When it comes to Christmas gifting, one of the people I have the hardest time shopping for each year is my Dad. Throughout the year he buys what he needs when he needs it, and doesn’t care much for shelf-filling knick-knacks unless there’s a personal story attached to them. Occasionally he’ll mention something off the cuff that he wants or needs but either hasn’t had the chance to pick up yet or hasn’t been able to find; that information is filed away and acted upon each Christmas (this year, he got a cheese grater). But I’m always on the hunt for that one special thing, and ironically it was the brass lamp locked in a chest I received from him back in 2010 that somewhat planted the seed and got me thinking about what to get him this year. The parameters I set for myself was that whatever I got for him would be both one-of-a-kind and personalized.
Before I can tell you about the Metaluna Mutant, I have to tell you about a Coke bottle — or rather, a specific painting of a Coke bottle. While moseying around at The Rink (a local antique mall) with Dad and the family we spied a giant painting of a Coke bottle. The painting is an approximately 8′ tall painting of an old Coke bottle done on wood and cut out in the shape of the bottle. The price on the painting when we saw it was $650 (it has since dropped to $550). When we saw it Dad said something to the effect of, “I wouldn’t mind something like that, but it would have to be a painting of the right thing.” I stored that particular nugget of information away in my mental bank for further use.
When my parents got divorced in the mid-90s most of the artwork hanging in Dad’s house came down off the walls. Ever since then it’s become a “thing” for us to find artwork for him. “The bigger the better,” he says, because larger pictures cover more real estate. For these paintings his taste is measured in quantity more than quality — size is everything. Each year on Sun Valley Garage Sale Day all of us along with Dad scour the neighborhood in search of large paintings. A particularly large painting of (I think) a field of mushrooms hangs in his hallway, picked less for its artistic qualities than its sheer girth. Another nugget stored in the back of my brain — large artwork, check.
Shortly after the Coke bottle sighting an idea began stirring in my fat head. Painting something the size of that Coke bottle didn’t seem particularly intimidating to me. In the mid-90s I painted the sign for Liz’s BBQ and before Mason was born I painted his bedroom. No one could confuse my artwork with the output of any real artist, but I figured as long as I gave myself enough lead time I would be able to pull something off.
Fast forward to December 23rd, the day I got started.
While I’d had the idea of painting something large for Dad for quite some time, I had spent weeks racking my brain over what it should be. I considered painting one of the Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, etc.) but painting only one of them seemed too “specific”, and doing all of them sounded like too much work (and to be honest, beyond my skill level). I also considered painting Robby the Robot, but he’s essentially all black and white. Like most good ideas, the solution simply popped in my head out of nowhere: I would paint the Metaluna Mutant.
The Metaluna Mutant had many things going for him. Although he came from a specific movie (1955’s “This Island Earth”), even people who haven’t seen the film or know the creature’s name tend to recognize him. (Many younger people recognize him from the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 Movie as well.) He’s also generic enough to represent the “1950’s sci-fi” genre. Another advantage the mutant had over the competition was that he consisted of two primary colors, red and blue, with yellow claws and black outlines. Yes, I decided, I would paint the Metaluna Mutant. A really big Metaluna Mutant.
The first thing I needed was a reference photo to work from. Google Images returned hundreds of results including original works of art and lots of stills from the film, but ultimately the picture I chose was one of a toy model of the mutant. I needed a mostly frontal pose, and this one was just what I was looking for.
After picking up a 1/4″ 4×8 sheet of plywood from Home Depot, I dug out my netbook and my projector, leaned the sheet of plywood up against my garage door, projected the picture of the mutant up onto the wood, and traced the outline of the mutant’s major features with a black Sharpie.
A couple of notes here. One, even with the wood and the projector as far apart as I could get them in my garage, I could not get the picture large enough. I solved this problem by rotating both the image and my projector. As you can see in the second picture, the Sharpie outline didn’t provide a ton of detail, but it did give me the outline and the proper proportions. With the outline manually transferred over to the wood the next step was to cut the mutant out using a jigsaw. This took about five minutes. After the mutant was cut out I sanded the sides and the edges with a sander. This took another five minutes.
The next step was painting. At this point I had spent an hour or so locating the right photo, hooking up the projector, tracing the drawing, cutting out the mutant, and sanding down the wood. I would spend the next 8 to 10 hours painting.
