Scenic Charge Artist
It is generally cost-prohibitive to use authentic materials to build theatrical sets, thus productions rely on skilled artists who replicate the real world—bricks, velvet, blue sky—on stage with a paintbrush. The scenic charge artist is essentially a scenic painter who is responsible for interpreting the set designer’s illustrations concerning the color and texture of the scenery’s surfaces. This person supervises a crew of scenic artists and is tasked with devising a budget for materials and labor related to painting sets and applying faux finishes.
The charge artist begins his or her work by meeting with the designer to review miniature models and drawings; the two will carefully consider the color palette, style, and textures necessary to accomplish the designer’s vision. Often the scenic charge artist will be most concerned with one question: “Do I have to interpret your design literally?” How the artist proceeds depends on whether the designer is willing to grant the artist creative license or prefers that the finished product exactly reflect the design.
To determine the most effective method for realistically replicating wallpaper, ornate cherry molding, or concrete, a process of trial and error is the best approach. The charge artist will create numerous samples employing combinations of paint, finishing compound, stains, and other materials until he or she reaches a result that represents a convincing analogue of the real thing. This person will then write a detailed operating procedure or recipe to be duplicated by the crew of painters. Consideration must be given to purchasing materials that achieve the most bang for the buck. The charge artist must be creative in how he or she uses inexpensive products that, with experimentation and some artful manipulation, can do the job well enough to convince the audience a few yards away.
Skills & Education
Artistic talent is the most important attribute of a scenic charge artist. This person must have excellent drawing and painting ability. A college degree in fine art or theatrical design is highly recommended. Specific training in faux-finishing techniques is necessary, and is typically learned through hands-on experience as an apprentice. A scenic charge artist must have a solid command of color theory and a knack for mixing paint, which is a science unto itself. Courses in chemistry, carpentry, architecture, and art history are helpful.
What to Expect
The scenic charge artist and his or her crew do not build sets or props, but paint and apply the finishing touches that turn pieces of plywood and foam into realistic-looking scenery. The charge artist will work closely with the master carpenter and other members of the build crew to develop a schedule for completion of each piece, and to understand which materials work best on various surfaces. Sharing knowledge is especially important between painters and carpenters, as one cannot succeed in completing the set without the other.
To get a job as a scenic artist, the best place to begin gaining experience is on high-school drama productions or with local community theaters. Volunteering is a great way to learn the tricks of the trade and make the professional connections necessary to get a paying gig. With several years of experience as a scenic painter, you will be prepared to take on the greater responsibility of leading the crew.
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