How to Paint a 65-foot backdrop
Wow. Last week was quite a big week for the paint shop here at OSF as we start checking set pieces off the list for The Unfortunates. While Lead Scenic Pat Bonney made excellent war-torn columns and beams, Scenic Charge Artist Gabriel Barrera painted some stunning bar signs, and the electrics department installed lighted lettering to the main beam and colored florescent to the bird. The scrims we painted have been attached to the hard scenery, and the bombed out floor has been completed and is being fitted in today. It is really exciting to see all of the pieces fall into place.
Meanwhile, out at the warehouse we have begun a huge undertaking. The final and most labor-intensive element to the back wall is a 65' translucent architectural backdrop, with lots of enhancements. This drop is of several doors and windows, perhaps in an alley somewhere, and appears in greyscale when lit from the front. When lit from behind, however, it will be lit with red light to make it appear red. However, some elements need to remain in greyscale, which means they actually need to be opaque elements within the translucent drop, and that's precisely where the fun comes in.
In order to paint an average backdrop, there are many prep steps. First, you need to order a huge piece of muslin. Muslin shrinks when it gets wet, so next, we need to draw a box that is exactly the right size and perfectly square in order to make sure that when we apply the base coat, it will shrink up to exactly the right shape and size and will hang straight. This is what we call “sizing.” For a translucency, we will use a cornstarch mixture dissolved in boiling water for our base coat. We will paint both sides of the drop. Starch is used not only to “size” the drop, but it prevents the paint from pushing through the fabric to the other side. This is important to retain translucency.
Next, we will grid out the drop. First, we get a printout of a picture of the drop (the elevation) that is printed in a scale (such as 1''=1'). We draw a grid on the elevation that will divide the picture up into manageable sections. Usually somewhere between 1 and 3 feet. Then, we make the same grid on the actual drop using string and thumbtacks. Instead of being faced with drawing 65 feet, and getting lost somewhere in the middle, we can take one square at a time. This also makes it possible for several people to draw on the same drop at the same time.
Next, we draw the picture. We call this “cartooning.” Even if we are doing something very realistic looking, the act of drawing out what we mean to paint is referred to as cartooning. Each scenic artist gets a copy of the elevation with the grid drawn on it. The squares are labeled much like a chess board, and the squares on the drop itself correspond. One artist chooses a square on the elevation and finds the same one on the drop, and then draws the shapes in that square. Meanwhile, the other scenic artists are filling in other squares. Usually we put a piece of charcoal on the end of a stick and draw while standing up which allows us to move faster and get a better view of what we are doing. We go like this until the whole thing is completed.
Now that we know what the drop will look like, we remove the string grid. This way, we can see what we've drawn a little better. We now use the elevation to start painting. In the same way, many scenics can paint together because we each have a small copy of the picture.
That's a lot to do just to get to the basic painting part, isn't it? It's a little like how a master artist might prepare a very very large canvas. We are painting this translucency in two stages. Stage one is to paint everything in translucent greyscale, and stage two is to add all of the opaque parts in. Last week we were able to complete all of the prep work as well as stage one. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion!
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