Multicolored paints poured into a rainbow pattern

9 Green Tricks for Scenic Artists

Being a “Green Scenic” usually means what shade of green we have on our hands, but this article will present some ways in which we can be another type of green—better for the world around us green. Not only do our jobs use chemicals that aren’t great for air or water quality, but we also produce a lot of waste just to create our finished products.  Not to mention the dumpsters that get filled after our shows and events are done. That doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to make smarter choices. Many of which could actually help us save time and money. We will learn about making the best decision for you based on your shop’s limited space and budget—as I say to my students “We do what we can, with what we got, in the time and budget we don’t have.” So let’s brush up on some ways we can be better for the environment in our profession.

Choosing Your Paints and Storage
  • Choose a paint line and stick with it.

Obviously, it is best to use paint that you already have in stock, but if you are going to buy new, try to buy paints all from the same line. Whether you’re giddy for Glidden, in love with Lucite, or rhapsodic for Rosco, choose one line of paint and stick with it as much as possible. This is because paints within a project line are designed to work well with each another, you are then  less likely to get surprises when mixing paints from that brand, than you are when mixing paints from two different companies.

  • Store paint smarter

Paint cans are great for storing original paint, but they require care when closing, as not being able to create an effective seal is one of the best ways to ruin the paint. 

Store-bought wide-mouthed buckets are generally easier to work out of and can hold more product than an original paint can. Additionally, they are easier to clean and close.

But what about when you need to store small amounts of paint? Clear deli cups with a proper labels are approved by OSHA. Standardized sizing means the lids are all the same and are therefore easier to store and the translucent material makes it easy to quickly identify the color. The “microwavable” grade tends to be stronger and holds up to washing.  

Clear Deli Cups in a stack
Clear deli cups in a stack

Recycled food containers are not allowed by OSHA, but if you are going to use them, try to use containers from the same brand.  (which all have the same lid and are therefore easier to store) and CLEARLY label them as paint.

Tupperware containers of various sizes are stacked
Dishes from microwavable lunches can be used as mini pallets instead of tossed in the trash

A note about labeling: There should be a standardized system that states what products have been used. Tape and marker are not approved by OSHA.

  • Use Better Spray Paints.

Avoid spraying paint whenever possible, no matter what type of gun or brand is used, as it is harmful to air quality. But for some projects not only do we need to spray, but we also need to use aerosolized spray paint.    Option 1 is to create your own spray with water-based options using tools like YouCan , or Prevals. Option 2 is to try and find water-based alternatives, like IronLak’s Sugar.

Photos of 3 Products. Preval, Youcan, and IronLak Sugar Paint
Tool Selection
  • The Great Roller Debate

To wash or to toss—is it better to waste more water or to add to the landfill more often? If well cared for, roller covers can have a long life. For example, store-bought roller cover protectors or recycled plastic bags can help keep roller covers from needing to be washed after every use.

Commercial paint roller cover
Commercial paint roller cover

Pro Tip:  Drip drying is an effective method to keep roller covers in good condition and not get that hard crunchy edge.

Roller cover on a slanted drying rack

Roller trays also fall into the wash or not category, I find that just letting them dry out before using them again, I have not only saved time but water.  And in some cases, I don’t even use them. (A Lazy Scenic is an Environmental Scenic)

Yellow paint poured onto the floor and then rolled out
  • Reusable Masking.

Masking, we use it for lots of projects but protecting our floors is the biggest use; which is bad for trash, and might be one of the fastest ways we Scenics can fill a dumpster. It’s always better (and faster) when we can just be messy and not lay masking, but if you are going to use masking there are pros and cons to different materials.

Cloth drops are great because they can be reused. However, paint can sometimes seep through and sufficient storage space is needed to reuse them. Furthermore, they can be a tripping hazard so care should be taken about tacking the edges down. 

Plastic is reusable for some time, but eventually, holes will form, it can also become very slippery and too much built-up paint will flake off onto new projects causing more headaches.. Even though it is  cost-effective for large areas Plastic is also the worst option for landfills.

Paper can be reused with careful planning, but cannot be reused long-term. It is highly absorbent which means less of a tripping hazard. Additionally, it rips and tears easily but is better in a landfill than cloth or plastic.

Some less traditional options are cheap linoleum and Coroplast.

