Introduction: Painted Utility Box Public Art/Mural
I was assigned a utility box by the City of Dublin (CA) to paint and beautify the city. I've painted murals before, but when I looked for tips on painting these boxes, I found pictures of finished work, but no instructions. So maybe I'll be the first to post a how-to guide for this project! I'll go through all the steps it took to turn an ugly metal box into a beautiful piece of public art. And even if you don't have a utility box to paint, my techniques will be useful for whatever you want to beautify, from an outdoor metal shed to metal fencing.
My utility box is at the corner of Lockhart St and Central Parkway (by Fallon Park) in Dublin, CA.
Step 1: Make a Plan
Come up with an idea or theme that makes sense for the location of your artwork. My utility box is directly across from a busy park where people often fly kites. I love looking at the colorful kites when I drive past, so I decided this would be my theme. Further, I wanted each kite to represent an aspect of Dublin life and culture. As such, I chose to include the following elements in my design:
Red Tailed Hawk
Step 2: Measure
Take photos of the box from all angles. The photos will help you plan your painting, and also remind you of how people will see each surface.
Measure all surfaces to be painted.
Use the photos and measurements to draw up a blank template of the box with correct proportions. You can sketch this on paper or make a digital template. Whatever you're most comfortable doing. You can make a dimensional rendering, like I did, or just a proportioned rectangle for each panel.
Step 3: Sketch Elements
Make sketches of the elements you want to use in your design. I drew these by hand and then transferred them into digital format.
Step 4: Color
Work out the colors you want to use. The digital format made these very easy try out different color combinations by adding different fills. Just remember that what you see on a computer screen can't be matched exactly with paint.
Step 5: Put It Together
Now comes the real fun of the designing process. Lay out your elements on the template. Having some wrap-around artwork makes for a much more interesting design then just having a painting confined to each panel.
When planning out the design elements remember to take size into account! Think in terms of how much of the box will an element occupy? And how big will an element be in the real world?
Note how far away people will see your artwork from. Will they be driving past? Walking past? Both? Look at your photos to get a better idea of how the painting will be seen.
Step 6: Prepare the Box
For the next few steps YOU WILL NEED:
Fine and medium grade sandpaper and/or sanding blocks
Water (I had no water source and had to bring my own in jugs.)
Cleanser, like Simple Green
Mask for sanding
Possibly a ladder
In order to create a surface that will accept lasting artwork, expect to use a little elbow grease.
First, brush off the whole box with the broom. Don't forget the top. Then wash down the whole box using cleanser and water, starting with the top surfaces. Use the scrub brush to get into vents and attack stubborn dirt. Clean the undersides also. Ignore the spiders.
Next, sand every surface that will be painted. Wipe off the sanding dust with a damp rag (paper towel isn't good for this because it leaves fibers behind).
Step 7: Tape
Cities have rules about what gets painted and what doesn't. Make sure you know exactly what needs to be masked off.
Use the painter's tape to mask off everything that WON'T be painted. If you have curved areas to mask, cut pieces of tape to the right shapes.
When you're done masking, you're ready for primer.
Step 8: Primer
You will need adhesion primer or metal primer paint and all supplies for painting (same as you would use for house painting). I tried a roller first, but found it was leaving too much texture and switched to large brushes. If your primer is an all-in-one, you can use it white from the can, or have it colored for your base coat.
Paint starting at the top. Make sure you get into all the nooks and crannies, pipes, etc. Paint everything with the primer that wasn't masked off. Use 2-3 coats.
Step 9: Start the Art - Background
Since my kites would be flying in a blue sky, I decided to paint my entire background first and add the kites on top.
I started by brush painting some clouds to get an idea of what I wanted, almost like a sketch. I only did one panel like this, and would ultimately paint over it. (I figured if it was really bad, it would be easy to go back to the primer and try again.)
Step 10: Clouds!
This part took a few days because I needed multiple passes, but was super fun!
To paint the clouds you need 1-3 cans of Krylon white outdoor paint and primer and 1 can of darker blue or grey outdoor spray paint. And a respirator for aerosols.
To get started, spray paint the general areas you want clouds with the white. Use a light coat so you don't get patches or drips.
Let dry fully!
Step 11: More Clouds
For the next pass, lightly spray a second coat of white, going outside the boundaries of the first coat. Then take your darker spray paint and spray the bottoms of the clouds in an irregular pattern. Use a little in-between some clouds as well.
Let dry fully!
For the third pass, lightly spray just white again, but this time don't cover everything. Spray some puffs in the middle of clouds to create highlights. Spray some horizontal strokes to create wisps. Now decide if the clouds are done. If they need more dimension. Let dry and spray again.
