Originally published in STIR®

A larger-than-life painted pachyderm brings something wild to an Ohio water park.


Large-scale projects are nothing new to artist Jeff Kraft. But the challenge he faced at the Kalahari, an Africa-themed resort and water park in Sandusky, Ohio, was beyond large.

It was enormous — a realistic, 71-by-48-foot elephant mural, complete with tusks and skin wrinkles. “I thought, ‘Holy buckets! What did I get myself into?’” the Prescott, Wis.-based contractor recalls, after he sold the resort on the idea. “The sheer scope of it was a little intimidating.”

The challenging project arose after the resort hired Kraft last year to create something colorful and creative for a huge, blank wall — a “knuckle” where a newer wing connected to the original resort. “Something needed to go there,” Kraft says.

“My job was to make that ugly knuckle go away,” he says. The owner proposed a printed elephant banner, but Kraft thought a gigantic painted one that appeared to be “charging between the two buildings,” would have more dramatic visual impact. The owner liked the idea. Now all Kraft had to do was pull it off.

To immerse himself in elephant physiology, he turned to Ivan Carter, a Zimbabwe-born wildlife photographer who has trained his lens on many African species.

Carter pored over thousands of his elephant images, finally narrowing the search to about 30. Kraft selected three, which he then combined using Photoshop, to inform his “extreme wildlife art.”

“I needed the body in a position that fit the wall,” Kraft says. The pose he selected is one known as mock charge: “The elephant runs at you and then backs off, to scare you. It’s done with a lot of bravado,” says Kraft.

Kraft, with some coaching from Carter, then sketched his design for the charging elephant. When he was satisfied, he projected the sketch on the wall, and used an 85-foot articulating boom lift to complete the painting.

To prepare the wall for his creation, Kraft had the local Sherwin-Williams store tint Loxon® Concrete and Masonry Primer to P2, a light gray. “Mainly to make it easier for me to apply finish colors without having to fight against a bright white background,” he says.

The palette, a dozen hues, came straight from the Sherwin-Williams fan deck. “I never do custom colors; I don’t need them,” Kraft says. “The Sherwin-Williams palette gives me all the colors I need.”

In addition, using standard rather than custom colors makes it easier to do maintenance and touch-up work during the life of the painting, Kraft says. “If I started mixing my own colors, it would just be too hard to duplicate.” However, he does do some mixing and blending on the wall to lighten or darken a particular color and create some visual effects.

The 12 colors, mostly warm earth tones, were inspired by nature, then stylized to complement the color scheme of the resort. “I wanted it to be dramatic but I didn’t want it to compete with the rest of the building,” he says.

Most elephants are naturally gray, but they can appear a variety of earthy tones because they often cover themselves with dirt and dust, Kraft learned, to deter biting insects and protect themselves from the sun’s rays. “The dirt acts as both mosquito repellent and sunscreen,” says Kraft.

The naturalistic elephant colors are juxtaposed against a brilliant sunset-hued backdrop. To preserve his palette, Kraft chose Sherwin-Williams Sher-CrylTM High Performance Acrylic for his topcoat. “I needed a product that would hold up in the weather with good UV protection,” he says. “Browns and rusty reds tend to turn pink over time, but Sher-Cryl keeps moisture from coming through and it doesn’t chalk up.”

The mural needs to be able to “take a pounding” from the elements, he says. “If you’re going to this much owner expense, you’ve got to give him 10 years at least.”

The resort loves its new focal point. “If the client is happy, I’m happy,” Kraft says. But it’s also a big hit with resort guests, many of whom are drawn to the towering elephant with their cameras. Even Kraft himself became a popular photo subject for the four weeks he spent painting the mural, during which the resort was open for business. “I ended up in a lot of vacation photos,” he says with a laugh. “I get the biggest kick out of the kids’ reaction to it — the wow factor.”

See more of Jeff Kraft’s work here.

The Elephant’s Palette