Outdoor Artwork

 Designing With Photography For Building Exteriors

Award-winning portrait photographer Robyn Hills M.Photog., FAIPP, describes how she created and printed an image that has been used as decoration on the outside of a building.

With the advancement of technology in the photographic industry, the parameters have been pushed as to the usage of imagery. Photographic quality images can now be printed not only onto papers of a multitude of textures, but also onto vinyl, glass, metals, wood and even stone.

I love the challenge of using new technologies to stay at the leading edge of the industry. Of course, sometimes a lot of energy and time can be devoted to this, as the learning curve is steep when  inventing  ways to do things that haven t been done before.

Having been working with architects on my personal property projects, we were talking about individualising buildings to give them character and personality. Just as you would choose what to wear to show off your personal style, the exterior of a building can be utilised the same way. The building featured in this article had been refurbished in the previous five years. It was originally built approximately 20 years ago. In the refurbishment, decorative paneling was used to give the building some style, along with tiling and a fresh coat of paint.

While this process made the building look more modern and more appealing in order to attract quality tenants and give them excellent presence on the street, some short-cuts were taken. The metal panels, for example, were made out of perforated steel mesh and powder coated to give them a silver grey finish. But, after a couple of years, the powder coating was peeling off and the metal underneath was starting to rust as it was exposed to the elements.

As the panels had to be removed anyway, it was decided to get a quote for doing the same process again. This would involve dipping the metal into large vats to remove the previous coating, and then cleaning and preparing them before redoing the powder coating. The alternative option was to remove the metal panels completely and put up one made from an architectural fabric in their place. This would eliminate the possibility of the metal panels being an ongoing maintenance problem and also provide the opportunity to give the building another mini-facelift to keep it fresh and modern. From this came the idea of printing a photographic image onto the fabric panels.

The Fabric

While the architecture substrate is called a  fabric , it is actually a PVC mesh. Viewed up close it has approximately a two millimetre gap in the weave. This provides effective screening for windows to give privacy and reducing some light, but also cutting down direct sunshine, heat and UV penetration into the interior. Importantly, it can be seen through from inside the building.

The fabric for this project was selected from a swatch card of the available colours. We settled on a mid-tone grey for three reasons. Firstly, in some areas, the back of the fabric would be showing and to keep the printing costs down, we didn t want to have to print on both sides. Secondly, the grey gave a look of brushed aluminium which matched in well with the original colour scheme. The third reason —and probably the most important one —was that a neutral grey tone wouldn t give the printed image a colour bias. Where you would normally get  white paper  showing through, in this instance we would get the grey tone.

A brighter, more vibrant image would have resulted if we d have chosen a white fabric, but then we would have to deal with the backing issues, so this was the best result all round.

One metre of the fabric was ordered as a sample and I then produced the image file which was sent to the printer to test the process. The art of getting it to look  just right  (the Goldilocks result!) was to have the ink application heavy enough to show a good density, but not so heavy that it would bleed through the open weave and seep into to the reverse side.

Thorough research also went into determining which  grade  of fabric to use. As with most things in life, there are less expensive options and more expensive.

Some of the lighter weight mesh fabrics are used for hoardings and roadside banners. These have a life span of between 12 months to two years. As these panels were to be more permanent, we chose a much heavier grade and used several coats of UV lacquers to protect the printing. The printing company we used has been working with these products for many years. The actual printing and coating comes with a five year warranty, so the job should last around ten years by which time the building will be due again for refurbishment.

Choosing The Image

So, how do you go about selecting a photograph to use for a project like this? The old adage of  success is when prior preparation and planning meets opportunity  has really been put to good use here.

As I ve always had a vision of using my photographs in large format, I have been on the lookout for uses that fit this criterion. To make the most of any opportunity I always carry a camera with me so, every time I see  something interesting  I can grab a shot.

The most important thing is to be always  armed  with a camera so I m able to record whatever it is, whenever I see something that inspires me. Consequently, I have a quite a collection of  art images , which I file under the label Art Portfolio. They are divided up into subfolders of Ail, then followed by Abstract, Aerials, Animals, Australian Landscapes, Nudes, People, Textures, Travel Locations and Water. It was quite an interesting process to discover that the majority of these images fell into these nine categories. Some images do appear in two or three categories, but it still makes looking for the  right  image a whole lot easier.

As I saw the building and found out about the colour scheme that was being used, my mind s eye went straight to a photograph I call  TarmacTexture , I was landing my helicopter one day to refuel and noticed that the bitumen on the helipad was literally falling apart. It had been repaired with hot-mix several times and the red line-markings had been re-done over the years. Luminosity was created in the centre where fuel had been spilled (no, I didn t spill it!). The tones of red, black and greys were perfect for the building s colour scheme of white, charcoal, metallic greys and a red tile highlight.

Because the original content of the image was about degradation and layers, it will also work well when the printing and fabric start to deteriorate.

The Layout

When I did the initial recce on the building, I photographed it from various angles, took rough measurements of the lengths and guessed the heights of the panels. This allowed me to test several layouts using the photograph end-to-end, flipping it vertically and horizontally. Where the  red stripe  fell in the design became important, both in terms of the overall design and in connecting it to the red tile panel in order to link  the building together.

Some of the panels would have to use the photograph in a different scale —e.g. the long end panel was one-to-one, dictated by the height of the panel so I used the photograph full height and replicated it horizontally to fit the length. Once I had the exact measurements, I then slid the design along so that the joined images  composition worked best in the prominent positions.

On the higher panels I started where I most wanted the red stripes to go and worked the rest of the replication around that, being careful not to get the images too far out of scale from each of the other panels.

The Printing

The fabric was a very expensive component of this job so ordering more than was needed would blow-out the allocated cost budget. However, it was at the point of handing the artwork to the printer that he asked, happens if we have a  head-jump  or some-thing?"With a deep breath, we asked questions about the  what if’and decided that any printing errors would have to be dealt with by making a join and heat weld_ing the fabric together.

The chosen image was proving to be an even better choice because of the latitude it gave us when dealing with these issues.

Once the original metal panels were removed from the building, I was supplied with an exact measurement layout. This layout is called  nesting  the design —giving the most efficient use of the fabric to avoid wastage. Taking into consideration that the fabric was three metres in width, everything was worked around that.

We used a scale of 1:1 so, if the panel was seven metres long, this was the length of the actual file I made. I used Photoshop and, once the file goes over a certain size, a  Large Document Format  file is adopted. These files were 3.0 and 4.0 GB each. Yes, it was a process that required patience and, on a few nights, I finished at 3.00 am because you had to press  save  along the way and that took several minutes.

I ended up splitting the files just to assist with their workability. I then made layout notes and some smaller files as samples for the printer s reference. Each file was named to make sense to the layout —for example,  File A, Steps ,  File B, High Panel  —and also included the sizes as part of the file names so they could not be confused. To be doubly sure, I printed out the layouts and all the notations as well, and then burned them all to a DVD.

Installation And Logistics

Power lines running across the footpath right outside the building had to be covered before the cherry picker and scissor lift could be brought in. All the tenants had to be issued with an interruption notice and the work had to be done at 7.00 am to lessen the impact on the businesses. Just to add to the degree of difficulty, the site has a steep sloping driveway.

Track was attached to each of the outer edges of the panels and the welded edges were fed into it to make for a smooth, taut finish.

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