Master Painting FAQ

  1. You’ve been signed onto a play. Where do you start?
  2. How do you budget your time?
  3. What resources do you consult?
  4. What do you look for in a play to give you ideas?
  5. What do you bring to meetings?
  6. How do you do wood-grain? Stone? Grass? Wet blending?
  7. This looks pretty messy close up.
  8. How would you do a more complicated painting, like a portrait or a reproduction of Lincoln’s head? How do you handle drawing?
  9. What are the different types of paint and their various and sundry uses? How do you mix paint? Store it?
  10. What about primer and gunk and nontraditional painting mediums?
  11. What are the types of surfaces you will paint on? What brushes do you use?
  12. What do you do when a play is applying for a space?
  13. How do you make your budget?
  14. What kind of hardware and software do you use?
  15. Do you watch the play? Rehearsals?
  16. What stores, books, websites, campus resources are really useful?
  17. Do you test out ideas?
  18. If this applies to you, how do you deal with wear/tear that occurs while the play is up?
  19. If you have experience with a particular theatre space, do you have any advice regarding using it?
  20. How do you dispose of paint?
  21. What about making a 3-D effect? Or trompe l’oeil?
  22. In your experience, what is something that you wished you knew earlier? Any general advice?

You’ve been signed onto a play. Where do you start?

Read the play, several times to get an idea of what type of play it is, what kind of feeling you get from it, how it could be presented, and then also to see what kind of set pieces may need to be built, what kind of setting will be created, etc. You will be talking with the director and the set designer about their ideas for the play, but it really helps to do your own research, looking up past productions of the play (Google is a really simple tool for this) – sometimes you can find old videos or pictures of the sets of these older plays, which (even if the director decides to veer wildly from past productions), are at least a starting point in helping you picture the play. Find out where the play is going to be held – if you’ve never worked there before you may need to be tool trained. It’s not a bad idea to get to know the head of the theatre a bit before you start spending large amounts of time in the shop. If you have never painted before and have never been to a painting workshop, you can ask for one of the Agassiz shop assistants to give you a run down of stage painting (and all the painting tools, etc), or you can ask another painter to just go over things with you. There are several books in the Harvard libraries that deal with different stage painting techniques, which will be listed later in this manual.
Often, the set designer will set the color scheme he/she wants – you can suggest ideas about this accordingly. Other times, it’s left entirely up to you. The dynamic between you and the set designer really varies depending on the individual and the play. Certainly check with the set designer over your colors before going ahead and ordering paint. It helps if you can test out textures and colors to show him/her and ask him/her about.
The set designer will give you elevations. The painting equivalent of working drawings, they are pictures or sketches of exactly how they want the scenery to be painted, hopefully to scale.
You will begin meeting with the set designer and director in going over their ideas for the play. Take notes. Get to know all the different designers and staff members. When the set design is basically ready, go to the paint area of whichever space you’re using and label paint for your use (put the show name and date on the lid) --- don’t label every single can you can see (other shows may need them) – but of the stock paint that is at the Loeb and the Agassiz, you have access to all of it. Note which colors and materials you will need to buy, including new brushes or white or black paint (Griggs buys big 5 gallon vats of these). If you’re working in the Loeb, read the Loeb handbook guidelines (online address))).

How do you budget your time?

