Guest Author: Susan Peters
Scenic Art: Where to Begin?
When I was first asked to write an article about beginning Scenic Art projects, it made me stop and think about how everything began. I’ve been teaching Scenic Art classes at this point for nearly 15 years now, and in the beginning, when I was developing projects I decided to lean on what I had learned in my own intro level paint courses in college. There is only one difference: the students I teach are not in college, they’re high school students. I teach at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, an arts magnet high school in Florida that puts on productions that can easily rival those at the college level.
So this is the thought that occurred to me as I was plotting and planning projects back in those early days: Would these younger students be able to handle the same things that students who are typically much older are doing?
The answer was a resounding yes. What I have found is that by going through our program, students are incredibly prepared for college, can usually garner scholarships, and overall have a much better understanding walking into college then a lot of their peers do.
Getting started with any lesson plan can be hard; and because I never know the background knowledge of my students, I find it important to start with a project that challenges them but also gives me a way to assess their skills and learning styles.
Project 1: Color
I always start with what I refer to as a “non-traditional color wheel” project.
Students are given only the three primary colors and must design and paint something that includes all primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries. This is not “the same old boring color wheel”. This gets their creative juices flowing and allows me to begin to see their color matching abilities.
From there, we segue into a unit of color mixing and matching. I create sample boards with paint colors on them that I have created using only the primaries, black, and white. Students are tasked with matching all the colors. This project may take around two weeks but I feel it’s so important that students get familiar with how to color match and adjust the value that we spend whatever time we need to on it.
After the color mixing and matching unit, students have officially “earned” the right to use the rest of our stock of colors (we use all Rosco Off-Broadway paints) and we progress into the actual heart of the class. These next projects were easy for me to figure out. I remember when I was in school, my professor told the class:
“If all you could ever paint was brick, wood, and marble, you’d have no problem getting a job in the theatre.”
What he meant was that the use of those three treatments was so prominently featured in all types of sets and scenery, that as long as you could do those three things well, you could at least get your foot in the door. So that’s what we begin with.
Project 2: Bricks
Starting with a brick project for the first ‘scenic effect’ is great because it teaches so many different techniques quickly; techniques that are the foundation to so many of our painted effects. Students learn sponging, stippling, lining, how to crosshatch and scumble, as well as thinking about how to use different found objects in the shop to create effects.
Sometimes if I have a smaller class or different materials on hand we’ll change things up. Perhaps we’ll use Sto to get a physical dimension, or take it a step further and create stencils or graffiti art on top. I’m constantly tweaking and adapting this project to see what else can be incorporated into it.
Project 3: Wood
As I said, from there we go into a wood project. Now, here at Douglas Anderson we do incorporate a lot (and I mean A LOT) of wood treatments in our scenery. Sometimes the project is done as part of production work and sometimes the students get to use their flats to create individual projects. It just depends on what is going on at the time.
The main thing is that they get to understand the process, and can successfully replicate it. If there’s time, I do like to do both a finished wood project and a weathered wood because the techniques can be pretty varied.
Project 4: Marble
Finally, we come to marble. In all actuality, we don’t use this treatment a lot here at DA, but it is still good for students to learn. Because it’s a very wet process, we usually do this in conjunction with another project, just so we’re using our time wisely.
We may do a few layers on the marble and then go work on part of a production or another project for the class. Students learn how to vein, the use of spatter and water to break up their paint, and how focusing on technique is important to this process.
As with all the projects students do in my class, they are given a printed sample and mix all the colors, stretch their flats, and go from there. In that sense, it’s a pretty traditional class. These projects that I’ve described will typically take about 4 months to complete but are well worth the time. They help students learn so many techniques, processes, and how to think that it is invaluable. For the rest of the year, I typically turn to some slightly more advanced projects dealing with blending, foam carving, sign work, reproduction of famous paintings, stained glass, and other things along those lines.
If you’re thinking of developing a new Scenic Art course, I hope some of the things I’ve outlined in this article can help or give you some good ideas for a starting point. They work well for helping students to develop critical thinking skills, how to figure out layer process, and overall makes for a stronger Scenic Artist in the end.
Susan Peters has been the resident Charge Artist at Douglas Anderson for the past 14 years. In addition to that, she also oversees props and prop management for the department. Mrs. Peters has worked professionally as a Scenic Artist in a variety of different theatres and venues, among them The Walnut Street Theater (Philadelphia), Philadelphia Opera Company, Ohio Light Opera, Pennsylvania, and NJ Shakespeare festivals and CATF (Contemporary American Theatre Festival). Find more of her work here.