Guest Author: Lara Hincapie
Photo by Jeff Kearny
When our resident scenic designer, Chris Sheley, came to our team with his ambitious idea of creating a multi-level dungeon with an elaborate colonnade arch system for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre’s production of “Man of La Mancha,” several members of our production staff thought maybe his dreams were bigger than our resources and budget could provide. As he described to me that essentially every square foot of the scenery was to be finished with an extremely distressed and disintegrating texture, the challenge-seeker in me was immediately and enthusiastically on board!
The design was intended to resemble the dungeon of an old Spanish castle (built pre-Inquisition) that had since been turned into a prison. It called for a series of twenty foot columns, on top of which would rest grand arches. This colonnade-arch system would sit in front of a platformed wall that would not only house the orchestra on the second level, but would also consist of a drawbridge-like staircase that, when lowered, would be the entrance and exit of the dungeon. Between the carpentry and paint departments we, as a team, came up with the best, but cheapest materials to achieve these ambitious goals.
When first considering how I would go about the texture process, it was important to always keep in mind how a structure of this sort would have actually been made in the time period, from the type of foundation up to the plaster finish. The designer envisioned that this type of structure would have been made from large quarried stones with mortar joints, that then would have been covered with some sort of plaster and paint finish. His idea was that this was an very old castle that over the years has become extremely decayed, with plaster cracked and disintegrating to reveal the masonry of the foundation. Our walls were Hollywood-style flats, the arches often used carved foam for an crumbled stone effect, and our columns were Sonotube on hollow wooden bases.
There are several different texture products that can provide theses desired results, but with so much square footage in this set, we had to seek the most cost effective route. We chose to work with simple and cheap joint compound, and we mixed in sawdust and sand for the desired grit of the texture, each layer a different mixture for varying grit. Any time we work with texture like this we are sure to use our nitrile gloves and any other necessary safety equipment such as aprons and smocks to protect our skin and clothing from the texture, and dust masks for mixing with dry ingredients. The application of these texture mixtures to make distinctly different layers was the tricky and essential part of the process. So we worked in three distinctly different layers, three separate passes.
Remembering to always take into account how walls are actually constructed, our first layer began with a pass of the stone and mortar look. We accomplished this with a slightly gritty, fairly thin application of texture. In order to make grout lines in this we used specifically sized sticks to press into the wet texture along the lines that we had previously measured and drawn to represent our grout lines.
We kept this pass thin and only applied it in places it would actually be seen in order to save on materials and to keep the structures as light as possible to help the carpenters lift into place during Load in.
The second pass of texture consisted of the areas that would create the broken overlaying plaster effect. We mixed our texture extra gritty for this layer, with high ratios of sand and saw dust so it would be clumpy and coarse in order to really sell that breaking plaster look. In order for parts of this layer to appear broken, we wanted a clean, hard edge when overlapping our stone work foundation layer. A good way to achieve this was by using a piece of torn cardboard (or similar material would suffice) with a roughly torn, uneven edge. We laid this on top of the surface we wished to keep as it was, we then spread our gritty texture, starting on top of the cardboard and spreading outward onto the surrounding surface. When we pulled away the cardboard, we were left with a crisp, but intentionally uneven and broken looking edge to our second layer, overlapping the stonework layer beneath.
As mentioned before, there were several broken arches and other crumbling areas of the scenery in which we carved Styrofoam and also covered with a layer of chunky texture to blend them into the rest of the structure.
The third and final layer of texture was the least coarse mixture. This layer would be our top layer of plaster, all the while keeping in consideration that if realistically constructed, this layer may once have been finished to perfection with a nice paint and sheen. We applied this pass with trowels and putty knives, overlapping it into the gritty texture. We then smoothed these sections to remove trowel lines and any other ugly application lines or grooves, by using spray bottles of water; spritzing the texture and smoothing it with either a gloved, gentle hand or carefully with a putty knife.
The paint treatment was essential to giving the texture even more apparent depth than it already had due to the layering. With such large surface area at such distances from the audience, we sought to accentuate the depth of the layers particularly with the value of our colors in the paint application. For this production we used almost exclusively Rosco’s Off Broadway paints, and based off of the design research and elevations we stuck to the natural hues of Siennas and Umbers. We applied this first pass of paint in a scumble wet blend technique. In order to achieve the desired appearance of depth, we used the darkest color values in the deepest layer and the lightest values on the top most layer, wet blending them together in the middle coarse layer. The result appears to set the base layer even deeper into the structure and the top layer is contrastingly highlighted to bring it into the foreground. Up close and especially from a distance the result successfully achieved that higher contrast, and therefore the desired appearance of greater depth to the layers.
The next pass of paint was intended to distress and add a dirty, aged look to the entire surface. Using dark hues such as Van Dyke Brown and Payne’s gray (for warm/cool contrast) we made watery washes that were applied over the entire textured surface with a brush on, and rub off technique. We wanted these darkest hues to really sink into the deepest grooves and cracks of the texture, and then using wet rags we wiped it off of the highest surfaces of the texture. This pass intensified the apparent depth and accentuated every nook and cranny of the texture.
Our scenics had a fun time letting the washes drip wildly over the surface and only selectively removing some of these drips when wiping the color away; because these walls are intended to appear rather disgustingly water-worn and distressed, just as an old, unkempt dungeon would realistically look.
The next pass was the highlight pass, in which we took our lightest hue, mixed with a bit of sheen (a glaze mixed with one part paint to four parts satin polyurethane), then brushed and rubbed onto the top-most layer of texture, in order to give it that extra bit of highlight, bringing it further into the foreground. The sheen was intended to give this plastered layer that nice finish that it would have had when the walls were first made, before it was aged and disintegrated over the years.
The final paint pass was a distressing, dinging, and grounding process. We took washes of dark hues again, this time including a dark green wash to resemble moss and algae, and we went around the base of each wall and column where it met the floor, the corners of joints, and areas where there would be the most dirt and grime. In this pass we also added in more intense drips coming from the tops of walls and columns, or down the corners of wall joints. The result was the intentionally grimy, severely distressed final look that really helped to sell that this was a disgusting old dungeon.
In the end our team of scenic artists including myself, Phil Lear, and Christy Howell, was rather successful in our decaying texture process. The entire scenic team is pleased with our victory of creating the elaborate decaying dungeon that designer Chris Sheley had ambitiously envisioned.
Lara Hincapie is the Charge Scenic Artist for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company. She developed a passion for scenic art at an early age, and has been involved in theater, both onstage and behind the scenes, since grade school. Lara feels so lucky to be earning a living through such a fun and unique line of work. She loves to participate in children’s theater programs to encourage young and budding artists that it is possible, with hard work and dedication, to turn your passion into your career.
Check out more of her work at www.larahincapie.com