Your schedule will depend a lot on the build schedule (if it’s not built, you can’t paint it), but work out with the technical director which pieces you need to spend the longest amount of time on, and see if he/she can get those ones ready sooner so you can spend more time on them. The final set plan is usually approved about 3 or 4 weeks before load-in. Depending. Help with build if you can, since it will help get your materials prepared sooner. Plan to have your paint ordered as soon as your budget is approved – it may take a few days for it to arrive, unless you’re going out and buying your paint yourself.
Ask the stage manager for a copy of the rehearsal schedule so you know when the cast will be using the stage (and you can’t), and can plan ahead. Also, find out which plays will be using the shop and the stage so if you need to arrange to share space you can.
Get started as early as you can. Even if you have to wait for pieces to be built to paint them, get started on the prep work: mix your colors, muslin and prime your flats, make any textural tools (brick stamps, textured rollers, graining brushes, etc) you will need, do tests of colors and textural effects so you are ready to go as soon as pieces are ready. Aim to have as much of the painting done by load-in as you can because after that the cast will be using the set and will a) make it difficult to get access to the set pieces to paint them and b) the cast will be using props and scenery and you don’t want to have them get paint all over themselves (and off of the set). If you have a lot of helpers, delegate – painting can easily be broken up into multiple steps that untrained people can do. If these people can take care of priming, base-coating, or other simple jobs, let them do so while you tackle more complicated jobs. It helps things move faster. Just check on their work. Try to mix enough of a color for a specific job so that you don’t have to halt midway and remix an entire batch.
Paint the floor about 2 days or so before opening night, and if you can, ask the director to make the cast rehearse in their socks the first rehearsal after it’s painted so it doesn’t get super-scuffed.
Some painting requires multiple steps – so be prepared to budget time for that.
Acrylic flat sealer (what you put on the floor right after you’re done painting it. It protects the paint job) takes longer to dry than paint – try to paint the floor and let it dry overnight. If you can’t, allow at least 4-6 hours for drying time. Painted joint compound and Sculpt-or-Coat take longer than paint to dry and may be very fragile until are completely dried.
A month before load-in, you should be definitely thinking about the production. Read the play, do research, talk to designers, tag paint. You will be meeting with the head of your theatre, the production team, etc. At least 2 weeks before load-in, build should have started by now, as should have the painting. The night before load-in, mix all the colors and prep rollers and brushes for the following day.
If you want, you can also make strike go faster by going in 2 or so days before a play’s run is up (and nothing is breaking or needs to be repainted) and strike the paint (dispose of it, clean out buckets, etc) so you won’t have to on strike night.
Make a list of all the things you will need to paint, and keep these in the same folder as the elevations. As you finish pieces, you can check them off the list. It helps to be organized.

What resources do you consult?

You should read the play itself, and talk to the director and set designer about it. Talking to other painters or other people who have worked on similar plays has been invariably helpful, especially if you’re new to all this. Come with questions, even specific ones about how a certain effect could be done.
For visual resources, the internet and the Harvard Library system are very useful. Google image is a handy rudimentary visual dictionary, allowing you to find pictures of Ionic columns or oak trees or poodles. If you’re looking for books on ornamentation, or for the work of specific artists, look in the Fine Arts Library. Scenic Art for the Theatre: History, Tools, and Techniques by Susan Crabtree was a really good book on the various painting techniques and tools. To look up the available paint colors, I used the color samples page on the Rosco website. The Painter’s Journal, a scenic painters’ magazine run by a man who used to work at Harvard, has numerous useful articles (we’re going to get archives of these available to Harvard tech). The Rosebrand website has samples and prices for different types of theatre cloth (muslin, bobbinet muslin, etc). If you’re doing a G&S production, look at their website – they have lots of information and pictures of the different plays. If you need to do a wood grain and look at the different types of wood (classy mahogany, regular pine, etc.), the ship modeling FAQ site is very useful (see the sources section).

What do you look for in a play to give you ideas?

Reading the play can tell you a lot of information as to what colors will be good. For example, if it’s a comedy, you might want to use more warm, bright colors. On the other hand, if you’re doing an Ibsen play, perhaps grays and blues and blacks might be more appropriate. Different colors have different emotional effects – so if you’re doing a tree scene, but it’s for a very frightening setting, you might use more dramatic shadows or cool colors and menacing geometric forms whereas a lighthearted children’s play could call for more cartoony, bright green trees. The play can tell you (as it tells the props person and the set designer) what set pieces will be called for and how they will be used, so you’ll know a lot about your color scheme (a seascape needs blues, etc), and how certain objects may need to be built/handled (if it gets a lot of rough treatment, you may need to seal it).

What do you bring to meetings?

