A bit of artfully applied paint can fool an audience into believing almost anything. Scenic painters are skilled in the art of deception and mimicry, transforming wood flats into a stylized Nile delta or a city square in 19th-century Seville.
Scenic painters work under the direction of the set designer and scenic charge artist to paint sets, backdrops, and some props for stage productions. If the design calls for it, the painters also are responsible for the application of certain finishing materials. While the carpenters are constructing sets, the crew of scenic painters meets with the charge artist to discuss the designs and determine assignments for which artists will work on certain pieces. Each member of the crew is made aware of the color palette and materials, techniques, and completion deadlines. Painters may be asked to provide samples or trials of finishes to be applied to certain pieces before executing the design on a large scale; this is to ensure proper application and to ensure that the look is consistent with the designer’s vision. The allotted time to complete the painting process is determined by the size of the set and the schedule set forth for build and rehearsal. Painting is either done at the theater in an adjoining scene shop, or at an off-site location of the scenic design company contracted to build and deliver sets.
Skills & Education
A college degree in fine art or theatrical design is recommended, but not required. Formal education should include courses in drawing, painting, sculpting, color theory, and art history. Workshops and other sources of professional training are encouraged as a means of continually updating and refining your knowledge of technique. A scenic painter must be artistically talented, but also possess a diverse set of skills in terms of style and use of materials. Practice makes perfect when using unconventional substances as an art medium, but courses in chemistry are beneficial. A working scenic painter does not produce work to his or her own artistic preference, but rather must be capable of executing the required design.
What to Expect
Most scenic painters work as freelance artists and members of United Scenic Artists Local USA 829, IATSE. The union represents artists in theater, film, television, and other live and commercial productions. Full-time employment is available at resident theatrical companies and with scenic studios that cater to the entertainment industry. Freelance artists are hired under a temporary contract and are expected to provide some, if not all, of their own supplies; this may include brushes, spray-paint kits, and other tools. Artists who do not come to the job site prepared with appropriate supplies may be asked to leave. Those who are employed as permanent crew are allocated all necessary tools by the theater management.
This is an entry-level position for an individual with demonstrated talent. Finding work depends on your ability to network and seek out opportunities; you should maintain a polished portfolio of diverse work to provide to potential employers. Work as a scenic painter is excellent preparation for advancement toward the role of scenic charge artist, set designer, or art director.
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