My first ‘falling in love with the art of theatre moment’ came when I was in middle school and I saw the town from Brigadoon magically appear from behind what I thought was a solidly painted wall of mountains. I have been fascinated with this magical transformation of scrim ever since.
Scrim works because of the open weave of the fabric. When lit only from the front they appear solid and opaque and when that light shifts to the U.S. (upstage) side, the open holes between threads help make the fabric appear transparent and all the scenery and actors hiding from behind, miraculously appear. Other fabrics like burlap, linen, and theatrical gauze also allow light to bleed through for a similar translucent effect. Such a simple concept and these fabrics have amazing transformational results when it comes to live storytelling. They are always a favorite of mine to work with.
So imagine my glee when I got my hands on a box of scrims from Gerriets, a Guild sponsor, and was able to play with what they have to offer! Well play I did, and now I’m here to share my results and some fun findings!
First, I must admit that before this article I thought scrim pretty much only came in two styles:
SHARKSTOOTH (aka PAINTERS SCRIM): This style has a more open weave pattern. It takes paints and dyes quite nicely and creates lovely translucent effects.
LENO: A more filled option commonly used as large cycs.
What I wasn’t expecting was how many variations of Sharkstooth that Gerriets offers; all based on different thread counts, weave patterns, and color. I also wasn’t expecting a “new to me” fabric option called Sheer Muslin which is supposed to have a similar effect on stage as scrim, so I was eager to try it out.
A look at what I was given:
ISOLDE CS is an IFR (Trevira CS) polyester and woven with more of a square-like pattern.
FALSTAFF is also made from FR cotton fibers and is woven into more of a rectangular pattern.
PAINTERS SCRIM feels and looks like an unbleached Isolde weave pattern and was the only NFR scrim option I was given.
SHEER MUSLIN comes in three colors. It looks like it sounds, see-through cotton muslin with a softer more pliable feel.
Choosing what to paint on:
I approached all of this as I would during the sampling process for a real show – nothing was gonna be perfect the first time, and every setback or change would be information I could use if I was to move onto an actual production. The information I was looking to test and experiment with was:
- How does the base color of the fabrics affect the end result?
- How does the scrim compare to the sheer muslin, not just in the painting process, but also in lighting effects?
- Does the weave pattern of the scrim affect translucency?
Note: I didn’t have enough of the Falstaff scrim fabric to stretch on my frames so I didn’t include it in my experiment.
Getting prepped to paint:
The key to successfully stapling a scrim is to keep the weave as straight and perpendicular as possible, there is always a bit of bias stretch going on, and the Sheer Muslins behaved in a similar fashion. However, when it came to feeling strong and secure after stapling, the scrim had more give, and the Sheer Muslins felt like they could tear free at any moment. I decided to add a layer of glue to the edge of the muslin for safety in case something happened when I was moving the flats around.
Once stretched, the scrim still looked a bit more translucent.
The ‘secret’ test: There is a debate between Lighting Designers and Scenic Artists about what side of the scrim to paint on. Scenics want to paint on the front (more smooth side) because it’s easier on our brushes and creates more even coats. LD’s want us to paint on the back because they feel the texture makes for a better lighting effect.
I decided to test this out with the white and natural scrim, to see if my LD would notice which one was stapled ‘backward’.
Finally, Onto Painting!
I ‘sized’ my fabrics with a light spray of 25% flex glue to 75% water. It didn’t really cause the fabrics to shrink up (mainly because of the FR), but it did give the fabrics a bit more tooth, and allow them to take paint better.
I thinned out Turquoise Rosco Supersat and applied it with a brush for my base coat. It behaved on the scrim as expected, kind of bleeding but mostly holding my brush stroke. The Sheer Muslin was harder to spread and wanted to keep my brush stroke more. I was also immediately worried that I was going to “fill” the weave too much and ruin everything right away.
Once dry you could see the unevenness of my base coats in the two light samples, and what a bust it was trying to paint the black samples a bright blue.
I used a string as a guide and a store-bought stencil and quickly started painting away an aged damask wallpaper pattern on the lighter colored samples. After some trial and error with other methods, I ended up using a small brush to apply my paints. There are definitely some learning curves to be had with how paint likes to bleed on the Sheer Muslin, but it was nothing that couldn’t be mastered if planned and practiced for. Touch-ups are something you want to avoid when working with scrim because you don’t want to use too much paint as it may fill up the weave which will affect the translucency of the end product.
That layer of paint on the black samples was a total waste of time because it almost completely disappeared. This reaffirmed my belief that it’s way easier to paint a white fabric black than a black fabric white, especially with scrim when you don’t want to use a ton of paint. So I elected to scrap my planned stenciled wallpaper idea and go for more of a basic “Spooky Forest at Night” effect for the black fabrics. I sketched in a tree trunk pattern using the lighter Rosco Off Broadway color mix from my stencil and did a pass of the base turquoise color over that to create a second layer of trees. It’s always interesting to me to see how the color of paint changes depending on what color or substrate they are on.