Linoleum is more expensive upfront, but doesn’t rip. It is great for larger areas and for more long term masking needs. However, it needs a larger, dedicated storage space for when its not needed. 

Coroplast, is the corrugated plastic that some signs are made of. It serves as an excellent form of lightweight and easily moveable masking. Additionally, the paint won’t flake off. You can source it simply by reusing old signs or by buying new 4×8’ sheets.

Side view of paint covered Corplast sheet that was used for masking

What to do with Leftover Paint

  • Recycle Your Paint

Reuse, and recycle, but don’t dump paint!  One easy-to-do option is to combine like colors, this  can save storage space and weird, random, or otherwise unuseful colors can be incorporated into “slop paint” for Back or Base-painting. Many states now have programs that will let you recycle paints if they are still in their original containers can be recycled. 

Another option for recycling paint that’s not useful for the stage anymore is to get creative!  Have you tried making ‘pour art’ or reimagining dried paint in new ways?

Multicolored paints poured into a rainbow pattern
Multicolored paints poured into a rainbow pattern
Dried out Rosco Flex Coat to make a frisbee
Dried out Rosco Flex Coat to make a frisbee?
Hard cement-like coating dried out to make a paper weight
Hard cement-like coating dried out to make a paper weight
  • Saw Dust Disposal

If you still find paint that needs to be disposed of, and your school or business does not have a Hazmat option for you; the best option is to make your paint a solid before you toss it in a dumpster.   Option one is to buy a product called Oil Dry, or kitty litter to mix into your paints to harden it up. But if you ask your carpenters if you can steal sawdust from their dust collectors, not only have you found another use for their trash, you have a cheap and free option for creating  a solid ready for the dumpster.  For further information, refer to this article.

Wet paint being mixed into dry sawdust for proper disposal once dry.

Ending at the Paint Sink

  • Catch the Crud (it’s a good thing)!

The first line of defense between your shop’s dirty paint water and your local river is a paint screen. Using a paint screen is the bare minimum you can do to protect our waterways (and your plumbing bills!) Paint screens can be made from wood or metal and use window screen material to catch all of the big chunks of paint and sludge from washing buckets and tools.

Paint screen at bottom of paint sink
Paint screen at bottom of paint sink
Chunks of paint saved from going down the drain
Chunks of paint saved from going down the drain thanks to a paint screen

Paint traps are the second line of defense. They collect and filter sediments from the sink water before it clogs your pipes and enters our waterways. You will want to use the sediment/plaster type  of trap, and not the grease type for restaurants.  Newer versions often don’t fit under a traditional laundry sink, so plan accordingly.  If you are working in a short-term space that’s not traditionally used as a Paint Shop, maybe try one of these portable options.

Paint trap under a sink
Paint trap under a sink. Sink had to be moved left to accommodate its size
Plumbing access cap

Plumbing access cap



Bonus Trick: have an access cap installed! These allow you to put a hose in it to help flush clogs out on your own, and plumbers can snake easier

Soaking buckets isn’t lazy—it loosens paint so you can wash faster and with less water. Using dirty (or grey water) to soak and prewash your buckets, tools, and brushes can save gallons of water, before your final rinse.  Not only are you using less water, but you can cut down significantly on the microplastics (that create our paints) from entering our waterways.

Dirty buckets of paint soaking in water
Dirty buckets of paint soaking in water
Dirty buckets of paint soaking in water
Using grey water to wash buckets and tools saved 46 gallons of water

It’s also important to mention that not all buckets even need to be washed. Many of the Glossier paints or flexible coatings can simply be peeled out once they have dried. It’s a very Zen thing.

Paint peeled from a deli cup retains its shape
Paint peeled from a deli cup retains its shape (and was fun to peel!)

In conclusion, remember to do your best!  In order to create the prettiest scenery we can (while not trying to ruin the planet!) we do what we can with what we have and with the budget and time we don’t have.

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.

This article with written with the assistance of Emily Kile. Emily is a senior at the University of Mary Washington, where she’s majoring in Theatre and English. 

1 Comment
  1. Zuby 1 year ago

    I’ve been researching the Envirowash system by TRIMACO.COM. At the moment I can’t seem to find a source for Canada but the smaller system could be incredibly useful in our shops it filters out paint solids to clear water. They also have a product that will harden water-based paint and remove the water right in a bucket. Still researching, but will keep you updated.

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