The Making of the OU Football Mural
Reprint courtesy of the Miami (Okla.) News-Record, Sunday, February 21, 1999
OU Football Mural Has it All
Miami News-Record Sports Editor
From an article entitled "Drawing on his experience" and
Subtitled "Watts uses technology to produce latest project"
Oswego, Kan. -- Ted Watts has seen the future of his trade . . . and he likes it.
Modern computer technology was widely used in his latest project produced by the nationally-known sports artist: a 10 foot high by 33 foot wide mural depicting the history of the University of Oklahoma football program which will be displayed in the new Barry Switzer Center Legends lobby.
“I always used to be a little bit snobbish, saying a computer can never replace a real artist,” the former Miamian said. “I think it takes an artist to be able to really use the computer correctly. I believe that we’re all children of our own technology, so why not use it as a tool to create the very best possible piece of artwork.
“That’s how I intend to use it. . .take what I do and see if this tool is going to help me present the picture I want to convey better. On this one (the OU mural), it has.”
Watts is a protégé of Charles Banks Wilson, famed for his lifelong dedication to Oklahoma heritage and Native American art themes.
As a Wilson student, he was taught many of the painting and design techniques of Regionalist painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton.
“The old-style drawing techniques I use are not too much different from 2,000 years ago,” Watts said. “It’s what I do with them afterwards. Just like paintings, materials are so much different than they used in the 1930s and ‘40s. I use a lot of speed techniques that didn’t exist back then and the computers didn’t exist when I went through my art training.”
Watts produced all of the original art for the Sooner mural, using a mixed media technique, primarily using acrylic paints. He used reference photographs and other materials from his own files and from the University of Oklahoma archives for the artwork.
The finished paintings were digitally scanned and arranged as a composite whole via the computers of Custom Color Corp., in Kansas City, Mo. It was then broken up into 4 foot by 8 foot sections with eight panels utilized.
The work was transferred to the finished wall graphic display panel in the Switzer Center. As a result, Watts and project coordinators were able to prepare the mural as the building was being constructed.
The amount of memory the artwork consumed on CCC’s computer was mind boggling.
“If you were doing a 4 x 8 project, it would take 60 to 80 meg (megabytes). But since he wanted every brushstroke, you are talking 680 meg per 4x8 sheet,” said Joel Seidelman of CCC. “You’re talking about 6.2 gig of information. Technically that’s overkill in anybody’s book, but to get the soft subtleties of his art talent, that’s what we needed to do.”
Seidelman said his firm has done bigger murals than the OU piece, but none have had that much information. It took six CDs to store all of the information.
“What surprised Ted was it looked exactly like his paintings,” Seidelman said. “Technically they can’t but it’s the closest illusion you will find.”
Printing the panels was another challenge.
While most projects will take 15 to 20 minutes, the Watts mural took overnight to print out.
“It was laminated, and then it took a day and a half to line it up perfect,” Seidelman said. “If you are off a 16th of an inch top or bottom, left or right, you’re not there. It’s got to be dead on or it doesn’t work.”
Another key player in the project was Bob Sprenger of Sprenger McCullough & Co. of Kansas City.
“Ted didn’t know we existed until Bob told him about us,” Seidelman said. “Ted was reluctant at first, but Bob convinced him ‘here are some of the projects they’ve done.’”
Forty-nine players, 13 coaches and over 50 other graphic elements are shown in the huge mural.
“It’s a whale of a project,” said Larry Naifeh, OU interim athletic director at the time the mural was commissioned. “It’s a major part of the Legends Lobby. It’s pretty incredible. . . .it’s a display that features everyone we love to talk about at the University of Oklahoma.”
Watts and then-OU athletic director Steve Owens reached an agreement on Aug. 2, 1997 to begin preparation for the mural. Eight months later, Watts met with OU athletic department officials and architects in Norman for an art presentation and received approval of the mural concept and content.
Naifeh commissioned Watts to proceed with the project on May 7, 1998. A final approval from the OU Architectural and Engineering Services director was received on Sept. 3, 1998.
Art preparation was completed Nov. 30, 1998.
“When we were putting it together, Ted was the first guy I called,” said Owens. “I wanted Ted to do it for a couple of reasons. He’s the most outstanding sports artist in the country and he has a deep love for OU. It’s not just another job. . . .it’s a passion for him.”
The Switzer Center is located at the south end zone area of OU’s Memorial Stadium, with an eastern entrance to the Legends Lobby.
The mural centers on Barry Switzer, who guided the Sooners to three national championships.
Also playing a dominant role in the work are coaches Bennie Owen and Bud Wilkinson. OU’s three Heisman Trophy winners---Owens, Billy Sims and Billy Vessels---are featured as well as the majority of the Sooners’ All-Americans.
Watts grouped the players so that offensive stars are on the left side and defensive standouts on the right.
Adding to the spirit, the OU band, cheerleaders and Sooner Schooner are also included.
“There is quite a bit in there. My mandate was to try to get in as many of these elements in without making it look so busy that it’s overwhelming,” Watts said. “What I did was tried to leave enough open spaces in here and there to where you can still see the background and allow a pretty good view of the Jumbotron.”
To get the proper perspective for the mural, Watts shot a number of photographs from several angles in the stadium during the 1998 spring game.
“I wanted a two-point perspective rather than just one angle, so that when you walk into the room, it makes the lobby look deeper,” Watts said.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Watts said. “We overlaid the (College Football Hall of Fame) logo, dropped out the backgrounds and did several other things. It means a cost savings by taking the computer techniques and blending it in with the fine arts style.
“My time was cut in half.”
Also, Watts didn’t have to close his studio here and move to Norman for the duration to produce the mural, which took virtually all of his time for a 3 1/2 month period.
“It was the only way we could have done it within the time constraints,” Watts said. “When I first talked with Steve, it was August 1997 and to finish it within a year and a half, if we had done the old style technique, it would have been so time consuming. There would be no margin for error.
“With the computers, if I messed up on the size of something, we played around with it a little bit.”
Also, color reproduction can be truer.
Over the course of a lengthy project, such as the OU mural, the palette can slightly change.
“If you notice it in the color prints, you can go back and say ‘hey, can you deepen this and get it more Oklahoma crimson?’
“They are able to do that with the computer without having to shuttle artwork back and forth or tie up a whole lot of time. It can be done in hours instead of weeks.
Watts heeded a challenge from legendary Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson, speaking at an MHS athletic banquet, to follow one’s dream.
His pride in the accomplishments of Owens led to a complex montage of the two-time All-American in the fall of Owens’ Heisman Trophy winning season (1969). That winter, the work received wide publication in area and regional newspapers and magazines.
It led to him moonlighting in sports art.
Finally, at age 29, he quit his job at the Oswego Independent-Observer, borrowed $3,000 to purchase supplies then visited every university and college within driving distance of Oswego.
The hard work paid off: he’s now got a client list of over 150 nationwide. His works hang in all of the major sports Halls of Fame and the NCAA Publishing Service and the United States Olympic Committee are among his studio patrons.
A walk through Watts’ studio is like a Hall of Fame in itself, with the greats of baseball, football, basketball, track, boxing and other major sports covering the walls.
And … as they say, “The rest is history.”