You will be going to several different types of meetings. You will go to production meetings with the cast and crew, which the producers run and where everyone goes around and gives updates on their progress. Come with any questions you have for any other staff members and don’t be afraid to ask them. Pay attention to any budget questions that are mentioned, and the schedule for rehearsals and build. You are in charge of the painting part of the production, so you will need to update the staff on this area – let the director and stage manager know if you need any special things like rehearsal schedules, or to know what pieces they need to practice with earlier, etc. See what the costumer and light designer bring to the meetings as this will impact the colors you’re using. (if the dresses are all hot pink, don’t paint the set bright red, etc). Pay attention to what the set designer and T.D. say, but you will be working with them more closely than with other members of the production, so hopefully none of you will be surprising each other with information.
Bring color chips, sketches, reference pictures, anything you want to show people what you’re doing. Bring updates on your progress, and if you’re going to need helpers, ask for them. You will need to email the producers your own painting schedule if you want to ask for specific help on specific days.
In the general scheme of things, it’s nice to run things by the T.D. and set designer before you bring them to the director and producer – since oftentimes they can answer your questions and probably want to be informed about any issues with the paint before you bring the matter to the producer, director, etc.
If no one else does, schedule a colors meeting. This requires all the designers using color to meet and tell each other what their plans are: light designer, makeup designer, set designer, master painter, costumer. You can have a producer arrange it and be present, but I’ve found it works better without the director there – just get all the tech designers together and give each other a run down. It ends up being a bit more than about colors - this can be an excellent opportunity to also coordinate schedules and ask each other questions that you didn’t during the production meeting. Make sure all your plans for colors will not clash. Bring all your notes, pictures, sketches and color samples to this meeting.

How do you do wood-grain? Stone? Grass? Wet blending?

Many of the things you will be called on to do will involve wet blending – a process where you mix two colors (they can be variants of the same color, or 2 completely different ones), dip a brush in each, and then brush them on (one brush in each hand) at the same time, blending them slightly but not completely, so that you get two colors laid in next to each other (in a random, closely interlocked pattern). It’s best to see this demonstrated in person – so ask one of the Agassiz assistants or the head of theatre to show you. This is a good way of laying in a base coat.
Before you make an effect, look at pictures of wood or stone or leaves, etc so you know what you want it to look like. Notice how many knotholes are usually on one plank of wood, etc.
There are many different ways to do any texture effect, be it wood grain or whatever. A really simple way involves this: find the color and type of wood you want to paint. Mix three colors, which all share one particular color: a medium color, a darker color, and a lighter color for the wood. Additionally, you may want to mix a small amount of a very dark variation of the color to use for wood grain details like knotholes, and a light wash (take the lightest color and dilute it with water so it becomes a watery wash). Test this out on a sample surface before applying it to the real thing.
Wet blend the darker and the medium on the surface. While the surface is still wet, take two brushes and dip each (enough to pick up the color but not to soak them – you want the individual brush strands to be discernable) – one in the medium color and one in the lighter color. Then dry-brush them on to make a graining effect – one brush then the other, moving in the same direction (the same direction as you want the grain to go). Layer the different colors on top of each other so neither color dominates, and not so heavy as to cover up the wet blend that’s beneath it. To add effects like knotholes, draw a small knothole with a small brush dipped in the very dark color. Then, when you grain, make sure to reflect this: grain around a knothole bends around the hole, so curve your strokes. To add finishing touches, use small brushes to draw individual grain lines in the very dark and the light paint, varying them as you go.
Do not draw a knothole every foot from another. Natural forms aren’t wallpaper – they aren’t completely symmetrical or repetitious. If you pepper your wood with knotholes, it’ll look fake. When you’re all done, you can use the wash: take a wide, clean brush and dip it in the wash. Brush the wash on lightly – this helps all the wood layers cohere together and gives it a nice finish.
You can help make grain by making a graining brush – take an older brush and cut the bristles with scissors to get an uneven, jagged edge. Or, there are graining stamps and combs you could use for similar effect.
A simple way to do a stone surface is to mix a medium gray, a light gray, and a dark gray, or as many colors as you would like, do a wet blend of the 2 middle ones, then sponge on the light color and dark color over that. Selective scattering can also add texture – spatter by dipping a dry brush in a colored wash and flick the brush – spattered color will appear on your canvas. Spattering light green wash can do wonders at making stone look slightly mossy. When you sponge, don’t hold the sponge in the same direction all the time – move your wrist around so you get a variety of shapes --- holding it in a uniform position gives you’re a sponge pattern like wallpaper. Use a sea sponge rather than a cleaning sponge --- the sea sponge gives more interesting and organic shapes (and you can cut these into various sizes).
Grass can be done a variety of ways --- depending on what you need it for – like for a floor painting or for detail on a drop. For floor painting, mix a medium green, a dark green and a light green – and wet blend the medium and dark on the floor (multiple people can do this with brushes tied to bamboo poles to cover more ground), then dip a feather duster in the lighter color and another in the medium color and slap them against the ground --- varying the direction of your strokes as you do with sponging.

