You Won’t Believe the Amazing Art this Barn Painter Creates All Over America

This self-taught barn painter will happily decorate any structure anywhere—the bigger, the better.

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I was 19 in the fall of 1997 when I asked my dad if I could paint something on the hay barn. I’d always been able to get small sign-painting jobs in high school, and I wanted to work bigger.

With a piece of chalk in my right hand and a paper copy of the design in my left, I began freehanding marks on the weathered barn boards. Up and down the bouncy old ladder I went, checking my progress from the cow pasture, until the chalk outline perfectly matched the image on my paper. A little more than a week later, a 20-foot Ohio State Block O and Brutus Buckeye decorated our old barn.

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My grandfather “Pap” Hagan was so happy with the results that he snapped some photos from the seat of his John Deere Gator and took them to our local newspaper, the Barnesville Enterprise. The paper ran a front-page story about the barn art, and that caught the eye of a traveling spokeswoman for the state of Ohio. Next thing we knew, a man called to ask if I would be interested in painting some more barns for the Ohio bicentennial celebration in 2003!

That’s when I started wondering if there was a better way to paint a barn than crawling up and down a ladder. Luckily, Dad remembered that a man known as The Barn Painter lived about 20 miles from us. Legendary Mail Pouch barn artist Harley Warrick painted or retouched more than 20,000 barns during his 55-year career. And after a few phone calls, the 74-year-old welcomed me to his shop.

Harley was well into retirement at that point but painting and selling mailboxes and birdhouses. He happily showed me his scaffolding rig and sternly explained, “You’ll need this right here. This setup is a block and tackle. It did well for me for 45 years.” He told me what to buy, how to fabricate it, the length of the ropes and how to quickly tie them.

I stopped by many times after that. Harley was a pleasant fellow who loved to talk politics and share adventures from his Mail Pouch days. Harley died in 2000 at age 76, and I’ll be forever grateful for his gracious and generous help. I still use the walking plank he gave me.

In 1998, I started painting an Ohio bicentennial logo on barns in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Over the next five years, the paintings often became local events. I found myself speaking at schools and on TV. People came with lawn chairs and picnics to watch the red, white and blue “Ohio” take shape, and sometimes applause would even break out when I finished the last brushstroke.

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The barns became a centerpiece of the celebration and even won an award for creative advertising. Most of those 88 barns are still standing, and people still enjoy visiting them on driving tours.

Since I finished that project in 2003, I have painted hundreds of other structures across America and Canada. When customers ask for a quote, I ask them to send me quality photos of the structure. Then I use Adobe Photoshop to draw possible designs on the photos so customers can see exactly how the paintings would look. In addition to barns, I’ve painted silos, grain elevators, football fields and rooftops.

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Sometimes a client wants their painting to look old and weathered. I used that style inside a pro golfer’s home and on a vintage Coca-Cola sign in Illinois.

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To improve speed and safety, I’m always inventing tools or crafting hardware, such as oversized protractors, marking extensions or special magnets for metal-sided buildings. I now draw the outline with black and white grease pencils instead of chalk, and I graduated from ropes to aluminum scaffolding that can move up and down with the aid of an electric drill. The scaffolding gives me great freedom of movement and makes me feel safe.

My jobs aren’t always near paint stores, restaurants and hotels, so I try to be as self-sufficient as possible. I haul all the ladders and scaffolding on my truck’s heavy-duty ladder racks, and I tow a toy hauler travel trailer that’s a camper and storage for my pressure washer, paint sprayer, torpedo heater, generator and bulk paints. I basically camp at the site until the work is done. Some jobs use less than a gallon of paint; others can take 45 gallons if the customer wants several sides painted. I usually carry all the primary colors and mix them on site to create all the custom colors I need.

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Besides setting up the scaffolding, weather is my biggest challenge. In the early years, rain showers would catch me off guard and ruin hours of work. Today, scanning the weather radar on my smartphone usually helps me stay ahead of the rain, but I still have to keep an eye on the sky in areas with no cell service. I quickly learned not to bother with rain tarps. They turn into wildly flapping sails under the slightest breeze. Wind is my sworn enemy at any temperature.

Seeing our country is one of the biggest perks of my profession. I’d like to paint at least one barn in all 50 states—and I’m getting there. Sometimes my family comes along to make it a bit of a vacation. I’m looking forward to the day when they also can help with the painting!

I hope you can tell that I really enjoy what I do. After nearly 20 years of painting, I give thanks to my mother for showing me how to draw, to my father for teaching me how to work, to my grandfather for believing in me and sharing that first barn picture, and to the state of Ohio for taking a big chance on a 20-year-old kid. Most of all, thanks be to God. I can’t wait to see where He takes me next!

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Originally Published in Farm & Ranch Living

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