Mural Composition
by John Pitman Weber



Toward A People’s Art, the source for much of the text of this chapter, is the classic account of the early years of the Community Mural Movement. Written by John Pitman Weber, Eva Cockcroft and James Cockcroft, with a foreword by Jean Charlot, it was first published in 1977. Toward A People’s Art is essential reading for all who are interested in public art. Fortunately, the entire original text was reissued as a cultural classic by the University of New Mexico Press in 1998, with a new foreword by Lucy Lippard and with new essays by Tim Drescher and Ben Keppel. Toward A People’s Art is available in both paperback and hardcover from Chicago Public Art Group or directly from University of New Mexico Press.

All quotes in this chapter from Cockcroft, Weber, Cockcroft, Toward A People’s Art, UNM Press, 1998, Chapter 11: Aesthetics, by permission of UNM Press and the authors.

The highest, most logical, purest and most powerful type of painting is mural painting.“
—Jose Clemente Orozco

A mural painting is far from being an enlarged easel painting.”
—Jean Charlot in “Public Speaking in Paint”


“What distinguishes mural from easel painting is the question of context: architectural, environmental, and social. Mural painting is much older than easel painting; Giotto and Masaccio, Rivera and Orozco, like today’s muralists, had to deal with all the various dimensions of context in designing their walls. Yet, the current tendency to study art from slides and photographs, and even to remove murals from their original sites to museums for preservation, tends to negate the role that specific site and audience played in determining the forms of these works of art. This ‘rendezvous of subject matter and site’ (Lawrence Alloway, “Art,” The Nation, 8/3/74) has, throughout history, provided the aesthetic base line for the criticism and evaluation of murals.”

Appropriateness and Extended Context

Historically, the matching of theme to institutional purpose was usually the only consideration: education and the aspirations of youth on/in a school, health on/in a clinic, religious themes on/in a church, labor struggles on/in a trade-union hall. Contemporary community public art practice expands the question of context to include the character of the audience and of the surrounding area.

Two instructive examples of the use of extended context are William Walker’s now lost masterpiece Peace and Salvation, The Wall of Understanding (1970) that stood at the edge of the Cabrini housing project. Walker incorporated complex references to the physical and social character of the area, tensions between the residents of the project and those of the Gold Coast to the east, and to the conflicts within Cabrini itself, along with symbolic representation of the efforts to resolve those conflicts and ultimately transcend them through human solidarity.

Another example is Olivia Gude’s 1992 mural Where We Come From…Where We’re Going located at a commuter rail station and entirely made up of portraits of actual commuters coming and going from a racially and socially mixed neighborhood, with verbatim quotes from those portrayed. This mural points to the importance of analyzing the type of audience using or passing by the site, whether pedestrian or vehicular.

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The Wall and its Format

“In contrast to the virtual space, or “magic window,” created by the format of easel painting, the limits of the picture plane of a mural are the limits of the building itself. Before any other consideration of format or architectonics, there is the physical reality of the wall. It has an architectural function as a support, and although one is rather less conscious of this outdoors than indoors, the supportive quality of the wall is an objective and a psychic fact.”

The shape of the wall (its “format”) often may not be a neat rectangle. See “Shiva 2020” painted in 1994 by the French spray can art group Force Alphabetik with Dzine, John Weber, and Chicago teens, for an example of a creative use of an irregular shape.

Fellows &  Others led by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997, at Fellowship House in Chicago, is an impressive example of using every inch of a building facade, to create a complex design, which works around a dozen window openings.

How to Build a Brighter Future 1993, Olivia Gude and Dzine, on a typical “U” shaped Chicago side wall, with a chimney, is yet another instructive example, discussed more below.

The Grid: implicit or explicit, always there

“Horizontal and vertical lines become first of all structural elements related to the architectural quality of the wall, and only secondarily elements in virtual space. The physical reality of the wall can be disguised or affirmed, but it cannot be ignored.”

Bernard William’s 1998 mural of symbols Visitation Realization is an example of using the horizontal/vertical grid as a framework for the design: The square panels emphasize and rhythmically repeat the horizontal/vertical structure of the wall. The windows, which interrupt the grid of symbols, seem to fit right in, since they are also rectangles.

