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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Painting sets and props, part 1: the basics (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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Every now and then there's a lengthy discussion here in the Café about painting props and sets: what type of paint to use, how many coats, how to finish them, and so forth. So, I figured I'd do a few brief pieces on how we use paint in the theater, as well as on some of our tools and techniques.

First, however, I'd like to point out that there's a major difference between painting a theatrical prop and painting a piece of fine furniture. A prop's purpose in life is to be used in performances, and, as such, to stand up to heavy use. It needs to look good (in this case, “good” is totally related to what the prop is supposed to be), but it's not intended to be looked at and admired up close for its own sake. In addition, because of the heavy use it's subjected to, a prop will generally need repair or refinishing more often than a display piece – which makes it important that it be fairly easy and economical to refinish.

In other words, there's no need to finish a performance prop like a fine display piece. Durability and ease of repair are the primary considerations. I'll cover this in more detail later, but let's start out by looking at what paint is, and at the major kinds used in theater.

We can say that paint – any paint – has three main ingredients: the base, the solvent, and the pigment. The base includes a binder to make the paint stick to the surface. The solvent is what the base is dissolved in, generally water or mineral spirits. The pigment is a very concentrated coloring agent. When we go to a paint store and order a custom color, the clerk pulls out a can full of a thick whitish liquid (the base and solvent) and mixes the pigments into it according to the formula for that specific color.

The base also contains other stuff – solids and chemicals – that give the paint its own specific qualities, such as a flat or shiny finish, texture, UV resistance, opaqueness (the ability to cover what's underneath it), and so forth. Also, even in “water-based” paint, the manufacturer will usually mix a little bit of oil into the base, which is why we sometimes see a thin film floating on top of the paint. This oil is intended to rise to the surface and seal off the paint from the air, keeping it fresh longer. When we mix the paint for use, the oil goes back into the mixture.

In theater, we tend to use “water-based” paint almost exclusively because of its ease of use and cleanup, and the fact that it generally does not create toxic fumes. The two primary types we use are standard commercial paints (aka “wall paints”), and theatrical paints, and they are very different.

The “wall paints,” whether they're designed for household or industrial use, are available in literally thousands of colors, in several finishes (flat, semi-gloss, and so forth), and in quantities from a pint to a fifty-five-gallon drum or more. These paints are intended to be used as they come in the can (thick), or thinned lightly with water if necessary. Their prices range from reasonable to expensive.

Theatrical paints, on the other hand, are available in a very limited range of colors, usually twenty-four to thirty. These are the same colors usually found on an artist's palette: the primaries, some of the secondaries and their variations, and the earth colors. These paints generally come in pint or gallon containers only, are very thick, and are intended to be mixed by the end user to create the colors desired. They tend to be expensive up front.

This leads us to a very important difference between these two types of paint: the pigmentation. Wall paints are designed, basically, to cover what's underneath them, so they are heavy on the solids and have just enough pigment to make up the color required. If these paints are thinned down too much, the color loses its intensity. Theatrical paints, on the other hand, are designed to be bright and bold, so their pigments are much more concentrated; they can be thinned down considerably (like one part paint to ten parts water) and still be vibrant. This means that a batch can be mixed thick enough to cover what's under it, or thin enough to be a transparent wash, and in both cases the color will be intense. You can't do that with a regular “wall paint.”

For many years, theatrical paints were sold as dry powdered pigment. You bought bags or boxes of twenty or thirty colors, stored them in bins, and mixed them dry to get the shade you wanted. I'm not kidding. Then you made up some “size water,” which was a watered-down hide glue kept warm in a heating pot, and mixed the pigment into it. You were literally gluing the pigment onto the surface.

Traditionally, set designers have mixed their own colors when doing a rendering or a model, just like when an artist paints a canvas. In fact, we use the same paints artists do. Then, when we hand the design over to a scenic shop, we usually include a “painter's elevation” for each major piece, with carefully labeled swatches of the colors we mixed so the scenic artists will know what we had in mind. A faux brick wall, for instance, could have seven or eight colors: two or three (mixed wet on the surface) for the brick color itself, two for the mortar, and two or three more for the spatter and shadow lines.

Then the scenic artists take each swatch and mix however much paint is needed for that particular purpose; it could be anywhere from a pint to ten or twenty gallons. Some of these colors will be opaque and others will be thin washes, and others could be anywhere in between. Each color is then named or numbered so everyone will know what goes where.

Since the artists' paints we use are invariably different from the scenic paints used in the shop, we don't bother to write down the formula for each color. But that's not necessary anyway, since good scenic artists take great pride in being able to match whatever colors the designer throws at them.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of some theatrical paints is that they have components such as casein (which is a milk or soy derivative) in the binder, which means that if they're left exposed to air for too long, they develop a smelly layer of nasty gunk on top. Once you scoop out the “biology experiment” and remix the paint, however, it's usually fine.

Although using theatrical paints exclusively is a set designer's (or scenic artist's) dream, the reality is that very often these are used in conjunction with regular paints in order to save money. We often use wall paints as primers or base coats, or, in some cases, mix some theatrical paint into them to “punch them up.”

Another type of paint used in theater is the good old spray can, which seems to come in more and more colors all the time. Because these tend to be expensive, however, they are usually used only for special details here and there, or for props. Personally, I tend to use them only when I need a fast-drying finish in a simple color. For instance, I've used gloss black to finish a prop candlestick telephone, and a combination of flat and gloss black on a faux camera bellows made out of pine.

I also like to use metallic spray paints now and then. For the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, I wanted to have two old flagpoles, but we ended up buying new ones with very obvious plastic bases and shiny “gold” plastic toppers: an eagle and a spear. So I used two different golds, a bit of brass, and a bit of brown to give the toppers and the bases an old, dignified, “once-very-nice-but-now-dusty” look. I could have done the same thing with theatrical metallic paints and a sponge, but the spray paints were fast and clean, and they stuck to the plastic without the need for a primer.

Recently, Krylon came out with a water-based spray paint. I haven't used it yet, so I can't comment on it. But it's on my agenda.

We occasionally use other finishes (such as stains, enamels, dyes, automotive lacquers, and epoxies), for specific purposes, but, in general, the house paints, theatrical paints, and spray paints are the most commonly used.

In the next column, I'll cover brushes and other methods of applying paint.

If you have any thoughts on this article, or want to suggest some topics you'd like to see me cover in my column, feel free to PM me.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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