This photo was the first time I noticed a difference in color between the bleached fabrics on the left and the natural fabrics on the right. It’s very subtle but there is a brightness to the white, and an expected yellower tone to the natural fabrics that pushed the turquoise base a bit greener.
With my flats painted, and some of my school’s COVID-19 restrictions loosened, it was time to leave the safety of my basement studio, and head to a lighting lab to see what these different fabric options would do.
Wow, they are so much brighter in the sun!
Let the Lighting Rumble Begin!
Enter Bill Healey, The Lighting Supervisor at the University of Minnesota. He was my partner in crime for the second half of this ambitious project. I am not a Lighting Designer, and he’s one of the best I know. Using what objects were floating around the Kilburn Theatre and a very simple set up of lights, we were ready to go.
Before we even started playing with lighting it’s easy to see the differences between the scrim sections (top) and the Sheer Muslin (bottom).
Round 1: Front light only
In the first round, we tested “opaque” effects, trying to have the flats appear solid and have the background objects disappear.
You can see how the LED lights make the fabric bluer. Because there is no backlight casting onto the U.S. objects, the flats appear the most opaque because the surface of the fabric is just being scraped with the light.
The U.S. objects started to bleed through because of how the light started to cast through the fabrics onto them. This mostly bled through the scrim sections and that was especially true with the black fabrics.
Overall, both fabric choices performed well, however, I’m giving the point to the Sheer Muslins. The patterns of the paint were usually more vibrant, easier to see, and just looked more “solid”. And from a COVID safe 10’ away you couldn’t see that telltale scrim texture, keeping their “secret transformative skills” to themselves.
Round 2: Mix of Front and Back Lights
Is that a ghost I see? In this round of lighting effects, we wanted to see a bit of both worlds – a more solid front with some ghostly objects in the back. So we repeated some of our favorite lighting options from before.
Objects behind the flats start to light up and appear!
We decided this was the prettiest of the bunch. All of the fabrics performed well in terms of letting the bright mattress and chairs ghost through, the scrim once again, a bit more so.
With light bleeding through the front of the fabrics, and also from behind, this was our winner for the “Eerie Ghost” effect. I even got Bill to pose for me!
The scrim wins this round. I felt that they performed just a bit better at allowing the objects to come through, and the black fabrics beat out the white and natural ones for sure in terms of being able to both see what was painted on the front of the flat and still being able to see upstage objects behind it.
Round 3: Backlight Only
It was finally time for that magical Brigadoon moment I have been waiting for this entire article. We turned off most, if not all, of the front lights and just played with the upstage lights.
These were all very beautiful. To be honest we couldn’t see much of a difference between any of the fabrics so we called this round a draw.
And the winner is?
So, in the end, I think it comes down to a collaborative conversation about what the final goals are. Because this decision is really about what the fabrics will look like under normal front light situations, and how that affects the way the audience sees the Director’s vision.
But let’s go back to those questions I had before I started and see what we learned in this process. To recall, the information I was looking to test and experiment with was:
- How does the base color of the fabrics affect the end result?
We confirmed what I already knew about painting on black fabrics. I changed my planned design because the base coat I used could not be seen at all and we didn’t want to put too much paint on either type of fabric. After painting but before the lighting effects, I did notice a difference between the white and natural colored fabrics. The natural fabrics had a more yellow tone which changed my base coat color slightly. But once the lights were on them, the white and natural fabrics looked a lot more similar and you couldn’t see much of a difference.
- How does the scrim compare to the Sheer Muslin, not just in the painting process, but also in lighting effects?
Well, that depends! Do you want to do those eerie ghost effects? Use Scrim. Want to hide that transformative moment from the audience? Use Sheer Muslin. There wasn’t a clear winner in this case because both could be used differently in various scenarios.
- Does the weave pattern of the scrims affect translucency
Remember how I flipped what was the front (smoother side) vs. the back (more textured side) with the scrim for my secret test to see if it actually mattered? Guess what? Neither of us could see a difference when it came to the lighting. Scenics win!
This entire process taught me more about different scrim types, and how crucial good Lighting Design is. What excites me the most about discovering Gerriets Sheer Muslins are for the times when we want to mix solid walls and surfaces, with parts that can do that magical translucent effect. Being able to put Sheer Muslin in my toolbox of painted fabric tricks is going to be a great game changer for me and my ability to collaborate with Scenic Designers when we come back from our 2020 intermission.
Have you ever worked with sheer muslin before on a real production?
I’d love to hear more in our comments below.
Photo credits: Angelique Powers.
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 Member of The Guild of Scenic Artists and her work here on The Scenic Route.
Tags: Gerriet's Scrim Sheer Muslin Sponsored