In William Walker’s History of the Packinghouse Worker, 1974, the long horizontal wall is segmented by a series of painted vertical pillars, dividing it roughly in half and then dividing one side in thirds. A painted lattice work “fence” further frames the shallow pictorial space. As if the painted framework were not enough, the pictorial space is filled up with monumental figures which stand almost the full height of the space, like Greek caryatid figured columns, holding up the roof. Packinghouse Worker is an excellent example of the Classical tradition, which typically uses painted architectural elements to articulate and to frame shallow pictorial “stage” space, filled with broad, cylindrical forms. Giotto and Diego Rivera are the two greatest exponents of this Classical mural tradition. William Walker carried this tradition into community murals. Francis O’Connor, the leading mural historian, considers Walker the most important representative of the classical tradition in his generation.

A contrasting example is the use of the vertical grid by Jeff Zimmerman in his 1999 mural Familiar on Ashland Ave. Here Zimmerman created vertically striped bars, which disguise the metal poles holding up a roof-top chain-link fence. The bars become metaphoric barriers, against which the diagonal movement of family members is contrasted, creating a metaphor for their struggle against which obstacles toward a more harmonious life.

Architectural Detail and Incidental Fixtures:

“Even as the shape of the wall determines the shape of the painting, so the irregularities of the wall- fire escapes, windows, moldings, ins and outs, as well as the shadows they cast- need to be dealt with in a creative way. Often these “obstacles” can be transformed into creative elements of the design and become assets.”

Familiar discussed above, is a good example of a metaphoric use of “incidentals” in the mural design. Albert Zeno’s in his 1972 Alewives and Mercury Fish wittily integrates a public phone into his mural by painting a figure using the phone.

What to do about such incidentals, as well as how to integrate doors and door frames, stairways, windows and niches, pipes and electrical outlets, buttresses, columns and posts, and especially corners, is a challenge for every muralist and to every group doing a collective mural. To consciously design with all the site-specific elements of architecture, including the incidental utility fixtures is a touch-stone of mural aesthetics.

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Three compositional strategies

“There are three basic attitudes muralists have taken toward such obstacles and toward architectonics: to reinforce the wall with a painted architectural framework, to absorb the geometry of the wall fixtures by mediating forms, or optically to obliterate and/or (metaphorically) disguise the features of the wall. These contrasting approaches can be identified with the three great Mexican masters - Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

“Contemporary muralists have learned from, reinvented, varied and extended these methods. The difference can be suggested by the various ways that a rectangular air vent might be treated. It might be “reinforced” by supporting it within a painted pillar” (i.e. an element of a painted framing architecture); it might be “absorbed” by a series of rectangular background forms or mediating organic forms that cause it to blend into the general pattern of the mural and become unnoticeable: or it might be “obliterated” (or metaphorically “disguised”) by turning it into a table or bench on which a figure could be sitting. In practice most artists use a combination of techniques within a single mural emphasizing some of the architectural features and absorbing (or disguising) others”

We have already provided some illustrations of reinforcement, the typical classical strategy of using a painted architecture to mediate between the real physical wall and the pictorial space. Another wonderful example is All of Mankind the 1972-73 William Walker murals on the outside and inside of Stranger Home MBC at Clybourn and Evergreen. Outside, Walker has not only created a faux stained glass window for the arch that once was filled with an actual window, but he has emphasized (“reinforced”) the flanking buttresses by adding black shadows, shadows which would be cast by the painted light source at the top of the gable. Inside, he has framed and articulated his scenes of family life with painted wooden beams and brick window frames.

One corner of Fellows & Others by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez is a perfect example of a painted corner post.

Absorption, a subtler strategy, has been illustrated by the Bernard William’s Visitation Realization mural.

The treatment of the clock over the door in Ray Patlan’s 1974 Rising Sun of Justice mural at Mount Carmel Chapel, Joliet, Illinois is another instructive example. The rounded square of the clock is haloed and echoed by increasingly irregular shapes which bridge like a morphing sequence between the only somewhat softened geometry of the clock and the jungly organic shapes around it.

Finally, notice how the vertical blue stripe on the right hand side of How to Build a Brighter Future, 1993, Olivia Gude & Dzine, helps “naturalize” the red stripe extending up the chimney, again, a game of echoing shapes.

Fully disguising structural elements demands the creation of overpoweringly strong visual elements that carry the eye completely past. Hector Duarte’s 1994 mural at the Luis Munoz Marin Center in Chicago really does make the doorway in the corner of the courtyard almost completely disappear. Duarte accomplishes this feat of visual magic by visually extending each of the two walls into the other, using perspective methods that go back to Baroque trompe l’oeil ceiling decoration illusions.

