Community Murals


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Complete a research project about their neighborhood
  • Learn basics of drawing and painting
  • Create illustrations about subjects they learned about
  • Learn how to better express themselves artistically
  • Implement thoughts and ideas into their art work
  • Learn the basics of color and design
  • Learn to work in a collaborative group sharing ideas and creating art together

Discussion Question(s)
  • What is a mural?
  • What artistic features are used in murals? 

Materials Needed


  • Interior or exterior wall, or a canvas stretched across a fence. Covers All Canvas (a store in Pittsburgh) can provide custom canvas with grommets which can be stretched across a fence with zip ties.
  • Paint supplies:  primer paint (use indoor or outdoor-appropriate paints), rollers, roller covers, roller trays, roller tray liners, water buckets, tape, rags and appropriate clothes. (Sherwin Williams paint products.)
  • Color paints. The best pallet to get is all primary and secondary colors, as well some white and some dark colors to mix a black. You can purchase tinted latex paints from companies such as Sherwin Williams or the premium choice is acrylic colors by Golden paints. You may find a need to mix custom colors depending on the design created. You can use the roller trays as pallets. It is best to have one tray for each student.
  • Artist brushes (various sized flat acrylic brushes which can be found at an art store), and large flat brushes angled brushes for large areas. (Purdy brand brushes are recommended.)
  • Sketch books, pencils, erasers, pens, markers, paints, brushes, and various classroom materials for the students to create sketches, which will later be translated into their contribution to the mural.
    Related websites
  • MLK Community Mural Project (November 2, 2009)
  • Andy Warhol Museum (November 2, 2009)

Set Up and Introduction


  • Introduce the idea of painting a mural.  Discuss murals students have seen in their community. 
  • Introduce the idea of Pop Culture.  See the Andy Warhol Museum website for ideas.
  • Announce the topic of the mural or discuss options as a class and select one together. Possible topics include:
    • Current life in the neighborhood
    • Your school
    • The history of the school’s neighborhood
    • Famous people from the region
    • How the town or neighborhood got its name
    • Current events
    • Anything the class is currently studying

