Breaking Paint 2

Back by popular demand!  We are delighted to bring you another edition of Breaking Paint.  Sticking with our failure theme, we will be exploring the creation of peeling paint.

When we want to learn about the past, we turn to history books to tell us the stories of where we came from, of our ancestors.  One story rarely shows us the whole picture, however, so we turn to another book, perhaps by a different author.  This can often reveal facets of the past that may have been omitted, or untouched.

The same is true with paint but in a purely visual way.  Apartment interiors in New York City have been painted over a million times, so much that the baseboard and cornice can sometimes disappear into the wall.  What if you could peel those layers back to see the history of that wall?  What would it say?

This brings us to an incredible Scenic effect: PEELING PAINT

The Research

This effect looks incredible in small doses and can pack a punch to realistic environments.  Let’s start with a bit of research to make sure we are all on the same page:

A short walk to the loading dock holds a wall that I have often sat gazing at on breaks.  How many layers of paint are here?  The stories this wall holds!

What a great peel!


The bottom of this storage building tells us that water damage is beginning to erode the layers of paint.

So a-peel-ing!

How many hands have gripped this railing?  How many storms has this endured?

I love dumpsters.  Inside and out.  What a wealth of stories.

Romanticism aside, creating this effect is a whole other adventure.  We are going to look at three different techniques that can be used individually or in cahoots with each other.

Peel #1: Using a Mask

Starting with the lowest relief, we use a mask to force the paint to fail and leave a cracked edge.

  1. Mix together baking soda and water to form a loose paste.
  2. Apply the paste by flicking and throwing it onto the substrate. You are looking for a decent amount of buildup.  The intention is to block the paint from sticking to the substrate while creating an organic edge.
  3. Once dry, lay the paint over the edge of the baking soda. Do not work this in, instead, gently lay the paint on.
  4. Allow to fully dry.
  5. With a 5-in-1 tool, putty knife, or scraper, remove the baking soda trying not to disturb the paint.
  6. Vacuum any remaining debris from the piece.


This method has a simple working theory: block the paint from sticking, while creating a thicker edge.  Therefore, any granular material that will not adversely affect the paint is suitable for this method.  Sand, baby powder, salt, and crushed lime are all viable options.  Products like flour and sugar should be avoided because they can attract bugs and vermin.

The results of this method leave you with lower relief but the organic edge is quite believable.  It is fairly durable as well since the majority of the paint fully adheres to the surface.

Another example of this method painted by Delia Revard:

Peel #2: Using Paper

Next up, we will use plain old butcher paper to emulate the layer of peeled paint.  This is a readily accessible medium and can be interchanged with many types of paper: from newspaper all the way to heavier bogus paper.

Scenic Artist: Kassidy Coburn

  1. Tear off an appropriately sized piece of paper and pre-paint both sides with the base color.
  2. Take a moment to determine the layout of your peeled paint layer.
  3. Tear the paper to the approximate layout.
  4. Using white glue, in this case, Rosebrand White Glue, adhere the paper to the substrate according to your layout. Don’t glue all the way to the edge.  We want to leave that open and malleable.
  5. Once dry, the paper edge can be molded, twisted, and torn to look more like cracked peeling paint.


While the paper was certainly easy to work with, you must be careful to tear the paper in an organic way. Otherwise, the torn paper edge tends to look like torn paper.  Not like cracked paint.  Durability is a concern with this method, however.  Being merely paper, this could easily get smashed, torn, or otherwise destroyed in transit.

One beauty of this method is layering becomes a quick process as multiple layers could be applied at the time.

Peel #3: Using Latex

And for our final look, we got kinky with some rubber latex!

  1. Layout a sheet of plastic and prep with a mold release.
  2. Brush latex rubber over the plastic sheeting in an even film.
  3. Allow the latex to dry completely. This can take up to 24 hours depending on the thickness.
  4. Slowly peel the latex off the sheet.
  5. Tear the latex using your hands, a razor blade, and a pair of scissors.
  6. Determine the layout of the peeling paint.
  7. Using the latex as an adhesive, glue the latex pieces onto the substrate following your layout.
  8. Once dry, the peripheral edges were feathered with Sculpt or Coat to blend into the surface.
  9. Finally, paint the latex with a base coat, and apply the finishing touches.


This is a vastly different look than the torn paper.  The latex wanted to tear in sharp angles, which happens to mimic the look of peeling quite well.  Tearing the latex, however, proved a bit challenging.  We forced it with razor blades or scissors.  Just a little nick will start a tear. But once you get it to tear, the results are stunning.

Longevity is less of a concern here as latex will remain flexible for a number of years.

One downside is allergic reactions.  Be sure to use appropriate safety precautions: gloves and eyes.  Also, alert anyone in the vicinity that you are working with it.  You never know who may be allergic to it.

(For those playing the home game: if you look at the left side of the sample, you will see that the paint has crackled over the Sculpt or Coat.  Complete accident, but definitely a happy one in this case!)

The Whole Peel

These are just a few of the myriad ways of creating that lovely peel of paint.  And there is never one right way or wrong way.  Just like the story of peeling paint, there is often more than one layer!  These are merely a few tools and ideas to spark some creativity and add to the evergrowing toolbox of the Scenic Artist.

As always, Fail Often, Fail Hard, and Fail Forward!

Jason Strom is the Paint Shop Manager and Adjunct Professor at the Florida State University School of Theatre. He has been painting things for over twenty years and for so many places.  Everywhere from The McCarter Theatre, Carnegie Museum of Art, and for productions both on and off-Broadway.  His primary role is the support and education of scenic art in the theatre serving both main stage productions and classroom experiences at FSU. See more of his work here.


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