Corpus Christi Painted Stairs
Updated: Jun 5
This isn't exactly an embroidery project, but we've been fielding lots of inquiries about the process we use to create the painting on the front steps of the church for the feast of Corpus Christi. This was a handy place to park the instructions.
An outdoor procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi is a long standing tradition at St. John Cantius. Weather permitting, several hundred parishioners accompany the Blessed Sacrament around the parish property visiting four altars along the way. The solemn procession includes thuribles, bells, torchbearers, Gregorian chant, and a carpet of flower petals strewn by girls in their First Communion finery.
Adding a painting on the risers of the front stairs and a stenciled carpet to welcome the presence of Our Lord seemed like good additions to the event. We think of it as a greeting card for Jesus – perhaps kind of over the top to do this much work on something that is so temporary (it is often washed off on Monday morning), but He's pretty over the top too, so...
The artwork for this year’s painting was taken from a very old German church embroidery catalog. The design was intended to be embroidered on a processional banner.
Pretty fantastic, yes? As far as we can tell, the catalog dates to the 1850s. You can see more delicious pages here:
How to Do it
There are several tasks involved in doing this project:
• Choosing the artwork
• Prepping the artwork with line work and color numbering
• Setting up the projector
• Using Photoshop to distort the image to fit the stairs
• Tracing the artwork
• Mixing and numbering the paint colors
• Painting the artwork
Choosing the Artwork
It might be prudent to start simple and work your way up to complicated. Embroidery designs are actually pretty great to work with because they have clear outlines which make them easy to trace. There are a couple of resources that we have linked here on our site that include some Corpus Christi related designs. We are also happy to send you the layered files we used for our paintings. Just shoot us an email through our contacts form.
Prepping the Artwork
We found that the best way to fit the image to the stairs was to open a photo of the stairs in Photoshop using it as a base layer. Make an additional layer with lines drawn where the stairs break. Position the artwork layer underneath the layer with the stair lines and resize it to fit nicely on the risers, trying, if possible, to avoid having the breaks in the stairs rip through important areas, like a face.
Starting with a black and white line drawing for the artwork might make it easier to sort out the colors because they are added one-by-one giving better control over how many are used. Trying to simplify the colors on a source from a painting as we did in this version below is a bit trickier, or at least time consuming. There is a posterizing filter in Photoshop that probably would generate the reduced color list. I must explore that in the future.
You will need to create a paint-by-number of your image by adding numbers to each field of color. These numbers will be crucial in helping the painters choose the correct color for the outlined areas. You will be printing out several letter sized copies of the sections of your image for the painters to use as a reference when they paint. We inserted these into page protectors because they get dragged through the mill on painting day.
Projecting the Image on the Stairs
To project the image on the stairs we used a digital overhead projector hooked up to a laptop running Photoshop. It will need to be dark outside in order to see the line work most clearly. We didn't shoot out the street lights, but we did think about it for a minute or two.
Our set-up is a couple of ladders with a board slipped between them on two of the rungs at eye level. It helps to have a few shims to nuance the positioning of the projector so it fits just right.
To see the assembled image, as opposed to the sliced up version, the viewer's eyes need to be where the head of the projector is during the tracing. Create a 'Stand Here' or 'Sta Hic' medallion on the spot of optimal viewing. This is the stencil that we painted on the street. Ours is located a couple of feet out from the curb. The guys set up saw horses to keep cars from parking in that spot. There is usually a line for this vantage point on painting days so people can make sure their artwork is matching up from riser to riser.
Using Photoshop to Distort the Image to Fit the Stairs
The image will likely need to be distorted; pulling the top corners in toward the center line and probably bringing the bottom corners out. It will depend on how far you are standing from the stairs and how large your projected image is. On the stairs at Cantius the distance from the front of the stairs at sidewalk level to the furthest away at the top is considerable. There is probably a geometry equation that would give us a trapezoid shape to fit the art to so we wouldn't have to fiddle so much on Friday evening before painting day. Perhaps vertical lines on each side of the artwork would help to see when the distortion has been corrected.
Tracing the Artwork
This year we bought a bunch of tempera paint sticks to do the tracing. It worked really well. Chalk would work too. Maybe Sister Mary Therese would lend you her chrome chalk holder.
The more carefully the image is traced the better the painting will be. Next year we will try projecting just the line portion of the image in the hopes that it is easier to see what to trace.