This looks pretty messy close up.

One of the most important pieces of advice for stage painting is to stand back from your work --- you are painting for an audience that should be a distance away from the set pieces. This is not a reason to do shoddy work – but it means that whatever effect you are going for must be an effect that works for the audience sitting a distance away. If you spend hours doing really fine detail work that looks awesome from 2 feet away but is invisible to the audience 20 feet away, you’ve just wasted your time. If you’re painting in the Horner room (painting flat on the floor) – go up to that balcony in the Horner room for a good view.

How would you do a more complicated painting, like a portrait or a reproduction of Lincoln’s head? How do you handle drawing?

When drawing out sketches for any of your paintings, you will need to use vine charcoal – charcoal in thin sticks. Do not draw with a pencil or a pen or marker. Charcoal can be found in the Agassiz, or at a variety of art stores and is pretty cheap. Do not press down too hard with the charcoal or it will be hell to erase. Make light strokes. To erase charcoal – do not rub it out with your hand (also this makes your hand dirty and will leave prints all over you work) --- use a flogger, a nifty little tool consisting of a stick of wood (usually taken from scrap and sized to fit easily into your hand like a handle) with strips of muslin stapled to the head – it looks like an odd cat-o-nine-tails and to erase charcoal – you flog. Stand back from the line you want to erase, and flick the flogger from the elbow to flog off the charcoal.
Lay out the canvas or surface you will be drawing on. Measure it out so you know how long and wide it is. You should have a drawing of what you will need to reproduce – take this smaller drawing and, using a scale ruler – draw out a grid over the drawing. You will reproduce this grid on the larger surface. When you’re done drawing the corresponding grids – look at the small drawing you have. What you are going to do is divide the drawing into grid pieces, and reproduce those pieces in magnified size on the canvas. Using the scale rule, measure out where important lines converge or where details are located and reproduce that on the larger canvas. You can reproduce almost any drawing this way.
Another way to reproduce a sketch, if it’s large enough, is to draw the sketch onto brown craft paper, tape this to a permeable surface (like insulation board or carpet) and take a pounce wheel and go over the drawn lines with it to poke holes in the paper. The tape this pounce drawing to the canvas, cue a square of muslin and fill it with powdered charcoal (the Agassiz has these), tying it at the top to make a handheld sack of the powder – then, like a powder puff, plump it against the pounce drawing. The charcoal dust will come through the muslin, through the holes in the paper, and leave a drawing on the canvas beneath.
Still another way to reproduce a drawing, if you have enough space to do this – secure the surface so it is hanging vertically up off the ground. Use a Xerox machine to make a transparency of the image you want to reproduce. Then use an overhead projector to project the image onto the canvas and trace this image onto the canvas. You’ll need the lights off for this.
To draw with vine charcoal over a large surface, rubber band the sticks of charcoal into the ends of bamboo poles – this extends the reach of your arm. You can use geometry to draw perfectly bisected lines, or to divide a line into equal parts, or to make different angles (to make a right angle --- note that a triangle whose side:side:hypotenuse relate together with the ratio 3:4:5 will be a 90 degree triangle, so draw a 3:4:5 triangle and use the resultant right angle). To make a simple circle, make a simple compass: tie or tape a piece of string (whichever length you want for a radius) to a pencil or a dowel or something sticklike, and then the other end to a stick of charcoal. Plunk the dowel/stick where the center will be, and use the charcoal to draw the circle.

What are the different types of paint and their various and sundry uses? How do you mix paint? Store it?

