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Painters in the Sky

Painters from Colossal Media at 20th Street

Painters from Colossal Media above the High Line at 20th Street

An amazing creative act is taking place right now on the High Line. If ever there was a reason to leave your desk and head out to the park, this is it. But go now, because it’ll be over soon.

Painters from a company called Colossal Media are working on a scaffold at 20th Street to paint a large ad for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took a walk in the park yesterday, starting at 30th Street, where I immediately encountered a perfectly gorgeous mural on the side of an apartment building. This is the same wall where the artist JR did a huge pasting of Brandon Many Ribs from the Lakota Tribe as part of the Inside Out Project a year ago.

What’s so unusual about this Met ad is its richness and texture. I wanted to crawl over the railing and touch it, to see if it was real. It’s mesmerizing because it looks it like an actual painting, but it’s not hanging in a museum: it’s outdoors, painted on brick, concrete and a bit of glass (the windows of the building). You can see brushstrokes. It’s downright painterly. I stood there wondering: in this day and age, would anyone really paint an ad on a building?

Farther south I found my answer. Colossal Media — which includes its logo in the work — is painting a second piece for the Met, this time a beautiful seascape that looks like a Hokusai. They’re still at it this morning, but they’re about halfway through.

Colossal Media is an advertising company that specializes in hand-painted work. I found a short film by Malcolm Murray (watch it here on Vimeo) in which an old-timer and a few current employees talk about the unusual craft they practice. One guy gives a perfect explanation for why the effect is so startling. Regular advertisers, with their printed billboards, “can’t print what we paint,” he says. “They print in pixels, they mix colors optically, little dots. You know, blue and yellow together makes green. But we paint green, so we can make it a lot richer.”

The men speak about the apprenticeship behind the craft, a two-year process in which the young painters are commanded to watch and absorb. One describes how he wasn’t allowed to paint for two full years. Today, he aspires to become both a good painter and a good teacher.

They talk about how difficult it can be, when the wind blows hard and the entire rig sways 30 feet to one side. “It takes so much work that it’s kind of ridiculous,” one guy comments. But “It’s the way Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel: he made patterns, used charcoal, mixed his own paint. There’s no easy way to do it, it’s just the way it is.”

The Met's Painted Billboard at 29th Street

The Met’s Painted Billboard at 29th Street, by Colossal Media

So right now you — I mean, really, right now — you have the opportunity to see this act of creation live. It’s just fascinating; they stand on the rickety scaffold, brush in one hand and an image of the work they are copying in the other. Perhaps this was a common sight in another century. Look up as you walk through the city streets and you’ll see the faded lettering of old hand-painted signs everywhere. In this neighborhood, around the High Line, you tend to see a lot of ads for printing and lumber companies, which were once prevalent here. A building on the north corner of 11th Avenue and 20th Street was recently torn down and above the rubble what suddenly appeared? An old hand-lettered sign. They are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.

Watching these men at work yesterday made me think the world would really be a better place if every advertisement were hand-painted. As I’ve said before: Run, don’t walk.


Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street

Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street



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