In 2015, Ellen E. Jones embarked on a journey that took her to Florence, Italy. Using grant funding, she was able to study at a historic studio in the heart of Florence, only steps away from some of the world’s grandest artistic buildings. Having been involved in greener practices and sustainability in Scenic Art for years, Ellen sought to learn techniques of the past to see if there were things she could adopt into her work today. The results are a fascinating and surprising look at how some of the beautiful interiors of buildings and frescoes of history were painted.
Always Look for A New Perspective
Decorative painting and faux finishes have always fascinated me. I fell into Scenic Art and Decorative Painting in Chicago commercial shops because I had a knack for figuring out how to create faux finishes. My work as a lighting designer meant I also understood how to use highlight and shadow to fool the eye.
During my journey to Italy, I expected to find greener solutions among the historic pigments, binders, and coatings used in the studio. More of these products are available in the European Union and any restoration work done there requires the artisans to match the original work. My own training included work with dry pigments and shop-cooked glues. (Anyone who ever had to use a hotplate remembers the excitement when commercially available premixed scenic paints and polyvinyl glue replaced those older products.)
I started to think about the environmental impact and safety of live entertainment production and the paint shop was one of my main focuses. I wanted to explore the techniques and materials used in the creation of historical paint crafts in hopes of finding more sustainable practices for contemporary Scenic Artists.
If you intend to experiment, be hyperaware; natural and inherently safe do not necessarily go hand in hand. Note the safety precautions that exist for all mediums.
In this blog, I focus on processes, not materials because I found these the most effective for saving time and material. They also integrated into the theatrical production paint process without any drama. The big surprise was that I found many practical options for a more sustainable practice using these techniques and methodology. And that they were easily applied to my contemporary work. Re-engineering processes is a common step in the industry to increase sustainability. Process steps have been streamlined over the centuries to eliminate wasted time. Many were shockingly simple ideas, but they increased efficiency and limited the amount of wasted paint.
On reflection, I realized artisans working in enormous architectural spaces with numerous apprentices would develop an efficient methodology for artistic creation. Ensuring consistency over the space and the multiple days needed to complete the project. Those work patterns can easily transfer into a theater paint shop. It was a reminder to always look for a new perspective on work that you have done for years.
Location, Location, Location
I first researched options for authentic experiences. The Florence Art Studio is an Italian decorative arts studio specializing in the renovation of historic paintwork and original work painting objects and surfaces using traditional techniques. Periodically, the studio allows opportunities for a limited number of outside artists to engage in experiential learning opportunities guided by working practitioners. I received financial support from a 2015 USITT Fellowship and a grant from the Youngstown State University where I was working at the time. I was amazed by this kind of painting and wanted to see the work in progress and the finished elements in situ.
While some specific decorative art forms, (i.e., fresco painting) have no direct relationship with theatrical scenery, others such as faux finishes, chiaroscuro, and, Trompe l’oiel are frequently mimicked in Scene Painting techniques. Until I started examining paintwork in the many cathedrals, public buildings, and palazzos in Florence, I did not realize how much of the opulence was created with paint.
Release Your Expectations
The first day in the studio focused on thematic color systems and mixing colors. The primary red pigments in the studio were closer to magenta than what I normally visualize as red. I asked if these were the only red tones available historically. Her surprising response was that this was primary red at any time. Another American, an interior decorator working in the studio as well, whispered, “I have never seen anyone use that for primary red, have you?” I realized I had to accept the information without trying to filter it through my previous scene painting experience if I wanted to learn anything new. That choice allowed me to explore processes without trying to anticipate the next step.
Greener Color Mixing Process – Wet Color Sampling
At Florence Art Studio, the paint color was sampled by applying wet paint to a wet metal trowel with each color touching. This went against every training and work experience in my professional life.
For related colors, the evaluation was based on the number of value steps between the samples. With different hues, the evaluation determined whether the level of harmony or contrast was appropriate. Only 1 color was evaluated and altered in each step, although there might be any number of colors on the trowel.