These European perspective-illusion methods were transformed by David Alfaro Siqueiros to accommodate the moving viewer of contemporary murals. His complex method of “polyangular perspective” involves applying perspective from several viewing points.

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“The corner can be affirmed by a painted post visually supporting the wall, or by using the corner metaphorically as part of a solid building, machine, etc. Alternatively, the eye can be carried around the corner by related forms that echo one another on either side. The third possibility is visually to eliminate the corner  by running optically continuous lines or forms through it. This last approach is derived from Siqueiros’ “polyangular perspective.” A concave corner can be completely eliminated (given even lighting) from all angles but a convex corner can be eliminated from only a limited number of angles.”

From 1970 to 1973, resident artist Raymond Patlán and local youths covered the interior and exterior walls of Casa Aztlan, a legendary community service center, with a cycle of murals on Mexican historical and cultural themes, emphasizing Chicano and Mexicano struggles for justice. After a fire in 1974, other artists restored and revised the mural.

Casa Aztlan is a good example of running optically continuous lines through a corner.

In Solidarity, a mural environment in a stairway painted by John Pitman Weber and Jose Guerrero, 1973-74 for the United Electrical Workers, the artists used a mix of methods to deal with the transitions between many wall surfaces.

This corner of Marcus Akinlana’s Great Migration is an instance of “folding” an image around a convex corner.

Still Deferred; Still Dreaming at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club led by Olivia Gude and Dzine is a powerful and unusual example of focusing a mural on a corner. The mural sweeps around and up the corner with strong spiral movements.

Space: virtual space, scale, the moving viewer

 “Indoors, a mural is often a painted space extending (and continuous with) the real interior space within which the viewer stands. Such effects are less natural to outdoor murals, where the wall appears as a flat plane in a surrounding open space.”

“Although the problems involved in designing within an enclosed space and for an open area differ, certain kinds of adjustments for the angle of vision of the viewer remain constant. If the perspective of the viewer is from below, the muralist must increase the size of the figures as they move higher and higher on the wall, to make them appear the same. If the angle of vision is often from the side, the figures must be widened and made more bulky lest they almost disappear from a lateral view. Rather than a single perspective or viewing point, the muralist has to deal with all the problems of multiple perspectives, of both centered and lateral vision, as well as the distortions of mass created by the angle of vision. All these problems and their solutions tend toward the use of a flatter space and simpler volumes, a solution that happily coincides with the modern preference to respect the integrity of a surface.”

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Compositional Options: The Horizontal

In the Midwest and much of the rest of the country, horizontal walls are much more common than vertical ones. There are four main horizontal compositional options:

Segmented like a filmstrip, sequencing across from one side to the other. A beautiful and interesting example is Caton and Jones’ Builders of the Cultural Present, which effectively uses tilted parallelograms to underline the dynamism of the imagery.

Organized around a central focal image, as in Jose Berrios and Nina Smoot-Cain’s mural Patterns of Our Past.

Opposing sides clashing in the middle, as in Weber’s 1976 mural, Tilt, recently restored in Logan Square.

Strong images anchoring each end, loosely joined by visually elastic bands across the middle as in Cynthia Weiss and Nina Smoot-Cain’s 1981 appliqué mural for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (now UNITE).

Long Horizontals: the oblique angle of vision

This mural was commissioned for the newly built Pilsen high school as the result of a design contest won by Jaime Longoria. Codesigned with Malú Ortega y Alberro, and painted by them, Marcos Raya, Salvador Vega, Oscar Moya, José Gonzalez, and Roberto Valadez.

Long horizontal formats that are parallel to the street (or path) will be mostly viewed at very oblique angles. Invariably these compositions call for the use of sets of low, long  zigzags or crossing diagonals to move the eye from one end to the other and to avoid having the composition collapse into illegibility. Some illustrative examples follow are Kiela Songhay Smith’s 1993 Wall of Struggle and Dreams in an Evanston park; the great A la Esperanza mural at Benito Juarez High School, 1979, by Jaime Longoria, Malu Ortega, Marcus Raya and Sal Vega, et al; and Radek & Weber’s lost 1975 The Builders. In designing The Builders, Radek and Weber timed traffic to see how many seconds vehicular viewers in cars had to look at the wall. They adjusted angles and simplified design to be readable in that brief time. 

Right angles to the Street

More often murals may be on walls that are at right angles to the main flow of traffic or of pedestrians. Muralist choose to place the single most important image close to the street in order to grab the viewer’s attention with the mural’s essential, most public message. Often this image will also be the brightest and largest. Some clear examples are Caton and Jones’s brilliant Another Time’s Voice Remembers My Passion’s Humanity, 1979, and  Caryl Yasko et al. 1975 Razem (Together)—Chicago’s Chicago’s only Polish mural.

