Essay: SCENIC PAINTING – stage design

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Scenic painters are people that work under the direction of the set designer and scenic charge artist to paint sets, backdrops, and some props for stage productions. If the design calls for it, the painters also are responsible for the application of certain finishing materials. Scenic designers come from a variety of artistic backgrounds.

Scene Painting Techniques for the Theatre

Choice of paint

Its ability to be easily removed from background settings and props makes it ideal for use on the stage. Also, the paint can be easily mixed to create many colours and shades. The most popular type of paint used on stages or sets is casein. It is a water-based paint that is easy to clean with soap and water. According to

Paint Brushes

There are three types of paint brushes that are mostly used on set. The first one is 8-inch basecoat brush. This brush is wide and is ideal for painting huge backgrounds in one or two colours.

The second type is the layout brush. They come in different sizes. The most common ones used by set designers are between two and six inches. These are used for more detailed or smaller props.

Then finally the third important type of a painting brush is the smaller one-to two-inch lining brush. This is used best for creating minute details. Sometimes, the smallest detail will make the biggest impact or make a prop more realistic.

Other Tools

Brushes are not the only items one can be used to spread the paint. Rollers, airbrushes, rags and sponges are also very popular for creating an ideal setting. The brushes and these other painting utensils are merely tools used to bring the set designer or director’s imagination into fruition on the stage.


The ideal technique will be based on the effect that the director wants and on the type of surface to which the paint is going to be applied.

The following are some of the techniques commonly used according to

  • Dry-brush stokes: It is intended to create a streaked effect. This is done by dabbing a dry or worn-out brush in the paint and applying it.
  • Splattering: The dipped brush is flailed or shaken onto the surface. Spray guns are also used as an alternative. Usually, this is used to fill a large area on the stage.
  • Scumbling: This method uses two or more colours applied in a way that they meld with each other. It is a technique accomplished with brushes and involves the overlapping of the two colours. It’s a good way of creating the appearance of lights and shadows, giving the impression that a scene is taking place at a particular time of the day.
  • Wash: This is another form of creating shadows or subtle contrast between dark or light colours. Often, watery paint is used (a wet brush dipped in the paint) or water can be spattered on the wet paint. Its effect is to create a textured, weathered look by fusing several colours. Still, the surface being painted in this fashion needs to be laid on the ground to avoid having the paint run or smear. It remains there until the paint dries.
  • Faux or Marbleizing : Two to three layers of paint are used, the first as primer, the second as the main colour and the third  a darker colour  creates the swirls, splotches and lines often found in marble (this effect can be created by dabbing the sponge on the final layer. Some plays, especially Shakespearean plays, will be set in palaces; this means that marble columns, walls, and floors need to be used. However, if one is using spray cans (and sometimes a director or set designer will use them) it’s not a good idea to use it on certain types of foams. The next best thing is to create them with paint. Using the real thing on stage is impractical.
  • Wood graining: This technique is meant to create the appearance of wood panelling. Usually two tons of brown paint are used. Layering is used, as well as a series of parallel strokes, streaks and detailing with white and dark paints. Wood graining painting techniques are useful in converting props into appearing to be made of wood.

    Stage design’s purpose is to create a believable world for a play. The designs and colours used can either be realistic or a total suspension of disbelief (such as a fantasy). The use of paints and the techniques to apply it are extremely important in creating these effects.

    Scenic Art Brushes

  • Fitches
  • Sash brush

    They are particularly good for painting any sorts of line.

  •  Long-handled brush

    They are mainly used for floor painting.

Varnishing brush

Wood Graining

It’s hard to tell from audience it’s just a bunch of plywood up on stage. Stage spot can make it easy to get the right scenic paint for the job. However, with the right paint you can get the most consistent quality finish for your scenic painting. If you haven’t done any similar painting to this before, it’s a good idea to do a test patch on the back of the set or scrap piece of wood.

After this dries, either take a wood graining brush or a stiff wide bristle paint brush to do a dry brush technique to create the actual wood grain. To begin creating a rich faux wood grain, start with a strong rich base colour such as Rosco Off Broadway in a shade such as red, orange, or yellow depending on the final tone you desire. The darker colours are better for the darker wood tones such as for oak and birch. It’s easiest to create this by dipping the dry brush tips directly into your darker paint tones, no dilution necessary.

