Painted Utility Box Public Art/Mural

9,380

30

31

Introduction: Painted Utility Box Public Art/Mural

About: Geeky artist. MUST. MAKE. STUFF. More stuff at: rhondachasedesign.com

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

Shamrock

Rainbow

Foothills

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.

IMPORTANT

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

Broom

Scrub brush

Water (I had no water source and had to bring my own in jugs.)

Cleanser, like Simple Green

Painters tape

Scissor

Mask for sanding

Rags

Possibly a ladder

Start Prepping

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.

Rinse well.

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.

Some Notes:

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)

Artist brushes

Water for paint brushes

Rags

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.

VERY IMPORTANT!

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!

1000th Contest

Runner Up in the
1000th Contest

Be the First to Share

    Recommendations

    • Plywood Challenge

      Plywood Challenge
    • Plastic Contest

      Plastic Contest
    • Battery Powered Contest

      Battery Powered Contest

    31 Discussions

    1
    taraducktyl
    taraducktyl

    27 days ago

    I grew up in/my parents still live in Pleasanton, so I will have to go out and find your utility box. It's beautiful, and I love that I know the explanation of what you painted!

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 27 days ago

    Thank you! Let me know when you find it :-) Where in Pleasanton are your parents? I'm in Birdland :-)

    0
    taraducktyl
    taraducktyl

    Reply 27 days ago

    Valley Trails :)

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 27 days ago

    Wait a minute...did you used to teach piano?

    0
    taraducktyl
    taraducktyl

    Reply 27 days ago

    Yes.... do I know you??

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 27 days ago

    Yes! I thought your username sounded familiar :-) You gave lessons to my kids, but it’s so long ago, I don’t even remember which one. Or both? (Probably my son.) If you look at my earliest instructables, there are pics of my kids. Do they look familiar? I remember being at your mom’s house, and your adorable baby. That’s how long ago this was! (When it’s not 5am, I’m going to see if I have any records from back then :-)

    0
    taraducktyl
    taraducktyl

    Reply 26 days ago

    If I just had one baby, that baby is now 15 years old!

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 25 days ago

    Wow! (My son is 19 now :-) Here's a picture from back then in case it jogs your memory. Also, he sang in operas...

    IMG_2148.JPG
    0
    Dublin Skip
    Dublin Skip

    4 weeks ago on Step 28

    This was a great explanation! Thanks so much. And your art really makes our city so much prettier.

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    Thank you so much! And I'm so glad people are enjoying it! :-)

    2
    GreatLakes2020
    GreatLakes2020

    5 weeks ago

    This looks great. However, I have 30+ years in the utility industry. Many of these cabinets are environmentally controlled. This includes vents and anti reflective paint. Also the paint color can affect the temp inside the cabinet. It’s best to check with whichever utility owns the cabinet before painting. I have personally had to replace several cabinets due to the paint clogging ventilation. But it does look a lot better than the gray/green/ or beige we use.

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    Thank you for pointing this out! The city should work with with the utility company and provide information about allowed colors and what to mask off. I know of at least one project that had a black base coat and needed to be repainted so the box wouldn't overheat. I had a final sign off by the city to make sure everything was done right :-)

    1
    tvengineer
    tvengineer

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    In my city, every utility box like this has been painted.. I am sure that they require the artist to use the proper materials and to not cover up any ventilation areas.

    1
    tatianaelliston
    tatianaelliston

    5 weeks ago

    Dear Rhonda, I love your work, and I love your instructible. Thank you very much for publishing it. Because I LOVE the idea of painted boxes, I did similar project myself for my city. I had similar problems you described. First, I could not find any information on painting metal boxes. The whole process was strictly regulated by the city with lots of written instructions. My design went through 3 stages of approval, the last one by the city council. The theme was given to me. Also, there were lots of guidelines of not opening the box and not painting over signs and labels etc.
    To wash it, I brought jugs of water and a bucket. I used small amount "TSP/90 Heavy Duty Cleaner", but made sure little or no water goes into street drains. It could contaminate our Bay. I used 4" foam roller to prime the box, but ended up painting everything else with brushes. Overall I used less paint than I estimated by measuring the surface. I used house paint for background and large objects. I used Liquitex, Golden Acrylics and Amsterdam acrylic paints for touch ups and bright small details. I was not familiar with Amsterdam brand of paint, but the art store owner told me it is great for murals.
    I found that willow charcoal works the best for me for outlining. It is probably because I painted dark shapes on light background. I could see my outlines from a distance. Before I started painting I double-checked that my design looks OK from a distance and from all directions.
    Our city provided anti graffiti sealant for me. It was nice.
    Regards,
    Tatiana

    FE7E1CFA-A87A-4655-8FAF-472F2DB87A4F.jpegD359CC52-C0E5-40C9-957A-2593655FC5E7.jpeg
    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    That's beautiful, Tatiana! It's interesting to hear your experience. So much was the same, like the issue of needing to bring your own water for cleaning. I had to use Simple Green, which is pretty environmentally friendly, but I still had to be careful. I also had a much looser approval process - a lot more casual than I expected. I like the idea of charcoal. It seems ideal for a light surface. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1
    Jean-Claude 80
    Jean-Claude 80

    5 weeks ago

    Very nice.
    Never thought of the graffiti, have to admit that painted ones rarely get covered over here.

    Our city also organises this.
    My friend did already a bunch, her biggest challenge a giant 3x2m 3 faces of it.

    But the fun part is that all the “artists” (last year from 8 till 76y) get a bus ride with spouses, along all the projects of the year. And everyone takes the mic to speak about their chef d’oeuvre.
    We finish the guided tour with a dinner, on the city.
    Maybe a seed to plant ;-)

    0
    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 5 weeks ago

    Wow, that sounds awesome! Where are you? There's nothing for the artists like that here, but it must be wonderful to feel so appreciated! If you want to post one of your friend's pieces, please feel free. Vive l'art!

    1
    mmlewis63
    mmlewis63

    5 weeks ago on Step 12

    So glad you gave such detailed yet easy to follow directions! It turned out beautifully. Thank you for sharing!!

    2
    RobPaige
    RobPaige

    5 weeks ago

    First let me say that this came out very nice, it looks great. That said, I have a couple of notes. First, this is an example of a project done right. Rhonda worked with her city to get it done. Depending on where you (a hypothetical person who wants to do something like this) reside, you may need to work with your city and/or your local utility. Second, if you do take on a project like this, make sure not to obscure any labels or markings the utility needs for identification purposes. Finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough, under no circumstances should you attempt to open these boxes. Some of these boxes have low voltage equipment in them, some contain pretty beefy power transformers. In either case, arc flash hazards are a possibility, and these boxes should only be opened by properly trained personel.