With the mutant’s bluish-gray skin almost done, the mutant began to resemble a large color-by-numbers project. My goal at this point was to stay only mostly within the lines — any mistakes at this point would be covered up by the red, and the separation between the two colors would be covered up with thick black lines. Note that I also had the reference photo on my iPad, which allowed me to quickly scroll around and zoom in and out in order to reference specific portions of the photo. I did some light shading at this point, but not much — just enough to give the mutant a hint of dimension.
Next up was the red, followed by the black. The paint I used was Plaid brand acrylic craft paint. Save for a large bottle of gray and a small bottle of black, the rest of the paint Susan already had on hand in her craft box. It took far less paint than I thought it would to cover a piece of wood this size. Far less.
Prior to applying the black I had doubts about this project coming together. To be honest it looked pretty terrible at that point. I need to remember that the black outline is what makes everything pop.
Once I was done applying the thick black outlines, the next part involves doing some fine detail work with a black Sharpie. I am sure a skilled artist could do all of these details with a paintbrush, but I am not a skilled artist. Take a look at these before and after pictures of the creature’s claw to see what a difference the Sharpie made.
Take particular note in the picture above of the mutant’s “cuticle” (for lack of a better word), where the yellow claw meets the gray hand. Now look below after the Sharpie details had been applied. I added several cracks and lines to make the claw look more realistic.
I was so impressed on what a difference the detail made that I decided to also do the same thing to all the monster’s blood red veins. I probably spent 30 minutes going around the mutant with a marker drawing highlights, but the final effect really made the veins pop and gave the creature a 3D look that made me glad I spent the time doing it.
Painting took place in the following order: all the blue/gray, all the red, all the yellow, all the black, all the Sharpie details, then all all the touch-ups where I had stuck my hand in wet paint and messed things up. The craft paints are very quick to dry so there was very little waiting involved. Plus when you’re painting something that’s 8′ tall, there are lots of areas you can move to and work on stuff.
The picture below highlights the last two things I painted: the brain and the mouth. I originally tried to draw the curves of the mutant’s brain using a Sharpie, but they were so hard to see that instead I plopped some white paint into the blue-gray bowl and using that slightly lighter shade of gray painted the folds of the brain. The mouth was the last thing I painted. I looked at a dozen pictures online and it seems everybody does the mouth differently. In the end I went with a loose interpretation of what it looked like to me (horizontal lines with some yellow, gray and red in there) and called it a day. One thing I learned is that it’s easy to focus on one detail for a long time, but when you look at the overall finished product no one detail stands out. Like a caricature, the goal here is to capture the essence of the mutant, something I think I did.
The next part was the hardest — waiting for the paint to dry. As I mentioned most of the paint dried very quickly, but a couple of the areas with multiple layers of paint (particularly the mouth and the claws) took much longer.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the base of the painting. From the very beginning I knew I wanted the mutant to have a wide base so that he could safely stand up without falling over. Cutting out the legs at the bottom would have made him too skinny. Some of the pictures I referenced showed the mutant standing in front of some computer equipment, but painting all that equipment would have taken too much time and paint and made the overall piece too large. I decided to just round the bottom off and paint it to look like rocks. I don’t think they ended up looking much like rocks, but they kind of look like an artistic interpretation of rocks. That’s one good thing about being the artist — you can always pretend like whatever you did was intentional. Plausible deniability, yo.
For 48 hours I stood (mostly hunched) over this mutant, circling around him with half a dozen Tupperware bowls full of cheap paint, hoping against hope that this thing would turn out like I had envisioned it would. It wasn’t until the paint was completely dry and I was finally able to stand the finished product up and look at it that I was convinced everything was okay.
After dusting any errant sawdust off the mutant’s base one last time it was time to move him inside. Morgan made a Christmas tag for him and suggested that we add a Santa hat to his head, which we did (with help from a step stool).
For now, the Metaluna Mutant is still at our house — bad weather has prevented the mutant from making his final journey from my house to Dad’s. This weekend he will complete his journey from the planet of Metaluna to Dad’s house. I don’t know that Dad has a spot planned for his latest acquisition of “large art” yet, but I do know that I met my original goal and Dad confirmed that he did not already have a hand-painted one-of-a-kind Metaluna Mutant. Whew, what a relief!
(You can view all the pictures I took of the project in this photo album).