The Story Behind the World’s Largest Watercolor Painting

By Jennifer Nalewicki
June 22, 2017

The massive artwork marks the opening of the MASS MoCA’s new 130,000-square-foot wing, which makes it the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S.

Watercolors are among the least forgiving mediums for artists to work with. Not only are they relatively transparent, runny and overall precarious, but mistakes like an errant brushstroke are often difficult to cover up. Still, when the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) approached celebrated contemporary painter Barbara Prey about creating what would become the largest known watercolor painting in the world to celebrate the opening of Building 6, its newest wing located in North Adams, Massachusetts, she was up for the challenge.

Over the years, numerous government agencies and institutions have tapped the Fulbright Scholar to take on significant art projects—including the White House, where Prey is one of only two living female artists to have their work on display in its permanent collection (she also designed its Christmas card in 2003), and NASA, which commissioned her to create four paintings.

In other words, Prey is no stranger to completing high-profile art projects. For MASS MoCA, it took her about a year from start to finish to complete the massive watercolor painting, which measures 8 feet by 15 feet, or 120 square feet, and is a detailed replica of the second floor of Building 6, a former textile mill, as it looked before renovations began to transform it into a museum.

The finished piece includes painted facsimiles of the sprawling building’s columns, windows and endless layers of paint. But bringing the painting to life was the easy part. It was gathering the materials to start the project in the first place that proved to be the most difficult.

Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Prey wound up doing much of her work onsite in Building 6 before renovations commenced, studying the space’s light throughout the day, while also reading up on its history as one of many mills that made up the industrial town.“I spent a lot of time in the building, doing about 48 sketches using pencils to larger color studies,” she says. “I would go back and forth and compare paint chips, and I would sit on the floor doing color studies of the columns. It’s a very mystical and magical space, but also dirty and gritty with dust on the floor. But that sense of space I couldn’t have gotten without working there.”

 In a move to help solidify a connection between building and painting, Prey incorporated dust from the floor as well as ground paint chips from the columns by adding them into her paint, lending a mixed-media element to the work.

“That created a real connection with the building,” she says. “I also had to make sure that I got all of the lines straight, since this had to be a portrait of the space.”Prey’s piece is the first thing visitors will see before entering MASS MoCA’s new wing. It’s on display along with select works by artists James Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, Laurie Anderson and Sol Lewitt. With the recent addition of roughly 130,000-square-feet of gallery space, MASS MoCA is now the largest contemporary art museum in the United States.

The World’s Largest Watercolor Goes on Display at MASS MoCA


by Andrew Nunes

— Barbara Ernst Prey’s gigantic painting is on view at the North Adams institution.

MASS MoCA just unveiled Building 6, a massive addition of 130,000 square feet of exhibition space, and to inaugurate the new wing, more than a dozen exhibitions by a powerful array of blue chip artists are on display, one of which is something of a meta-show. Barbara Ernst Prey‘s Building 6 Portrait: Interior consists of a singular work—a giant, framed, 8′ x 15′ watercolor painting depicting the pre-renovation version of the same space the piece is housed in.

An unusual (but quite interesting) commission to say the least, the painting is something of a cultural preservation of an older America. “Building 6 had been vacant since the early 1980s. It has seen so much use as a bustling epicenter to American industrialism, yet when I did a walkthrough of the empty space with MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson in September 2015, you could hear a pin drop,” Prey tells Creators. “The eerie silence of the cavernous space combined with the way the natural light hit it was otherworldly. Before it was to be repurposed again, I wanted to capture that ethereality, and the best way to do that was by using the dreamy, delicate-yet-technical medium of watercolor painting.

MASS MoCA Building 6 , installed

MASS MoCA Building 6, installed

Prey’s painting, the result of a two-year endeavor beginning in 2015, is also notable for a variety of reasons beyond offering a historical slice of an iconic building. For starters, Building 6 Portrait: Interior is quite literally the largest-known watercolor painting ever created in terms of total square footage. Its sheer size is more than just visual grandeur; it’s also an incredibly technically challenging feat to accomplish, considering how watercolor dries much quicker than other forms of painting, and how mistakes are near-impossible to cover up in this particular medium.

Historical photo of Building 6 Courtesy of MASS MoCA

Historical photo of Building 6 Courtesy of MASS MoCA

This is precisely the reason why the painting took Prey such a long amount of time to complete. In order to fully attune herself with the space and the painting to-be-made, the artist embarked on a long series of spatial studies of the disused building, before creating an initial structure drawing of the space, a process which, in itself, took an incredibly long time.

“Once MASS MoCA commissioned me, I was granted a few months to be able to spend time alone in the empty building to create these on-site studies,” Prey explains. “I wanted to capture how the light hit the industrial beauty of the building’s architecture, combined with the sheer emptiness of this formerly bustling factory hub. One can only imagine the constant mechanical and conversational cacophony it housed for two centuries.”

Painting in the studio

Painting in the studio

“My approach to painting has always had an extremely technical core, but with an interpretive, site-specific execution. So, in this case, I did 48 advance studies and a to-scale base sketch with perspectival accuracy, but executed the work itself in varied layers of watercolor washes with paint chips and site debris mixed in,” she adds.

Even Prey’s initial studies involved a multiple-step process. “I initially began with small studies working out the composition and value and, in this commission, choosing which view I would paint of the vast un-renovated space,” the artist reveals. “After the pencil drawings, I moved to color studies. They began small, as I was unsure of the saturation of the color, and then I moved to larger studies. The last study was 32×40″, which is tacked up on the wall as a reference for the final painting.”

Detail of Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Detail of Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Beyond the cultural significance of the work, the whole process was something of a spiritual journey for Prey. “On a personal level, this was all about exploring uncharted territory. But perhaps the most important thing to remember was that I really couldn’t make a mistake, which is the scary part about watercolor. It is the most unforgiving medium, and working in it on such a grand scale was an endurance-based process.”