Recently I was approached by the Thistle Street Residents Committee to help with ‘Art on the Street’, a new public event celebrating the central Edinburgh street. Planned in 1767 as part of James Craig’s design and named after the national flower of Scotland, Thistle Street’s current residents and businesses wanted to create a unique Bank Holiday Monday experience that showcased all that the Georgian street has to offer.
For me, Thistle Street seemed like the perfect place to show a selection of my Scottish-themed murals. Some of these paintings are so big that they need an extremely large wall space in order to appreciate them, and the long stone walls of Thistle Street offered the perfect opportunity to do this.
A Hook for Bank Holiday Monday
At an early planning meeting it was clear that residents and businesses alike were excited at the prospect of a vibrant new event on the street. Plans were afoot to bring music and art to the event, but as a dad myself, I felt that content and activities for children was a wee bit lacking. In order for families to want to visit, I knew that there needed to be a “hook”, and with this in mind, I came up with the bright idea of a colouring event for the children. I have a lot of previous experience working with kids on large scale projects, and so I came up with the idea of having them chalk the streets, but with enough structure and focus that the drawings were appropriate for the event.
I designed some large scale Celtic shields – massive stencils that I could apply to the street with temporary chalk spray and which would create a long border down the road. We then successfully trialled it at an open studios event at Custom House, using the alley behind our studio and coaxing young visitors to take part.
On the morning of the event I lined the street with a number of my board murals. We were blessed with extraordinarily gorgeous weather and no wind, so we took advantage of this with metres of murals placed against the Georgian stone buildings.
My Tam o’Shanter mural (which consists of 8 boards measuring a total of 22 metres long by 2 metres high) and the massive Hogmanay mural (the entire image is 22 metres long by 2 metres high) were put at either end of the street to set the scene. In the middle of the length of Thistle Street I curved my Maggie Dickson mural like a small stage, and throughout the day I told Maggie’s lurid story to interested passersby. Peppered along the street were other counterpoint murals, including the 1736 Porteous Riots, and several pirate paintings.
The chalk colouring project was a big success with waves of children getting stuck in (while their relieved parents enjoyed a seat on the sunny side of the street) and the cobbled streets looked resplendent by the end of the day.
As well as me, the street was filled with other artists and their work. In particular, the nearby Edinburgh Drawing School set up shop and had a live drawing class where visitors of all ages could get some hands-on teaching in the sunshine.
There was also a range of live music filtering through the street, which provided added further ambience, and the passersby, visitors and residents alike thoroughly enjoyed the pop up mural trail and the day in the sun.
I have been a friend of Carole Racionzer for some time now and several years ago she also bought my 2012 portrait of my cousin Anna Rendall playing the cello.
I was delighted to learn that she was getting married to Stan in 2017, and when she asked if I could paint a picture as her main wedding present I was happy to help. The idea was that instead of her guests buying wine glasses or kitchen paraphernalia as presents, as a unique and personal alternative they could all chip in for a custom painting. I have long thought that many wedding photographs end up being quite formal, posed and lacking in soul. A party painting like the ones I am known for could provide a lasting memento of the day and it would also reflect the life and joy of their wedding celebration.
I decided to paint portraits of all the wedding guests as well as the main wedding party. Carole and Stan hosted their ceremony at Archerfield House in East Lothian, with a handfasting ceremony led by a Humanist minister and their guests arranged around them. It was decided that I would make a picture of that scene and build it on a circular canvas that reflected the shape of the ceremony. I gathered reference photos of the happy couple during the ceremony and then took pictures of as many wedding guests as I could get to pose at the time. I then went down to the reception venue and started the painting in full view of the guests. Throughout the day this painting process provided unique on-site entertainment for the wedding guests; I painted the main wedding party first, starting with the bride and groom before painting Carole’s daughters, the best man, the matron of honour, and the parents of the happy couple. People of all ages are fascinated by the process and the openness of how I do it, and wedding guests were constantly hovering around the easel, watching my progress.
To add to the ambience of my workspace, I brought four large boards of crowd scenes from my 2013 Hogmanay painting. This gave the guests an idea of the direction in which the wedding painting was going.
After the event the picture was taken back to the studio in Leith and the longer process of painting all the guests in began.
Once finished it was popped in a custom-made frame to be presented to Carole and Stan and hung in their Perth home. Job done!
George Watson’s College Upper Primary School Murals
In 2016 Junior School Headmaster George Salmond and I began discussing a potential project at George Watson’s College; he was really keen to have murals in the school that reflected the energy and enthusiasm of the current children. The plan was to work with Primary Four through Seven, ideally with all the children participating hands-on in the project.
Drawing directly from the school’s curriculum, each of the year groups were given their own historic theme; the Primary Fours learn about Vikings, the Primary Fives study the Battle of Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence, Primary Six learn about the Jacobite Rising and Primary Seven approach World War II as seen through the eyes of evacuees.
I have previously done group projects with large amounts of children and I think it’s really important that all the children are involved and that they are empowered to express themselves as a small part of a bigger picture.
I created four illustrations that would provide clarity and focus to the project, and came up with a plan so that the mural could be built remotely in bite sized chunks by the children and then fastened to the wall at a later date. Working in a school staircase which is also a chief fire escape route had unforeseen complications; understandably strict fire regulations meant that I had to ditch my usual plywood support and buy magnesium oxide fireproof sheet material, and once finished a fire-rated varnish had to be applied. Every day is a school day!
