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Spring Hill RECenter

PAINTING A MURAL ON THE BOTTOM OF A SWIMMING POOL

Last month, I re-painted the pool bottom mural at Spring Hill RECenter in Mclean, Virginia. I’ve re-painted that mural four or five times since the original project in 2004. So, I figured this would be a good time to write about the unusual experience of painting a scene on a pool bottom. Can you imagine a more hostile environment for a mural? ….sitting under thousands of gallons of heavily chlorinated water and being trampled over by hordes of feet. Needless to say, the project required a special kind of paint and entailed some careful technical research.

First, let me tell you how the project got started. I had finished painting the murals at Audrey Moore RECenter (formerly called Wakefield RECenter) a few years earlier. The murals had received a lot of attention … so, the manager at Spring Hill RECenter, Marcellous Cooper, wanted some of that buzz for his facility. He asked the Aquatic Supervisor, Joyce Quay and his Facilities Manager, Steve Hansen to contact me.





The pool bottom as a “blank canvas”.
Spring Hill Managers: Marcellous Cooper, Joyce Quay, Steve Hansen with Tim Grant and Mitzi Beneck
They had this crazy idea that instead of painting a wall mural, they wanted me to do one on the pool bottom. I think they wanted to “upstage” the mural at Audrey Moore. I had never heard of anyone painting a mural on the bottom of a pool before. But I didn’t let them know that I was completely clueless about how to proceed. I’ve always had this philosophy that first you jump … and then you figure out where you’re going to land. So, I said, “No problem … I can do that”. One thing that I thought was really cool about their idea was that the scene could be designed in tandem with the swimming instructors. That meant that the mural would take the concept of “interactive” to a new level. We could incorporate specific elements intended to facilitate instruction. Imagine that: people would interact with the mural, not just by looking at it, but by swimming through it, following schools of fish and walking on the illusion of a sandy bottom.

So, before I started doing design work, I had to make sure that it really could be done. I started looking on the Internet for pool paints – I figured they must exist because pools do have lane stripes painted on the bottom … but I had some important questions: do they come in “artists” colors? How hard is it to work with them? How expensive are they? Can they be applied with a brush? ….. I came across Kelly Technical Coatings, a company which handles the Olympic brand of pool paints. They come in rubber-based enamels called Paralon and Optilon and epoxy paints called Zeron and Poxolon. I chose to go with the epoxy paints because they are the highest quality and most durable. Epoxy paints need to be activated with a catalyst before application. Once they are activated, you only have a window of about 1 or 2 hours before they get sticky … and then, they thicken and finally the paint becomes rock hard. Zeron is a thicker, tar-like paint which is super rugged and lasts longer, while Poxolon is more brushable from an artists’ point of view. When I originally painted the mural in 2004, I used Poxolon, but later in that same year, Virginia State EPA regulations banned the product. The State EPA had determined that the paints were too toxic to be shipped to Virginia. These paints are serious business – so make sure you know what you are doing before you start messing around with them. Kelley Technical Coatings has a tech line which is very helpful: 800-458-2842.

When I re-painted the pool bottom in 2006, I was forced to switch to Zeron. A few years later, while I was planning the third re-painting, Kelly Technical had come out with a new paint, Poxolon 2 which is permitted by Virginia State EPA regulations. I’ve used that paint for each re-painting project since. The good news is that while the color selection is limited; there are enough colors available that I can mix just about any color I need. They offer a nice range of blues, Sea Mist green, one red and one yellow, as well as white and black. As long as I’ve got the primaries, I can mix any color I want.

The process of designing the mural was a collaborative effort. The pool managers wanted it to look like the bottom of the ocean with coral, sand, shells, starfish and surf. They wanted a lapping wave at the zero depth entry point. A variety of sea life: exotic fish, dolphins and a sea turtle were also important elements. The swimming instructors specifically requested that the dolphins be arranged in a circle, and they wanted a sand bar in the deeper area with a line of swimming fish: these compositions were intended for activities with the young kids. My old friend Mitzi Beneck helped me on this project. She is a frequent visitor to Hawaii and is passionate about snorkeling and observing exotic fish. She was a great help in developing the design. We did countless sketches of aquatic life and came up with a general composition  but, we decided that we would make most of the decisions relating to groupings and composition on site as we were painting the mural.

Before arriving at the pool, there was a lot of preparation and pre-production work that needed to be done. I like to mix my colors before I get on the job site. This is useful for a few reasons: It helps me establish the color scheme and it frees me to make other decisions while I’m in the process of painting. That’s not to say that I won’t change, modify, and re-mix colors while I’m painting … it’s just that if I have the colors mostly worked out, I am free to focus on other aspects of the painting process like brushwork, composition, and adding catalyst. So, I mixed about 100 shades of color to cover palettes for the dolphins, turtle, coral, sand, and exotic fish.

     









General Design Composition
There were a lot of supplies to buy: brushes (smaller brushes for detail work plus chip brushes and numerous 2”, 3”, and 4” brushes …. be prepared to throw away most of your brushes after this project. The paint is so toxic and the solvents just don’t clean off your brushes the way they would if you were using a conventional oil or enamel paint), solvents (you can use Reducer 54 from Sherwin Williams or Epoxy solvent #1109 from Kelly Technical), empty quart cans, plastic and cloth drop cloths, rags, towels… etc. I also bought a few hundred clear plastic cups. I measured and marked the cups to allow for a 25% catalyst mix – again, one less thing to worry about on the job site.

