The “Mona Lisa” hangs in the Louvre in Paris, where an estimated 8 million people view it each year. With all due respect to Leonardo da Vinci, more than 114 million people saw the field logos at the last Super Bowl.

Painted logos aren’t just for professional championships, either. College and high school football, as well as baseball and soccer fields, are also now more likely than not to have a logo. They’re big, bright, attention-grabbing displays promoting the home team. Increasingly, logos are also being used to promote advertisers.

With such a high level of visibility comes pressure to make a logo – or banner or any other type of decorative field design – look its best. That requires careful planning, a steady hand … and the right tools.

Technology is key

While there are a few artistic field painters who still put down their team’s logos by hand, thanks to technology, the process usually begins these days not on the field but in front of a computer. The first step is get the logo or field banner just right on the screen, before it goes on the field. Once a logo design has been finalized, it usually is sent off to a field painting and supply company that also specializes in stencil creation. It’s the stencil – typically made from a lightweight plastic material – that will guide the painting of the logo on most fields.

This hand-cut stencil (from TruMark Athletics) allows much of the logo to be painted with the stencil in place. Once it has been removed, any missing pieces can be connected by hand and the final colors painted.PHOTOS: TRUMARK

“There are two types of stencils that can be used,” explains Tim McLarn, CEO of TruMark Athletics, a manufacturer of field marking supplies. Using the example of a logo that looks like a soccer ball, he explains how the two types differ: “One type of stencil has little half-moons, so each octagon on the soccer ball would have little half-moons cut in the stencil and you spray over the entire area to fill in those half-moons. Then, when you remove the stencil, you have a whole bunch of dots (or dashes) of that color, and you would connect the dots and fill out everything freehand.

The other type of stencil (which TruMark Athletics offers) would have huge chunks of the octagon cut out – with just enough crosspieces to keep the integrity of the plastic. So instead of connecting dots, you would just have to fill in the strip where the plastic was.”

McLarn says that in his (admittedly biased) opinion, the type of hand-cut stencils that TruMark manufacturers are easier to use for those new painting field logos, but notes that half-moon stencils are more common. “If you’re used to painting logos and you’re a professional, either type is going to work – both are going to give an equal quality,” he states.

Logos can also be sized based on the desired look and the placement on the field. “People will send us the logo they want and we do a mock-up for their field, showing them different sizes they could do. Then we take that artwork and digitally put it on a machine that cuts the dashes in the plastic,” explains Chip Curle, marketing manager with U.S. Specialty Coatings, a manufacturer of athletic field paints and accessories, including stencils. Stencils for logos that will appear in the center of the field are usually around 30 to 40 feet long, “or, if it’s going in an end-zone it could be 160 feet long,” says Curle.

No matter which type or size of stencil is used, McLarn says, it should only need to be laid down once per year. “The first time you paint the design, you’ll typically paint it twice so that it’s very high quality and nice and bright. After that, and after you’ve mowed and the grass grows and the paint fades, you can just take a spot wand and refresh it without putting the stencil back down,” he explains.

Working with stencils

Typically, stencils are just one layer, even if there are multiple colors in the logo. “The problem with doing multiple layers is because it’s very hard to line them up perfectly,” says McLarn. With images that are over 30 feet long, in some cases, being off just a little can make a big difference. It may not be apparent when the second stencil is laid down, but once painting has been completed, if the alignment wasn’t precisely the same, it becomes very apparent, he notes.

Start with a stencil.

Perhaps the trickiest part of using a logo stencil is getting it placed properly on the field. One tried and true strategy involves a pretty low-tech tool: string. Running a string from each corner of the stencil to the closest sideline and making sure all of those lengths are the same will ensure the design is centered. (The same should be done on each 45 yard-line to make sure the logo is centered on the field in that orientation, as well.) Once the desired position has been achieved, McLarn recommends using sandbags or some other type of weights to keep it in place during use rather than piercing the plastic with stakes, which can start rips and tears in the plastic.

Jeff Winsor is a sports field consultant in New Hampshire who formerly worked as the groundskeeper for the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. He’s painted logos for World Series games, college football bowl games and more, most often using stencils provided by World Class Paints.

Fill with one color at a time

“It sounds really simple, but the biggest thing to focus on is making sure the stencil is placed really straight,” Winsor explains. He says this can be particularly tricky on baseball fields, where logos often are placed in foul territory with rounded or uneven boundaries and other angles. “You need to make sure the logo will look straight to fans seated in the stands,” he advises. “You can have a beautiful logo, but if it’s crooked, that’s what everyone is going to notice.” For that reason, he liked to lay out the stencil using string lines and then double-check how it looks visually.

In the case of logos featuring intricate designs, Curle says, there can be confusion even after the logo is placed, as the person painting the logo needs to decipher which color to spray over each hole in the stencil. He sends his customers an image of what the stencil will look like when they spray it, and then what the final image will look like. “That gives them something to go by, because some logos are pretty intense,” he explains. In the case of different colors, often a different shape of cutout will be used for each different color. He says that the size and intricacy of the logo will determine the cost of the stencil, which typically range between $500 and $2,000.

