I did this almost a year ago and inexplicably forgot to post it here. Not sure exactly where it should go; it's an exterior project (sort of -- it's in a garage that's open and visible from the road), but it's not exactly yard art or gardening. I'm not sure where it should go, so if a moderator wants to move it, that's cool.
My favorite place in the world is the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. It's pretty much covered in neon and looks incredible when they light it up at night. There's something about the atmosphere in the high desert that makes neon look even more spectacular than it does anywhere else.
Tucumcari has been known for years as a stopping point for travelers between Amarillo and Albuquerque, and it boasts thousands of motel rooms, many of them advertised with eye-catching neon signs out front. When Route 66 was decommissioned, a lot of the motels either moved out to the area around the interstate off-ramps or closed entirely, and their fabulous neon signs went dark.
The owner of the Blue Swallow and I decided to "relight" some of those signs last spring inside one of the garages at the Swallow. I painted in exchange for being allowed to stay in the motel for free. This worked out very well, as my husband and I saved several hundred dollars on the price of our vacation, and I got to spend an entire week painting pretty pictures in the high desert, which is basically all I want to do in life anyway.
Here are some photos of the work in progress and the finished product, with a quick tutorial on the technique, which is super easy.
Work in progress/tutorial:
Start by outlining your signs in chalk.
Next, lay in the neon "glow" with a brush you really don't care about. A fat barrel brush works especially well for this. Protip: This sounds counterintuitive, but you want your glow to be darker than your "tube." This will make sense if you look at a photograph of a real neon sign -- the light diffuses into the darkness around it, so the farther you get from the source, the dimmer the light appears. I messed that up on my green parts of this project, so they don't look as real as they could. Poop.
If I have time the next time I'm in Tucumcari, I'm going to redo those parts.
Come back with black paint and paint the shape of each tube right in the middle of the glow.
When the black dries, paint the tube color directly on top of it, leaving literally a hair's breadth on either side of the color to make a subtle black outline. This will make the color pop and give it a 3-D effect. Don't worry about making the color completely opaque; you want a little of the black showing through. Again, look at closeup photos of real neon signs to see how the light moves through the tube to understand why this part of the technique works.
Finally, come back with either white paint or an extremely light (nearly white) version of whatever color is in your tube and paint a line down the middle of the tube. Don't worry about making it perfectly straight or even; if you look at a neon sign up close, you'll notice the light almost seems to be alive -- arcing and snaking through the tube rather than moving in a perfectly smooth, even manner. Some of these are only partially finished; you should be able to see where the white has gone in and where it hasn't, which gives you an idea of how important this step is. People will get really impressed with the step right before that, but their jaws pretty much drop when you put in that last little bit of white and the whole thing suddenly goes from "nice picture" to "holy crap, that looks real."
And just a quick recap of the steps, in order, on one part of the mural. Call this your tutorial.Step 1:
Glow. After you lay this in (as shown below), come back with the brush more or less dry to hit the wet paint and spread this out as much as you want, fading it as you move away from the center (not pictured).Step 3:
Black outline. Paint the width of the tube in black down the middle of the glow.Step 4:
Color the tube. Paint the tube itself in the middle of the black, leaving just a tiny bit of black showing on either side of the color.Step 5:
Light the tube. Paint either pure white or white with just a dash of the tube color down the middle of the tube. If you're working in front of an audience (as you will be if you paint a mural in a public/outdoor space), this will be the point at which everybody gasps and immediately asks to take your picture and/or offers to buy you a beer.