The Sagacious Scenic: Paint Store Savvy

10 am. Big Box Store. It seems all the homeowners have gotten out and about this Saturday morning. We wait fifteen minutes and an employee ambles over to help. A pretty simple request: 5 gal “this blue, interior, flat” After inputting the order information, the employee states there is no base to make that color in flat.  “Is another product that can be made in the color available?” The employee shrugs and says she doesn’t know.  Ok, how about a color match?  (We’d like to compare the formula for a sample match to a Big Box catalog color we chose a few moments ago.)  “So you don’t want paint?”  “No paint today, just looking for the two formulas, thank you!” After a few more minutes of computer inputs and enduring some serious side-eye, we succeed in procuring the desired color formulas. We finish up the supply run and head out.                                                                                

1 pm.  Former janitor’s closet masquerading as a paint shop.  We survey the variety of cans from productions past. Donated house paint, acrylic artist’s tubes, a couple of crusty cans of scenic paint, and a small stash of elastomeric, which is, surprisingly, actually still good! It’s one of those shop areas used by everyone, so no one person has ever been tasked with maintaining a system here.  Remnants of organization remain from past scenics who have traveled through here. There is potential to make this space efficient and useful while we are here.  We unload our Saturday shopping and set to work discovering what might work for our production.       

Saturday Items

Any paint trip to a Big Box store is an easy hour or three out of your schedule, amiright?     

Have you ever been called in to paint a production late in the game and asked to “make it work” with a little bit of this scenic paint, a little bit of that house paint, and a dash from a mystery stash donated by a well-intentioned patron?

Do you work for a company or organization with limited options on paint suppliers?

Read on if any of the above is a situation you, the savvy scenic, may encounter. The following are some general tips and tricks to help hone your scenic artist paint savvy in the discovery phase of what products and methods work for which productions and budgets!

Back to Basics

The largest difference between artist/scenic paints and what is generically called “house paint” on many paint decks (translation: commercially available industrial/architectural coatings) is the amount of additives. While all paints are created with basic components: a vehicle, a binder, and a pigment, commercial paint and coating products also include many specific chemical additives that enrich a desired characteristic in the product. Common characteristics may include rust inhibitors, mildew resistance, levelers, high-build formulas, quick-dry formulas, or stronger bonding for a specific type of substrate. The endless variety and types of architectural coatings are ever-evolving as companies formulate new products and improve existing product lines. Proprietary tints and product formulations can vary greatly between manufacturers, and thus, these products may not be completely compatible with each other or with artist/scenic paint. 


1. Research and testing are essential parts of the process. Make time to ensure your chosen products and methods will work together as intended for your production!  

2. Investigate product information and Safety Data Sheet (SDS) information.  These documents provide a lot of good information, especially when you are dealing with a new product.     

3. When purchasing commercial products, try to stick with the same paint products for the duration of your project as much as possible.  Colors will vary slightly between product types and manufacturers, even when they are mixed into the same catalog color.  

4. Ensure you get both the color name and the catalog color code from your designers.  Many companies have colors with the same name, but each formula will yield a slightly different version of the color.

Color List

5. For custom color matches, use a flat surface (blank white index cards work well) with at least a 1” x 1” solid, even application of the color is best for the computer to accurately read the sample.

Color Match

Big box, Local Paint Store, or Online?

Scenics use all of these methods when purchasing.  Once you learn which method works for needed products or situations, a list ready of your “go-to” vendors streamlines future purchase processes. Once established, update this list annually!

Big Box/Hardware Store• “One Stop Shop”, gather other hardware, tools, and material items on the list while your paint order is made.
• Some discounted pricing and/or charge account options available if you qualify. Ask!
• Access to nationwide inventories, and shipping is often free with certain accounts or purchase amounts.
• Delivery to job site can be available.
• Cheap paint.
• Employees may not be as knowledgeable about product specifics.
• High employee turnovers, hard to establish long term vendor relationship with Big Box.
• Immediate availability limited to store inventories.
• Wait times on a large paint order.
• Little or no product support directly available.
• Cheap paint.
Paint Store• Employees generally trained well on the products in-store and can answer in-depth questions more easily.
• Higher quality paints, and specialized coatings.
• Pro-painter pricing, charge accounts, and online/smartphone apps available. Ask!
• Representative assigned to you as a direct vendor contact for all your needs.
• Support available for product issues and concerns.
• Access to nationwide inventories, and shipping is often free with certain accounts or purchase amounts.
• Delivery to job site can be available.
• Free Stuff! Fan decks, t-shirts, paint sticks…just ask!
• Limited to paint and paint-related tools/supplies.
• Limited to the Paint Store’s product, and may not have the variety of product type as immediately available as at a Big Box.
• Immediate availability limited to store inventory.
• Off the shelf prices will be higher than at Big Box Stores.
Online• Convenience
• Wide availability of products, just click around!
• Quick comparison shopping between products and manufacturers.
• Increased shipping options.
• Often access to manufacturers directly.
• Ease of access to updated pricing.
• Risk from unknown vendors.
• Extra approvals needed from your accounting folks in order to complete purchase.
• Additional costs associated with long distance shipping.
• Shipping options may be limited to corporate carriers only.
• Customer service not always easily navigable if there is an issue with the order.

