Every year, USITT creates opportunities for artists and technicians to stretch their knowledge through panels, roundtable discussions, and more at their yearly conference. This year, at USITT 2019 in Louisville, 12 students, 3 teachers, and numerous helpers embarked on a one-day Professional Development Workshop (or PDW) to demystify the process of creating a translucent backdrop. Come on a journey from sizing to staple pulling to see what a workshop led by Rachel Keebler, Karen Maness, myself, and coordinated by Bridgette Dennett can produce!

USITT’s workshop on “How to Create a Translucent Drop” was a full day, 8-hour event where artists of every skill level were given the chance to create a small translucency under the expert guidance of our three teaching artists; myself, Rachel Keebler of Cobalt Studios, and Karen Maness from the University of Texas at Austin. This event was held at the University of Louisville Playhouse, utilizing their scene shop and stage space as a makeshift paint deck. The event was a truly collaborative juncture, as technical production supervisor Charles Nasby and the staff at the Playhouse were instrumental in getting the workshop the support it needed.

Rachel and I prep before the workshop begins

It truly took a village to facilitate this workshop; many of the tools that we used were donated by United Scenic Artists Local 829 (materials had originally been donated to the USITT Paint Lab), Rosco, Cobalt Studios, and the Guild of Scenic Artists. Donated materials included Rosco Supersaturated paints, Rosco Off-Broadway paints, Rosco Flexbond, and Liquid Decorator Color dye. Flats were covered and sized, pounces were made, materials such as sharpies, brushes, sprayers, and other tools were organized.

I demonstrate thinning the Supersats

To create the translucent paintings, 2’-0″ x 3’-0″ Broadway-style flats were created prior to the event. These flats were covered with heavy-weight muslin and sized with a recipe using liquid starch instead of cooked starch, due to not knowing if we would have access to a hotplate. Starch is starch, right? (Keep reading, you may be surprised at the answer!) Starching muslin for the translucencies is a key step for creating the magic of a translucent drop. The goal of a good starch layer is to create a barrier between the front and the backside of the drop so that paint doesn’t seep through and ruin your hard work. Many times it takes multiple coats of starch to achieve a proper barrier so there were 3 coats on the front, 2 on the back. One of the advantages of using test flats, which should always be used before painting a translucent backdrop, is being able to flip the flat to check how the process is coming along and seeing potential issues beforehand. This includes checking how well the fabric has been sealed between the front and the back, and how many layers of paint you need to create opaqueness, which can save a lot of headaches down the line.

Artists gather in the Green Room


Beginning the Conversation: Powerpoint Presentations


Before putting brush to fabric, the students were treated to a PowerPoint presentation by Rachel Keebler and Karen Maness on different types of translucencies and how they could be used and lit. Knowing how translucent backdrops are designed and used is important for a Scenic Artist. The more clear and concise the idea of the translucent backdrop the more successful the process will be.

More information about types of translucencies and the magic tricks they can perform can be found in our previous article How to Create a Translucent, Backlit Scenery Effect.

After the presentation was completed, the students split up into groups among the 3 teachers and got a chance to put theory into practice.

The students begin to cartoon their projects

The three options that we taught were a desert sky that changed the time of day once lit from behind, a black and white hallway that changed into color once backlit, and a neon sign that appeared to be ‘turned off’ in daylight on the front and appeared as if lit up during night time once backlit.


Group One: A Hallway That Changes Color When Lit From Behind


Rachel Keebler focused on an extreme color change with a hallway scene. On the front of the flats, a black and white image of a person sitting in a hallway was painted.

Rendering for the Hallway Project

On the back, saturated colors of yellow, magenta, and green paint helped bring the hallway to life. Many of these students experimented with the different types of paint materials provided, showing how the different types of paint reacted to the substrate. They focused on creating different values of black and grey with just water, as well as masking techniques for the back painting. Much of what the students experienced throughout the workshop was the importance of testing colors on the fabric, so as not to bleed the colors from the back onto the front and being confident in the process.

Painting the front side of the Hallway Project

Checking for opaqueness

Careful masking and use of a Preval made for an even application

The backside of Hallway Project


Group Two: A Neon Sign That Glows When Backlit


My group created a neon sign for a fictional pizza company. 