It is probably not necessary to trace the numbers. Our projector doesn't have the greatest resolution so the numbers are kind of blobby and unreadable for tracing anyway. When we paint we reference those color prints of the artwork with paint-by-numbers indicated.
Mixing and Numbering the Paint Colors
We were surprised at how little paint it takes to do this. We mix the paint in 4 oz. Gladware containers. Color numbers are marked on the lid and the four sides of the container with a sharpie marker to make it easier to identify the correct pot on paint day. We mixed about 3oz of most of the colors and had leftovers. Obviously the more prevalent colors required larger volumes, probably 16 oz of the angel wings/clothing color, split between several containers so people could use the same color on different sections of the artwork at the same time.
We get the good tempera paint from Blick. The cheapo stuff for kindergarten painting doesn't have nearly the same depth of pigment so it’s harder to mix the paints. Less pigment means less vibrant artwork too. All of the colors can be mixed using White, Black, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. That is all that you will need. Plan to set aside a large chunk of a day to mix these colors. It takes longer than you think. We usually do this on Friday before we trace the image after dark.
Make color mixing guides by setting up a color sampler page in Photoshop with squares of the colors used in the image. Each square should probably be 1.5"-2". Number the color swatches to correspond with the paint by numbers in the image. Print a few of these swatch pages out on letter sized paper using photo paper. Insert the printouts into page protectors so all of those paint fingers don't trash them. Be sure to have a hair dryer to dry each test mix. You will be amazed by how much the colors change when they dry. We dab a little on a finger and spread it at the edge of a piece of scrap paper. Once it's dried place it over the swatch that you are trying to match and add drops of the appropriate color to fine tune a color match.
Painting the Artwork
The painting part is pretty much a dive-in-and-do-it undertaking. Painters use color printouts in page protectors as reference for what colors go where. Try to keep the lids on the containers that aren't being used because the tempera paint dries fast. Have lots of bottled water on hand. The painters dry out fast too. This year it was in the upper 90s so Fr. Nathan set up a couple of canopies on the stairs to provide shade.
What you're going to need:
• At least one artsy person to oversee the image prep and painting party, and to deal with the tricky painted parts like faces and hands.
• Digital image fit to your stairs
• Overhead projector
• Laptop with Photoshop installed
• HDMI cord to connect the two
• Extension cord or two or three
• A couple of ladders and a board set at eye level to hold the projector. The projector establishes the viewing location
• Paint sticks or chalk for tracing the design
• Wet rags for cleaning off tracing and painting errors.
• Tempera paint.
• 4oz Gladware containers, at least twice as many as you have colors in your image
• A few 8 oz. Gladware containers for the more prevalent colors
• Plastic spoons for mixing paint
• A plastic tablecloth for under the paint mixing fun
• Paint brushes
• Water jars
• Multiple enlarged printouts of the individual sections of the image to use for painting reference
• Rags for cleanup/touch ups
• Knee pads and stadium cushions
• Bungee cords if it's windy.
About that last item; this year a rowdy gust of wind actually flipped the paint cart over and dumped everything down the stairs. Excitement! Thankfully most of the lids stayed on. Someone will tip over some paint. It is a tradition.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. We would love to see others paint their stairs. If you do you must send pics!
**Notes from 2022
This year we added two more angels to accommodate the 45 people who wanted to grab a brush. We also opted to take two days to do the painting, tracing the image on Thursday night and painting on Friday and Saturday. That took some of the terror out of the whole project. The nightmare is always that the parishioners will show up for the big feast day and encounter a half baked disaster on the stairs.
It was helpful to project a reverse image that contained only the outlines in white.
Many hands make light work.
Other tips that were popular:
• Bring a towel to fold up under your ‘leaning’ arm. That granite gets pretty hard after 10 hours of painting.
• Add incense lines to the initial tracing image so it's easier to connect between the stairs.
• Keep the lids on the paint pots to keep them from drying out. Perhaps have a second set of the major colors for day two.
• Jam to the “Paint the Stairs” Spotify playlist that we created for this project. Palestrina to Bing Crosby. We have ours cranking out of a JBL bluetooth speaker. Bring a charger and park the phone and speaker somewhere in the shade. They don't like to be sun-fried.
This year we finally caught the washing off process on camera. The image stayed up for almost a week because the weather was clear. Saturday morning it started to rain so the power washer came out and Em and Grace blasted the tempera paint off the stairs. Be a little cautious around the rubber grout lines between the stairs. The power washer could possibly cause damage if the spray is concentrated on them for too long.