You can use almost any kind of paint for stage painting – except you cannot use oil-based paints. In the Agassiz, you can’t use Chrome Oxide Green because you have to use special steps to dispose of this material (it’s a heavy metal and is not so nice for the environment.). The main kinds of scenic paint are Iddings Deep (IDD), Supersat, and Off Broadway (OB). Scenic paint usually comes from Backstage Hardware (a store in Boston that delivers). IDD and OB are basically the same thing, however IDD is concentrated --- (Supersat is concentrated too, but only comes in quarts). One gallon of IDD will cover about 300 square feet. IDD will need to be diluted (usually with a 1:1 ratio) with water, OB does not need to be diluted, but b/c is concentrated, 1 gallon of OB will not go as far as a gallon of IDD. IDD and OB are better quality paints than the type you’d get in Home Depot (although you can get paint from there). IDD is special also because it is not waterproof – if you paint a chair with IDD and do not seal it with acrylic flat, and it gets wet – it will rub off on costumes. So make sure to seal it. Scenic paint also has a milk base – which means it will rot a bit after it is opened. You can slow down this process by pouring a bit of Pinesol or Lysol into the opened can before storing it. But it can get a little funky. (Even when it dries, spoiled paint will smell). You can intermix any of these paints, and you can use any of them on fabric, wood, metal and plastic. Rosco recommends using Supersat and OB for metal because they have slightly better adhesion. If you’re having trouble getting paint to adhere to a surface, sanding the surface or priming it with Tough Prime helps the color stick to things like plastic and metal. To paint a huge amount of PVC pipe I mixed as many primer-type materials I could find with the color, making a very plastic-y grey paint that adhered really well. Several coats may be called for. Always do a test if you’re not sure.
Store paint on the paint shelves that are given to students. Make sure to seal all cans or plastic containers full of paint completely (hit the edges with a mallet), and to put your show’s name and the date on the lid.
Mixing paint: take the colors you need. This is done largely by feel, so mix in advance to get the feel for it before you get heavy into your paint schedule. Take out a bunch of plastic paint containers/buckets (they come in quarts, gallons and pints. Extras at the Loeb are kept in the red tool room, and the Agassiz has stacks of these piled up at the paint sink – make sure you’ll have enough covers too). Open the paint cans with a churchkey, and ladle the paint out rather than pouring it from the can. There are ladles and spatulas available (it’s less messy, makes the cans easier to seal, and makes it easier to control amounts). If you plan your colors to mix in one particular color into each mix you make, it helps tie all the colors of the scenery together. For example, for one play, I put varied amounts of canary yellow – in the green, the reds, the yellows, the grays, etc – it helped make the scenery all have the same kind of vibrancy.
Ladle out a bit of paint, add some water from the tap and mix with a paint stick to get it to a nice consistency. Add different colors into this to make the color you want – have a test surface handy that you can smear some on and see what color it is becoming (and what color it dries). Start in smaller amounts so you don’t mix a giant vat of the wrong color. Check colors against the elevations colors. See how everything looks from a distance. Mix large amounts of floor paint colors.

What about primer and gunk and nontraditional painting mediums?

Sometimes you end up making and using things that aren’t really . . . paint. To prep your canvases after you’ve muslined them you will need to prime them with a mixture of white paint, white glue and water (usually 1:1:1). To seal your paint, you will need to use either Acrylic Flat Clear or Acrylic Gloss, which you will need to add to your painting budget. In the Agassiz, you can buy this from the cage. They both need to be mixed and partially diluted once opened, and they both form a clear layer over the paint to protect it. Flat dries flat and matte, gloss dries with a glossy finish that catches the light. Be aware of the difference. Gunk is something we used to give texture and color to a stone wall and a muslin-mached chicken wire structure. It was a mixture of paint, joint compound, and sawdust, and was very thick and sticky, but made a really useful gunky substance. Don’t use brushes with gunk, as this will kill them. Use a spackler or your hands, or sticks of wood.
It helps to prime wooden surfaces (that aren’t covered with muslin) so the wood grain doesn’t show up through the paint. You can use regular store-bought primer, or you can just mix a small amount of wood glue into the color of your base coat and coat the scenery.
When you are using acrylic flat on the floor, roll it on with a roller on a stick. If the paint starts coming up onto the roller because it’s not dry yet, be very gentle with the roller so you don’t smear up all your work. Or wait, until it’s dryer. Don’t put fans out to dry sealer as it can make it cloudy. Make sure you spread it evenly so you don’t end up with cloudy white areas.

