Artist Eric Henn recently returned from Destin, FL, where he completed one of his signature water tower projects. Decorated with colorful examples of the region’s ample sea life, the tower has quickly become a cherished regional attraction.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Eric has learned a trick or two about handling this type of project, and he shared a few of them.
First off, how are you? Working in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic must’ve been a challenge.
Things have been fine. When I began the project in Destin, spring break was starting and it was packed. By the second week, [Florida] shut the restaurants and bars, and then shut the beaches. It went from packed to empty. It was pretty eerie. But, I’m fortunate. I’m pretty solo, so I’m able to safely do my work 100 ft. in the air.
Welcome to 2020, where it’s safer to be up 100 feet. How do you keep from being scared working at those heights?
Well, I always wear my safety harness, and I have a cell phone, of course. But, you know, every job takes a day to get used to. Cranes sway; they don’t always feel stable. But, I’ve learned to get acclimated. I’m certified on these lifts.
First off, I make sure the ground is stable. On this job, [the client] did a great job of leveling and putting crushed gravel around the tank. The biggest crane I use is a 180-footer. That crane weighs 55,000 lbs., [so] it will sink if it isn’t on a stable surface.
Also, you’ve got to pay attention to the weather. Every morning, I check the weather. And I don’t just mean storms. As soon as I go up 40 ft., there’s a 10-mph breeze. At 80 ft., it’s another 5-10 mph. On a windy day, it blows 35-40 mph at the top of the tank. Some days I can’t work because the wind will blow the paint off of my brush.
And you do all of your work with brushes and rollers. Why not spray?
Spraying is restricted in refineries, but in neighborhoods, like on this job, if I sprayed we would have aqua rooftops and cars. It would be a mess. The paint I use costs $400 per gallon, so I can’t waste it. A two-gallon mistake costs $800. But, [the Tnemec Series 700] paint is very durable and high gloss. It also has a very long lifespan.
Since this tower is spherical, how do you transfer your design onto it and account for perspective and composition?
That was tricky. Like, for the turtle, I cut a pattern using Tyvek sheets, and attached it with magnets. Then I got down and looked at it from a mile away, and from there the turtle looked too small. I made a turtle pattern that was twice as big. The bigger pattern used 16 sheets of 9 x 14-ft. Tyvek, and the turtle ended up 40 ft. long.
Using the patterns is funny. It takes a full day to attach the pattern to the tank. One day the public sees a white turtle, then the next day it’s gone. People don’t know what’s going on.
Are there any other challenges when painting on a globe?
On a tank, everything is distorted. I paint down onto the top of the tank, and my arms are up in the air when I’m painting the bottom. The easiest part to paint – I call it “the equator”– is the middle of the tank. Of course, the biggest challenge is just the size. This project used hundreds of colors. Every color you see on the tank, I custom-mixed. I mix them in large containers so I don’t run out.
Up on the lift, I’m working with seven colors at a time. The Tnemec is a difficult paint to work with. I have to add a hardener, then, I have 4-6 hours to work with it. Depending on the temperature, I have to add a thinner, too.
Wow. How are you able to achieve all the details?
It’s all just blending with the brushes. I purposely paint so it looks realistic up close. I’ve always done that, and I’m glad I did now, too, because drones fly up and film everything very close.
But, you have to keep everything bold and colorful. If everything is too monotone, [from a distance] it’s going to fade and look gray.
This is what I call myself … first of all I’m a painter, and I mean like a house painter. To prepare a job I roll paint on everything. I have to account for adhesion, durability, coating. Secondly, I’m a signpainter. I do big corporate logos and lettering. Lastly, I’m a muralist. In that order.
I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week when I’m on a job.
How do you get jobs?
At this point, jobs come to me. But I plan to do more specific marketing in the future, because I’d like to focus on towers. Last year I did 11 storage tanks.
If you could paint anything, what would your dream project be?
I’d love to decorate a cruise ship. Something very large-scale so I could really show what I can do. I’d also like to take the ocean scenes I’ve done on the Destin tower and create a casino swimming pool. I have this idea of painting a coral reef on the bottom of the pool and doing shadows that make the marine life look 3D.
What’s your take on the recent surge in the popularity of murals?
When I started out, I had a hard time talking people into doing murals. Now everybody wants murals, and has budgets for them. I’ve seen some incredible murals and silos from all over the world. The work is just great.
What advice do you give to young muralists?
I’ll give advice to anyone who asks me. There are no “secrets of the trade.” I’ll tell them how I do things, but you have to have the ability. I don’t see other muralists as competition. There’s so much work out there, so many different styles, I never feel like it’s a competition.
The big thing I tell people when they call is to make sure you estimate your time right so you get paid enough. The amount of time it takes to do high detail is deceiving. You don’t want to end up making $10 an hour.
I just love what I do. I put my heart and soul into my projects. I always try to do the next job better than the last job. I’m really never satisfied.
Destin, FL, Water Tank Mural
Size: The tank is 180 ft. tall, with a surface area of 16,500 sq. ft., and holds 750,000 gallons of water.
Materials + Equipment: Tnemec 700 Series Urethane paint; DuPont Tyvek polyethylene sheets; magnets; paint brushes and rollers; boom lifts (60, 135, 150 and 180 ft.)
Client: Destin Water Users
Eric Henn began his career painting surfboards and motorcycles in Virginia Beach, VA. Self-taught and working alone, the scale of his work soon grew to include murals, water towers, aquariums, theme parks and industrial tanks.
Eric has been transforming these large landmarks for more than 30 years, and his work can be seen from Los Angeles to Australia. During his career, Eric has accumulated accolades such as “Muralist of the Year,” “Artist of the Year” and “Tank of the Year.”