Justin Vining – “Journey from the Outside In”



The “Journey from the Outside In” is a massive 20×40′ mural on Butler University’s campus in Clowes Hall that took 263 hours and 25.5 gallons of paint to complete.

This is the single sheet of canvas used all folded up.  In this state is weighs approximately 75-100 lbs. Thankfully, the room I was using is a theater and I was able to stretch and staple it right on to the floor.  The first layer of gesso took all of the wrinkles right out of the canvas.

16 gallons of gesso were used to prime the canvas.  The first layer took 8 gallons to cover.  The next 2 layers took 4 gallons each.  For future reference, I should have gone ahead and put a 4th layer of gesso down.  It was just barely “spotty” looking at the underneath side once covered in paint meaning in those spots, the gesso layer was still too thin.

In addition to the gesso, it took approximately 36,000 ml of Amsterdam Acrylic Paints.  When I completed the Urschel Laboratories Mural back in early 2015, I kept track down to the approximate ml of paint used on that project for future reference. That paid off. I was under a strict timeline with this Butler mural and I knew I wouldn’t have any time to make trips to an art store if I ran out of any specific color.  The Urschel Mural was almost exactly half this size, I took the ml used in that project and doubled it to get the estimated paint used on this project.

When I placed the order, I added in all their fun new metallics and pearls along with additional quantities of colors like Ultramarine Blue & Titanium white which I knew I would go through at a super rapid rate.  The 12’×40′ Urschel Mural took 8 gallons of gesso & approximately 18,490 ml of Amsterdam Acrylic Paint, the Butler Mural at (paint size) 23×43′ took 16 gallons of gesso and approximately 36,000 ml of Amsterdam Acrylic Paint.

Good friend and Indianapolis Painter, Kyle Ragsdale, recommended I start by throwing buckets of paint on the canvas, I really had no other ideas as to how to get this thing started, so I took his advice and just started throwing thinned down acrylics. I filled the small containers with water and squeeze about half a tube of acrylic into the bucket.  I then used a paint mixer attached to a drill to mix the paint into the water.

With a watercolor background, I worked wet on wet. I used a commercial sprayer to wet the canvas prior to throwing the paint.

I used a mop to push the color fields into each other, along with soaking up some of the excess water.  The floor of the Lily Hall Studio Theatre at Butler was not very flat either.  The room used to be a dance floor and years ago it was covered with 3/4″ plywood.  Those seams of the plywood proved to be super challenging to work around through the whole process. You don’t have to look hard to see them in the image above. A few work arounds to camouflage them in involved constant moving the canvas around the room so it never dried too much with the same “peaks & valleys”.

Another trick was varying the opacity throughout the composition as I built it up.  The super organic areas of thin paint, juxtaposed with high areas of opacity, gave the piece an intentional looking variety that by the end, almost completely mask the lines and imperfections of the floor.

Once the canvas was covered, I grabbed the corners and further started mixing the colors into each other, just like a gigantic watercolor wash.  Much like a real watercolor, the value of the paint got significantly lighter as it dried and gave the painting a nice soft organic ground to build the rest of the painting on.

My inspiration for the painting really stems from my time as an elementary art school teacher, and a lot of my early work as a professional artist.  Super whimsical, very brightly colored, tons of movement. Because of its massive scale, there was a lot of room for playful fun. When thinking about this, I had a lot of different ideas churning, but I thought that style of my artwork would lend itself best to this project.  The composition depicts a sunrise over the Indianapolis skyline, the Butler University campus, and farmland on the outskirts of town.


After the first few very small 1×2″ and then 4×8″ thumbnail sketches, my working sketch was 4×8′.  In my smaller sketches and in this first large one, Butler University was just a small part of a large world.

I wasn’t happy with how little of campus was shown so I asked my wife, Halie, (a Butler alumnus) for help.  With her help and my sketchbook in hand, this particular angle of campus emerged.  I took that sketch to Butler the next day and sketched it larger.  This is what I used to inform the final composition.

Drawing out with super thin “watery” acrylic.  I essentially took a small bucket of water, tinted it with Prussian Blue and started drawing.  In this first layer I was super messy & drippy, throughout the process you can see that I embraced this first layer in spots and kept many of this drips in the final composition.

In order to both save my back and to get long fluid flowing lines, I taped a Jumbo Round to the end of a paint pole and this is what I used to draw out the initial composition.

