gain skills and confidence to take on future community projects. If students realize what they can accomplish by working together on the mural, they will take away a powerful lesson on what people can do if they organize, collaborate, and work together to make their neighborhoods/lives better.

5. Expand the concept of history and history makers. Murals give voice and presence to those communities and historical events often excluded in our society--women, people of color, gender issues, working class people, freedom fighters, etc. Mural making is a perfect time to go beyond the text books and have students and teachers get out into the community, incorporate local concerns, and through oral histories and photos, access the richness and wisdom of our students’ families.

6. Strengthen the ties between school and the community. Murals provides students practice in bringing their educations back to their communities to benefit others. Language arts skills like reading, researching and writing take on authentic relevance as students see how their educational skills can be applied in meaningfully ways.

7. Allows students and teachers to learn and have fun!

Simple Steps To Mural Making
Below is a brief outline of the mural making process. I’ve tried including the most important information to get you started. But like all lesson plans and How Tos, teachers must bring their own skills, creativity, and experiences to make them work. Use the following guide only as a springboard.
If you’ve never done a mural, start small. Don’t let inexperience keep you from trying, but don’t get in over your head. The size of the mural is not as important as the mural message and what you and your students will learn making it. Go for it, get your feet wet and use the experience to build on.
The following is specific to a wood panel mural. Murals are usually painted on walls, but for classroom teachers, moveable wood or canvas murals have several advantages over those painted on walls.
First, wood panel murals do not require school-site permission to paint. Even if you can’t find a location or permission from your principal, you can still get started. Secondly, wood panel murals can be painted safely inside the classroom in a controlled environment. Lastly, moveable murals can be permanently hung in awkward locations too high or dangerous for students to access safely and if the need ever arises, they can be moved to new locations.

Getting Started
Before you start you should have an idea of where the mural will be hung once it’s finished. This is important to build not only student motivation, but it will also affect the mural design. The amount of small and large details will depends on how close the mural will be to its audience. Also, don’t let the school be the only location for your mural. Preschools, social service agencies, senior centers, parks, and local businesses are all potential sites for murals.

1. Decide on a theme
Like the Writing Process, deciding on a mural theme is similar to the brainstorming process. After deciding who the mural’s audience will be, students brainstorm mural ideas and the message they want to communicate. For teachers, this is an opportunity for students to interpret and culminate the learning they’ve been doing. Students can work as a whole class or in small groups.

2. Brainstorm mural images
Once the mural’s theme is chosen, students should brainstorm images that communicate the theme. Similar to the Drafting Stage of the Writing Process, students get their ideas down on paper. Some of the most successful mural images communicate their messages without the need of text because the visuals are self-explanatory. Keep an eye out for drawings that display wonderful insight and creativity, but lack artistic skill.

Don’t forget to use magazines, family photos and history books as resources. Images can be manipulated and changed to fit your needs. Tracing paper can be used to copy images.

3. Combining the best of the best
With teacher guidance, students take the best of their drawings and mix and match images to come up with a design that’s a balance between being aesthetically pleasing and educationally relevant and meaningful. Get students started by photocopying student drawings and having them cut and paste their images together.

4. Photocopying the image
Once the design is decided upon, photocopy the blackline master so students can color the mural in. It is important that the mural colors are decided upon before painting begins so the painting process will go smoothly.

Now that you have the mural design, it’s time to get the painting surface ready. There a numerous sizes of plywood panels available, 4’ x 8’, 4’ x 4’, and 2’ x 4’. The larger the panel, the thicker it should be. If the mural is going to be hung outside and exposed to the elements, the panel should be at least 1/2’’, 5/8", or 3/4". If the mural is going to be located inside, a 1/4" or thicker is sufficient.

There are numerous grades and qualities of plywood at the hardware store. Go for something economical, but don’t let a few dollars keep you from buying a better piece of wood. Stay away from particle board and heavily bowed plywood.

5. Preparing the wood surface
Sand the wood surface, especially the front and sides. Smooth the corners and any sharp edges. After removing all sawdust, paint two base coats of white paint (gesso). On large panels such as 4’x8’, use a paint roller on the front and back and a brush on the sides to seal small gaps.

6. Trace the outline of the mural image onto the panel
Using an overhead projector align the design and have students trace the image using a pencil. Warning: Do not erase any mistakes. The rubber from the eraser can keep the paint from sticking. Depending on the grade level, once the lines are drawn, the teacher or students should outline image with a dark colored paint.

7. Students paint and fill in the images like a giant coloring book.
This is where many people get nervous because they feel they don’t have any artistic skills. So, first off, relax. Acrylic paints can always be painted over, so don’t worry about mistakes.

Secondly, while art does take some skills, so does reading, writing and arithmetic. And we expect these skills from ourselves and our students. Art should be no different. Artists are often no more "skilled" than the rest of us, except for one important difference: They feel much more confident and comfortable about making art. Use mural making as a time to give students - and ourselves - the confidence to make art part of our daily lives instead of a process left to a "talented" few. Here are several painting tips to get you started:

* The teacher should model painting in smooth even strokes. Painting too thick or gobbing on the paint can cause peeling later on. Keep paint from mixing, by not painting one section to another section that is still wet.

* Grouping students and creating a painting schedule will help organize eager students. Divide the painting into small chunks and give students specific directions.

* It is a good idea to have a student or teacher that is experienced to "clean up" the mural and straighten up any details after the majority of students have painted.

* The amount of work an experience painter does will affect the look of the mural. It will be a decision for the teacher to make on how much of a "student" look the mural will have compared to a more "professional" look. This is a balance that each teacher must make for themselves. You might want to compare the painting process to editing and proofreading student writing. We want the student’s voice to show, but we also need to guide them into making it readable. Communicating clearly is the key. The mural image is no different.

8. Clear coat the mural.
Once the mural is done, protect it from the elements by painting on two coats of a clear varnish or medium. Stay away from clear coats that are too shiny. This is best done by the teacher or someone with experience because if the varnish is overworked it can lead to a hazing effect after it dries. Read the directions carefully and if you have any questions ask to the salesperson.

9. Make final arrangements for the mural to be hung.
Campus maintenance, District crews or skilled parents can help. If screws are drilled into the mural, make that you later cover and protect those areas with the clear coat varnish.

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