While this painting guide focuses on a natural wood finish, using other colours can mimic old barns, pickled finishes of old fences, and even some of the lightest wood finishes out in the world. If you need the wood to shine, or are painting parts of the set that are especially visible, there a few more steps needed to make the faux wood appear more realistic. Not only can one create mood or atmosphere with painting techniques, one can even convert props such as a wooden column or a cardboard dresser to appear to be either made of marble or out of varnished oak. Often overlooked, paint that’s used  and how it’s used  can be a major factor in creating a mood, tone, or atmosphere for a play.


Is an art technique for creating an illusion of three-dimensions (depth and space) on a two-dimensional (flat) surface. Perspective is what makes a painting seem to have form, distance, and look “real”. The same rules of perspective apply to all subjects, whether it’s a landscape, seascape, still life, interior scene, portrait, or figure painting.

Signifies the accurate depiction of objects from a certain vantage point on a two-dimensional surface so that their relative height, width and position to one another portray depth. The two terms used in artistic perspective are linear and aerial.

 Linear: Relies upon drawing accuracy.

 Aerial: Relies on the effects of atmosphere.

Linear perspective

 The idea that objects of similar size appear smaller as the distance between the objects and a viewer increases.

 The more symmetrical the object, such as railroad tracks, the easier it is to see the effect, but every object in a painting features some degree of linear perspective.

 Interiors and structures often rely heavily on linear perspective.

 In Western art, perspective is called linear perspective, and was developed in the early 15th century.

 Viewpoint is the spot (point) from which you, the artist, is looking at (viewing) the scene, linear perspective is worked out according to this viewpoint.

 There’s no right or wrong choice of viewpoint, it’s simply the first decision you make when beginning to plan your composition and figure out the perspective.

Aerial perspective

Carlson described the phenomenon of aerial perspective in his landmark book, Carlsons Guide to Landscape Painting, as the compounding of the skylight across the surface of the earth.

Extremes of lightness and darkness, colour saturation and detail decrease, and the general colour temperature shifts towards a cooler blue tone.

This is due in large part to the scattering of light rays in the particulates of water vapour and haze that are contained within the air.

As things recede, they receive more of the blue skylight.

There is three viewpoints, which are normal viewpoint, low viewpoint and high viewpoint.

Normal viewpoint: When painting in a realistic style, this is the viewpoint you’ll probably use because it’s what we’re accustomed to seeing and its what looks most real. Thats how adults see the world when standing up.

Low viewpoint: Is when you’re looking at a scene from much lower than you would standing up and it’s also the level from which small children see the world.

High viewpoint: Is when you’re looking down on a scene.

The Perspective of Disappearance

Leonardo da Vinci referred to the effects of perspective upon objects as The Perspective of Disappearance. By applying the rules of linear perspective, understanding that no matter where a viewer of a painting is standing in relationship to the painting, he or she will psychologically place his or her eye level to the perceived height of the horizon line at a width relative to the centre of the painting.

When linear perspective is correct, its time to portray the atmospheric effects by depicting distant objects as lighter, cooler and greyer.

Perspective is possibly one of the most feared aspect of learning how to paint.

Its not the basic rules of perspective that are hard, it’s the consistent applying of the rules to every bit of a painting that’s hard. You need to have the patience to check the perspective as the painting progresses. Learning perspective is like learning how to mix colours. Initially you have to think about it all the time, but with practice it becomes increasingly instinctive.

If you try to take it in all at once, it can seem overwhelming. Take it slowly, one step or term at a time, and get comfortable with a term before moving on to the next. That’s how you master perspective.


In a painting, the horizon line might be this if you’re painting a landscape, but it’s best to disconnect the two. If you draw an imaginary line across the scene at the level of your eyes, that’s the horizon line. The horizon line is an imaginary line used to create accurate perspective in a painting.

Understanding Perspective and Painting Depth

One of the most magical qualities created in representational painting is the illusion of depth on a flat surface. The better we understand the two forms of perspective involved in the illusion, the easier it becomes to represent. By: Richard McKinley | June 23, 2014


In The Road Less Taken (pastel end plain air, 1216), both linear and aerial perspectives were finessed to accentuate the illusion of distance in this painting.


A mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on the wall or other permanent surface. A different characteristic of mural painting is the architectural elements of the given space which are harmoniously incorporated into the picture. The technique of mural has been common since the late 19th century.

Many of the ancient murals have been found within ancient Egyptian tombs around (3150 BC). There are many different styles and techniques. The best-known is probably fresco, which uses water-soluble paints with a damp lime wash, a rapid use of the resulting mixture over a large surface, and often in parts. The technique of painting frescos on wet plaster was reintroduced and led to significant increase in the quality of mural painting.

Murals today are painted in a variety of ways, using oil or water-based media. Today, the beauty of a wall mural has become much more widely available with a technique whereby a painting or photographic image is transferred to poster paper or canvas which is then pasted to a wall surface (see wallpaper below, Frescography) to give the effect of either a hand-painted mural or realistic scene.

History of mural techniques

The 18th-century BC fresco of the investiture of Zimrilim discovered at the Royal Palace ancient Mari in Syria.

A fresco painting, from Italian word affresco which derives from the word fresco meaning (fresh), describes a method in which the paint is being applied on plaster on walls or ceilings. The buon fresco technique consists of painting in pigment mixed with water on a thin layer of wet, fresh, lime mortar or plaster, after few hours the plaster dries and reacts with the air. It is this chemical reaction which fixes the pigment particles in the plaster. After this the painting stays for a long time up to centuries in fresh and brilliant colors.

Fresco-secco painting is done on dry plaster (secco is dry in Italian). The pigments thus require a binding medium, such as egg (tempera), glue or oil to attach the pigment to the wall. Mezzo-fresco is painted on nearly-dry plaster, and was defined by the sixteenth-century author Ignazio Pozzo as “firm enough not to take a thumb-print” so that the pigment only penetrates slightly into the plaster. By the end of the sixteenth century this had largely displaced the buon fresco method.


In Greco-Roman times, mostly encaustic colors applied in a cold state were used. Tempera painting is one of the oldest known methods in mural painting, in tempera the pigments are bound in an albuminous medium such as egg yolk or egg white diluted in water. In 16th century Europe, oil painting on canvas arose as an easier method for mural painting.

Oil paint may be less satisfactory medium for murals for murals because of its lack of brilliance in colour. Also the pigments are yellowed by the binder or are more easily affected by atmospheric conditions. The canvas itself is more subject to rapid deterioration than a plaster ground.

The area to be painted can be gridded to match the design allowing the image to be scaled accurately step by step. In some cases the design is projected straight onto the wall and traced with pencil before painting begins. Some muralists will paint directly without any prior sketching, preferring the spontaneous technique.

Once completed the mural can be given coats of varnish or protective acrylic glaze to protect the work from UV rays and surface damage. In modern, quick way of doing murals is by the use of POP clay mixed with glue or bond to give desired models on a canvas board. The canvas is later set aside to let the clay dry. Once dried, the canvas and the shape can be painted with your choice of colors and later coated with varnish.

Cam designed Frescography by Rainer Maria Latzke, digitally printed on canvas

As an alternative to a hand-painted or airbrushed mural, digitally printed murals can also be applied to surfaces. Already existing murals can be photographed and then be reproduced in near to original quality. The disadvantages of pre-fabricated murals and decals are that they are often mass-produced and lack the allure and exclusivity of an original artwork.

The Frescography technique, a digital manufacturing method invented by Rainer Maria Latzke addresses some of the personalization and size restrictions. Digital techniques are commonly used in advertisements. A “wallscape” is a large advertisement on or attached to the outside wall of a building. Wallscapes can be painted directly on the wall as a mural, or printed on vinyl and securely attached to the wall in the manner of a billboard.

Significance of Murals

The San Bartolo mural

Murals are important in that they bring art into the public sphere. A city benefits by the beauty of a work of art.

Murals can be a relatively effective tool of social emancipation or achieving a political goal.

Murals can have a dramatic impact whether consciously or subconsciously on the attitudes of passersby, when they are added to areas where people live and work.

Many rural towns have begun using murals to create tourist attractions in order to boost economic income.

Murals in contemporary interior design

Traditional interior murals

Forest mural by One Red Shoe in private home, England 2007

Many people like to express their individuality by commissioning an artist to paint a mural in their home. Commissions of murals in schools, hospitals and retirement homes can achieve a pleasing and welcoming atmosphere in these caring institutions. Murals in other public buildings, such as public houses are also common.

