Five Routes into the Scenic Art Industry

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Guest Author James Rowse 

Painting scenery is one of those jobs people don’t think about. As a kid, I watched countless movies and plays without ever thinking about the scenery and how it got there. I also grew up drawing and painting and knew I wanted to earn a living as a painter in some way. I simply didn’t put the two things together. And I don’t think I’m alone. When you think about the Scenics that you know, most will have started off training to be theatre designers, fine artists or illustrators and very few, if any, will have always wanted to paint scenery for a living.

But once the penny drops, once somebody realizes that there is a group of professional artists who earn their living painting scenery, they are faced with many different paths into the industry; learning through the workplace, apprenticeships, industry courses, and collegiate programs. The route they choose will depend on what they have done so far, how much money they have to invest and a number of other factors. My expertise of these routes are in the UK where my shop and school are located, but these are all universal paths no matter what country you are from.  Let’s look at the options:

1) Learn in the Workplace

The major downside with trying to enter the industry without training is that its difficult to get started. This approach is extremely difficult, but with a great deal of initiative and proactive researching it may possible. Essentially, you need to find somebody to train you. The nature of this approach is such that it is often at the mercy of timing and luck. My first assistant got in touch with me as I was setting up a studio space. She was an arts graduate with no scenic experience but with a strong portfolio of drawing and painting, a great work ethic and she was willing to learn. She also lived near the studio, which was in rural Kent in the UK. She was the right person in the right place at the right time. She now works at the UK’s National Theatre.

2) Apprenticeships

Danny Pheloung

Formal apprenticeships are very thin on the ground. The Royal Opera House runs apprenticeships for people who want to start a career as a scenic artist. Competition is of course fierce, but it’s an excellent start to a career; learning in one of the world’s most respected scenic studios and being paid, too!

I contacted the Royal Opera House and they kindly sent the following information:

“The Royal Opera House has been offering apprenticeships in backstage production and technical departments since 2007, providing high-quality vocational training by learning on the job from some of the best skilled artists in the industry. In September 2017 we welcomed our ninth Scenic Art Apprentice to our scenic art workshops in Essex.

Our scenic art apprenticeship lasts 24 months. It is a mixture of on-the-job learning and scenic art-specific training at RADA in core techniques.

In their second year, our apprentices spend up to 6 weeks at other venues or workshops. As well as introducing them to new contacts, this allows the apprentices to experience different styles and types of work. A background in theatre isn’t essential for a budding apprentice. More important is their aptitude, enthusiasm and personality.”

3) Industry Courses

Photo by James Rowse at DAP Studios

I have to declare an interest here, as I run short courses in scenic painting through the Scenic Painters website.

Not all courses take a year or more and get taught in a university. It is possible to learn enough to get started without spending years doing it, but of course it is a very different experience to college life and isn’t right for everyone.

Students taking a BA in Scenic Arts can end up as designers, prop makers, carpenters, or costume makers, as well as scenic artists. The kind of courses I run take you in a single direction. Students taking college courses also end up with a qualification, which is universally recognized inside the industry and out. Industry courses can’t offer this.

Short courses suit people who have decided what they want to do next, and want an efficient way of gaining the skills they need to get started. This route means less training and inevitably more learning from within the industry. They can also be used as a “toe dipping” exercise, for students who want to get an idea of what scenic painting might be like without making a big investment. I’ve had students come and do a two week course with me and then go on to enroll in a one year post-grad course.

Other providers of short courses include the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and Scenehouse in Edinburgh. Cobalt Studios and The Studio Forum in New York also have well-respected programs.

For more information about the courses I run please visit us here.

4) College or University Courses.

There are lots of undergraduate courses out there offering three years training either including, or specializing in scenic painting. There are also a small number of post-graduate courses. Some offer those interested in scenic art an excellent training but not all offer the same opportunities. Students considering which course to take should think about the following:

A. Examine the syllabus and find out what’s on offer

Each college will sing the praises of its own course. However these courses all have strengths and weaknesses. When choosing a course a student may not have decided which area of the industry to focus on. They may be thinking about scenic art as well as any of the other crafts and disciplines that make up the industry, for example, carpentry, prop making or costume making, or they may want to be a designer.

Many courses offer all of these subject areas. The important question here is in what depth are the subject areas covered. At 18, putting a career path decision on hold may seem like an attractive proposition, and choosing a course that covers everything looks like a good idea. However, after graduating, the student will need to have enough skills to start work. If the course does not allow them to specialize in one area in depth, there is a danger that they will graduate knowing a little bit about many skills but not enough about anything. So, if scenic art is an area of interest, does the course allow for that specialism?

