Painting on the ceiling… ugh

This week I am working on a client project for an interior mural in a suburban bookstore. The bookstore owner had a specific subject already in mind, and she was dead set on it: the goddesses of wisdom, from a variety of ancient cultures. Athena, of Greek myth, will go on the ceiling; Seshat, of Egyptian myth, will go on the wall by the door; Saraswati, the Hindu deity of wisdom, directly across from Seshat. (Athena study, below.)

It’s a tricky project for a variety of reasons. (For starters, trying to paint three mythical figures from ancient lore using one cohesive style is is a challenge.) And how to be original with such famous subjects? I ended up hiring models and doing pose sessions, and making original paintings to fit the job. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the actual execution of the mural…. I’ve never done a ceiling piece before, so I’m recording the practical things I learn here, for posterity.

Set up and materials:
OK first of all how am I going to position my body? Do I stand up and crank my neck backwards? Sounds horrible. Do I lie down like Michaelangelo (in the movies)?

The Majesty of the Sistine ceiling – Tiki Spaceship Earth

As for his position, Michelangelo himself describes it in great detail in a 1509 letter to Giovanni da Pistoia:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Yeah so that’s basically how I felt after about an hour of attempting this: I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

I started by asking the client for a scaffolding that would be positioned about 2 feet from the ceiling (my arms are short, okay?) Then I bought a wedge pillow for neck support.

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What I never thought about, until about 45 seconds into trying out the system in practice was this: How the F are you supposed to dip your brush in the palette when you’re lying on your dang back??

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A poorly-lit pic of the final piece in progress
The original concept included trees and Athena’s owl