Scene Painting


J. Michael Gillette. Theatrical Design and Production, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 2000. Chapter 6: Color, Chapter 10: Scene Painting.
Burris-Meyer, Harold and Edward C. Cole. Scenery for the Theatre, revised edition. Boston: Little Brown and Company. 1971. Chapter 10: "Scene painting," pg. 219-254. This chapter is probably the best unit on the art of scene painting.
Crabtree, Susan and Peter Beudert. Scenic Art for the Theatre. Boston: Focal Press. 1998.

1. What is the difference between Hue,

The name of the color -- Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet.

    Value, and

The amount of black or white in the color.

    Saturation, or Intensity?

The amount of grey in the color.

2. What are the three primary colors of paint?

Red, Blue and Yellow.

    The three secondary colors?

Violet, Green and Orange. The three secondary colors are produced by mixing two adjacent primary colors, for example...
  1. Red + Blue = Violet,
  2. Blue + Yellow = Green, and
  3. Yellow + Red = Orange.

    How are they positioned around the color wheel?

Starting at the top (12 o'clock) and moving clockwise -- Red - Orange - Yellow - Green - Blue - Violet.

    List the three pairs of complimentary colors?

Complimentary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. One of the colors is a primary and the other is a secondary. The three color pairs are...
  1. Red & Green,
  2. Orange & Blue, and
  3. Yellow & Violet.

3. How do you change the value of a color? What is a shade? A tint?

By adding either black or white.
You lower the value of a color, creating a shade, by adding black.
For example: Red + Black = Maroon
You raise the value of a color, creating a tint, by adding white.
For example: White + Red = Pink

4. How do you change the saturation of a color?

By adding the compliment. You lower the intensity of Red, creating a dull-red, by adding a little Green. In theory, if you mix "equal" amounts of Red and Green you should produce a neutral Gray. In the real world you will generally get a muddy brown.

5. What are the three basic components of scene paint?

  1. Pigment -- which gives the paint color
  2. Binder -- which holds the pigment on the surface
  3. Vehicle (or medium) -- the suspension which holds both the binder and the pigment

6. What type of scene paint do we use in our shop?

We use a combination of Rosco Supersaturated: a water-based (vehicle) paint which uses an acrylic co-polymer binder and "cheap, interior, latex" (mostly flat white) from WalMart or Menards.

7. What basic colors of scene paint should a scene shop stock?

I divide the paint inventory into three groups:
  1. The six basic hues: the three primary and the three secondary colors,
  2. Black and white, and
  3. The relatively inexpensive earth colors.

The Six Basic Hues

Color Rosco SuperSat # Amount Stocked
Red 5965 6 quarts
Moly Orange 5984 4 quarts
Lemmon Yellow 5988 4 quarts
Chrome Green 5971 6 quarts
Ultramaine Blue 5969 6 quarts
Purple 5979 4 quarts

Black and White

Color Rosco SuperSat # Amount Stocked
Velour Black 6003 3 gallons
White 6001 5 gallons

The Earth Colors

Paint Chip Color Rosco SuperSat # Amount Stocked
Yellow Ochre 5982 6 quarts
Raw Sienna 5983 6 quarts
Burnt Sienna 5987 6 quarts

All scene paint (with the possible exception of Rosco's Off Broadway) is designed to be diluted. The standard dilution for "full strength" is one part water to one part paste, so a quart of SuperSaturated color will produce a half gallon (two quarts) of paint and should cover approximately 200 square feet.

8. How much white paint should be purchased?

The standard practice is to purchase as much white paint as all colored paint combined. For example, if you are going to order 12 gallons of color (red, blue, green, yellow orchre...) then you should order 12 gallons of white. I tend to order 4 gallons of white paint per show. If we are going to present three productions per season, I requisition 12 gallons of paint, 6 gallons if I am ordering Rosco SuperSaturated. If one of the three shows is a multi-set musical, I would probably add an additional 4 gallons.

    How much black?

The black paint order is typically half the white paint order. If you are going to purchase 12 gallons of white, you should order 6 gallons of black paint.

9. How many gallons of scene paint is required to base paint the average box set?

I figure 4 gallons of paint per set. A 12 foot tall box set for a 32 x 16 foot stage will contain approximately 800 square feet of wall surface. At approximately 400 square feet per gallon, two coats would require 4 gallons.

