3 Tips To Make Your Translucent Backdrop A Success

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Guest Authors

Jamie Clausius & Bridgette Dennett

It seems that painted drops have been the center of many conversations lately. In the past few months, we’ve frequently seen questions on social media ranging from how to size a drop to whether to paint or print (in a previous article, we covered a great resource on options for printing here!). One of the traditional styles of painted drops that continually seems to stump people seems to be the translucent drop. So… what exactly is a translucent drop?!

The definition of a translucency/translucent painted backdrop is a fabric backdrop, which when hung on stage, creates an enhanced version or image on the backdrop depending on how it is lit. Translucent backdrops are not transparent in and of themselves; you cannot see through them or see an object from behind it. Instead, the name translucency is derived from the opacity of the paint used to create the painted effects rendered on the fabric. Because creating this type of drop is highly dependent upon where the light source originates from, creating it becomes a highly collaborative process involving the Scenic Designer, Lighting Designer, and the Charge Artist.

Today we’ll break down the 3 major categories of translucent drops, and offer 3 tips to ensure you achieve success.

There are 3 main effects when designing a translucent backdrop.

  1. Augmentation – This is a type of translucent drop where the painting achieves a beautiful, glowing effect once hit with a light source. In this style of a translucent drop, the image does not change, and often the color itself does not change. Augmented drops may best be exemplified by a stained glass or a sunset painted backdrop. When these drops are lit from behind, the painted areas become more extreme. Areas that are dark may become darker and less vibrant, and colored areas appear brighter and more saturated. The end effect is that this image can glow or change intensity with the amount of saturated pigment and variations in the opacity of the paint.

    1. Daylight & Sunset Pirate Ship (Artist: Lisa Borton) 2. Stained Glass Pirate Ship(Artist: Jamie Clausius)

  1. Time of Day Change – These are a style of translucent drop where the image stays the same, but a change in how it is lit can significantly alter how we perceive the time of day. Many of these drops are landscapes, neon signs, or windows. In this style of drop, a neon sign may appear to be ‘off’ during the day, and ‘on’ at night; revealing a brightly lit neon sign. The tubes may be painted on the rear of the drop with a transparent paint so that the glow would only appear when lit from behind. Opaque paint may be added to the front, back, or both sides of the backdrop to ensure no light leak is seen where the dark parts of the images may need to appear in shadow.

    1. Neon Sign – Day, By Rachel Keebler for Cobalt.                     2. Neon Sign – Night

  1. Image Transformation – This is a style of translucent drop that appears one way when lit from the front, and SURPRISE- reveals a different image when lit from behind. In this type of drop, colors can also change or disappear with the change of lighting. Details can change depending on whether the paint is applied to the front or to the back; for example, figures of pirates can appear on a ship, colors can change from day to night, or a rainbow can appear in the sky.

    1. Drop lit from the front                                      2. Drop lit from behind (Designer: David Gallo)


When a translucent backdrop is being discussed, it is important to have as much information about the intended effect as possible from the Scenic Designer.  The Scenic Charge Artist needs a front elevation of the translucency, with specific notations on where opaque areas are designated and the degree of darkness needed. Questions may include, is the drop in shadow or in complete darkness? Specifically for a “time of day” translucency, it is essential to be provided several versions of the image under different lighting scenarios. This is one of the many ways the Lighting Designer can be of great help.

Now that the terminology has been discussed, here are 3 tips (plus some extra tidbits thrown in for good measure) to help make your next translucent backdrop adventure a success!

Choose the Right Fabrics

Once it is time to choose the fabric, choose heavyweight, bleached muslin. Heavyweight muslin has the highest thread count which is denser and is easier to seal than lighter weights. Bleached muslin also helps to keep your colors more vibrant and true. Using a seamed backdrop is possible if the image that is being used has horizontal lines in buildings or trees. Be wary of using seamless muslin, as the fabric does tend to have thicker threads, and more open spaces making it harder to seal. This also makes the paint more likely to seep through to the other side and leave unsightly blotches. Unfortunately, with translucencies there are no do-overs; therefore extra preparation is always best.

A test flat is a wonderful tool to be referenced and used continually throughout the painting process. The test flat should be covered with the same fabric, treated with the same amount of starch, and all the same products should be used as with the full-size backdrop. The test flat is the best tool to answer questions of opacity, color saturation, and questions of how the fabric will act moving forward. Don’t skip this step!

Prepare to Paint

Once the design is finalized and all elevations have been communicated, the painting process can finally start with laying down the backdrop, starching the front and possibly back of the drop; and starting to draw and/or ink the image onto the drop. Many times Sharpie markers are used, and the image does not always transfer to the back of the drop where you may need it. Spraying denatured alcohol on the back will cause the Sharpie to bleed through the fabric helping the image to be seen. Wetting the fabric will also help the ink be seen since wet fabric is naturally translucent.

When doing skies and other natural effects, masking may need to be used to create clouds, or maybe water. No matter what kind of masking is used; whether it is sawdust, kitty litter, or walnut shells, the wetness of the paint is very important. Most masking will fail if it gets too wet and the surface becomes flooded to the point that the paint is pooling on the surface. Be careful and control your water!

Paint Techniques

Eiffel Tower by Lisa Borton

Finally, the backdrop has started to be painted! As with the rest of the process, every step must be considered carefully. Remember the trusty test flat? Continue to use it and try out treatments and painting tools throughout the process.  To create the opaque parts, many Scenics will use a concoction of paint and elastomeric products. When using opaquing paint, the general rule is to paint three coats of the opaquing paint just to be sure the area will be completely dark when lit from behind. There are many guidelines that can be used for variations of transparency to opaqueness, a tip to know for any of the steps is to not spray or roll on the opaquing paint, as those tools will leave pinholes in the fabric and tool marks in the paint instead of being a true black appearance.

When it is time to start adding color, remember this rule: The lighter and more colorful the area, use more saturated and transparent paint. The darker the area, the more opaque the paint needs to be.

For more of a step by step process, don’t forget to catch up on this article from Laura Scheving.

Painted by Laura Scheving.


Hopefully, these tips have helped answer some questions about translucent backdrops. These are just a few suggestions to consider, as translucent backdrops are highly complex and many variables can change the outcome. If you would like more tips to help shed some light on the subject (you’ll have to forgive the pun but we waited until the end!), an entire day of translucent backdrop fun is to be had at USITT 2019!

The Guild of Scenic Artists has worked hard with USITT to create a Professional Development Workshop called “How to Create a Translucent Drop” to be held Saturday, March 23, 2019.  It will be a whole day of painting, examples, and question answering! Esteemed instructors Rachel Keebler and Karen Maness are leading the class along with Jamie Clausius and Bridgette Dennett. Advanced registration is required. We hope to see you there!

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 at Lexington Children’s Theatre and Children’s Theatre of Madison. To see her work, visit her website at: JamieClausius.carbonmade.com.



Bridgette Dennett is the Associated Faculty Scenic Designer/Technical Director at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, and is a freelance scenic designer. She is a graduate of Indiana University’s MFA Scenic Design program and has recently collaborated with The Omaha Theater Company, The Jewish Theater of Bloomington, Zack&Zach Productions, Anderson University, and The Tampa Repertory Theatre. Examples of her work can be seen online at www.bridgettedreher.com

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