Fluorescent paint, a magical substance we have had access to most of our lives. If we were lucky enough, we got to play around in elementary school with the goopy, yet still thin neon tempera paints that come in the fun squeeze bottle. I felt connected back to my six year old self, telling her that more sophisticated and playful painting is in your future. And it glows under UV and black light!

The Paint:

For this article, I am focusing on the Fluorescent Scenic Paint product line from Rosco. As wiser people have reminded us, it is always good to read the product directions. To summarize, Rosco informs us this paint has a vinyl acrylic binder formulated to be used straight out of the can, with no dilution necessary. However, depending on the desired effect it can be diluted with water, and is recoatable. It can be applied with a brush, roller or HVLP sprayer. Rosco does recommend for even coverage, using an HVLP sprayer is recommended.

The Project:


The Mission:

I have the luxury of time. I had plenty of time to test, play, re-do, screw up, and try again. Since many others in professional situations do not have such an opportunity, take the information this article gives you with that factor in mind. There are so many different situations this paint can be used for, I wanted to narrow down my options to 3-4 processes. The question I kept in the forefront of my mind was, ‘What If…?’. What if I want an opaque effect? What if I want it to be a ‘surprise’ in the piece? The goal here was to try to seek out useful answers to questions that I personally had, and hopefully would translate as shortcuts for others. To remind everyone, be curious and playful without judgment in oneself, but judgment in the process.

Testing: 1-2-3…infinity!:

Even though I am not working on this project for a company, a theatre, or a designer, I knew I wanted to narrow down my process to a few choices. Rarely are we given enough time in our jobs to do infinite testing. To keep this project grounded in a real-time application I tried to limit myself. I knew I would be using the paint on a black base color. This would all be completely different on a surface that is lighter, neutral, or white. I wanted to show what the paint could do in 4 ways: 

  1. Create a more realistic color spectrum for the piece, with the fluorescent paint coming out as a surprise when lit under UV or black light.
  2. Lay down a base of white first, regardless of light or shadow and use fluorescent paint on top
  3. Use fluorescents blended into black to show contrast and a graduated blend between the fluorescents and the black to fade into the background of the piece
  4. Only fluorescent paint for the inherent, base color of the object. 

I have some initial impressions of the product as I begin to test with it. My first test is just to paint the colors straight onto a black base. As I painted I noticed with the application of one layer with a brush, it leaves brush marks in the paint. Upon seeing this trait, I did two other subsequent layers that did indeed help the paint become more opaque under regular lighting. I would not call this a problem, the black base is a very high contrast from the fluorescent paint itself, any paint this different in value from the black will need multiple coats over a black base. The same goes for a white base, since it is such a higher value compared to the fluorescent colors, after just one coat the fluorescent paint will be a bit streaky if not applied more than once.

The higher in value colors such as white, yellow, gold and orange are much more brilliantly UV reactive than the colors pink, red, blue and green. This is not a problem, since these darker colors can be mixed with the lighter colors to make some awesome custom colors with UV reactive properties in between the two.

The last reason for testing is getting to know the product. Try out some other scenarios that pop up in your head, and see what the results tell you. This also helps you understand how you personally feel manipulating the paint, and can help you make decisions moving forward.

Project Preparation:

I used heavy weight muslin stapled to a 4’x6’ sheet of rosin paper covered plywood, which I set up in my living room. Doing scenic projects in your home means adjusting and innovating for a space you shouldn’t get too messy (Thanks to some furry critters always close behind). I needed to seal and size my fabric before priming and basing. In a scene shop we would normally mix up gallons of laundry (or corn) starch to seal a large backdrop or soft-covered muslin flats. However my piece is only 2’x4’, in comes my trusty electric kettle! I boiled up 2 cups of water, and mixed in 4 tablespoons of cornstarch and cold water. I was so excited at how quickly I could make a small amount of starch that turned out pretty similar to boiling the large amounts in the scene shop.

I brushed on the sizing liquid, and let it dry. Then I painted on 2 layers of Rosco Off Broadway black paint. I used one half of my fabric for testing, while the other half I reserved for the project. Working under the same light and conditions as the testing and project helps to keep things consistent. Now I’m ready to draw the image on the project. I used white chalk so it would show up on the black base. It is a great option to erase easily and paint over. However be careful it may not disappear if painted over with certain colors. If the answer is unknown, test it!


Preparing to Paint:

When starting this process I wanted to leave room for discovery. I have questions to answer, but I also need to keep my eyes open for the unexpected. 

Here are some materials I used:

  1. Condiment containers with lids – This project is small, I want to waste as little paint as possible, a bunch of colors can be mixed quickly in small amounts
  2. Cheap, small brushes
  3. Rags to dab off brushes – water in the brush can quickly dilute the paint, water control is necessary.
  4. Popsicle sticks for mixing
  5. Water container – for rinsing or diluting/paletting
  6. Tape and sharpies for labeling

Keep yourself organized, all the paint is out and accessible, with room for me to work. Since I am working out of my dining room, keeping things covered and safe against my ever inquisitive cats is a must!

In the following sections, I will be breaking down my processes and experiences from each area. There are so many applications for this product, I couldn’t answer every question I had or I’d have to start a book. Here is what I tried, and learned.

Color Mixing:

I kept my mixing of the fluorescent colors to a limited number of colors. For a lighter value of each color, I mixed the color with fluorescent white until the value was about halfway in between the original color and white. This mixing step doubles my options for either undertones, or highlights.