10. What is the difference between a lay-in brush, and a lining brush?

Lining Brushes
A lay in brush is wider (3" to 6" in width) than a lining brush (1/4" to 2" in width). The lay-in brush is used in priming, base painting, wet blending, and drybrushing as well as painting the architectural molding (chair rail, mop board...) in an interior box set. The lining brush, also known as a "scenic fitch," is primarily used to line-in high light and shadow. Good quality lay-in brushes can be purchased at WalMart or Menard's, but a set of lining brushes, costing about $ 90, must be ordered through a theatrical supply house.

11. What other materials can be used to apply paint to scenery?

Rollers, sponges (both natural and synthetic), sponge brush, feather duster, sprayer...

12. What auxiliary tools and materials will a scene painter need?

Buckets, brush extender, straight edge, masking tape...

13. What is the difference between the Size...

The size coat is used to prepare unbleached muslin (or canvas) for the base coat. Originally sizing was a mixture of one part glue to sixteen parts water. Today flats are usually sized with paint mixed from the left overs from previous productions.

    Prime, and

The prime coat is used to give pre-painted scenic units a common tonality. Many shops prime their sets with inexpensive white (or off-white) interior latex wall or ceiling paint available at WalMart.

    Base coat?

The base coat is the first "show coat." It establishes the basic color of the set.

14. Draw a sketch of a 19th century interior wall, and locate the (1) chair rail, (2) picture rail, (3) mop board, (4) cornice, and (5) wainscoating.

Typically both the picture rail and chair rail are 3 or 4" wide and the cornice and mop board are generally 6 to 8 inches wide. If stock lumber is used for the molding it is often detailed with quarter round and cove molding.

The drawing to the left is from Steve Gilliam's painter's elevation of the "Gym Scene" from the 1994 St. Louis Muny Opera's production of Merridth Wilson's The Music Man.
(Source: SLG Design & Creative Talent)

15. Describe two techniques a scene painter can use to "cartoon" a design onto a drop (or flat).

  1. An overhead (or slide) projector can be used to project a copy of the scene designer's elevation on the drop. In order to avoid keystoning the height of the projector's lens should be one half the height of the set piece.
  2. A grid system (a 1/2" square on the elevation = a 1' square on the drop) can also be used to transfer the drawing from the elevation to the drop.

16. Describe scumbling or wet blending

Scumbling -- which can be used as the base coat for plaster, wood, stone, and dirt -- is the wet blending of two (or more) similar colors on the surface of the scenic unit.


Spattering, one of the most commonly used texturing techniques, is throwing small droplets of paint at the scenery. Usually at least two spatter coats are applied. One uses a tint of the base color and the second, the shade.


Stippling uses a sponge, brush or feather duster, to "dab" paint on the set. This texturing techniques is used to help create the illusion of stone, flocked wall paper, and foliage.

    Dry brushing

Dry brushing is done by dragging the separated bristles of a charged lay-in brush across the scenic surface leaving a streaky, linear pattern. This technique is used to create a wood grain effect.


Lining uses a lining brush (often with a straight edge) to paint lines. It is the standard technique used to create the high light and shadow around architectural molding.

17. Outline a technique which can be used to create "brick"

  1. Base paint the entire area in a middle brick color.
  2. Thoroughly spatter in a shade of the base. Gradually increase the density of the spatter until the final tone is achieved.
  3. Lightly spatter with a tint of the base
  4. Line in the mortar.
  5. Stipple, glaze (a thin coat of transparent paint) or dry brush random bricks with a shade of the base

  6. Spatter with both the highlight and shadow color
  7. Loosely line in the highlights and shadow

18. Outline a technique which can be used to create "wood"

  • Wet blend two colors, the light base and dark base in the direction of the grain.
  • Dry Brush the grain pattern with a shade of the dark base. The cut grain (the squiggly lines) on the right side of the illustration were painted with a scenic fitch
  • Lightly dry brush with a tint of the light base
  • Using a thin lining brush, (or "magic marker") and straight edge, line in the cut lines. Use a shade of the darkest wood grain color.
Source: Burris-Meyer and Cole, Scenery for the Theatre, 1971
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