Throughout the whole process, there was a Lot of time spent going between the floor and the scaffold. Seeing it from above was so incredibly important for establishing proportions and color balance.

I often worked wet on wet in the larger areas throughout the whole process.  In that yellow area, I am both increasing the intensity of color, while creating more of a gradient into the blues and pinks, while also slowly building up a bit more opacity.  In most of these “thin” areas, there are at least 5 layers of transparent, watered down, acrylics.

The timeline was June 2 – July 31, but due to summer camps and construction on the stage of Clowes Hall, my real working time was just over 4 weeks to complete.  With such a tough deadline, I had to enlist help.  This was our first “pizza & beer” night.  I essentially turned it into a giant paint by number so they each had flat basic shapes to fill in.

The first time we rolled it up to take it over to the stage of Clowes Hall.  By this point it weighed approximately 175 lbs, we know this because of the counter balance on Butler’s fly system.

Thankfully I like heights.  The surprising thing to me was that I thought I would love working in the lift and being on stage but I quickly learned that the creation moved much slower.  It was the first time I felt how big this thing actually was.  No longer could I just bounce from place to place as I could when it was on the floor but now I really had to plan and work down single channels until it was time to move the lift again.  It was fun on the stage, but the process moved slow.  I was excited to get it back to the floor so I could start “running” again.

One of my favorite features of this mural.  I invited 9 of my artist friends over to help one evening.  Rich Anderson, Benny Sanders, Johnny McKee, Matthew Allen, Kyle Ragsdale, Nathan Foxton, Kipp Normand, Alicia Zanoni, & Graham McMullen (not in photo).  I asked them to help me with some of the busy work but more importantly, I asked them to help me with the skyline.  I asked them to paint original paintings in their own style in the shadows of the city.  I asked them to keep their values dark and subtle but they could do anything they wanted in those shadows.

With the whole line of Amsterdam colors available to them, and no restrictions other than keeping the values dark, I was surprised how many of these artists were immediately drawn in by the metallics and pearls.  I know Kyle Ragsdale (standing above) in particular loved the pearls because I could mix them his dark values to give them a little extra flair and make them stand out while still maintain the its dark value.  I was already really surprised that once installed, viewing the skyline from almost 50′ below, how much subtle variety the metallics and pearls gave the skyline.  It was also super interesting when viewing the painting from all the different terraces and angles, how much the skyline changed.  Sometimes some of the shadow sides of the buildings look like they were completely dark and from other angles were completely dancing in the light.  I didn’t expect that to happen, but it was an awesome surprise.

It looks like a messy process, but thankfully everyone here are pro’s and there were no accidents while they were helping.  Also, acrylics are super forgiving so I was pretty fearless with just letting them do their thing.

Dragging a park bench underneath the canvas.  I used it to raise the canvas in order to get some organic, gravity driven dripping effects where that giant road meets campus.  Before I used the park bench, I tried a leaf blower, which also had a super cool effect, but I was looking for more of the rhythm created by the parallel lines of gravity.

It is clear by the bold colors of this painting that i used a ton of the paints right out of the tube, but I also pre-mixed a lot of the larger areas of custom colors.  Over the 7 weeks of creation, I had no issues with the acrylics drying in these tubs.  I even bought a spray bottle thinking I would need to spray water into these tubs to prevent them from drying over the duration but never had to.

That last Saturday night was a long one.  I stayed all night just making minor changes and adding subtle details.

Butler asked me to keep the whole process secret and it was totally worth it for this moment alone.  What a surreal experience unveiling this massive project to my friends, family, and the Butler community.

The Cue:  “Without Further Ado … “The Journey from the Outside In”

A mega huge thank you to Royal Talens North America for their support on this project.  The Amsterdam acrylics were the perfect solution for tackling this project and working within the time and logistical restrictions.

I’d like to also thank Butler Arts Center for the opportunity to tackle such a massive and monumental project.


Justin Vining is an Indianapolis-based artist, specializing and landscapes and cityscapes. Justin studied Art Education at Purdue University and taught elementary art for three years. Following his tenure as a teacher, Justin attended Valparaiso Law school, where he rekindled his love for creating between classes and clerking. Shortly after graduating and passing the bar in 2010, Justin decided to pursue art full time and hasn’t looked back since. 

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