Our industry continues forward in the 21st century incorporating the latest in technology and tools into our Scenic Art practice. While innovations in items like printers, 3D printers, computer-aided drafting programs, and digital painting applications have enabled Scenic Artists to work in new ways, sometimes analog is the answer.
Some of the most exciting and fun things I have learned on the job were various ways different Scenic Art teams have developed low-tech solutions. As a young Scenic Artist, adopting some of these “silly tools” into my practice often shortened my work days and helped me create a better product in the end! Items that look bound for the dumpster (perhaps they were rescued from the dumpster?) or live in your junk drawer can be just as useful as your scenic fitch set.
I have often scavenged the off-cut bins in the carpentry shop. Scraps too small to be useful in the carpentry shop are often just the right size for Scenic Art projects. Lining sticks, mixing sticks, stamp bases and handles, and blocking are just a few uses!
A simple 2×4 frame with a muslin-covered pool noodle or a bicycle inner tube can create an efficient brush drying rack and storage. The one pictured here I came across on a recent freelance gig!
Foam brushes can be purchased cheaply at most craft or dollar stores. They are easy to trim and shape to apply paint in different shapes and textures easily. Foam brushes can also hold a lot of paint, so thinner washes and dyes can easily be applied evenly to a surface.
Newspapers or end rolls of blank newsprint can create a different aging look. Rip organic shapes into your paper, roll your paint onto the paper, then press it onto your surface and pull it up for an aged look. Newspaper is helpful for quick masking around small projects. I also have seen newsprint used in brush care to help reshape and condition bristles!
Plastic Grocery Bags
A stash of plastic grocery bags has several uses in the paint shop. Wrapping brushes or rollers will keep them from drying out as you work. Plastic bags or saran wrap scrunched up and dipped in paint or wrapped around a roller cover will create accurate textures for faux vintage vinyl tiling. I also once worked on a show which used plastic bags to crochet textural elements for scenic and costume pieces!
Cotton twine and mason lines are versatile tools in the paint shop! Strings are great for measuring odd shapes and assisting in drawing out geometric shapes or curves. Strings can be bundled and attached to a stick, then dipped in paint and dragged over your piece to create fantastic organic forms for trees, shrubs, or grass. They can also be used to create a temporary grid over a piece to assist in layout without getting unwanted charcoal lines onto your surface.
Whenever I get a shipment into the shop, I will often save bits of the packaging. Plastic, foam, and cardboard are useful for creating custom wood-graining tools or stencils.
One of the most useful marbling tools I have ever been introduced to was an old piece of velour scrap with holes cut into it. Dipping this piece of fabric in paint and dropping it onto a surface creates great organic marble shapes to layer upon.
Nylon window screen stretched over a frame creates an easy sink trap to keep dried paint flakes from going down the drain. Window screen can be used to create stencils by gluing a design over the top or filling in the screen holes with elastomeric paint. In a pinch, screen can also be used to transfer your smaller-scale drawings. Lay your screen over your source image, and trace lightly with chalk or marker. Then position your screen onto your surface. Trace again using charcoal or chalk. The powder from your charcoal will fall through the screen holes and leave a clean drawing transferred to your surface!
Push pins serve as temporary anchors for layout points or can hold down more fragile fabrics that cannot be stapled. Perhaps my favorite use of a pushpin is as a tiny pounce wheel! Attaching a push pin to a pencil will allow you to perforate intricate drawings in areas your pounce wheel set may not be able to get to.
Crafting supplies such as popsicle sticks, feathers, and pipe cleaners help create textures for marbling or foliage or cleaning out small parts of spraying tools.
Thank you to Julie Barnhardt, Charge Artist at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Claire Dana, Charge Artist at Indiana Repertory Theatre for sharing with me some of the solutions above!
What low-tech tools are a must-have in your shop or paint kit?
Originally from the South, Brigitte’s paintbrushes have taken her from Boston, MA, to Tucson, AZ, and beyond! Her experiences have led her on scenic adventures with Cobalt Studios, Emerson College, Mystic Scenic Studios, and the Arizona Theatre Company, to name a few. She holds an MFA in Production Design from Michigan State University and is a 2009 graduate of Cobalt Studios Scenic Artist Training Program.
All photos are courtesy of Brigitte Bechtel unless stated otherwise.