A Fairy Mural

Woodland fairies and animals by a pond at night, painted by Chicago muralist Paul Barker

In August of 2014, I got a call from an admirer of my curved mural at the entrance to the Peggy Notebeart Nature Museum butterfly garden.Butterflies painted by muralist Paul Barker for Peggy Notebaert Museum Chicago

She lived near the Museum in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and loved the mural’s over-sized butterflies flitting over a sea of giant prairie grass, so she asked me to paint a similar scene for her three-year-old-daughter’s bedroom in their new house.

Our process for arriving at the image in the finished mural is a good demonstration of how such projects can evolve.

The Design Process

In addition to the butterflies, she requested more large insects. Like most muralists, I’m more excited about painting something new than about doing what I’ve done before, and she asked what I would feel inspired to paint. My first thought was to add fireflies, which implied a night scene, as in daylight fireflies would look like flying beetles. This idea got my inspiration juices flowing, but we were concerned that the scene not be overly dark for such a young art appreciator. What other elements could add light?

Sketch of fairy ring for a child's mural by Paul Barker
I looked into bioluminescent mushrooms and proposed a “fairy ring” of mushrooms seen from the perspective of a forest creature smaller than the mushrooms, such as a mouse or a frog. As soon as the idea of a fairy ring arose, the fairies could not be far behind, and if they glowed and trailed pixie dust, they would certainly brighten up the scene. We discussed fairy sizes, lifestyles, costume, glow, deployment of pixie dust, and their relationships with assorted other creatures. I did a few pencil sketches to lay out the general composition, adding the fairies, insects and a few forest animals.

Then two things happened. It became apparent that we had way more fairy, insect and creature poses downloaded from the internet than the six-foot-by-six-foot canvas could accommodate. And once I did a color sketch of the image it was obvious that the overwhelming green glow of the mushrooms with fireflies glowing the same color and fairies glowing in a variety of colors, plus the moon, would result in a gaudy scene that would put the strip in Las Vegas to shame. Back to the drawing board, literally.

Instead of a ring of mushrooms in a clearing, my first thought was of a pool with a small waterfall in an old-growth forest.

The client agreed and asked that the moon be reflected in water with some of the fireflies also reflected.

Forest pool first color sketch 300wThe next generation of sketches featured a cluster of mushrooms as pedestals for the foreground fairies, but the mushrooms would not be bioluminescent.

Final color sketch of fairy mural by Paul Barker of GoogleplexWe selected three fairy poses, three animals and three insects for the close-up images along the bottom edge of the canvas, and I did a color sketch.

Bingo, we had an agreeable image!

I set up my equipment at home and emailed progress shots to the client.

Like a lot of enjoyable projects, I let things get a little out of control.

The end product has seven fairies in the foreground interacting with three animals, three butterflies and two dragonflies.

In the left middle distance are about 120 fairies swarming out of a hollow tree and swooping over the pool of reflected moonlight.

There are three fireflies in the foreground and another 54 along the far edge of the pool.

I designed the mural to be the right size and height for my three-year-old client to stand a short distance in front of it and have it extend to the limits of her field of vision, allowing her an “immersive” sensation, to feel as if she could walk right into the scene. Because the mural is on canvas, she’ll be able to roll it up in the future and take it with her to college or an apartment. Hopefully it will one day be enjoyed by her own children and grandchildren and perhaps become a family heirloom.

The greatest payoff with my job is something that cannot be monetized: the excitement and awe of a child as I unroll a mural and hang it up for her approval, the reflection of magic in those wide young eyes. You can see the client’s testimonial here.

Paul Barker and Client with Her Fairy Mural 640w