Pay attention to Directionality

 “The mural painter begins by studying the wall, the kind of light it receives, its texture, etc. A north wall that will be in the shade almost all year will make the colors appear cooler; intense sunlight bleaches color and makes it pale.”

North and South, East and West also have universal symbolism related to the path of the sun and the passage of the seasons. (See O’Connor, “An Iconographic Interpretation of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals in Terms of their Orientation to the Cardinal Points of the Compass,” Diego Rivera, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1986).

The immediate context may have even more important symbolism. The position of a door, as entrance to another realm- (the school, the future, etc.). A spatial relationship to historical markers (and thus to their narratives) or to an industrial district, to social or economic boundary.

Indoors the wall tends to show what is “behind” it: i.e. the South wall of a room may portray what is in that direction symbolically, historically, psychologically or socially. Outdoors wall often portray what they face: i.e. a South facing wall portrays a “Southern” story, as in Marcus Akinlana’s heroic The Great Migration. A west-facing wall may display the clash of opposites characteristic of that direction, as in Tilt.

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“The classical approach to scale was to suggest “normal” size from “average” points of view. In the Sistine Chapel, where heroic scale was desired, Michelangelo found, after beginning work, that even the mammoth scale he had adopted was lost when seen from the ground. He was forced to adjust the scale of the figures in the course of painting the ceiling. Scale is also an expressive device used for emphasis; consequently, a number of different size elements are often combined in a single mural.”

“The way scale is seen by the viewer is relative to the viewing distance, the size of the wall, its texture and the scale of the surrounding elements. It is not uncommon for artists to discover (as Michelangelo did) that the scale must be adjusted in the course of the painting so that it will read in the same way it did in their sketches. One of the advantages of direct painting on the wall (as opposed to working on panels or on canvas as was common in the WPA) is that the scale can easily be adjusted to the actual viewing conditions of the site.”

Monumental, Heroic Scales

 “Working in very large scale, which reduces the apparent size of the wall, allows a greater viewing distance and permits the mural to compete with large elements in the environment, effects often desired in outdoor work. This technique is often used in those murals in tended for motor traffic, to be viewed from great distances or in extremely busy locations.....” ((Common in Manhattan, less so in Chicago neighborhoods, where most murals are designed to be readable by both pedestrian and vehicular audiences, and where the overall scale of the surroundings is 2-3 stories)). MarcusAkinlana’s uses heroic scale in The Great Migration for expressive effect, the telling of a larger-than-life story.

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Small Scale and Mixed Scales 

“Smaller-than-life-size forms and extremely small scale drawings have also been used indoors to expand the wall and the sense of space.....” This 1975 mural by Jim Yanagisawa at Uptown Lutheran Day Care illustrates the use of a very small scale to create a sense of large space for its primary audience of small children.

Another sort of problem is presented by corridor murals, in which the viewing distance is very limited and by those murals that will be seen essentially by a pedestrian audience passing directly along side the mural. Olivia Gude’s use of small scale text (and the interspersal of smaller scale figures) in her Where We come From… provides a comfortable reading size for the sidewalk pedestrian viewing the mural from only a few feet away.

The use of mixed scales is quite common, partly because it allows the inclusion of elements readable from different distances and accommodates the inclusion of greater complexity. For this mixing of scales to be effective the contrast must be evident. Mixing scales also allows the layering of information (for instance image and text as in the mural above) that invites the viewer to progressively discover the mural over several viewings and that invites different readings over a period of time.

Scale, Group Execution, Group Methods & Styles

“The objectively large size of mural elements (even when they may appear scarcely larger than life-size from the ground) affects the way a painter works in a direct physical way. Finger and wrist movements are replaced by a shift to shoulder and whole-body motions. This shift affects mural style, furthering heroic rather than delicate work. the tendency toward broad effects is further conditioned by the fact that fancy brushwork and small subtle changes tend to be lost at the usual viewing distances. Mural painting, therefore, tends to be less dependent on finesse in the actual painting than on the power of the conception and preliminary design considerations.

<“The broader, more systematic methods natural to mural painting are an important element in the success and popularity of group work in painting murals, both in the past and today. To some extent, it explains how murals painted by many hands with unequal degrees of skill can attain a consistent style and high aesthetic quality...”

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