Graffiti style interior murals

Mint & Serf at Ace Hotel, New York City

Recently, graffiti and street art have played a key role in contemporary wall painting. As graffiti/street art became more mainstream in the late 1990s, youth oriented brands such as Nike, Red Bull etc.

Ethnic murals

Rajasthani motif mural by Kakshyaachitra, Mumbai 2014

Many home owners choose to display the traditional art and culture of their society or events from their history in their homes. Ethnic murals have become an important form of interior decoration.

Tile mural

Panel of glazed tiles by Jorge Colao (1922) depicting an episode from the battle of Aljubarrota (1385) between the Portuguese and Castilian armies. A piece of public art in Lisbon, Portugal.

Tile murals are murals made out of stone, ceramic, porcelain, glass and or metal tiles that are installed within, or added onto the surface of an existing wall. They are also inlaid into floors. Mural tiles are painted, glazed, sublimation printed (as described below) or more traditionally cut or broken into pieces. Unlike the traditional painted murals described above, tile murals are always made with the use of tiles.

Set design

Set design is an important part of almost any theatre production, because almost every show will need some sort of set, however minimal. Sets can be abstract, highly realistic, or anything in between, and they are a chance for a designer to showcase interesting concepts, new techniques and unusual materials.

Set design is the art, craft and practice of designing and implementing theatrical 3-D environments for drama, opera, musical theatre, dance performance, live concert events, film, video and television productions and themed events and environments. Though similar in some ways to interior or architectural design, stage design goes beyond decoration to visually and environmentally support and thematically expand a script, screenplay or scenario by facilitating human interaction and/or choreography within the context of a theatrical event.

Stage design exercise the imagination to create dramatic space, imagery and effects. The function of a set is to provide the audience with some context for the play and it can also be a chance to create something stunning to draw in the audience.

The most important thing to remember as a set designer is to be innovative and original, inspiration can come from almost anything or any place and you should never stop thinking about creative ways to tell a story. As a set designer, you are not only supposed to create a concept that is in line with the directors vision, but you also have to decide how it will be built, painted and decorated. The look of the stage as a whole is largely the responsibility of the set designer and it can be as interesting as his/her imagination and ingenuity can make it.

Set model may be as a three dimensional scale drawing with colour and texture applied. Set model is built to scale usually drawn the same scale as the stage plan and should be as accurate as possible.

When presenting the work

Make sure your model is really solidly constructed with as much of it as possible firmly fixed in place so that there is no chance of parts breaking off.

Decide on a good place to set up the model so that everyone can be accommodated and be able to see it clearly as possible.

Any model will be greatly enhanced by positioning a light or lights above it. Small adjustable halogen desk is useful here.

Be prepared to demonstrate any scene changes or scenic effects with as little fiddling as possible.

A set designer is not allowed to purchase anything by himself/herself without talking with the production designer or someone who is dealing with the budget.

Tools and Techniques

Pencil: The main tool for the set designer.


Pencils for sketching (standard pencil is the HB and the softer one of B or 2B.


Pencil sharpeners

The Scale Ruler

Production design

Production designers are responsible for the visual concept of a film, television or theatre production. They identify a design style for sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, camera angles and costumes, while working closely with the director and producer.

Once the concept is decided, designers usually appoint and manage an art department, which includes a design and construction team. They often form a strong partnership with a particular director, who they may work with on many productions.

Designers tend to specialize in film, television or theatre, although there may be some overlap. In the theatre, production designers are also called stage or set designers.


Most production designers work as freelancers and so an important part of their work is marketing their skills and experience, making contacts and briefing agents.

Their tasks might be:

Reading scripts to identify factors indicating a particular visual style.

Considering the production brief, which may be written or oral.

Meeting the producer and director to discuss concepts and production requirements.

Researching art history, background politics, and historical information and producing design ideas.

Planning and monitoring the design budget.

Providing scale drawings or models for studio or theatre sets.

Producing design ideas for costumes, wigs, props, special effects, make-up and graphics.

Identifying and assessing potential studios and locations.

Sourcing appropriate materials and researching effects.

Presenting ideas to others involved in the production, such as actors and camera operators.

Researching, estimating and preparing a property list.

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