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Topic: Relighting the darkness  (Read 5115 times)
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Redforkhippie
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« on: March 20, 2016 11:42:55 AM »



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.

Finished product:











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. Sad 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: Chalk.



Step 2: 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.


« Last Edit: March 20, 2016 11:44:17 AM by Redforkhippie » THIS ROCKS   Logged

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« Reply #1 on: March 21, 2016 12:11:17 AM »

So incredibly cool!  Coincidentally, was at a restaurant last night (earlier tonight since now it's extremely late night) and had a neon discussion.  A portion of a sign was out and started wondering about how it gets relit.  Great artwork on your part.  Had to be a lot of patience!
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grufflepuff
« Reply #2 on: March 21, 2016 05:12:06 AM »

This is fantastic! I never would have thought of creating a neon-light effect like that, but this...wow! It's perfect!
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« Reply #3 on: March 21, 2016 06:12:20 AM »

I think it is wonderful that you are celebrating historic Route 66 motel signs!  They are missed!

I showed my husband, who paints large murals, your post and he just loved them all!  He might try one wall on his studio wall this summer...he only has two walls left, so I guess that means he really loves these a lot! Grin

Nice work and thanks for sharing your tips and technique...they are all fabulous!
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« Reply #4 on: March 22, 2016 07:22:37 PM »

A portion of a sign was out and started wondering about how it gets relit. 

I used to take neon-bending lessons. I'd hoped to get good enough at it to set up my own workshop and relight old signs on Route 66 for free, but then life happened. I can tell you a little bit about how they work, though.

Signs typically go dark for one of two reasons:

1. Transformer burned out. This is a super-easy fix; you just disconnect the power, take out the old one, wire in a new one, and turn it back on.

2. Tube cracked or broke. Depending on where the break is, your sign guy might be able to cut out a section of the tube and replace it.

Making a neon unit involves taking a straight glass tube and heating it in about an 1,800-degree flame until it gets pliable enough to bend into the shape you want. If you're making a very tight bend or fusing together two tubes, you have to get it so hot it's literally molten and then blow it back out -- gently -- to keep it from caving in on itself while it cools. It's a simple process, but difficult to learn because it requires a bit of practice to figure out how hard to blow, and you'll ruin a lot of tubes before you get the hang of it.

Once you've worked the glass into whatever shape you want, you weld electrodes onto the ends. One electrode will have a narrow glass tube protruding from it. You connect this tube to a vacuum pump and hook the electrodes up to a high-voltage transformer called a bombarder.

It's been a good 12 years since I bombarded and filled a tube, so I've forgotten the order on the steps, but IIRC, you bombard it with electricity to burn out all the impurities first, then turn on the pump to vacuum out the air and replace it with either neon or argon, depending on the color you want. If you're using argon, you also have to add a drop of mercury. This is a rather involved process that takes several extra steps, but the mix of argon and mercury is what gives you those intense blues and greens you see on some signs.

After you've bombarded it and filled it, you seal it off, connect it to a standard transformer, and let it "age" for a little while with current running through it to get it to come up to full brightness and make sure the gases are moving through the tube properly.

If you make any repairs to a tube, you have to bombard it, vacuum it, fill it, and age it all over again. It's been my experience that unless it's a really elaborate unit, replacing it will probably be faster and look better than trying to fix it, but people who are actually good at this and do it for a living may disagree. Smiley
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Redforkhippie
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« Reply #5 on: March 22, 2016 07:45:49 PM »

I showed my husband, who paints large murals, your post and he just loved them all!  He might try one wall on his studio wall this summer...

It's a super-easy technique -- the black step is a little time-consuming, but the others are pretty fast, and if you're doing a very big project, the paint will dry by the time you finish a step, so you can dive right in on the next.

BTW, if he's working on a smooth wall, a fat-tipped white paintmarker makes the last step much quicker and easier. I had to use a brush on this project because I was painting on sandy-textured stucco, but when I work on canvas or drywall, I use a marker, and it goes faster.
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« Reply #6 on: March 23, 2016 08:26:26 AM »

Thanks for that tip--unfortunately, the walls that he works on are cinder blocks so he has to prime and paint...three of the walls are already finished with black paint as the background...he filled in the pores of the block with spackle before painting to get as smooth a surface as he could...I did get him some paint markers for the detail work, but he preferred a fine brush...I will pass the tip onto him, as he ponders what he wants to do this summer to wall #4!
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« Reply #7 on: March 23, 2016 09:19:57 AM »

This is so rad! Thank you for the tutorial.
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« Reply #8 on: March 23, 2016 09:54:20 AM »

I clicked on this because you know **NEON!!!!**, to find not only it was an awesome process that I could do but that you painted in one of my favourite motels ever!  Years ago we took a road trip from Northern Alberta down to Arizona to drive some of the 66 with a couple of my kids and went to Tucumacari just to stay at the Blue Swallow.  The owners were great and even took my antique/retro obsessed 13 year old on a tour of every open room plus his room of junk...the kid thought he died and went to heaven Smiley

I need to do this somewhere in my house.  Thanks for sharing your awesome work Cheesy
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NoShowJr
« Reply #9 on: March 23, 2016 10:41:52 AM »

A portion of a sign was out and started wondering about how it gets relit. 

Signs typically go dark for one of two reasons:

1. Transformer burned out. This is a super-easy fix; you just disconnect the power, take out the old one, wire in a new one, and turn it back on.

2. Tube cracked or broke. Depending on where the break is, your sign guy might be able to cut out a section of the tube and replace it.

It's actually not mine, but in a restaurant where we were eating.  With the placement, I have a feeling it's #1, but could be #2 as well!
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