In our recent Scenic Route article by Jamie Clausius, she researched and played around with all the cool ways that Rosco’s Fluorescent Paint could be used with traditional paint techniques and how they would react to UV lighting. I wanted to up the anti and use them in an unexpected way. I also used this project to teach my University of Minnesota (UMN) Advanced Scenic Art students another great skill – translucent painting. So I brought out the “Neon Sign” project demonstrated at the 2019 USITT Conference Professional Development Workshop (PDW) and switched to using Rosco Fluorescent Paints as our color on the back because of the paint’s ability to actually glow and pop with a bit more realism.

Skill Note: The “trick” to creating a color-changing translucency is having both sides of the muslin painted. The front needs to have areas of muslin that are either left completely raw or are only painted with thin washes of color. The back of the muslin is painted with a “barrier layer” of starch and/or sealer, and then bright color washes are applied. These are often used as “day to night” sunset transitions and can truly transform the space when lit properly.

Rendering for Neon Sign project for the USITT 2019 PDW on Painting Translucencies

My students agreed on a neon sign theme and researched the brick source image, which was a nice added design challenge for them. We used traditional 4×8 flats for this project with the top space above the toggle for the finished project and the lower section for sampling techniques and colors, which worked out pretty great.

Source image of a realistic brick texture from “Surfaces” by Judy Juraceck

First Steps, the Prep:

  • Sizing the Muslin flat – After stapling, the muslin was sized with a cooked starch recipe 1 time on the front and 1 time on the back, but it wasn’t quite enough to stop bleed-through of paint from back to front, and unfortunately, we were out of starch – so we used a mix of 1 part water with 1 part Clear Rosco Flat Glaze and sealed up the muslin fantastic.
  • Create a Pounce and Inking – This includes the brick layout pattern and the neon design. Attention needed to be given to keeping a consistent thickness and appropriate shape of the “neon tubes.” Making mistakes and clarifying the design on paper was a great learning opportunity and didn’t negatively affect the muslin.
  • Taping – This was a tedious task, but it ensured that they could paint the brick layer faster while leaving the “neon tubes” as raw muslin.
  • Painting Brick – Using Off Broadway paints and a traditional basecoat scumble/spatter of the red brick base, my students then painted on the grout lines along with highlights and shadows. Care was taken to keep the brick colors as thin as possible to help achieve our effect later.
Image on Top Left: Pouncing onto paper, Image on Top Right: Frog tape for masking, Image on Bottom: Finished bricks

Painting the Neon Effect:

It was after they pulled off the tape, that their confidence morphed into curiosity and wonder as they worked on a new technique with a new type of paint: Rosco Fluorecents.

They were wowed at how bright the colors were and that they packed a big punch, but they also noticed how thin and transparent the paint was. In this photo, you can see the colors straight out of the can and what added layers of color look like.

Image of eight Rosco Neon colors sampled on starched muslin.

This paint’s “thin” quality is a superpower when it comes to creating stunning translucent color-changing effects – we never had to add water and controlled things by simply adding more layers without fearing it going opaque.

The other not-so-secret power of Fluorescent paint is how it reacts to UV lighting, creating a Neon-like glow. It is also nice to note that you don’t always need a UV light to get vibrant neon-like colors – but it certainly helps.

Image shows Rosco Neon colors sampled under different lighting effects. From left to right, it shows the colors under work lights with no back light, under halogen work lights, using the Rosco Miro Cube UV lights, and with both halogen and the Miro Cube.
Image shows Rosco Neon colors sampled under different lighting effects. From left to right, it shows the colors under work lights with no back light, under halogen work lights, using the Rosco Miro Cube UV lights, and with both halogen and the Miro Cube.

Sampling Note:  When painting any type of translucent effect, it is important to have a working sample with you in order to play around with the lighting effects.

Image of a white neon cat on a brick background without color added.

Knowing right away that a color is too opaque on the front or not glowing through enough from the back is the key to success. We used my spray booth as a staging area to control the lighting and used a traditional 500-watt halogen and Rosco Miro Cube UV Black Light for the backlights. I also kept one small step ahead of them, working on my own small “NEON” sample to help test colors and techniques that they might want to use or adapt.

Testing Brick Translucency Before Adding Color:

Painting the Tubes: They worked in layers, putting more and more color on the outside edges of the tube, creating a round, “3-D tube” effect. Extending the color well past the tubes onto the bricks also helped create that signature glow.

Four images; Top image shows the back-painted color, bottom three images show the front under a variety of lighting types while also adding more color to the outside of the letters for more "glow"

Back Painting: Did you know it takes an average of three coats of paint to make muslin opaque?  To help create that “glowing onto the brick effect,” we were careful where we applied grey house paint and how many coats certain sections received.  

Photo of the back-painted color for the Neon Cat sign.
Photo of the back-painted color for the Ramen sign.

Testing Our Results:

I asked MFA Scenic & Lighting Design student Jacqueline Stauder to join our class and help create a real lighting demonstration… and let’s just say she earned her payment of homemade banana bread!

She used a collection of standard lighting instruments focused from the air and our UV Miro Cube on the floor for the backlight.

Image shows student projects propped up on a stage under stage lighting. The image on the left shows a back view of the project while the image on the right shows them from a front, side view.
Image shows a front view of the project under different types of light; The top image shows full front light, the middle image shows a blend of front and back light, while the bottom image shows just the UV as back light.

Of course, these effects are better seen with dynamic lighting transitions – so enjoy this quick video that shows what happens when you transition from a full frontlight to a tighter backlight with the UV light!

Reflecting back, if I were to repeat this project, I would use a different method for painting the bricks. I would start instead with thin washes of grey for the grout and then perhaps use a stamp or cut roller to paint the bricks. This would help us get the grout to glow as well when backlit by reducing the layers of paint. However, as it is, these turned out to be an en-LIGHT-ening educational opportunity for my students that will truly shine in their portfolios.

Look for this project and more being added to the Guild’s Resource Hub’s new ‘Lesson Plan” section coming later this year!

Credits:
All photos and video were taken by Angelique Powers, Toni Conover, Sam Meverden, Jacey Stewart.

Author:

Angelique Powers has been painting for 25 years and has an MFA in Scenic Art from Cal Arts.  Along with working with the University of Minnesota as the Staff Scenic Charge Artist and Lecturer, she is also the Charge Artist for Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, but is most proud of her work as a Founding Board Member of  The Guild of Scenic Artists and her work here on The Scenic Route.

Contributing Artists:

Toni Conover - 2024 BA Graduate of UMN and aspiring Scenic Artist. Instagram (@tonidoestheatre)
Sam Meverden -2024 BA Graduate of UMN and aspiring Scenic Artist/Designer. Website: https://srmeverden.wixsite.com/my-site
Jacelyn Stewart - MFA Scenic and Prop Design Student at UMN. Website: jacelyndesign.com
Jacquilin Stauder - MFA Scenic and Lighting Design Student at UMN. Website: https://www.jacqulinstauderdesign.com
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