Once any need for change was identified, the trowel was rinsed in a bucket of water, and the process repeated with altered paint samples. I found the technique very effective for comparing the balance of colors in any application. Whether comparing values of the hue or contrasting colors. The artisan determined if the colors were correct and labeled each by its purpose. Steps were taken to avoid contamination.
Uses In a Contemporary Setting
Before I integrated this process into my contemporary workplaces, I and my crew used a mix of 4’ x 6’ flats from scene painting classes and scrap lauan for testing and mixing paint formulas. This process saved an enormous amount of time, material, and space. No need for sample boards and waiting for dry time at the beginning of the process. We also saved on white paint and water from washing buckets and brushes using this technique. As well as eliminating dry time between experiments.
Once I or my assistants thought the colors were correct we created sample boards to check the final samples under stage lighting. The recipes were also recorded at each step in the formula book for that production. Theatres use too many different color temperature light sources versus the natural light in the architectural settings where this process originated.
Creating 3-D Images on 2-D Surfaces
Chiaroscuro or “Light-Dark”. The manipulation of light and dark values creates volume and 3-dimensionality in painted objects and figures. Prior to this experience I always thought of Chiaroscuro as atmospheric “lighting” in painting to create depth and distance. I thought of Trompe l’Oeil or “Fooling the Eye” as that 3-D look in a flat painting. In the studio, Trompe l’Oeil referred only to a full image.
The Renaissance process taught in the studio for Chiaroscuro uses a precise formula to mix and paint the shadow and highlight colors that create volume on a 2-dimensional painting. Tinta locale is the neutral base color, which defines the material of an object without highlight or shadow.
“Shape” is defined by multiple opaque shadow and highlight colors. The maximum dark color describes the overall form. Subsequent shadow colors fall in even steps of value between the value of the darkest shadow color and the Tinta locale. The cast shadow is a frayed dry-brushed edge, instead of being created with a transparent wash with a feathered edge.
The final cut line color or fitta is 2 steps darker in value than the maximum shadow color and has a tonality and saturation shift to make the cut line pop. It may be transparent or opaque. No additional lining other than the fitta is required to clean up edges or to read the transitions in plane. Two highlight colors are used to show where light strikes the object and are mixed in equal steps up in value from the base color. The brightest highlight is the cato bello, which is also opaque.
Uses In a Contemporary Setting
Initially, my brain screamed wet blend the color to create shape! Feather the edge! Make the color transparent for cast shadows! However, the results were amazing using this technique and it was easier for my students to make all of the shadows uniform across multiple pieces of scenery. You can see the number of colors used and the relationships on the trowel from the segment above.
The base for this piece used sand in the lime paint to give a sense of the more traditional surface texture in the buildings where restorations would take place. (I don’t recommend that choice for theatre.) Interestingly, the texture was not visible, it had to do with the overall look and the hand of the paint as it was applied.
I had never used a Striping Edge Stick before. They are also called Decorator’s Sticks. Lightweight but rigid they make lining on vertical surfaces easier than any lining stick I have ever used. When I got home I ordered several from Faux Brushes.com. ( I have no connection to the store except as a customer.) They are a fabulous tool and when held correctly there is not bleeding underneath.
The shell decoration was added using a charcoal pounce. The same technique most Scenics would use for repetitive patterns. The highlights and shadows are all opaque like the picture frame itself.
I was surprised when I was told to paint faux marble in the piece after the frame and ornament were complete. I spent decades working from the back to detailed front on drops and scenery. I realized it was not uncommon to make changes in these decorative pieces as the work evolved because no one was working from a designer’s rendering and it could take years to finish the final project. When all artisans are following the same process steps, there was a uniformity in look and quality even with scores of people working on the painting. However, this was one step I will not adopt – Background First!