Given the investment, it’s wise to take good care of your stencil. “If you buy a stencil, it should last you 10 or 15 years, at least, because you’re only using it once or twice a year,” explains McLarn. Carefully rolling up and storing the stencil the rest of the year should help to keep it protected, though McLarn cautions that, if the stencil isn’t stored in a box, a prominent label should be placed on it. “People see this piece of plastic with big pieces cut out of it laying in the corner and assume it’s just a ripped tarp, so sometimes they get thrown out. Most of the re-orders we receive are because of that.”

This image sequence illustrates the creation of an on-field logo, beginning with a stencil.

Painting tools

As is the case with lining a field, there are different tools to choose from when it comes to painting designs and logos. If the paint machine you’re using to paint field lines also has a spray wand, it can also be used to paint logos, says McLarn.

The key is the prep work.

“If you have three different colors, you need to actually empty the machine and wash it out so that the next color is going to come out correctly,” he emphasizes. For that reason, he says, some field managers, even if they have a bulk paint machine, will paint their logos with aerosol cans. “That way you don’t have to mess with the machine and clean it out – you can just switch cans,” says McLarn, adding that it doesn’t take as much paint as you might think to paint a logo: “Even a large football field logo that stretches from 45-yard-line to 45-yard-line shouldn’t take more than six cans total. Of course, if you’re doing an entire end-zone, like the University of Tennessee, that would be a lot of cans.” In that case, it would be much better to use bulk paint from a machine.

GrassAds uses a robotic painting technology rather than a stencil to create a logo outline on the turf.

Which method will produce better results comes down to the quality of the paint being used, McLarn says, regardless of whether it comes from a can or a machine. “If you go with the highest-quality paint for both, I think you’d have a pretty similar result,” he says, noting that there may be a little more control over color with bulk paint than with aerosol, both because there are more bulk paint options available and the paint can be watered down more or less to adjust the shade of a particular color.

Winsor typically use a standard airless field painting machine both to paint the “dots” cut into the stencil, as well as to then connect those dots and complete the logo once the stencil is removed. He prefers to paint the darker colors in a logo first, and then clean the machine before moving on to lighter colors. He says that the standard 4-series nozzle (the size relates to the inches of coverage when the nozzle is held a standard height above the surface) on most field painting machines can be used for many logos with large features or text.

The outline is then filled in by hand using a more traditional painting process to complete the finished logo.

When painting a huge area the same color, a larger 5- or 6-series nozzle might occasionally be used to speed the process. For more intricate designs, he says, it can help to move to a 2-series nozzle. The paint flow allowed by the nozzle is another consideration, he notes. Holding the nozzle closer to or farther from the surface can help the painter customize both the width of the spray and the amount of paint being applied – it just takes some practice, says Winsor.

One other painting tool that Winsor swears by: a garden hose. “I promise you that anyone who has ever painted logos has made a mistake. It’s like anything else, you get better with practice. But always have the hose ready to act as your eraser,” he says with a laugh.

A robotic future?

While logo painting has already come a long way (there was a time when sports field managers had to mark off grids on their field and sketch logos out by hand, and when stencil-making companies would use a projector mounted on the roof of a building to shoot an image down onto plastic), there may be even more changes in the future. Already, companies such as GrassAds are using robotic machines to paint logos on sports fields, golf courses and other large open surfaces. “We use a robotic technology to basically outline or stencil the logo,” explains Derek Stephens, regional director with GrassAds.

The process begins the same way it would to create a plastic stencil with the customer providing a copy of the logo. GrassAds then converts that file into its own system and downloads it onto a tablet that is used to control the robotic painter. Whereas a traditional stencil is created to display a fixed image at a fixed size, the use of computer technology in the robotic painting process means that changes can be made on the fly, depending on the size and look desired. “We can then make adjustments onsite; the logo can be stretched, resized, reconfigured, even put into 3-D,” says Stephens.

When a final size and placement is determined, the robot follows the directions it receives from the tablet. Depending on the size of the logo, it takes the robot about 20 minutes to 1 hour to create the outline, which is then filled in by hand, as would be the case with a more traditional logo process. Instead of using string lines to ensure correct (and straight) placement, the robotic system works off of a laser beam, similar to what a surveyor would use, located at a fixed point.

Stephens says that, while the robotic system can be used to create a standard logo (like a team mascot) in the middle of the field over and over, its best use is in creating “special” designs on fields, like an advertiser’s logo or a banner promoting a big event. Without the need to create a plastic stencil, it’s possible to quickly and easily create a custom field design whenever it’s needed.

At the moment, GrassAds provides robotic logo painting as a service, but may in the future license the technology to those who want to do the work themselves. One day, you may have some robotic help with your logo painting.

COVER PHOTO: TRUMARK