  1. Research is the first and probably most important part of any mural.  Devote sufficient time for students to do research in the library or on the Internet.  Then, it is important that each student develop a collection of ideas and images that fit within the criteria of the mural, which they can bring to the class discussion.
  2. What artistic features are used in murals?  (The color wheel, hues, tones, warm and cool colors, primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, color contrasts, and color compliments)
  3. Divide the mural into sections and assign one to each team of students. 
  4. Using the images and research, teams make sketches creating their own section of the community mural. This can be an on-going process over a few days while other preparations for the mural are done.  Depending on the time frame allowed for the project, the teacher may want to divide the class time into 2 parts: mural preparation time and research and sketch time.
  5. The most important part of any mural is the wall/canvas preparation and priming.  Be sure that before the youth begin on the surface of the wall is fully patched with concrete, pointed (brick walls) or that the canvas is stretched on the wall or fence as tight as possible with zip ties.  The teachers or other adults should do the necessary patching and pointing.
  6. Priming.  Kids usually have a lot of fun doing this process.  It is messy, but it is so important to the over all piece. Some helpful tips are:
    1. Be sure the entire wall/canvas is completely covered.
    2. You can water down the primer up to 30 percent to be sure it covers faster; however, this usually means you will need a second coat.
    3. Be absolutely positive that the bottom and the top of the wall/canvas is lined with an extra thick coat of primer. The first place a mural will ever break down is where it is most exposed to the elements (rain, snow, hail, sun, splashed dirt, and salt); that is, at the top and the very bottom. It is very important that primer  seal these areas of the wall/canvas tightly.
    4. Use rollers to prime if the mural will be on a wall. It can be difficult to use rollers on a canvas if it is strapped to a fence, but it is not impossible.
    5. Canvas should be pulled tight to the fence with zip ties or strapped tight to a wall with screws.  Be aware that the canvas will shrink up to two inches once it is primed making it very tight and easy to paint on.
    6. Brick walls are a challenge to paint, so the best technique is to get a roller loaded thickly with primer and slowly roll down the wall with a lot of pressure. There will be a thick line of paint that pools under the roller, and, as the roller rolls down the wall the pool of paint will ease into the deeper areas where the mortar lies.  For a brick wall a thicker nap is recommended for the roller cover.
    7. Be sure to use appropriate primer paint for the job. If the piece is going to be outside, be sure to use outdoor primer. For indoor pieces use indoor primer. Sherwin Williams makes a really thick and sturdy primer.  It comes in one and five-gallon sizes.
    8. Most paint suppliers will tell you how much primer you need for the size of your mural space.
    9. For a canvas figure you will need about 1/3 more than recommended because the surface has a tendency to absorb a lot of the primer quickly.  
    10. Canvas should almost always be primed with watered-down primer and receive two to three coats.
    11. Be sure your surface is sealed completely and it will last for decades.
    12. The youth who work on the mural should always have appropriate clothing and access to a space to clean and change.
    13. Primer is made to be permanent and will not come out of clothes, but will wash off of skin.
    14. Be prepared for the possibility of some youth getting paint in their eyes, so always have buckets of clean water.
    15. Paint on the ground is very difficult to remove so use heavy canvas drop cloths to protect the area. In case spills do occur, be sure to keep rags and buckets of clean water around. Drowning the paint with water and scrubbing the surface with rags right away can usually wash spills away.
    16. Other buckets can be filled with water to clean brushes and to add water to the paint.
    17. One of the best ways to avoid paint spills is to making sure materials are always pressed up against the wall or far away from the wall. It is very common for artists to get focused on the piece and back up or move close while working on it. If there are buckets of open paint and brushes lying around the ground they may likely not notice and kick them over. So, be sure materials are always where they are supposed to be to avoid disaster.
    18. Keep your materials clean. Don’t leave brushes sitting in paint out in the sun.  Wash out rollers and brushes with soap and water at the end of the day. Allow brushes to dry flat.
    19. If priming is done with rollers and takes a few days, the rollers can be put inside a plastic grocery bag at the end of the day to keep the paint fresh on the roller.  Rollers are very difficult to clean completely, so this saves the trouble day to day during the priming stage.
  7. Next use masking tape to divide large geometric shapes on the surface of the mural.  Be sure there are more than there are students working on the project.  Use watered down primary and secondary colors to fill light washes in the shapes. Make sure it is not so watery that it drips but has enough water that it is not opaque.  Be sure not to put two shapes next to each other the same color. These colors will serve as the mid-tones for each composition and set the mood for each piece. These colors should be applied after the primer has cured (24 hours). This will create a colorful, exciting, dynamic background for the community mural. Once the colors have dried (24hours) remove the tape. The white lines left by the  paint should be filled with images and/or more washes as the process continues.
  8. While preparing the surface with primer and washes of color, the students should also be taking time to work on their sketches. The class time can be divided into 2 sections where they prepare the surface for part of the time and work on research and sketches for the other part of the time. Once the sketches are worked out and their ideas are complete about the pieces they want to do, put the sketches from all the groups together to see how they can work together. Discuss artistic aspects, such as that fact images tend to have directionality. Consider the architectural lines that point the eye in specific directions; the way characters look also directly the eye of the viewer or another character and other ways images direct the eye in a specific direction.  Use these as tools for laying out the mural. Find ways to make one image lead the eye into another. This creates a dynamic flow for the piece.
  9. Assign spaces on the mural for each student to create his/her piece. At this point assign them to a specific shape and color on the mural.  Then they can create color sketches that are specific to the mural. Direct them to use color contrasts and color compliments to make their pieces. This can be helpful for novice painters. Most youth have some experience drawing, but not necessarily with painting. To illustrate how this can make it easier imagine the following. A student is working on a light blue space. They can use just dark blue and white to draw their image with paint. This will look nice in the space and they won’t have to worry about mixing colors and figuring out how to do complicated flesh tones or strange materials. They can focus on an image like a black and white image, but in this case a blue and white image. They can use flecks of orange in areas to highlight important ideas. The flecks will stand out and feel important to the piece. It will also look appealing to the eye. Students can apply these sketches directly to the wall once they are all ready.
  10. Be sure to be clear about the deadline of the piece and keep the students on track. Some students become obsessed with one piece and could work on it forever, but at some point the piece has to be done.
  11. Tricks for students composing their pieces: 
    1. Get good clear images for reference.
    2. Draw big shapes first and work toward smaller shapes. For instance when drawing a face, draw the head before drawing the eyes. This helps keep the piece to scale and looking like it should. 
    3. The painting mantra is: loose to tight, back to front, dark to light. If paintings are done using these rules things in the background will look like they are behind the foreground; the light will look like it is on top of the objects; and the whole piece will come together.
  12. Once the piece is finished, there are several ways to protect the piece and ensure that it lasts for a long time. Anti-graffiti clear coat paint can be used. There are both permanent and wax-based coatings. Otherwise, a basic clear coat can be applied (found at all paint stores).  If there is damage to the piece, it can be scrubbed off. Some clear coat may be removed, but the image will not be damaged. Usually, it is recommended to wait 30 days to allow the paint to cure before applying any coating.  For canvas murals, it is easy to take it down and rehang anywhere once the piece is finished.  Caution:  after the priming stage, the canvas is generally very tight, but if it is moved, it is difficult to get the mural that tight again. It is best to keep it where you painted it, but it can be moved after it is painted.