Fresco painting allowed wet blending of paint and that made it one of my favorites. Lime is the active element that makes fresco painting possible. The grasello or aged lime putty is stored in liquid, so it does not harden. It is then mixed with sand to create the plaster surface.
Plaster must be wet, but not too wet when painted for the chemical process that bonds the two to occur. Once the plaster is applied, it dries to the point where there is no reflection from the water on the surface. The artwork is cartooned, usually through pouncing charcoal through holes pierced in a pattern. It is possible to see some of the pounce dots under the color on frescoes in situ. The plaster must be applied and painted in stages on large frescoes. I worked on sample-size pieces, many of which were created by plastering on top of a roof tile. The angel image below is a fresco.
I was rushing the process as I painted this angel fresco panel in the studio –still in my theatrical scene-painting mode where time is money. Someone commented, “Slow down, you have time. Remember when you’re finished, that angel will last 1,000 years.”
Stencils and Stamps
I was also surprised by the amount of painted ornamentation that was created with stencils and stamps. Casein paint was applied to a textured ground created with lime paint and fine sand or marble dust or a smooth surface with a clear primer. The wreath image below is an example.
I was particularly engaged by scagliola – a plaster technique that evolved during the Renaissance to mimic embedding precious and semi-precious gems and stones (such as marble and granite) into other materials to create amazing pictures. The process starts with plaster mixed with Mars Black pigment. Once that surface is dried and sanded, an image is drawn or pounced on it. The image is then scraped out and filled with white plaster. Once that plaster has dried and cured, watercolor or pure pigment in some other clear medium or binder is used to paint the image. While the results are visually astounding, the time-consuming process could never be used for a show.
Uses in a Contemporary Setting
I immediately started thinking about techniques to create a paint-only imitation of the scagliola imitation for Scenic elements. I realized my previous use of faux finishes had primarily been to create the actual material in the architectural application of murals or scene painting. Mixing the faux finishes for a different artistic look was a new creative option. I used it in Tartuffe to create the illusion of embedded marbles in creating floor trim and will refine the idea in future productions
Stepping outside our usual world is a refreshing change that expands our opportunities and engages the imagination. For those in season-long settings where the shows never end this is particularly important.
This year of COVID-19 has turned most people’s world upside down. As things go back to normal, think about what you might wish to do or learn to expand your horizons or maybe even move into a different career path. I did this research 5 years ago and integrated productions over the course of several years of experimentation. 2020 stopped all of that in its tracks. It also made me realize I am interested in using these techniques on a small scale as in a production setting.
I received financial support from a 2015 USITT Fellowship and a grant from the Youngstown State University where I was working at the time. I also had to cover some costs myself. It took me several years of trying to obtain that financial support. Pursuing grants is not as terrifying as one might think. Here are some tips when applying for a grant:
- Read the criteria and make sure you tailor your request to suit the criteria. I chose to focus on sustainability versus historical research for example.
- Getting small grants can be easier. If you can show you completed the research or activity for a small grant, the successful track record will help you win larger grants.
- Specify how you will meet the requirements for sharing information and then do it!
- Have a realistic budget based on timely research because you will have to itemize your needs. Also, make sure you know what a particular grant will cover and what it cannot pay for.
- If your idea requires international travel make sure you know what you need to do to gain access to materials and to enter and leave the countries involved.
Not every research project yields the expected results – you are testing a hypothesis. If things do not work out as you expected, explain why they did not and what you learned instead.
Check out this other Scenic Route Blog Post by Ellen E. Jones!
Before Covid, Ellen E. Jones worked as a Lighting and Scenic Designer, and Scenic Artist. Her credits include shows in Chicago, Vermont, New York, and the Southeast. She hopes to do so again.
She is a former USITT Lighting Commissioner and former Co-Chair of the Caucus on Human Issues. She is an active member of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. She taught in higher education for more than 25 years and realized she can make more of a difference working with younger students. She currently teaches for the Portsmouth Public Schools in VA.Tags: blog Green historical Sustainable Techniques