Before painting the mural, I laid down a special primer called Poxoprime II. I let the primer dry overnight and began the painting process the next morning by blocking in large areas of color. Since I initially decided to work with Poxolon, I knew I would have to lay down at least two full layers of paint. I brushed out one layer using blues and greens and let it dry overnight. On the third day, I came back and blocked in the sand texture and the lapping wave and then brushed out another full layer of blues and greens. While working in the shallow depth areas, I sprinkled a little sand on top of the paint after brushing out each area. It’s important to do this to make sure the pool bottom has some traction and isn’t too slippery. By the fourth day, the fun painting began as I started the detail work. I decided to start with the coral. The trick was to mix the right amount of paint: Because this paint is so expensive, I didn’t want it to set up, congeal, and become unworkable before I could brush it out. On the other hand, I didn’t want to run out of paint half way through painting a specific area. Knowing that the paint becomes useless an hour or so after activation; I guessed that I could mix quantities in little plastic cups without too much waste. So here’s what I did:
 

I measured my cups by pouring 4oz. of water into the cup, marked the height, poured out the water and re-poured 3oz. of water. This gave me a 25% ratio for paint to catalyst. I poured my paint to the bottom line and then added catalyst to the upper line. It’s important to mix the paint and catalyst very thoroughly!!! Once it’s mixed, you want to run and start painting because the open window doesn’t last long. I found it helpful to use empty quart cans as holders for the cups. You don’t want to worry about kicking your paints over when you’re feeling the clock ticking on the catalyst.

I chose to paint the coral to cover the largest areas first, and then worked my way down to the smallest details. With my palette activated, I started to apply the paint. Initially, it went on nice and slippery: like the consistency of latex and blended smoothly with a sweet, sloppy, wet-on-wet technique. But after 30 or 40 minutes, the paint was already getting tacky. I could still work with it, but I had to push it harder and it didn’t spread as willingly.
 
(Photo by Leonard Spoden)





Here’s what happened to the paint that I didn’t get brushed out in time: It dried as hard as chunks of fiberglass. Ouch!! …at about $150/ gallon, that was a few hundred dollars of wasted paint. It couldn’t be helped, though.

If you mix quantities that are too small, you might not get the ratio of catalyst to paint right and the consequences could be disastrous. When the pool is filled with water, the paint could blister, bubble and peel off, if you don’t mix it properly. If that happens, you would have to drain the pool, sand it down, and start all over again. Depending upon the complexity of the mural, I suggest you order three times the square footage in paint to allow for mixing colors and for over-mixing activated paints. It is definitely not an inexpensive undertaking!

Next, I decided to tackle the dolphins and the turtle.
 

(Photo by Leonard Spoden)
The dolphins used a color palette similar to the coral – so, they were a natural follow up after painting the coral. When I painted the turtle, I used a lot of warm colors but I made sure that I also worked in blues and greens to both push the warm colors forward, and to merge the turtle’s color palette with the pool bottom.
 

(Photo by Leonard Spoden)



This is no time to be timid with your brushing technique:

Paint with fast and furious brush strokes!!!

The final phase of the project was to paint the fish. Mitzi was our resident expert on tropical fish, and she took the lead on choosing and painting the types of fish we included:
 

   (Photo by Leonard Spoden)

We invited members of the staff to paint a fish of their own into the mural. I liked doing this because it made the RECenter community feel more ownership to the project and a deeper connection to the mural.
 
Facilities Director, Steve Hansen and Aquatic Supervisor, Joyce Quay working on fish.

One important thing about this project was keeping in mind that, what matters is not what the images look like when you paint them, but how they look under water. Here’s what it looks like with water in the pool:
 
 

The million dollar question was: how long will these colors hold up? The manufacturer will tell you that under normal conditions, Zeron should last up to eight years while Poxolon is probably good for four to five years. My experience at Spring Hill RECenter is that the mural needs to be re-painted every two or three years. The darker colors tend to fade faster than the lighter colors.
 

The photos above show the dolphins after two years exposure underwater, and before the re-paint. The photos below show the re-paint in progress:
 

The pool bottom mural at Spring Hill has become an important part of the RECenter community. Swim instructors have discovered that kids who might be afraid to put their heads underwater are more willing to do so, as they dive down to touch the fish. Instead of “Ring Around the Rosie”, groups of kids play “Ring Around the Dolphins”. Although it is a labor intensive process, the managers at Spring Hill believe it is a good investment to periodically refurbish the mural and keep the aquatic life alive and vibrant.

The original painting of this project was featured in two articles:
THE WASHINGTON POST, September 9, 2004, “Pooling Their Talents”, photos by Len Spoden.
Aqua Magazine, January 2005, “Painting the Ocean Floor”.

Spring Hill RECenter is currently undergoing a 10 million dollar expansion and renovation. It includes a two-story fitness center with a gym and elevated running track. Come by and check it out:

1239 Spring Hill Road, Mclean, VA .... 703-827-0989

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