When needing some traditionally non-fluorescent colors, while still wanting the UV properties I used my color theory knowledge. For example, I wanted to mix an off-white tan color for the mushroom stems. Knowing that using any non-fluorescent colors in my mixing will negate the UV qualities of the paint, I thought back to using complementary colors. I started with a fluorescent white, and because of the small amount of paint used I mixed a drop of fluorescent orange, and a drop of fluorescent blue into the white. The blue and orange are classic complimentary colors. When mixed together they will create a neutral, gray or brownish tone that will not turn the resulting color too dark. 

Pre-mixing some of the colors is useful in planning your layering steps within the piece. Mixing up colors before starting the piece is the most consistent way to make sure it doesn’t run out before it is needed in multiple areas. Paletting small amounts at a time as the objects are painted is another way to go. As a scenic artist I’m used to having to plan for consistency in color and technique. Therefore even working small scale as this project I still like to mix up difficult colors ahead of time. 

Top Section (Section #1):

Treatment: White+Fluorescent base, with Fluorescent laid over top

In the testing phase, I found the fluorescent paint to be quite translucent. This isn’t a bad thing! However, for this treatment I wanted the section to have a more realistic look, with the fluorescent not being particularly obvious. I decided to try and refine a process where I would use the least amount of layering possible to achieve this effect. I mixed a non-fluorescent, Benjamin Moore exterior white latex paint with the appropriate fluorescent color. This created a pastel color for the base, but is still vibrant and close in value to the fluorescent color I would eventually use. 

To help give some contrast to the texture of the large mushroom cap, I mixed black with fluorescent to create the dark spots. I also painted in some bright, intense globby spots that are meant to make the eye feel the spots popping forward. I found the fluorescent paint to still be partially translucent with several layers painted in the bright spots. That’s ok! I learned a lesson, if I want them to be opaque, a more base may be needed. I still wanted to create shade and depth to the section. I used black (which is not a classic shade/shadow color) mixed with a fluorescent blue. This created a shade color over the top of the mushroom cap. The area looked realistic with its classic light and shadow palette. When lit under black light it gave some wonderful brightness. Only in certain areas, which can help the eye make sense under non-traditional lighting.

Pro: Even when added to non-fluorescent colors, the fluorescent paint can help keep those colors vibrant. This can also give more variety to the glowing effects, some colors will glow more brightly than others when mixed with non-fluorescent paints. Which is wonderful to have as an option.  

Cons: Multiple layers may have to be laid down to get an opaque effect. Consider the size of the project and time. The great thing about these fluorescent paints, whatever the under painting is, if a thin application of the fluorescent paint is laid on top it will glow very noticeably under UV or black light. 

2nd From the Top Section (Section #2):

Treatment: Benjamin Moore exterior white as a base, fluorescent paint as inherent local color

This process created a vibrant, intense fluorescent color. I found it useful to sometimes paint in only black light. This helped especially when I wanted to paint white fluorescent paint over the non-fluorescent white base. The fluorescent white paint looked invisible over the white base, the only way it could be seen was under the black light. This technique could be used for anytime while painting, the fluorescent effect wants to be monitored as it is applied. Under regular white light, the fluorescent painted areas appeared bright and neon. This treatment gave a wonderful, stylized color palette to the piece.

Pros: This section looks like a more traditional neon style under white light. This would be a fun technique for anything that wants to be bold and bright under all lighting.

Cons: I had a challenge painting with the fluorescent paint in this section. The color would glide on nicely, however if it had any time to dry at all it was hard to create a consistent color application across the whole area. If any area was painted over before it was completely dry, the first layer would lift up and create a patchy dark area. 

There are some techniques to try to help with this issue. Water could be laid down first, creating a damp surface in which the color could stay wet and hopefully blend more evenly. Using a sprayer could also help more evenly distribute the color. Trying out different brushes could also yield different results.


2nd From the Bottom Section (Section #3):

Fluorescent Paint for light areas, blended into black for shadow/shadow areas.

In this area, I used black in the shade and shadow areas. Then I wet blended the black with the fluorescent color to give a gradation from dark to light. I used this same technique with the texturing in this section as well.  

Pros: There are some nice areas of subtle gradation. Under UV light this fact helped reinforce the shapes of the mushrooms, and kept the fluorescent paint from appearing ‘flattened out’.

Cons: Using black means the shape of the mushrooms faded out into the black background. Black is a hard color to use as a shade/shadow value, it ‘deadens’ a color and is not a traditional dark value used by artists.

Bottom Section (Section #4):

Treatment: Only fluorescent paint

This section worked up very quickly for me. I tried to paint it in a very simple manner. I used the fluorescent paint as the local color. I did mix some fluorescent white into each color to help it ‘sit up’ and stand out from the black background. I blended the fluorescent paint with water with the intention of making the color fade to black in the shade and shadow. While painting I thought of this section as a value study from light to dark, rather than considering the color. 

Pros: The fluorescents turned into more of a pastel look when lit with regular light. I had no expectations as to what I wanted this section to turn out to be. 

Cons: When lit with the black light, the shapes flattened out a bit. I could tell what parts of each mushroom were meant to fade into darkness. I had to apply multiple coats of the fluorescent paint in the areas of high value to interpret those areas as highlight.

Thank you all for coming on this journey with me. I hope this article has given you some inspiration to try out this high quality paint. I hope you find the process fun and useful in other painting applications throughout your scenic careers. Remember to ask questions, test for answers, and adjust the process when needed. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and judge the piece in front of you (and yourself!) as fairly as possible.

 

 

Jamie has been working as a scenic artist since her training at Cobalt Studios. Jamie has worked with institutions such as University of Iowa, and Oakland University in Michigan as a scenic and teaching artist. Jamie works with USITT as the Lead Organizer and Presenter at the Paint Lab series of events. Jamie is also one of the co-teachers of Summer Scene Painting at Cobalt Studios. Jamie currently resides just outside Madison, WI with her husband Parker and 2 cats Luna and Josie.

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