When I got to this point most people passing by thought I was done. But I had barely begun!
Step 12: Design Transfer
Back to the computer. I cleaned up my line drawings and made printouts.
Then I used a projector to enlarge the drawings on the box so I could trace them. Once the drawings were projected on the actual box and I got to see the real proportions, I adjusted the design a little. Also, people liked the clouds so much I decided to omit a couple of kites so the clouds weren't totally covered up.
This meant going out at night so I could see the projected lines.
I used my car battery to power the projector because I had no electricity.
I only did one side at a time.
I tried a number of different media to sketch on the box, and the winner was white school chalk. You'll see the chalk in some of the later photos. Marker was the worst. Don't use marker.
Hint for drawing at night: Try to ignore the mosquitoes.
Step 13: Time to Paint the Art
YOU WILL NEED
Acrylic paint in the colors you need, the brands below will have the right vibrance and opacity, Make sure not to get transparent hues unless you mean to:
Nova Color Lightfastness 1
Golden Acrylic Paints
Liquitex Acrylic High Viscosity Paint
(I used a combination of brands)
Water for paint brushes
Plates or pie tins for palettes
Cups for water and paint mixing
Step 14: Painting
Tape a color printout of the design to the box with painter's tape.
Then start filling in your lines according to your color sketch. Paint one color at a time.
If the background shows through, let dry and add more coats.
Note: I masked off some of my shapes at first, but I wouldn't bother again.
Step 15: Paint Away
Keep painting. Make sure to get the tops and sides of any irregular surfaces, like the panel in these photos.
Note: The bright colors attract a lot of bugs. Try to ignore the ants.
Step 16: Assess
With the first kite done, I took a step back to decide if I was happy with what I planned next. Yup. All good. (Well, except for the hawk on this side that I omitted.)
Community Note: I tried hard to leave things in an attractive state whenever possible. There were many interruptions, like a heat wave and wild fires, during the project and I wanted to leave neighborhood something nice while I couldn't paint.
Step 17: Second Kite
This project actually took a couple of months (including weather and fire breaks) to complete, so my days became numbered in kites.
Note how the shamrock kite wraps around the edge. It's not a lot, but it made a big difference when you walked by.
Step 18: Tail
The tail is painted freehand and runs over a vent.
Step 19: Next Side
I was ready for the other big panel, which I thought of as the front (since that's the way I drive there).
Following the same process as before, I began the red-tailed hawk, the most detailed part of the design.
If you haven't already, it's safe to remove all the painter's tape now.
Step 20: Details
I used small detailing brushes for the eyes and beak.
Step 21: Primer Again
On this side I had some shapes without detail and also some freehand painting. Since I didn't need to see any line work, I was able to fill in those shapes with white primer. The primer allowed me to use fewer coats of color.
Step 22: Kites & Tails
Once I had the rainbow kites and the hawk mostly done, I added flowing kite tails using a thin brush. The tails really add to the illusion of flying.
Step 23: Sides
Originally I planned to have much more artwork on the sides, but that was before I realized there was lots of cabinet stuff going on, like vents and handles. I adjusted by bringing the rainbow kites around further and making them bigger. Here you see primer blocking out the next few kite pieces.
The rainbow train kite will now go around 3 sides, which is also really nice for how people walk along the sidewalk.
Step 24: Keep on Painting
Step 25: Finishing the Rainbow
I got the rest of the rainbow pieces filled in and tails on.
Step 26: Last Tails
At some point I decided the kites needed to seem more like they were high up and bleed off the top edge. Rather than move one of he kites further up, I added tails coming down. These are painted freehand, after sketching them in chalk. They gave just the effect I was hoping for.
Step 27: Kite Strings
I'd been planning to add the strings all along, but when it came time I was worried about drawing lines over all my hard work. But I'm glad I stuck to the plan. The strings made the train kites really look right, and everything else had another layer of realism.
I did the strings in two ways. For some, I painted with solid color paint using a very thin brush. These lines were a little thicker than I wanted, so the on the other side I used paint pens.
If you are using an anti graffiti coating at the end, test it over the paint pens in an out of the way place first. If it dissolves the paint, go over every paint pen line with clear acrylic medium. I used 2 coats. You won't need the clear medium for regular acrylic paint.
Step 28: Clear Coat & Done!
After all the paint was dry and all the line work was protected, I brushed off and wiped down the box for the last time. Then I applied 2 coats of anti-graffiti coating/clear coat finish supplied by the city. This is drippy, so start at the top and work your way down and around. Don't go over any coating that is tacky because it beads up. This only took an hour or two.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and find it useful for your own outdoor art project!
Runner Up in the