Faux Painting, Faux Effects
The Artist's Artist. Scenic Artists Create the Ultimate in Faux Images.
by Ester Brody
and theater appreciate the acting or music showcased by the production, artists and painters are sure to notice the backgrounds used to establish the mood and setting. Indeed, these works of faux art seem so real that most audiences would hardly believe that the New York skyline portrayed or the heavenly sunset they see are works of art. This is the charge of the scenic artist: to produce backgrounds that are so real, they virtually transport the audience to the actual time and place depicted in the play or film. Whether it’s a mural from the Renaissance, ancient ruins, or an abstract futuristic landscape, the scenic artist is the one who makes these images a reality.
Working in tandem with scenic designers who come up with the original concepts, the scenic artist is the one who actually does the large scale work that is eventually seen by the audience. The process typically begins with the designer’s concept, and then the sketch artist draws the design. Based on original renderings, the scenic artist works with different materials; most commonly paint, to create the life-sized version of the designer’s ideas. “The designer and the artist work very closely together to bring this vision to life,” says Paul Moore, National Business Agent for United Scenic Artists in New York. “In fact, there are some designers and painters that work as a team on a variety of TV, film and theatrical projects.”
The art of creating scenic design dates back to the origins of theatre itself when early artisans worked with various materials, props and paint to suggest everything from vast landscapes to imperial palaces. But it was the 1930s and 40s—Hollywood’s Golden Age—that the role of the scenic artist became an extremely important component to the end product. With the advent of color technology in film, audiences took new notice to the lavish, hand painted backdrops. One only has to recall films such as “The Wizard of Oz,” or “Gone with the Wind,” to realize the impact of the scenic artist on these classic films.
Just like the titans of the movie industry today, the movie moguls of the 30s knew that audiences expected bigger and better productions from this new medium. Competition for the best actors and starlets was fierce, but so was competition for the best directors, cinematographers and designers. Scenic artists were of course part of this equation. The MGM scenic art department under the direction of well-known scenic designer George Gibson created some of the largest and most expansive works of art for the movie industry. The studio built giant stages to house backdrops measuring 100 feet by 45 feet. Retired scenic artist Eugenio Hernandez worked on many of these famous backdrops. As part of the scenic art department, artists were trained to work on all types of scenes. However, many artists became expert in specific areas like skylines and landscapes. “My specialty was creating the most realistic clouds you ever saw,” says Hernandez. Like many in his field, Hernandez worked at his craft at several different studios during his career. “As an artist, there was always a lot to learn from job to job,” Hernandez says. He recalls that while artists were competitive with their counterparts at other studios, they were generous about teaching fellow staff members about new techniques and materials.
Brushes, natural sponges, rags, rollers and spray guns have long been among the common tools used by scenic artists along with more unusual materials such as feathers to achieve a special effect. Perhaps the biggest change in the materials scenic artists use has been the paint itself. Long before regulations on VOCs, artists achieve the look they wanted. Hernandez recalls using combinations of powder and created many of his own compounds (many of which could not be used today) to glue to create a certain look or texture. While many of today’s scenic artist still create their own “concoctions” most of what is used consists of commercially manufactured paint. “It’s not unusual to see a lot of well-known brand name house paints on the set,” says Moore. He also notes that some manufacturers like Roscoe, make specialty paints for the entertainment industry. “These paints have special formulations that give them super saturated tones,” says Moore. “Depending on the lighting used, these paints are made to be watered down to get the desired color.”
Computer technology has added yet another dimension to the work of the scenic artist. While some backdrop work in the movie industry has been lost to digitized photography, skilled artists are still needed for touching up and altering the scenes as necessary. Computer generated images also take some of the drudgery out of the artist’s job by providing duplicate images where necessary as commonly seen in architectural details and patterns.
Becoming a professional scenic artist has always been a competition among the best and the brightest in the field. In the past, most artists entered the field after finishing some formal training in the fine arts. Eighty-year old Robert Woolfe obtained his first job with the MGM Studios after graduating from art school in the early 50s. Once on staff, he served as an apprentice for eight years before he became a full-fledged journeyman. “We spent a lot of time cleaning up and mixing paint before they allowed us to do any of the major work,” recalls Woolfe.
Today, completing coursework in an established art program is a prerequisite. After obtaining a college degree, many artists seek out work in the industry to enhance their skills and build a portfolio. Artists also need to demonstrate supervisory skills as well. “In order to get into the United Scenic Artists Union, applicants must show a high degree of expertise in the craft as well as being able to manage a team of creative talents,” says Moore. Moore notes that while there are exceptions, such as seasoned veterans who have worked around the world or newcomers who are discovered because of their unusual abilities, most artists follow a more typical progression of going to art school then working in the field to prove their talent while pursuing the career.
Other Venues for Scenic Artists
Although movies, theater and television provide the greatest number of opportunities for scenic artists, many other channels are also available. Major theme parks such as the Walt Disney Properties are famous for their elaborate use of scenic artistry. Both Hernandez and Woolfe along with many hundreds of artists originally trained on studio back lots enjoyed working on one Disney property or another as part of their careers. Scenic artists frequently work on large-scale dramatic dioramas in museums. “Many of our artists have worked on backgrounds that depict prehistoric landscapes to showcase dinosaur displays, or other historical periods,” Moore says.
Private residences and large public buildings are other areas where the work of scenic artists can be seen. With their expertise and skill in faux finishes, these artists are adept at creating realistic marble, wood or aged surfaces to name a few.
For more information on the field of scenic art, contact the United Scenic Artists at 212-581-0300 in New York; 312-857-0829 in Chicago; 323-965-0957 in Los Angeles; or 305-596-4772 in Miami.