B. Quality and quantity of teaching

The next thing that I would want to know is who is doing the teaching and how much teaching time is available to students. Some scenic art lecturers are very established artists with years of experience running scenic studios or freelance projects. Their contacts in the industry are as valuable to their students as the skills that they teach. As well as needing a great tutor, the student will need access to enough tuition. Education is a fantastic resource, but it’s also essentially a business. Courses run on budgets. So, as a student considering different courses, I would want to know how much teaching time is allocated for scenic painting and how many students there will be in a class. Large class sizes are great for the course budget as they bring in lots of revenue, but for an area of study such as scenic art, a large class size makes teaching difficult and the students simply don’t get the attention that they need.

I would also be wary of prospectuses that talk about projects being “student lead”. This may just be code for “we won’t be supplying much tuition for this bit.” Of course, it depends on the proportion of time allocated. Experimentation can be a valuable part of learning. However people learning how to paint scenery need to know a lot of techniques and to have knowledge of many materials. I would argue that you couldn’t teach this to yourself.

C. Work study arrangements

This is invaluable, but like everything else varies hugely. It’s worth asking the college under consideration which theatre companies they have existing relationships with. Some companies offer invaluable work experience. In the UK, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House both offer excellent programs. However, finding a company that doesn’t have an established apprenticeship and is willing to offer good quality work experience isn’t easy. Often, the course asks the student to make their own arrangements. If they can’t find work experience, the course arranges another project within the college, so this potentially valuable learning experience evaporates into thin air.

D. What have students who left the college gone on to do?

Another area to explore is; what is a course known for and what caliber of graduate does it produce? If you are unsure which direction you want to go and want to make sure that scenic painting is an option, then you should at least find out if the course you are considering has a good track record of turning out quality artists. (This can be done by looking through trade directories, searching social media networks like Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook, or even just googling “scenic artists”.) One way of doing this is to find scenic artists already working in the industry, and then find out where they trained.

Most colleges will also be happy to put you in touch with recent alumni to ask for feedback. (This is a great question to ask at a college interview!) It takes a bit of research, but an undergraduate course is a big investment and you don’t want to get it wrong.


5. Post-graduate study

In the UK, a number of colleges offer degrees that allow you to focus on Scenic Art, but there are very few post-graduate level courses. In the UK, the most respected post-grad course in Scenic Art is at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School run by Cathy Stewart. I emailed Cathy before putting this article together and she sent me some information about the MA.

Photo from Cathy Stewart

“Our MA in Scenic Art at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School offers four places to students wishing to train at the highest level for this niche and wonderful career. We provide highly focused bespoke training which fast-tracks students into the highly-competitive professional industry. The majority of the teaching is on the school’s public productions and we work collaboratively, both within our department and within the rest of the production team. Of course this means hard work and very long hours, but the rewards are enormous and we have a great deal of fun along the way.

Many of our students come from fine art backgrounds, but we have also had very successful talented students who have trained in other areas. Typically, they have always painted and drawn and they are driven to make this their career. We’re looking for people with high levels of drawing and painting skill, who enjoy experimenting, have a good physicality and energy, are a team player and  are incredibly passionate about learning.

The track record of graduate employment from our course is exceptional, with past students working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The National Theatre, Royal Opera House and Aardman Animations to name but a few.”

Finally, how much does it all cost?

Training is a financial investment, and so it is important that one considers the associated costs as part of the decision making process

An apprenticeship is clearly the cheapest way in. Even if the wages are low, they are paying you.

Short courses are the next cheapest option. My five-week course costs £1875. Students also have to factor in their maintenance costs, and potential lost income if they have to take time off work.

College courses are a more substantial investment. With tuition fees typically at around £9,000 per year in the UK, they will be spending around £27,000 on fees for a three-year degree course (overseas students can expect to pay substantially more in fees). They will also need about £8000 to cover living costs so that’s another £24,000. Again, it is important to consider the potential income lost over the three years that you are pursuing your degree. Allowing for fees and maintenance alone, a three-year course is an investment of around £51,000.

Clearly, the right course is a great investment and will set a student up for an enjoyable and rewarding career, but with these sums of money involved, a student deciding their future should take time, think carefully, and do their research. Investigating your options and being proactive will help you choose the correct path!

James Rowse has painted scenery for nearly thirty years.  His first job was as deputy Scenic Artist at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in the UK.  In 1995 he moved to London and began a freelance career, working for a number of companies.  These included Kimpton Walker Ltd who built many West End musicals, and English National Ballet. After a brief period working on film productions (including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), James set up his first Scenic Studio space in 2005.  “DAP Studio” have painted scenery for many clients including Glyndebourne Opera, English National Opera, and Shakespeare’s Globe. They have painted work for the West End, UK and European tours and have painted a number of productions for America including Farinelli and the King which is about to open on Broadway.

In 2009 James started the Scenic Painters website and ran his first scenic painting course from the studio.  This side of his work has grown over the last eight years and the Scenic Painters site now offers a program of short courses throughout the year.

In the coming weeks, The Scenic Route will be offering a series of spotlight pieces about the major schools, training programs, and apprenticeship programs here in the United States. If you know of any hidden gems please let us know in the comments below, and we can add them to our Scenic Wiki section about Scenic Schools!

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