Rendering for Neon Sign Planet

The goal of the sign was to have the appearance from the front to be a daytime ‘turned off’ sign against a brick wall. Then once the sign was backlit, it would be ‘turned on’ in a nighttime effect. We created a pounce (or pattern) to transfer the image of the sign and the bricks quickly on the front. The letters of the neon sign were left empty on the front, only colored by the exposed natural muslin fabric. On the back, the letters were painted in bright green, red, and yellow colors, while the rest of the flat was back painted in an opaque black mixture using Flexbond and Supersaturated Velour Black paint. A daytime brick treatment was painted behind the letters. Once lit from behind, the neon letters shined brightly against a blackened background.

Front of Neon Sign Project

Neon colors painted on the back


Group Three: A Desert Scene That Showed a Brilliant Sunset Once Backlit.


The final instructor, Karen Maness, worked with her students to create a desert landscape scene. Before they started painting, the students, studied some of the painting styles of the old ADG Hollywood backdrops. This included talking about non-traditional painting tools and color theory.

Karen leads a study session

Being the last group to start painting, meant they had the advantage of learning from the other groups the mistake of using a liquid starch base for sizing. Liquid starch can be a great way to size normal drops, but it doesn’t have the thickness that traditionally cooked starch has. As everyone knows, adapting on the fly and making things up as you go along, is a key trait to being a successful Scenic Artist. Giving a last-minute coat of Clear Flat on the backs of the desert scenes created a better barrier for the sunset sky colors to not bleed through.

The back painting of the sky involved laying in very vibrant, translucent colors to make a brilliant sunset, including darkening the clouds from the back to help give them an opaque feeling. On the front of the flat, a blue sunny day with fluffy clouds was created using sawdust as masking to give a light fading to the clouds. Other non-traditional tools were pipe-cleaners for creating the sand texture and foliage.

Pipe cleaner tool used during the workshop

Masking the sawdust clouds

Back of the Desert Project

Front of the Desert Project


Translucency test for the Hallway Project with back-lighting


At the end of the fast-paced workshop, a short lighting demo was created to show the students the level of success that was achieved by lighting their flats from both the front or the rear

Translucency test for the Desert Project with front-lighting

Translucency test for the Desert Project with back-lighting


Translucency test for the Neon Sign Project with front-lighting

Translucency test for the Neon Sign Project with back-lighting

Translucencies are an ever-evolving, complex study in scenic painting. One of the intentions of the workshop was to allow students to have one on one intensive learning from instructors, as well as to meet other Scenic Artists from around the country. Overall, the students saw great success in understanding the process of translucencies. Much of what was achieved was to understand how different types of paint can affect the translucency or opaqueness of different areas.

Artists observe the final tests under stage lights

Understanding the effects that the artist aims to achieve also helped the students to play around with the process and testing different techniques. Throughout the day, students were invited to walk around and talk to each other and the instructors to gain experiences in as many different types of translucent effects as possible. While leaving these workshops after making new friends and learning new techniques is always a bit sad, the advantage is knowing there will be other painting adventures down the line at another USITT!

Angelique, myself, Bridgette and Karen

All photos courtesy of Jamie Clausius, Angelique Powers, Karen Maness, and Bridgette Dennett

Jamie Clausius

Jamie Clausius is a Scenic Artist whose credits include being the Resident Scenic Artist at Tobins Lake Studios for 5 years, Scenic Charge Artist for Lexington Children’s Theatre and The Children’s Theatre of Madison. Jamie has also worked as a mural artist for Epic Systems Inc, and she earned her 2-year Scenic Art Certificate at Cobalt Studios. She is located in Madison, Wisconsin and is a freelance artist who makes herself available for adventures to paint around the country.

To see more of Jamie’s work, be sure to check out her website.

  1. Gary Fry 1 month ago

    Great wee article showing some lovely results. ( and a pitfall along the way)
    Can I ask what the recipe and method is for preparing the cooked starch?

  2. Angelique Powers 3 days ago

    There are lots of different variations of cooked starch. But the general idea is 1 -2 gallons of boiling water mixed into a liquid cold starch (a box of starch thinned with just enough cold water so it stays a liquid and doesn’t go back into a solid/paste) while you are vigorously mixing the boiling water into the starch it should magically turn into a goopy gel-like consistency. Keep stirring and add in more hot water to taste. If you don’t stir well enough you will get chunks akin to what you get when making gravy, as its a very similar process. Strain if needed.

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