In case you were unaware, the Guild of Scenic Artists is a pretty cool place filled with really cool people. In the summer of 2017, the Guild helped Angelique Powers host a gathering at the University of Minnesota with C. Lance Brockman and Wendy Waszut-Barrett to look at the University’s collection of historic backdrops and renderings as well as spend a few days painting ornaments in the historic style. Ten of us painted, and a larger number enjoyed conversations and learning tools, looking at treasures like 100+ year-old drops painted with aniline dyes or dry pigments and beautiful historic renderings.
I left the weekend feeling rejuvenated as a Scenic Artist with some fresh ideas.
A few weeks later I was wearing my Scenic Designer hat in a production meeting for the University of Michigan-Flint’s fall production of As You Like It. We talked extensively about the title of the show as a nod to its presentational nature, and my mind wandered back to two-dimensional painted scenery. Could my little weekend foray into historic painting be just the ticket for this production? It seemed feasible as we were discussing and mulling over what the Forest of Arden could be. My costume design colleague also presented some of Hans Christian Andersen’s papercuts, also a two-dimensional art technique. Synergy! I presented the backdrop idea and it was just the ticket.
Coincidentally, during these months Angelique Powers and her students at the UMN had discovered a set of hard scenery birch trees in fall colors. They were beautifully rendered, and after a quick email to Angelique she sent me her collection of images for them. These became the largest source of inspiration for the set that we painted that fall.
The final design consisted of three sets of legs & borders with a gradient of fall-colored trees. The legs were 22’-0” high and ranged from 6’-6” to 12’-0” wide, with 48’-0” wide borders to fit our proscenium.
At UM-Flint we have a fairly generous shop space that adjoins our stage. We often paint on stage, but in the evenings the scenery needs to be moved aside for rehearsals. Because of this, we rarely paint muslin drops (spending half the day picking them up and stapling them back down isn’t something I consider a joy or have time for.) I requested the trees be cut from hard stock. We skinned them in muslin for some tooth and to create a more even surface than luaun could provide. This gave us the ability to quickly arrange the legs & borders on the stage floor in the mornings, and for them to be leaned up to the side in the evenings.
Thankfully during this particular semester (and because the build was light), I had several student painters ready to learn how to paint down using bamboo poles, and learn how to use a rendering on a shape that was fairly amorphous. I ordered the most luxurious 4” fitch brushes and we got to work. We used Menard’s Lucite Flat paint for the base leaf colors (it runs about $10 a gallon and is much easier to work with than other inexpensive house paints.) I thinned them slightly with water to get a more fluid consistency. We augmented the foliage with Rosco’s Off Broadway for smaller areas of color.
Each student was assigned a color (yellow, orange, red) and we painted in homage to the historic ornament painting that I learned in Minneapolis with Lance and Wendy – dark to light, and large areas to small high-chroma spots of color within the leaf-work. Besides the leaf shape, the students also worked on their lining with an angled sash brush while working on the birch trees bark shapes. An emphasis on looseness and partnering with the rendering was a good balance for the students to experience. The carpenters left us with some extra space to play on the rough edges of the trees, which were then trimmed down to match the leaf shape after we finished. The whole painting process took about a week, with four painters in and out between classes.
I hope you enjoy seeing the photos of our process and seeing that learning of past techniques, combined with a community of colleagues willing to share, can be key to inspiring new work.
Lisa Borton is a Michigan-based theatrical designer who specializes in both Costumes and Scenic Design. She is a resident designer at the University of Michigan-Flint and has been teaching there since 2012. Lisa has worked as a Scenic Artist at the Great River Shakespeare Festival (Winona, MN,) The Cleveland Play House, and as a Props Painter with the Santa Fe Opera. Her childhood was largely comprised of making clothes for her Ken dolls (Barbie had all the cool clothes!) and making up stories about mermaids in her pool, which makes an excellent foundation for theatre.
See more of her work at: www.lisaborton.com
Photos from “A Scenic’s History Workshop” and the Vintage UMN Trees provided by Angelique Powers.
Photos of “As You Like it” and its process provided by Lisa Borton.
Make sure to check out Lisa’s other great article “Quick Not Dirty” wherein she shares some tips to paint more efficiently and shares a technique for a faux wood using Pledge.Tags: House Paint Off Rosco Off Broadway Teaching Trees