Technical Navigation

Labels are Useful!

Every paint can manufactured will have a printed batch number on the can itself. This ensures that the manufacturer can locate the when, where, and how of any product they sell. It is a number you will need to have handy should you encounter any issues with a faulty product and need to discuss troubleshooting with customer service or your paint representative. Typically, batch numbers are located on the lid of the product.


Product Sheets, SDS, Sell Sheets

SDS, Technical or Product Data Sheets, and Sell Sheets are all useful when researching products.

SDS will contain all required safety information regarding exposure levels, proper personal protections, cleanup, disposal, and other useful data. 

Rosco Off-Broadway SDS


Technical or Product Data Sheets will include all manufacturer-recommended application methods and uses for a product. Since scenics often use products in unconventional ways, these sheets serve as more of a starting point, typically. They are great for answering questions like, “Does this stick to steel well?” “Can I spray this?”

Product Data Sheets Ben Moore

Sell Sheets are perhaps the least directly useful tool. They typically only have the most basic info on a product and lots of pretty graphics designed to, you guessed it, sell the product! However, these resources can be very useful in communicating with people who do not speak the tech side of paint well! If someone is purchasing for you, including a sell sheet with a picture of exactly what you need in your request could save an email or two!

Sherwin-Williams Sell Sheets

Tint Labels

Every can or bucket tinted at a paint store is required to get a label stating what tint has been added and how much. There is a lot of useful information included on these little labels! Below is a tour of some different label styles and what the information means.

Label 3

Donated Paint

Donations are a great resource and allow scenics to work in a more sustainable way.
Look for product labels/tint labels and note as much info about the products as they are received. Remember to take into consideration the type, amount, and age of the materials/tools, as some products have a shorter shelf life than others.

Well-intentioned patrons often offer paint shops leftovers from home projects. Unless you can guarantee the products have been kept in a temperature-stable environment and not frozen, altered, or otherwise chemically damaged, beware of simply accepting the homeowner’s responsibility to properly dispose of leftover hazardous wastes.


1. Exterior products, in particular, may contain chemicals that are not safe for use in interior scenic applications! If you aren’t sure, do the research!

2. “Mystery” containers are a no-go! If you can’t guarantee the contents, don’t accept it!

3. Paint past its shelf life may not bond as well or play nicely with other products. You will also not be able to utilize manufacturer guarantees on old products.


A great way to be budget-savvy is to develop your own paint shop inventory to work from, as opposed to purchasing all paint per production. While it may not be practical in a freelance situation, consider working in this way if you are in a shop for a full season of projects. It’s useful to have some basic colors on the shelf at all times.

When thinking about building up a shop inventory, remember that scenic paint and artist paint will have more saturated pigmentation. It will be much easier to make washes and thinned colors without colors becoming weak. Start noting for yourself which colors from various paint manufacturers make good primary colors to work from. There are lists of comparable primary colors for various manufacturers available, such as in Stephen Sherwin’s text Scene Painting Projects for the Theater.

Screenshot 2024-01-17 at 8.27.20 PM

Once you find what works for you, keep a reference of those color names and catalog numbers for future projects.



Scenics navigating paint purchase choices can feel overwhelmed by all the options when discovering the right combination of products for a project. As you continue in your scenic career, you will certainly work with some combination of all types of coating products, from “house paints and coatings” to scenic paint and artist-grade paint, in order to achieve production looks. Use these and other resources out there to help find what works, and if you aren’t sure, just ask a scenic!


Brigitte is an artist and educator from Louisiana. She and her paintbrushes have worked, taught, learned, and traveled across the US and the UK. Throughout her career to date, she has collaborated with Centenary College of Louisiana, Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals, Cobalt Studios, the Cape Playhouse, Arizona Theatre Company, Ohio University, and others.

Brigitte is excited to be working in her home state this year. You can find her on Instagram: @amascenic or on the web at

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