What are the types of surfaces you will paint on? What brushes do you use?
You will paint on and paint with a huge variety of things. Soft-cover flats are like painting canvases – wooden frames covered with muslin and primed (and are lighter than hard-cover flats). Hard cover flats are hard wooden flats that can sometimes be covered by muslin and primed (some people chose to paint directly onto the wood. I’ve found that muslining scenery creates much nicer results). You can paint props, fabric, drops (large, free floating areas of muslin or another fabric), floors, plastic, scrim, wood, and metal.
The most common substance you will use is muslin. Harvard uses a medium-heavy weight muslin (natural colored) that is flame-retardant and usually measures about 9feet in width. To muslin a flat: put up the frame on two saw-horses. Cut out a length of muslin to cover this frame. If you cannot get a piece of muslin big enough to cover the entire flat, use 2 pieces, but make sure the seam is running horizontally on the scenery piece, not vertically. If you want to especially secure these pieces of muslin (say, for a bigger canvas), you can tack them (or stitch them) together – a simple needle and thread and you doing the best possible job for the smoothest result. Mix primer (glue, paint, water) and take several beat-up brushes (primer, like gunk, destroys brushes) and paint the primer onto the frame where the muslin will be lying. With another person, lay the muslin over the frame, and rub down so it adheres to the sticky wood. The muslin should be kind of taut, but leave some sag in the middle (don’t pull it completely tight) as when the muslin dries it will contract, and may warp or crack the frame if there’s not enough give. Take the primer, and working with strokes like figure-8’s, work the primer evenly into the muslin fabric. Around the edges, paint on the primer and fold under and secure the material at the corners. Do not stop priming halfway – do the job through from start to finish. Stopping in the middle will create an uneven job. Staple the areas of folded under fabric at the corners. Leave enough muslin around the sides to cover the sides, but trim it when it’s dry so it’s not hanging over. You may need to join 2 flats, so the edges must be flush with the frame. Let dry.
Another material you may paint on is scrim. Scrim is fabric that has holes in it, and depending on the way it is lit, can appear either solid or translucent. The way you paint this is by more soaking the paint into the netting than by brushing on color. You can charcoal on scrim too. It’s more delicate than muslin, so be more careful.
As for brushes … there are many different types of brushes . . . the ones that Harvard Theatre tends to use are cheap, basic brushes which are either large or medium sized. You also can get rollers. The brushes are wonderful when they’re clean – but too few people actually clean them. If you’re in charge of paint and a paint crew, you are also in charge of closing and storing all the paint and cleaning the brushes. With soap! (Murphy’s Oil Soap is one of the best inventions for theatre, ever. It can get almost anything out). Use cold water, comb out paint with a metal paint comb, and soap the brushes until the water runs clear out of them. Don’t leave them soaking in the sink or worse, drying in the open. If you are doing detail work, I suggest bringing your own small brushes and taking them home with you.
Sponges, rollers, textured rollers, stamps, rags, sprayers, feather dusters, hands and fingers --- any and all can be used to apply paint (depending on the effect you want). Experiment. If you use the sprayers, you need to strain the paint before you put it in the sprayer – put some cheesecloth over the top of the sprayer container and strain the paint through it. Wash the whole thing and the nozzle when you’re done (don’t let paint sit overnight in the sprayers).

What do you do when a play is applying for a space?

Go to the interview. Numbers help. You will have already submitted your theatrical resume to the producers, which they will give to the interviewers. If you’re the painter, you probably won’t be asked anything, but look interested and supportive.

How do you make your budget?

