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!
Echline Primary School – Queensferry Crossing Mural
South Queensferry, a town ten miles west of Edinburgh and already world famous for its Forth Road and Forth Rail Bridges, entered a new phase in its history in 2017 when a third bridge was built on the Firth of Forth.
Local school Echline Primary already had an interior bridge mural which had been on site for more than twenty years. It was very well executed, much loved and had stood the test of time, but it was now a bridge short and it was deemed time for a new version. The old mural was careful taken down and hopefully it will be preserved in some form for the school’s archives.
The school wanted a crowd mural as they were really inspired by some of my past work, but with the added feature of having the kids helping to build it.
South Queensferry has a famous annual town ‘Ferry Fair’ so I decided to base the mural on that for crowd vibrancy, and have the three bridges in the background. I produced a drawing that would steer the whole project, which was approved by the school ahead of the project launch.
On the Friday before the mural started, I presented at a school assembly where I introduced myself and my work, and showed the children some of my videos.
During the week of the project I worked with all the children from primary one through primary seven. The idea was that some of the children would paint themselves into the painting while others worked on the buildings and background. The mural evolved throughout the week and I painted alongside the children to help continually steer the picture towards its vision. It was all done and dusted in a week. I heard reports from the teachers that the kids were delighted to work with “Mr Hat”. Many of them learnt top hat spinning as a byproduct of my residency.
The mural was also featured in an article in the Edinburgh Evening News as part of the school’s celebration of the new bridge.
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: