I am both the resident Designer and Scenic Artist for the backdrop designs at Tobins Lake Studios. We needed a generic cornfield backdrop design to insert into our rental stock for such shows as “The Wizard of Oz”, and “Oklahoma!”After I work out the design, the question of materials and tools to use becomes imperative to solve. As with many projects a Scenic Artist faces, there was a large portion of this project that would be repetitive and need to have a consistent process throughout painting the backdrop. I often go back to when I was taught the basics of scenic painting, and the introduction to many new objects: funky brushes cut by hand; sponges, rollers, stamps, to help solve my problems. I needed to find a tool that would make the marks I needed and as efficient (FAST) as possible.
Ideas of stamps and rollers are always on the table, but working with organic shapes in human-made rows meant the tools needed to be versatile while still controllable. The tendency to come up with the next fancy tool can sometime cloud our judgement to look back to the basics. I admit, I have had very little success with the process of schlepitchka – “flogging with a feather duster” style of painting in the past, but I decided not to leave a stone un-turned. It turned out to be my answer!
When looking at the design, I needed to keep the idea of perspective at the forefront of my approach for the size of marks needed to make to emphasize the distance in each rolling ‘hill’ of cornfield. I had laid out the angle and each individual row of corn, to give myself guides for the rows and feather duster technique. A vanishing point was established to ensure the rows were correct.A quick trip to Walmart for 2 generic, small feather dusters was all I needed to start to playing around. I started with a scumbled layer of Rosco Off Broadway Burnt Umber and Chrome Oxide Green as the base for each section of cornfield. I mixed several greenish colors to represent the darkest to lightest tones within the foliage of the corn rows. Using a medium green color, I started to directionally drag the feather duster within each ‘row’. Eventually creating a general look of far in the distance leaves to build her corn rows upon. The feather duster could be maneuvered to have the effect of stray leaves, but not obliterate the scumble behind it; if you cover up the whole previous step, why do it? From that point fitch liners were used to dot in highlights and shadows. The final touch on the background corn rows was a small sponge roller found at Lowe’s (meant to be used to put a sponge texture close into the corners of walls and ceilings) used to put in the corn row ‘silk’. As the cornfield moved closer to the foreground, marks had to get larger and more defined within the picture plane.
The final and most intense part of the backdrop was the bottom row. Not only did a sense of leafy darkness have to be present, but individual corn stalks needed to be articulated across the entire bottom of the backdrop. The trusty feather duster had come into play once again as another scumble of the brown and green colors were laid down with a more generalized ‘ploppy’ look. Since this row was face on to the viewer, directionality of the background rows was not a concern, but more about giving a sense of dense leaves and foliage. Two different colors of feather duster were laid down, one with the same medium tone green, and another in a very dark, umber-black color to give the look of shadowy leaves peeking through the rows.Some of the background rows were put in with a combination of fitches and angled sash brushes. From this point on general marks would not be enough, fully articulated corn stalks with highlights and shadows were needed. A lot of time was saved by using the schlepitchka and roller techniques. Yet one more tool would be employed in this final row. I made a stamp of an opened corn cob, and stamped it along the stalks alternating sides and angles to give a more natural ‘hanging off the stalk’ look. Research revealed there are no more than 3-4 cobs on any given stalk. Multiply that by the number of stalks painted, and almost 200 corn cobs were stamped in the matter of 30 minutes!!
One thing that is common with foam stamps is quick deterioration, the stamp had been scored to give the illusion of individual corn kernels. About 2/3 of the way down the field the stamp started to lose part of its’ kernels, but not to fear! That also adds to the realism of individual corn cobs. Another time saver! Corn husks would help to individualize the cobs, and silks would still need to be painted individually. But the addition of another tool helped move the process along considerably.At the completion of the backdrop it was a lot more than just brushes needed; sponge rollers, stamps and feather dusters were all used to help create the cornfield. Thankfully, being a scenic artist brings about a sense of curiosity and the need for problem solving. The industry will always dictate a need for time saving and rapid production.
I will need to recreate this drop at least one more time to satisfy the many rental customers of Tobins Lake Studios. Therefore extensive notes and picture taking is very important; so although the job of a scenic artist can be repetitive, there are many ways to achieve a process which helps to keep the job exciting and ever challenging. I will continue to refine this process throughout each new backdrop, and be happy for the nice bits of painting that come along!
Jamie Clausius has been the Resident Scenic Artist and Backdrop Designer for Tobins Lake Studios in Coleman, Michigan since June of 2014. Jamie trained and earned her certificate at Cobalt Studios Scenic Artist Training program. Some of her other credits are Scenic Charge Artist at Lexington Children’s Theatre, and Children’s Theatre of Madison. She has also been a Temporary Adjunct Lecturer of Scenic Painting at Oakland University, and has been helping with the Scenic Wiki here at the Guild since March! See more of her work here.