Murals are large scale paintings which are applied directly to walls, ceilings, and other large flat surfaces. They are probably the oldest human art form, as cave paintings at numerous human settlements suggest, and can be found all over the world decorating homes, institutions, and public spaces. A wide variety of artistic styles are used in mural painting, but all of them incorporate a large sense of scale, and the ability to portray a complex scene which is readable up close or far away.
In many cases, a mural is commissioned by a government or institution, because it represents a costly endeavor. For this reason, this type of art is often found in places like schools, government buildings, and on the outside of buildings in urban areas. Murals and the people who create them often become well known, due to the large scale and themes depicted. Diego Rivera and Leonardo da Vinci were both muralists, as was Michelangelo. Most muralists produce artwork in multiple media, demonstrating a remarkable range of skills.
Classically, a mural is applied directly to a prepared surface such as a fresco. Fresco like that used in the Sistine Chapel is a wet plaster to which paints are added. As the paints dry, they fade slightly, but also lock into the plaster, making them longer lasting and less likely to flake or peel. Usually, a team of artists works together under the supervision of a master artist, who keeps the plans for the overall design and directs individual team members as they work on specific projects.
Murals are often associated with political expression, thanks to the work of artists in the United States and Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. In the United States, an earlier tradition of political murals at the turn of the century had given way to more neutral themes, but the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration rekindled the political focus. In both nations, murals focused on workers, the lives of the lower classes, harvesting food, preparing meals, and other errata of daily life, a marked departure from the highly religious paintings and frescoes of the Middle Ages. It was also a shift from the glamorous promotional public art of the 19th century, which encouraged viewers to “Move to Sunny California!” or enjoy various commercial products.
Many modern muralists continue the tradition of political expression in their work, and produce large scale commentaries on social issues which also beautify the places they are installed in. Other mural artists focus on producing beautiful pieces of artwork which enhance environments like board rooms and other corporate spaces, along with environments like public buildings and schools.