One Mural at a Time
Handpainted murals combine fine-arts techniques, big-scale props and a lot of paint! I admire the mural artists who can depict an object, a scene or a moment in history for the world to see. From a distance, either by rushing in traffic on a suspension bridge, riding the “ducks” (hydro cars) on a Saturday afternoon in the Ohio River, or just leisurely driving through a scenic, quaint town like Maysville, KY, I’ve admired the floodwall murals I’ve encountered many times for the past 12 years I’ve lived in the Ohio Valley. Or, perhaps, I crossed their paths.
Historic murals bring the past to life. At times, they evoke pride and nostalgia within the local community; to others, they provide a window of information to tourists or newcomers. Regardless, they’ve always been integral to the city landscape.
In 1997, the Maysville-Mason County Floodwall Mural Committee hoped to lure a renowned artist to paint a dozen murals along the Ohio River and beautify the gray walls by illustrating and preserving some of the town’s early river history as a major passageway into the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The committee commissioned Robert Dafford, of Robert Dafford Murals (Lafayette, LA), as the lead muralist who would produce nine of the 10 flood murals that now embellish the Maysville skyline. I was impressed by his down-to-earth persona and crisp recollection of the project that started more than a decade ago.
How the murals were done
During his research for the Maysville paintings, Robert relied on written descriptions, library research and visits to the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, particularly its dioramas. The center showcases the people and events of a seven-county area through the dioramas, artifacts, a fine-art gallery and a genealogy library.
After having completed the research, Robert loosely sketched his first round of drawings on paper and transferred most of them onto the wall, to scale, with Sharpie pens.
A basic color gamut is important to set at the beginning because “murals are so site specific that you know what color idea will work or not, depending on light, surroundings and environment,” Robert said. After having chosen the main, basic colors, his assistants locked in the composition.
During the first stage of any mural, he concentrates on the simplest shapes and colors, in this case, of the buildings, sky and river, rather than the complicated details. Then, he begins drawing a second level of details – outlines of people, wagons, etc., that are developed, but not yet tri-dimensional shapes. The layers allow him to easily move shapes until he’s happy with the composition. Then a third layer adds even more detail.
His team for this project – which lasted roughly 10 years while the Maysville community raised funds through donations, one mural at a time-- included his brother Douglas, Herb Roe, Bret Chigoy and Benny Graeff, among others. Herb and Bret worked the detail, while Douglas completed most of the preparation work, such as pressure washing, applying the Thoroseal waterproof, cement-based coating and scaffolding.
With more than 300 murals worldwide under his belt, Robert usually draws most of the figures himself and corrects architectural-landscape scale and shadows. He painstakingly applies the rules of perspective to impart depth and realism. By carefully fading the diminishing chroma of color, he establishes the vital, atmospheric perspective that characterizes his work.
Dafford Murals primarily used industrial acrylic paints, except for the Rosemary Clooney mural, the last in this series, which he painted with prime mineral silicates. Mineral silicates offer 50-year durability, compared with the acrylics’ 30-year outdoor durability. Robert said the mural paint’s life expectancy depends on the wall conditions and climate.
The Germantown Fair mural, which Roe developed, was based on a postcard from the early 1920s. Roe and Doug Dafford painted the nostalgic Market Street scene using an overhead projector at night to transpose the image onto the wall, and then added extra detail.
After having completed each project, Dafford Murals offers restoration and cleaning services. Robert said murals should be cleaned at least once a year to prevent premature aging and deterioration.
About the artist
Robert’s artistic career started in high school, where he took four years of art classes. He later interrupted his art/engineering studies at Southwestern University in Louisiana to serve as a naval illu¬strator during the Vietnam War on board the U.S.S. Independence in the Mediterranean.
Upon his return to the U.S., he successfully started a signmaking business with a friend. Robert always tried to include some lettering art in his signage. He was commissioned, in 1978, to paint two murals at the Arcadian Village, Lafayette, LA‘s oldest, authentic vision of Cajun life in the 19th Century. The project accredited him as an historical-mural painter, and he also discovered he liked to draw in a large scale. He’s been painting murals ever since in Canada, Europe and the U.S.
With time, his interest in imparting photographic realism to his works in various styles, depending on the project theme and location, has made him a master of this technique, of which he only considers himself an apprentice.
Robert enjoys his “nomad” life and working with his team. An original member of his crew is his brother Douglas, whom he refers to as his technical engineer. Currently, Robert is working in Point Pleasant, WV, with Miriam, his daughter, who has followed her father’s passion for mural painting. They’ve been working there for five years on the town’s historical flood murals project.
A word of advice
Robert advises aspiring muralists that determination and perseverance, combined with constant study of the field, has helped him overcome many obstacles. “Don’t get discouraged by looking around and comparing yourself to friends in other fields. Give yourself some years to get established. In 10 to 15 years, you will look back and see it was worth the effort,” Robert said.
He also stresses marketing. Robert said, “You can sell an empty bottle for a penny or a million dollars, depending on how you promote it. It’s the same with an artist. You can be the best in your field, but, if nobody knows you, you won’t sell what you do. Getting yourself noticed is as important as your work.”
Thanks to Robert Dafford and Vicky Steigleder, executive director of the Maysville-Mason County Chamber of Commerce, for granting the interviews. Also, the staff at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center and the Maysville Public Library contributed their time and resources.
Nancy Bottoms is the associate publisher and editor of Signs of the Times and Screen Printing en Espanol.