Guest Author: Lisa Borton
I am certainly not the only theatre artist wearing many different hats – I’m the resident scenic designer, props master, charge artist, lecturer, and occasionally costume designer for the University of Michigan-Flint. As someone who paints all of her own designs, I do have quite a lot of flexibility in the treatment style, based on the time, crew, and budget. While sometimes “Scenic Designer Lisa” wishes there were more time and resources, “Charge Artist Lisa” is pretty practical and does the job appropriate for the task at hand. While many of us are probably familiar with the phrase “fast and dirty” in terms of scenic art (meaning it probably looks good from a large distance and up close would blind you,) I’m more interested in being fast but not blindingly ugly, and it IS possible to keep up your standards up while working efficiently. I’ve learned to get smart with my time management over the last five years, and for those of you who are just starting out or looking for a refresher of the basics, the following is for you. I hope they can be three helpful tips to make you a lightning fast painter with some good-looking results.
1: Simplify the Process
This may seem like common sense, but even some of my favorite painters over complicate a paint treatment when they could achieve very similar results using fewer steps. Do you really need that subtle, nuanced, middle step that no one but you is going to notice? Nope. Sorry, that kind of subtlety is going to be overshadowed by the lighting designer (pardon the pun.)
Simplifying the process often requires you to add more depth in the way that you mix your paint. For example, if I need a quick but beautiful hardwood floor treatment, I’ll utilize a two (maybe three) step method. Base, grain, glaze, at most. The last glaze is color tinted to round out the color profile, and is mixed with a sealer of the correct sheen. If you’re moving super quickly, you can get the process down to 1) base, 2) grain/glaze/seal. For the 2nd step of that method, I recommend tinting Pledge Floor Care Polish (see image for the correct label.)
The great thing about the floor polish is that you can float color in it, and it has a durable, satin finish to it. As you’re pulling your lines with a handy chip brush (not cut,) the viscosity of the polish holds the brush strokes to give you that sexy, grainy finish. (This is similar to FEV but much safer! Hooray!) I learned about this product via Rachel Keebler at Cobalt Studios – thanks Rachel!
It has the added side benefit of smelling like apples!
2: Plan and Delegate
I hope that each of you have at least one other person that you would trust with a single color of paint and either a roller or a paint brush. As you’re planning your process, carefully consider how many of those steps can be done with little or no painting experience. The above wood treatment has a base treatment that could be done by anyone with about two minutes of instruction. Your sealers could also be done by someone without a lot of experience with a bit of instruction. This gives you time to focus on the steps that are more intricate and require more skill.
Some charges are particular about who mixes their paint. I have my moments, but as I’m mixing the first batch, I make sure that each bucket is clearly labeled with a specific recipe. “1/4 cup this, 1/2 cup that…” or “1:1 VD to Water” etc. That way, if I need to leave for another part of my job (say a costume fitting) and they run out of a color it’s very easy for them to replicate what was in the bucket. My more experienced student painters know better than to completely empty a bucket before mixing a new batch, but some newer students don’t know that, and it’s not up to them to know it. The more I can prep and plan ahead to be able to hand things off, the better off we’ll be down the road.
3: Finding the Common Ground
Henry Ford had the way of it when he created the assembly line – one person doing the same job over and over and over again. Most of us are smart enough to base everything, then Step 1 everything, then Step 2 everything, etc. etc. But when looking at the variety of paint treatments within a show, which ones have common steps or colors? I find that these are the steps that I want to teach my students/interns. That way I know there are certain moments when they can jump in and I can focus on other processes that require more detail.
We could all probably title our autobiographies “Waiting For Paint To Dry,” but if you’re working on a variety of projects at one time you’ll eliminate the wait time and instead be “doing.” I like to make sure I have 2-3 larger projects on the agenda for the day when I get started. That way I can jump from project to project and keep things moving, rather than working to complete one whole project and needing to wait in-between steps while things are drying.
So whether you’ve charged one show or hundreds, I hope these sparked a few ideas in how you can streamline your process as a scenic artist. There are absolutely times when we need to take our time and slow down, but for those moments when you feel a bit like there are 100 different treatments, you’ll be glad to have a plan in place for creating something fast AND beautiful!
Resident Scenic Designer & Charge Artist
University of Michigan-Flint
How do you save time, but still keep the beauty? We would love to hear your tricks in the comments!