You share this budget with the T.D. and the lighting designer. Work out how much scenery you will need to paint, which colors you will absolutely need. Go to the theatre and see what paint is already there, and tag whatever you think you’ll need (unless it’s currently being used by another show). Then you can figure out how much you really need to get. The painting budget can be a bit tight. You’ll need to factor in paint, acrylic flat, muslin or scrim, glue, etc. You can save money after a large production strikes by asking to use their leftover paint. Or, you can go to Home Depot and looks for the Oops! Paint – a rack full of paint that was tinted the wrong color or was otherwise rejected, but is perfectly useable. It usually costs about $5.00 a gallon, and can be great for a primer. Go to the Rosebrand site to estimate how much muslin or banner cloth or scrim or bobbinette will cost. Backstage Hardware used to have prices for paint up on its website, but recently stopped doing that. Call them and see if you can find what their prices are. Get a copy of the T.D.’s working drawings so you can estimate size. You can cut price by buying less quality stuff (unless you are doing super fine work) – or buy buying smaller quantities. If you buy things on your own, keep your receipts so you can be reimbursed at the end. Some materials you can buy from the Agassiz cage – you just fill out one of those billing forms. In the Loeb, Michael Griggs will be ordering your materials. Some people have ordered it themselves in the past from Backstage – people deal with this differently.

What kind of hardware and software do you use?

Really depends. The staple-gun, the hot glue gun, spray paints, exacto knives, chalk lines, rulers, T-squares, squaring tools, tape measures, screw guns, etc. Photoshop too. You will also be using possibly joint compound or sculpt or coat, which add texture. You will need to use Painter’s Tape – a blue kind of masking tape that can seal off areas while you paint a line (put lines of tape down, paint within the lines, let dry partially, and remove the tape. Clean edges!). You can also put painter’s tape over the stage manager’s spike lines while you paint the floor, and when the floor is dry, pull up the bits of painter’s tape to recover the spike tape. It may not be your job, but if no one else has put glow tape on the edges of stairs and things on the set, do so.

Do you watch the play? Rehearsals?

Yes, it helps to watch the play, but you don’t have to watch all the rehearsals. You should go out to see what the lighting will look like once it’s up, and how the scenery looks from the audience.
One time, I had finished painting luan to look like an iron gate that was supposed to go upstage. It looked fine in the shop, but when the lights were on it, you could see that this black gate was just getting swallowed up by everything around it. We took it back and added some highlights to the fence, so you could see it better from the audience.

What stores, books, websites, campus resources are really useful?

Other techies’ advice (from student techs to heads of various theatres and the A.R.T. staff) has been invaluable. Dickson Bros. Hardware has a 10% student discount and is convenient if a little pricey. Pearl Art has art supplies that aren’t too costly. The Harvard library system is an excellent resource for research and to get ideas. As a source of help, one’s friends and blockmates are also excellent sources --- to be treated nicely. I’ve heard of people approaching VES students to do portraits, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. Some people never know they can paint until they try – and introducing people to painting can be very satisfying. Also, don’t expect you can do everything yourself – delegate if you can and save some sanity.

Do you test out ideas?

Always, at every stage, if possible. Scrap wood is good for this. Make sketches, test colors under the lighting, etc.

If this applies to you, how do you deal with wear/tear that occurs while the play is up?

The floor will take a lot of abuse. If the play is up for a long run, check in periodically and see if the floor needs touch ups. If something breaks, you may have to repaint it.
If a soft cover flat rips --- you can make a Dutchman: cut a small piece of muslin to go over the tear, fray all the edges so they can be blended onto the flat’s surface. Soak the muslin in a mixture of the flat’s color and glue – then paste it over the flat and smooth it as much as possible. Depending on the lighting, this Dutchman bandage may never be seen by the audience.

If you have experience with a particular theatre space, do you have any advice regarding using it?

The Agassiz has a better painting shop than the Loeb, but both are fine. If you paint in the Agassiz in the Horner room, or you transport paint in the Agassiz elevator, make sure you don’t spill anything. If people spill or track paint all over the Horner room – you must clean it up. In the Ag as in the Loeb, you will need to put down a tarp before painting in certain areas. Make sure you have tarp. The other big difference between painting at the Loeb or the Ag is how you paint drops. At the Loeb, because of space constraints, you will be painting vertically with the drop hanging on the paint rack (it’s motorized to go up and down). This increases the risk of dripping paint, so be careful. In the Ag, you will probably be painting a drop in the Horner room, on the floor, or horizontally. To secure the drop, you can Gaff tape the edges or staple through the drop and tarp to a layer of building insulation board you can lay down. For this, you will need to walk around on the drop in your socks.

