What Is a Muralist?

Muralists are fine art painters.  A muralist paints or applies art directly onto walls and/or ceilings, and other large surfaces, often incorporating the architectural elements of a space into the design. Sometimes a muralist will paint directly on a canvas, which is then affixed or cemented to a wall. From the cave paintings at La Marche, in Lussac-les-Châteaux, France to modern street murals in Philadelphia and New York City, muralists have left signs of their art in many places and on many surfaces around the world.

Unlike miniature or even life-size paintings, murals are usually many times larger than life. The word “mural” originates from the Latin word “murus” which means wall.  A mural can be decorative, such as a landscape or portrait, or functional, such as a company logo or advertisement. Murals are also culturally and politically important and often used to express individual or social experiences and concerns.

Muralists use a wide assortment of media, like acrylic or oil paint and faux finishes, and create artwork using a variety of techniques. For example, a fresco painting is a method where paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings. Mezzo-fresco, used by Michelangelo, is painted on almost-dry plaster, whereas fresco-secco painting is done on dry plaster.

Today, muralists are also sometimes referred to as street artists, although many professional muralists refuse to honor street art (graffiti and aerosol) as real art, calling it vandalism and an eyesore. However, as the definition of a mural is a large picture painted or affixed to a wall or ceiling, street artists, like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Banksy, also hold a growing standing in this art field.

What Does a Muralist Do?

Muralists must have a good sense of scale, ensuing all aspects of their artwork work together into one cohesive mural.  Besides the technical issues posed by painting or affixing art to a wall or ceiling, there are other artistic issues to overcome.  For instance, a muralist must consider what the artwork will look like from all viewpoints. Perspective can be an issue; whereas canvases are hung at eye level, a mural must have the correct perspective from all angles.  Glare can be an issue, as can the sun, so choosing the correct paint(s) is important, as is color and preparation of the surface.  In addition, as murals must suit the environment and surroundings, muralists must also work around, under or above objects or furnishings.   

Muralists must be persistent, as many murals take days, months, or even years to complete.  The must pay close attention to even the smallest of details, work independently or as part of a team, have excellent artistic skills, like sketching, rendering, application, and color mixing. They must be skilled in the techniques of ragging, wood graining, marbling, and texturing, and have a complete understanding of art history, motifs, and architecture.  Muralists must be able to interpret a client’s needs and wants, take small-scale designs and develop them into large-scale murals, and work to a deadline when necessary. Sometimes muralists work outdoors and must plan ahead for rain, cold or summer heat. They must be cognizant of their surroundings and do what they can to not disrupt sidewalks or pedestrian walkways.

In addition, muralists must keep up-to-date on the latest techniques and materials so they can recommend new and different finishes or patterns to clients.  While a degree is not required, choosing to earn a degree can help muralists stay on top of current trends while sharpening their skills and artistic ability.

For these reasons, many muralists attend college and earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in fine art (BFA). Some students don’t enter an art program specifically to become a muralist, but decide to enter this career field after taking courses with a concentration in painting.  While in college or private art school, a muralist will also take classes in art history, studio art, visual arts, architecture, drawing and illustration, business, history, computer graphics, and advanced painting techniques.  Student portfolio class is also a benefit to attending college. Students are advised by professors always to show their best work; a student’s past work, progress, and what was learned while in school. A professional portfolio shows potential clients or employers that a student is capable or understanding, improving, and learning. 

Muralists can also study online, take a private painting class, attend a workshop or class at a local art center.  They can acquire hands-on experience, gain an understanding of how to estimate the cost of materials needed for a project, and gain job hunting advice by working as an intern or apprentice under a professional muralist.

Where Do Muralists Work?

A muralist is a fine artist who designs, paints and/or applies large paintings or pictures to expansive surfaces, such as walls and ceilings.  Some cities consider murals public art and hire muralists to paint on public buildings or structures.  Muralists design murals inside churches and businesses, libraries, and museums, in suburban, urban, and rural areas. They may be commissioned by individuals, businesses, the government, schools, and other places to sketch and layout murals on the sides of buildings and walls, inside and out-of-doors.  Murals can be found anywhere. All a muralist needs is a large surface area and imagination.

What Is the Average Salary of a Muralist?

Muralists are fine artists.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a median annual salary for fine artists, which includes muralists, of $46,460 per year (2014). Earnings of self-employed muralists vary greatly. Some charge a nominal fee while earning a reputation, while others with many years of professional experience can command a much higher wage.

What Is the Job Outlook for Muralist?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for fine artists, which includes muralists, is expected to grow only two percent (slower than average for all career fields) from 2014 to 2024. There is enormous competition for both salaried and freelance work as the arts industry attracts many very talented people.  However, studios and individual clients are always on the lookout for talented muralists who demonstrate creativity, competence, and artistic talent.  Offering to complete a mural for a nominal fee to museums, hospitals, zoos, advertising agencies, or restaurants can give muralists opportunities to gain experience and grow their reputation, as well as attain future work.

Helpful Resources

  • Interview with Arthur Morehead, Landscape Painter & Muralist

    Tammi Edwards
    Tammi EdwardsOct 28, 2012

    Some people were born to be artists. From the time they can participate in any art or craft, they are hooked. Their lives are characterized by a pursuit, of one kind or another, to be a full-time, self-supporting artist. As a child, Arthur Morehead was captivated by any...

  • Get to Know the Artist-
    AAron Marable, Muralist

    Anna Ortiz
    Anna OrtizOct 28, 2013

    Art education opens the doors for boundless opportunities in creative expression and careers to blossom. Along the way, you meet influential mentors, have the potential to make a difference in people’s lives, and gain chances to work alongside celebrity figures, as ma...

  • Get Paid to Do What You Love: Seven Strategies to Make Money as an Artist

    Anna Ortiz
    Anna OrtizJul 10, 2017

    Doing what you love and making a living from your art is a goal that is within reach. Here, we offer a few tips to help you get your dreams off the ground. Try these seven strategies to make money as an artist.

  • Five Ways to Jumpstart Your Art Career

    Anna Ortiz
    Anna OrtizJul 17, 2017

    An art career cannot happen overnight. Becoming an artist takes dedication, hard work, and a plan. Learning early lessons about how to develop your skills, attract clients, and market yourself can help you generate early results.

  • 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Art Career

    Anna Ortiz
    Anna OrtizJul 19, 2017

    The life of an artist is often glamorized, while the real challenges of being an artist tend to be glossed over. Here we provide a few tips on how to deal with early challenges, like facing criticism, dealing with frustration, and meeting the right people.

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