The internet is an interesting place. Tell Pinterest you’re into antique furniture and you’ll get a lot of Danish Modern and Art Nouveau. Pin a lot of Art Nouveau furniture and you’ll get a lot of Art Nouveau everything else. Spend any time looking at famous Art Nouveau pieces, and you’re more than likely come across some Alphonse Mucha, the turn of the century advertisement artist extraordinaire.
Mucha, who had been classically trained in Munich and Paris, made his breakthrough while working as an illustrator at a print shop in Paris in 1894. A local theater needed posters for an upcoming play starring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in Paris at the time, on extremely short notice. Mucha agreed to produce the posters, and two weeks later his artwork became the talk of the town when this poster entered circulation:
After that, Mucha was never without work. Sarah Bernhardt liked the Gismonda poster so much that she contracted another 6 years worth of posters from him on the spot. He did famous advertisements for cigarette and bicycle companies, and eventually his style (“Style Mucha”) became so popular that printers approached him to contract artwork for calendars, stationary and things like dinner party menu cards, such as these ones:
Menu cards like the ones above were cheaply mass produced, mostly selling for the name “Mucha” on the label and the recognizable style. In addition, the final color selection was often done by employees of the print shop, coming out different in each batch and without being checked and approved by the artist himself, as they might have been if they were intended to be fine art prints. The result was beautiful line work (easily replicated) with cheap and shoddy color work (not as easily replicated).
In my aforementioned Pinterest musings, I saw a lot of drool-worthy Mucha artwork, but knew that purchasing a full size print (because Mucha deserves to be appreciated in full size) was not going to be within my home decor budget any time soon. However, when I came across one of the menu cards above whose line work I liked, I thought, “I could do that.”
I’m not really the “massive chalk-paint magnet-board pallet-wood-frame wall-menu” type, but between the grand scale of Mucha’s work combined with the desire to replicate one of his pieces, I suddenly found myself trying to figure out how to make a giant wall menu.
I spent a lot of time trying to find a high resolution image online, or even a full page print in an anthology to scan, but with little luck. After doing some research, I learned that the menu cards in the collection above (there are 10 prints in the set) were originally produced at around a 5″x7″ size, and since they were made to be used, they’re pretty rare now. I finally had to settle for scanning a 4″ tall print in a book at the highest resolution the library scanner could email.
Knowing I’d be limited in scale by the size of my canvas, I started looking for big paper. Standard sizes stopped at around 28-30″ in height, but I wanted something bigger. I finally found some heavy 24″x36″ drawing paper at the bookstore on campus and bought multiple sheets along with some carbon copy paper. I headed back to the library to print my reference image to an appropriate size across multiple sheets of paper and headed home.
I wasn’t sure what medium Mucha’s original artwork for these cards was, but I did know that the mass produced versions would be some kind of print like lithography or block printing. For that reason I chose to color my reproduction with watercolor instead of a thicker paint like oil. I also made a few general decisions about how I wanted to color my version, as I didn’t like the original hodge podge of dark earth tones, especially in the grape vine areas. I did like the red dress and contrasting ribbon color, though.
I didn’t have a lot of experience with watercolor before this project. Just enough to know some basic blending and shading techniques, but very little about using color and covering large areas with a consistent look. Luckily, the detail density of the large swaths of fabric on this piece made differences in shading look interesting and even natural. I was pleasantly surprised at how will the dress came out.
In the end, the colorway on my replica ended up pretty similar to my reference, other than lightening up the vineyard section. The dress looked very red by itself, but after contrasting it with bright blue, green and yellow (I did very little mixing of colors to move away from the “primary color swatches” look, unfortunately) it ended up looking more of a pinkish magenta. Happy with the shading and structure of the piece but very unhappy with the colorway, wrinkles in the paper and a few random splotches of color in the white area from drips and spills, I decided to scan the whole thing, made edits digitally, and then have my revised version printed again.
It took many hours and probably a dozen different versions of my color edit to finally settle on this one. I had wanted to use a contrasting ribbon color, but the additional contrast of the red dress, yellow background and green leaves made it very difficult to find a ribbon color that was both contrasting and didn’t make it look like my colors from a bars and tones screen. Eventually I settled on a darker red for the ribbon, made all of the red and yellow areas warmer and blued up the vines and grapes.
Then I took my digital version to a print shop in town and spent and hour going through half a dozen proofs trying to get the prints to look like my computer screen. They were all coming out with a super-saturated red overtone, no matter what the printer did to modify his machine’s settings, so I finally whipped out my laptop, dropped the “warmth” setting on my file into the blues by about 10%, and sent the revised file back to the printer.
The resulting poster, printed back onto an extra sheet of my 24″x36″ drawing paper, came out a little flat (I hadn’t anticipated that my paper with it’s soft, natural texture would soak up the ink differently than the chemically treated paper the printer was showing me proofs on) but it was at least the right color.
Next, I needed a way to be able to write on my menu more than once. I knew that writing on glass with white erase markers is safe, but as glass is heavy and expensive, I decided to instead use clear acrylic (Plexiglas). I got some thin (1/8″ thick) window acrylic for free when one of our neighbors moved out (they’d been using it to fill the gap above their window A/C unit), but if I had purchased some, I probably would have gone with 1/4″ or thicker so the finished product would be less flexible. It doesn’t hang quite flat at the 1/8″ thickness.
I started with a sheet of acrylic about an inch bigger than my poster in each direction and used a spray on adhesive to attach the poster to the acrylic. I used an old gift card as a scraping tool to smooth out bubbles, then added a layer of brown paper on the back to help protect the print. I used Elmer’s all purpose spray adhesive, but unfortunately the size of my project mixed with the short open time of this type of adhesive gave me a speckled, cloudy haze over my print once the project was dry. Next time I think I’ll try Mod-Podge or invest in an acrylic glue.
I used Command Hook velcro strips to mount it and voila! Massive wall menu! This project cost me about $40-45, but I got the acrylic for free. If I had needed to purchase the acrylic it would have another $40 or more.
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