Extending the lesson:

  • It is really important that the students share what they learned with each other. Students will have done their own research, developed their own ideas, and explored them artistically. Once it is all said and done, they should teach each other what they learned. One of the best ways to do this is by having a controlled critique of the art. The group can walk along the mural together discussing each section.  Individual artists can explain all that they have learned. This mural lesson can be very important because the research around the subject of the mural (history, science, math, English, or music) will give the students something to learn, but then also give them a creative outlet to explore what they learned. In other words they can now see what they learned means to them. This project can fit into any kind of class because the learning is not isolated to the arts. The students should take time to go beyond the painting and experience an education like they never have before.

Assessment and Wrap Up


  • Students can draw a sequence of sketches showing the process of painting the mural.  Or, they can write an essay explaining the process or their experience with the mural.

Note:  Not everyone is artistically inclined and it isn’t a competition as to who can draw better or whose piece looks better on the mural. What is most important is that, as a group, they try and accomplish something together. The entire piece is the evidence that real art happened.

Using Community Murals, Information for Teachers

Murals can be great educational tools. Any subject can be the topic of the mural and the images the youth create will show the evidence of what they have learned collectively.  A key component of the project is research, in libraries and on the Internet, about the topic.

Possible mural topics:

  • Current life in the neighborhood your school
  • The history of the school’s neighborhood
  • Famous people from the region what made them important.
  • How the town or neighborhood got its name
  • For mathematics, create images which depict real-life situations where mathematical formulas are used.
  • History classes can illustrate famous historic events using researched costumes and people.
  • For science classes, depict anything from frog dissection to the physics of molecules to the science of the ways planets move in outer-space.

Whatever subject is for the mural it is important to decide where this is going to be painted.

  • If the mural is going to be temporary, a large canvas (from Covers-All Canvas) can be hung on a fence outside or on a wall in the classroom.
  • A more permanent piece on a school wall or in a public space is more challenging, but can be done. It is important to get all appropriate permissions from building owners, arts commissions, and support from local community members, and political stakeholders (such as city council for the area). It is a little more challenging, but it is very possible to do.
  • Edward Rawson (author of this lesson) would happily consult on all the appropriate permissions and steps needed to do a permanent public piece.  Some information can be found at

An Example

Edward Rawson completed a community mural with youth from a community in Niteroi, Brazil. With help from the people at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC in Portuguese), he got permission to use a community center wall adjacent to the soccer field.  With the help of a translater, as a group they discussed important aspects of their community: the soccer field, bringing many youth together in positive activities, kite games, the geography of the land, the bright colors of the area, and the community’s connection to the projects they were doing with the MACinho, or Little MAC, Community Outreach Center, such as a junkyard band and neo-concrete games.  We collected images of all these ideas and came up with a design which incorporated all of them into one composition.  Then, together, we painted the piece on the wall.  Images and video of this mural can be found on; go to the other cities button on the left side of the page and follow the link to Brazil.