In the midst of the chaos that is COVID-19, Scenics working in the academic world are being asked to find ways to adapt courses that are inherently in-person to an at-home model. The challenge at the heart of this is how to boil your class down to its essence; at the end of the day, what do you want your students to walk away with? With that in mind, we at the Guild of Scenic Artists set out to compile a list of projects that teach the fundamentals while possessing the ability to use easily (and cheaply!) sourced materials. The resulting list are projects that can be adapted in case of hurricane, blizzard, pandemic, or any other unforeseeable event.

Before we begin, it’s important to note that there are some assumptions about materials that students may have on hand.

This article seeks to offer something for every skill level and ability, so we’re working with the knowledge that some programs have students who possess art supplies at home while others have students from other disciplines with much more limited resources.

Structurally, we’ll begin with projects that can be done entirely online and move towards projects that assume that students have access to paint supplies and substrates.

Digital Projects

Project 1: Interpreting a Paint Elevation

Rendering for a train mural. Image and Design credit: Lili Payne

Project Outline: Give students a paint elevation, then ask them to do the following;

  1. Identify which colors you will need to mix. Assign each one a name. Then breakdown which paints you will mix to create those colors. Be sure to account for variations in value and hue.
  2. Identify how much you will need of each color. Create a budget that identifies how much paint you will need to buy to realize this design.
  3. Create a labor breakdown. How many artists do you need to accomplish the treatment in a week? Two weeks?

Projects 2 and 3: Sourcing Images from the “Real World”

Version A: Scenic Art in the Wild

Image credit: Valerie Light with Infinite Scenic. Previously seen in the Scenic Route’s Making a Mile of Monet

  1. Take a photograph of “Scenic Art” in the non-theatre world, students can source this from restaurants, museums, murals, stores, lobbies, etc…
  2. Include a 3×5 color photo of the surface that you found above the written responses (short paragraph form) to the following questions, no more than 2 pgs.
  • What was successful about this piece?
  • What was weak?
  • What foundation techniques were used and can you tell in what order?

Version B: Reality Becomes Scenic Art

  1. Take a photograph of an example in the real world that would make great research material for a piece of scenery, such as an old brick wall, rusty sign, something from nature, etc.
  2. Include the 3×5 color photo above the written responses (short paragraph form) to the following questions:
  • Why would this make a good piece of scenery?
  • What foundation techniques would you use and in what order?
  • What kind of products would you use if this needed to be 3D?
  • What would be the most challenging part to recreate?

Project 4: Using Excel as an Organizational Tool

Inspired by previous Scenic Route article “The Paper Trail” by Jason Strom

Cost Estimation Summary for Florida State University’s production of All Shook Up. Image credit: Jason Strom

Project Outline: Using the framework of a previous show, look at how to format Excel for use as an organizational tool

So, this is a riff off of Project 1, but it’s a valuable skill that often gets overlooked in favor of “sexier” painting projects. This could be a great opportunity to use software programs to streamline and organize your process. Note: we’re not going in depth into how to format Excel in this article, because there are endless ways to format a document. A quick Google search can easily locate videos and tutorials to help you navigate the ways that you can use their additive features to make math easier.

  1. Give the students the paint elevation package for an entire show.
  2. Use Excel or similar organizational software to break down the show and run the cost/labor analysis
  3. This is different than Project 1 in that it creates an opportunity to focus on the format of the Excel document itself.
  • What is the most efficient layout possible?
  • What information is necessary to include?
  • What is superfluous information that may still be helpful to know?
  • When should you start a new tab vs. a new column?
  • How can you give an otherwise boring technical document a little bit of flair by using color coding and layout?

Paper Projects

Project 5: Studying Light and Shadow

Angelique Powers’ Scenic Art class at the University of Minnesota. Image credit: Angelique Powers

Project Outline: Use butcher block paper, charcoal, and chalk to do a study of lights and shadows. 

  1. Give students an image of an embossed applique, ornament, or cartouche
  2. Use either a grid method or sight sizing to scale up their image
  3. Students cartoon the image onto the butcher block paper
  4. Using charcoal, create shadows on the image
  5. Use chalk to create highlights

  • Don’t have the ability to do large complex drawings right now? Focusing on turning simple shapes into solid forms is always good practice!

Project 6: Value Scale

Project Outline: Use an image to do a value study

  1. Give everyone a simple landscape in a grey scale and they have to essentially come up with the grey scale numbers that correspond to the values on the handout image.
  2. Then they have to choose a color as their main color, see where it falls on the grey scale so they can number it.
  3. Depending on where it falls and the numbers they have chosen above and below that number will indicate if they will need to add white, grey or black to the hue they have chosen. So using tints, tones, and shades to create distance and depth.
  4. For the more adventurous, they can experiment with cooling off the colors in the distance and warming up the colors in the foreground.

Examples of images used by Jenny Knott in her Scene Paint I class at SUNY Purchase:

Project 7: Color Swatching

Project Outline: Mixing colors focusing on the theories of Color Bias, and CMYK vs RGB

  1. Start with a piece of raw muslin and draw two concentric circles. This is where they can do their best to paint a traditional color wheel using Rosco Off-Broadway Magenta, Golden Yellow, and Sky Blue.
  2. On the other side, draw out a grid of 1″ squares.  Assign what colors you want swatched and mixed together.
  3. One section could be an off-white with neutrals to make various shades of grey in nice even gradual steps. One section could compare mixing with Magenta vs Red, another section could be warm vs cool colors. O,r you could just choose to mix all the colors like an old-fashioned multiplication chart!
  4. It’s important to talk about finding the “Visual Center” between two colors and not just doing a 50/50 mix, especially when mixing with yellows, for example.
  • What does mixing with Magenta vs Red do when creating Oranges and Purples?
  • How does color bias help you to choose a Golden Yellow over a Lemon Yellow?
  • Mixing complementary colors often produces colors similar to the earth tones you can get ready-made out of a can. Can you use that info to make faster choices in color mixing?
  • Did you notice how using Raw Umber or Paynes Grey can be better at “dulling” color down or make prettier greys than black?

While not an exhaustive list of the options out there, these seven projects can certainly get you rolling. Have an interesting or creative idea for a class you’ve adapted? We’d love to hear it, drop us a note in the comments!

Projects contributed by:

 Angelique Powers has been painting for over 15 years and has an MFA in Scenic Art from Cal Arts.  Along with being the Charge Artist at Penumbra Theatre she also freelances and works with the University of Minnesota as an Adjunct Lecturer. She is currently most proud of her work as a Founding Board Member of  The Guild of Scenic Artists and her work here on The Scenic Route.


Bridgette Dennett is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia and works as a freelance scenic designer. She is a graduate of Indiana University’s MFA Scenic Design program and is currently serving on the board of the Guild of Scenic Artists. Examples of her work can be seen online at


Jenny Knott, Scenic Paint & Coating Product Manager for Rosco. A graduate from the University of Missouri, Kansas City with an MFA in Design and Technology, Jenny has been a freelance scenic artist for over 30 years – working for regional theatres including Missouri Rep (now KC Rep), Arena Stage, the Guthrie and Goodspeed Opera House as well as union scene shops. Jenny is a member of United Scenic Artists 829 as well as a past member of USITT’s Board of Directors. Jenny continues to paint, which keeps her current with emerging scenic artists and helps her discover new ways of approaching paint challenges. “Bring on the goop and let’s get creative.”


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