The project was launched at two special assemblies where I introduced myself and my work, and I showed them my Hogmanay video. I emphasised the ambition and scale of the project but also underlined that the plan was to make all four murals in an incredibly short period of time. The aim was to have them built from scratch and installed in a three week period, dancing around the school timetable and the children were super excited.
In week one I was given the use of Mr. Briggs’ primary six classroom which was available while the whole year was away on a trip. Over the course of that week three of the murals had their backs broken. The children were shipped in class by class and though to the untrained eye the production process seemed slightly chaotic, in fact the children were incredibly productive. The focus of the drawings and my urgency for them to visually communicate as fast as possible helped drive the project forward. Throughout the project my studio manager Sheila Masson was on site helping to corral the kids and prep the paint and materials. She has an illustration degree amongst her many skills so is well versed in painting, though at times the energy and craziness of the factory we had set up proved a bit wearing on her.
The primary six students were due back from their trip at the end of the first week so we moved the production base out of Mr. Briggs’ classroom and into the art department with the help of a class full of strong-looking primary sevens.
During the second week we had the huge help of the art department staff. They had allocated two classrooms as a production base for the murals which was fantastic. It allowed us to have a space where one of the murals could be laid out in its entirety on the floor (so that we and the kids could literally see the big picture), and another that functioned as the main production base with individual boards laid on tables for painting.
By the end of the second week the children had nearly finished the murals, so much so that we had to start some smaller projects to keep them busy. With the help of the art department and a huge roll of white paper, we set up a large-scale drawing in the art department lobby plus four mural boards of self portraits by all the children sorted into their respective school houses.
By the time we reached the end of week three, all my anxiety was focussed around the difficulty of getting the mural hung. The stairwells are nearly eight metres tall so the initial plan was to source a boom lift to help with the hanging. In the end my assistant Charlie Savin and I managed to hang the pictures over three intense days from a scaffold tower – we were under something of a deadline as we had to complete the hang over the midterm break, while no kids were on the premises.
Sheila and I were there when the children came back to school on the Thursday morning and there was a huge amount of excitement. All the children felt the accomplishment and pride of being a part of a big community project. The project goals had been achieved and the children had left a legacy in the stairwell as testimony to their effort. As I had said throughout, not all projects grind at the speed of evolution. In this case change came like a creative tsunami. The stairwells are now resplendent in a new coat of vibrant age-appropriate artwork that will hopefully inspire generations to come.
As with all of my projects, every step was filmed and time lapsed. Click HERE to see the final video of the murals’ creation.
And finally – the finished murals, pieced together:
After six years at my previous studio at St Margaret’s House in Edinburgh, I recently moved to Custom House in Leith; a stunning neoclassical pillared building that is a central landmark on the Leith landscape. After a prolonged period as the National Museums of Scotland’s storage facility, this A-List Georgian building is now being managed by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust who are encouraging a wide variety of creative people to build a new hive of activity in the heart of Leith.
There are two distinct buildings on the site: a the larger, more grand building situated on the corner of the Commercial Street and the Water of Leith, and the “cruiser” store, located behind the main building on a narrow cobbled lane that has been hidden from view for years. My new studio backs directly onto this lane via an extremely handy loading bay and this provides me with much better access for loading my often bulky murals.
Even more exciting however is the nascent creative community that is burgeoning within the space. The Christmas event on 17th and 18th December was the first open studio day that I’d been involved in at the Custom House since the move and therefore I thought I’d celebrate by undertaking my first live painting event in the new space.
The large loading bay was an extremely bland and tired-looking area so with the blessing of SBHT Director Una Richards, we set out to give it a seasonal makeover. As our new studio opens directly onto this space, I felt it was extremely important it project the creativity and joy that the new building and its new tenants aspire to. I enlisted my studio manager Sheila Masson – a talented artist (as well as a powerful brain) and we started work on the Wednesday afternoon, priming the space in preparation for our plan.
We decided to paint a Narnia themed mural as although there is a Christmas element to the story, it does not define it, so therefore the mural will remain relevant till spring. We spray painted a snowy landscape with a large scale Aslan and the ubiquitous lamp post front and centre. Sheila made a number of beautiful snow stencils that really set the tone and we quickly built an atmospheric frosted landscape.
Come the main event on the Saturday however it was important that we kept spray paints to a minimum due to the health and safety issues (and the pong!). The alley was filled food stalls and visitors to the building as well as regular Leith Farmers Market shoppers who wandered into the newly revealed space.
Moving on from the spray painted walls I changed my focus to shaped life size characters from the book, cut from large sheets of wooden board. I snared a few tenants and SHBT friends to pose for the The White Witch, her dwarf, Mr. Tumnus and a large scale Santa.
To keep the characters on theme and to compliment the visuals in the loading bay, I reused Sheila’s stencils to add surface detailing. The end result had a vibrancy reminiscent of textile design or a Rauschenberg painting.
The joy for me in collaboration is that every new partner brings fresh tools to the army and in this way Sheila’s stencils and application to the cause really enriched the product and added a further depth and subtlety to my directness and drive.
The loading bay mural is now established and the plan is to periodically adapt the visuals over the coming months and years. The hope is the magic will be infectious and over the coming years the building will permanently acquire some of the magic of Narnia.