Guest Author:  Ellen E. Jones

My interest in environmental stewardship – called ecology back in the day- began long before I knew that design and scene painting were career paths. In eastern Tennessee where I grew up, reduce, reuse, and recycle (or upcycle) were common practices, even though practitioners had never heard those terms. I recycled and avoided disposable items in my home. At work, it was often a different story. We frequently work in an industry that might reuse some elements for future work, but the majority of it is so specialized that it is often thrown into a dumpster.

I realized there was a disconnect between my personal values and what I did at work, but I didn’t start to consciously take action to bridge that gap until I starting examining safer work practices. The link between best practices for worker safety and environmental stewardship was clear. A Practical Guide to Greener Theatre: Introduce Sustainability into Your Productions was the result of the changes I, and other like-minded colleagues, tried in order to make a difference.

You cannot eliminate your carbon footprint, but you can become greener. Every small choice that helps protect the planet makes a difference.

Six ways to make a Greener Paint Shop:

1. More Efficient Lighting

Lobby to replace any inadequate and inefficient incandescent light sources with color temperature appropriate LED task lighting to save energy and avoid heating up the work-space.

When spec’ing out LED lighting aim for 3-4000  kelvin range, as that is what is closest to the incandescent lamps used on stage. This way the colors you mix and work with in your shop will remain true when under stage lighting.

2. Use Recycled Paints

Recycling and Up-cycling are among the most important steps to sustainability. We all prefer legitimate scene paint for some of our more complex artistic needs, because they offer brilliant color and stronger binders for translucent or transparent colors. However, many scenic projects are opaque in color or require just a base coat before the finish treatment. That’s why, when appropriate colors are available, I use recycled paint.

Many Habitat for Humanity ReStores sell purified, recycled latex paint that has been collected and remixed. The product is usually labeled as an eggshell finish, but it reads flat on most scenery. Typically it is collected, processed and repackaged in the same area as the ReStore selling it.
The caveats: Some colors are not available, but the stores I have visited offer a standard broad range of colors and tones. Plan carefully and buy as much as you need for a project from a single production run to ensure color consistency.

“Vanya and Sasha, and Masha and Spike” at Youngtown State. 
Designed and painted by Ellen E. Jones. All but the faux wood was recycled paint.

Other benefits of using recycled paint when possible are:

> Cost: it’s often cheaper than new paints.
> Lessens the amount of paint being added to landfills.
> Lessens the amount of fuel and exhausts from shipping paint all over the country, as it’s often made locally.
> Gives back to your community in more ways than just a creating a smaller carbon footprint.

3. Recycle Your Paints

At the end of a show, pour all of your still-usable, non-moldy or washy paints together and reuse that volume to base coat or back-paint the next show’s scenery.

If you are lucky enough to still have the original container and label of paint that you’d prefer to dispose of, you can take it to get properly recycled. Check with your local municipal waste management services for proper rules, and if you are lucky enough to live in California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont, you can use a PaintCare sponsored drop-off site.

4. Use Less Water

Water usage is a significant portion of a paint shop’s environmental impact. Look for ways to do your job with less water flowing down the drain, like setting up a paint prewash station. This can limit the amount of water needed to clean brushes.

Works with any sized buckets.

Add a few drops of Ivory or any other white liquid soap to a 5-gallon bucket and fill it with approximately 4 gallons of water. Prewash any brushes used in waterborne paint by agitating the brush aggressively in the soapy water. Rinse in a second bucket filled with clear water before turning on the faucet for a final rinse. Rinse, lather, and repeat as needed. Reshape the brush and hang it to dry. Measuring cups, spoons and ladles can also be cleaned in the prewash station before shifting to running water. I use the station until the water is very dirty, usually a week or more. I clean buckets in a similar fashion by passing the same water between many buckets instead of filling each bucket individually.

Other ways to save water are: 
> Soaking dirty rollers makes them easier to clean, and using a roller washer also uses less water.
> When rinsing brushes from color mixing use that water to thin your paint.
> Dirty brown and gray colored water can often be used as a final wash/spray on realistic scenery that needs to be slightly aged and knocked down.

5. Reduce Use of Virgin Materials and Avoid Creating Garbage

Take a look around your shop to see what you regularly throw away, and find reusable or washable products instead of sending them to the local landfill.
> Use cloth drop cloths instead of plastic or paper.
> Keep a small hand towel by the sink instead of always using paper towels.
> Use real dishes and silverware in the breakroom instead of throw-aways.
> Invest in a set of small containers or bring jars from home that be cleaned, especially when mixing small amounts of color for samples.

Checking color on the trowel for use photo below. Photo by Ellen E Jones.

Speaking of the sampling process, I used to experiment with color combinations on small flats or pieces of sheet goods. This led to lots of washing brushes and lots of repainting the test flats white, particularly when I taught scene painting or had student paint crews. I was fortunate to receive a USITT Fellowship in 2015 that allowed me to spend a month in an Italian artisan decorative arts studio, FlorenceArt, owned by Alison Woolley.

This careful color selection allowed all images creating modeling to be solid opaque paint instead of transparent feathered color for highlight and shadow. By Ellen E. Jones.

At Florenceart, the paint color was sampled by applying wet paint to a wet metal trowel with each color touching. For related colors, the evaluation was based on the number of value steps between the samples. With different hues, the evaluation determined whether the level of harmony or contrast was appropriate. Only one color was evaluated and altered in each step, although there might be any number of colors on the trowel. Once any need for change was identified, the trowel was rinsed in a bucket of water, and the process repeated with altered paint samples. I found the technique was very effective for comparing the balance of colors in any application whether comparing values of the hue or contrasting colors.

Once the paint colors are refined – without the repeated washing of brushes or rebase coating sample boards — the first painted sample is created on the appropriate material and ground. While this method may not be ideal for all situations, my students and I found it was a huge time saver and produced less scrap paint than using sample boards to test every iteration of paint color.

6. Pay It Forward

I am a member of the Broadway Green Alliance Education Committee. If you teach, encourage your students to participate in the BGA College Green Captain program. Student participation in greening the paint shop brings new ideas to the table and prepares the next generation of painters to continue the work of making scene painting more environmentally friendly.

Remember, we can only make changes in the areas we control and with the consent of supervisors and peers. Take the time to consider the processes and projects most frequently done in your paint shop. Track your waste and resource consumption if at all possible. Focus on changes that relate to your situation.


Ellen E. Jones works as a Lighting and Scenic Designer, and Scenic Artist.  Her credits include shows in Chicago, Vermont, New York, and the Southeast. She is a former USITT Lighting Commissioner and former Co-Chair of the Caucus on Human Issues. She is an active member of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and works with the Broadway Green Alliance Education Committee. She is currently an Associate Professor at Norfolk State University and has taught at other institutions including Loyola University of Chicago, University of Florida, Hampshire College, Williams College, Bemidji State University, and Lake Forest College.

This was a small sample of ideas and practices today, we encourage you to list the ones you use in the comments below or, on our Forum’s conversation thread for a greener paint shop.



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