Mardi Gras float painter Max Bernardi says it all begins with a sketch

Max Bernardi, a New Orleans muralist and painter has been painting floats and Carnival ball backdrops, on and off, since 1996. As of the last week of January, she was putting the finishing brushstrokes on signature floats like Bacchus’ Bacchagator and Baccha-Whoppa, and Orpheus’ massive Smokey Mary.

Max Bernardi float painter.jpgMax Bernardi, float painter, at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans

Her large-scale work is on display at the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium, the Magnolia Mansion Bed and Breakfast, and it will be rolling down St. Charles Avenue at Carnival time.

Watch for it in Bacchus, which rolls Sunday, Feb. 19 at 5 p.m.; Orpheus, which is on Lundi Gras, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. Both parades follow the Uptown route.

Q: What kind of artistic background do you have?

A: Ever since I was really young, I had a fascination with murals, and I always wanted to be a mural painter. I guess I always wanted to paint big. I went to the Atlanta College of Art for a year, and I had a boyfriend who encouraged me to intern on films, so I learned something about scenic painting. And from there, I started doing work for conventions, back when convention booths actually had hand-painted faux-finishes and stuff like that, and some murals for museums, in Atlanta. But the work was sort of all very dry and had an industrial feeling to it, and I got the notion that if I came to New Orleans I would have the opportunity to do work that was more creative.

Q: How did you get into float painting, once you moved to New Orleans?

A: When I first moved to New Orleans, the place everyone told me I could probably get a job was working for the Kern float builders. So almost the first day I came to the city, I interviewed with Barry Kern. But instead of having me paint floats at first, he hired me for the sculpture division, painting sculpture pieces for casinos like the Orleans in Las Vegas. I painted three giant alligators playing musical instruments for their lobby.

Q: Do any of the signature floats you work on change from year to year, or do they just get freshened up?

A: This year for the Baccha-Gator, they’re going for a different image. The marsh grass blended in too much with the alligator on the top, so they had me repaint the sides with a harlequin pattern in a lighter and darker shade of purple, and then paint giant Mardi Gras beads to look like they were draped across the sides. And they’ve added some dimensional pieces too, like a gigantic Mardi Gras mask and some beads that light up from inside. And we’re repainting the king’s float that Will Ferrell will be riding on to look like classic white marble.

Q: How does the process of painting a float work?

A: The first challenge that any float painter faces is to take the sketch from the designer and draw it out on this gigantic lumpy surface. You only get the sketch for one side, and then you have to reverse it for the other side. You have sticks of charcoal, which you sometimes stick into the end of a bamboo pole to extend it and it becomes a gigantic drawing wand. You stand back from the float with the sketch in your hand and multiply it 20 times, and try to draw everything in proportionally. Every single float painter that I’ve ever known has told me that the scariest thing they’ve ever faced is walking up to that float when it’s completely white and they think to themselves, “How in the world am I going to pull this off?”