Marsh’s daily diaries for the years 1936 and 1937 document the exact timeline of his process, indicating, for example, on November 20, 1936: “5:30 AM—1st time down harbor with Cutter,” and on November 21, “down harbor with Normandie.” He “breakfasted” on the Normandie on October 14. On September 20, 1937, he wrote that he had “come up on Queen Mary” and on September 27, “spend day at sea with pilots.” These diary entries are only a few among many. [xiii] After Marsh assembled his material and made his final sketches, he used a balopticon, a projector likely manufactured by Bausch and Lomb, to project his sketches through lantern slides onto the prepared panels. He then sketched over the projection, working from one of two fifty-foot scaffolds built to bring him up to the ceiling. (One cannot help thinking of Michelangelo and the Sistine Ceiling here!) He also created grids on his sketches to effect the transformation in scale to the larger panels. His diaries indicate which day he started each panel, when he used the balopticon, when he painted, and when he re-painted. That the process was unbearably tiring is evident in a notation on October 2, 1937 when, very much in the midst of painting the murals, specifically the Pilot panel; he wrote in his diary “collapse in aft.”
Alongside this work method, so steeped in observation, needs to be placed Marsh’s advice to his art students to “Stare at Michelangelo casts. Go out into the street, stare at the people. Go into the subway. Stare at the people, Stare, stare, keep on staring. Go into your studio; stare at your pictures, yourself, everything.” As intensely as Marsh wanted to enter the literal world he was painting on the waterfront—and emphatically did so—he also wanted to place those images within the context of historical painting, which is why he decided to do the murals in fresco secco technique, the medium used during the Renaissance. For this, he consulted with Olle Nordmark, an artist schooled in the use of the medium who actively worked on the murals with him and who had helped him with the post office murals. Archived letters and records, calculations on old envelopes, and postcards all still in Marsh’s possession at the time of his death in 1954, describe the kinds of materials, such as bags of sand and cement necessary to prepare the ceiling for fresco, and the costs to be reimbursed by the government. The ceiling itself, however, needed to be entirely scraped and re-plastered because it sprung a leak likely due to the tiles originally used to construct the dome. It was an enormous feat successfully completed by Marsh with Nordmark and hired helpers. As the government threatened cancellation of the project for lack of funds, Marsh agreed to undertake the murals paid at the rate of a government clerk—approximately ninety cents an hour, less than what his workers earned, and proof of just how much he wanted to do them.
[xiii] Marsh’s “Little Red Book” diaries for 1936, 1937, and 1938, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 18–61, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/-The-Little-Red-Book-Engagement-Diaries--276573.