How do you dispose of paint?

Don’t pour it down the sink! In the Loeb, pour it into the waste container near the sink, seal the empty can, and put that in the trash. In the Agassiz, you reserve an empty can as a “slop bucket”, where you pour all your old paint. When it’s full, you seal it off and put it in the red paint shed outside the basement door. When this shed is full, tell the head of the theatre so he can arrange a pickup. You shouldn’t be using turpentine, but if you do, talk with the theatre head about disposing turp-soaked rags, as they can be flammable.

What about making a 3-D effect? Or trompe l’oeil?

Trompe l’oeil, or fooling the eye, is when you paint something 2-dimensional that you make look 3-dimensional. The way this is best done is through use of controlling light effects: draw your shape with charcoal. Mix, using one color as a base for all the others, a neutral color, a light color, a dark color, a light accent color (the lightest of all), a dark accent color (darkest of all), and a cast shadow wash color. Figure out where the direction of light is coming from onstage. Usually, the standard angle to use is 45 degrees. Picture an imaginary sun at a 45 degree angle to your shape. Where the rays strike the object, depending whether it’s concave or convex, will be lightest, and have the highlight. The parts of the shape which are not hit by the light will be in shadow, and have the lowlight (and the cast shadow). See Susan Crabtree’s book on scenic painting for detailed steps for this.
“One important clue to visualizing cast shadows is to remember that with a fort-five degree light source the width of the shadow corresponds to the height of the object casting it – the taller the object, the longer the shadow. One of the reasons that scenic Artists have traditionally preferred a forty-five degree light source is because a shallower angle creates a shadow that is too long – distorting the appearance of the shape and making it hard to understand. However, under certain circumstances, that might be exactly the effect that is required – a sharply angled light source coming directly from below creates large, dramatically distorted shadows – which might be exactly what the designer wants! The closer the angle of the light is to the viewing angle, the smaller the shadows’ width, and the less information it provides.”
Adding perspective also adds depth to your drawings – you can find information about this in almost any drawing book, and some in Susan Crabtree’s Scenic Art book.

In your experience, what is something that you wished you knew earlier? Any general advice?

  • Take the time to make sure that the little things are taken care of – it makes your work become much better quality. So use spackle or gaff tape to cover the seams or the staple or nail holes before you paint a surface.
  • Scenic paint often dries lighter and less vibrant than how it was when it went on. Test this out before painting a huge area in case you have to change your colors.
  • If you can, avoid having lots of different people working simultaneously on the detail work for an area – they all will have different styles of painting, and the finished product will show this in a kind of patchwork fashion.
  • Draw stripes with a chalk line and a level so they’re not crooked.
  • Take the time to build up layers of color for more subtle effect. Keep in mind that lighter, more vibrant colors will be more appropriate as you get closer to the audience, and as you get farther away, colors get darker and more neutral (a dusky purple is a great “in the distance color”, I’ve found. Look at landscape paintings).
  • Mix sealer into floor paint so it dries partially sealed – this saves time.
  • Fill a hand sprayer with water to create watercolor effects while you paint, and to make the colors blend better – spritz the canvas as you paint for this.
  • Reds and pinks, especially IDD ones, have an annoying habit of coming up through successive layers of paint when you get them wet (and you’re trying to reprime a drop).
  • If you have too many layers of paint on a drop, the paint will crack and flake off.
  • If you add texture to anything, it can generally make a set piece much more interesting. Even if you’re painting a house purple, if you do a purple wet blend with slightly different shades of purple, it looks nicer. If you add fabric like bobbinette or another scrim-like material to a set piece, interesting things can be done with lighting it. It creates more potential effects.
  • Check your sightlines --- make sure you know what different parts of the audience will be seeing. Paint the backs of scenery too – it’s your job to paint anything that shouldn’t be seen, like wooden supports, or backs of doorframes, black.