Behind The Scenes: FENCES – A Story In Paint

Behind The Scenes: FENCES – A Story In Paint

AUTHOR: Lydia Lopez, Scenic Art Intern

How does a scenic artist tell a story?

A painter of theatrical scenery brings the set to life by way of paint color matching, style of application, texture, and surface finishes. Sometimes it’s a very realistic set, other times it’s about cleanliness and precision, and other times it’s very painterly. Very often we paint in layers to bring depth, dimension, and a heightened level of richness and quality. One of my scenic design mentors once told me that the art of scenic painting was, actually, not art. Although it could be artistic, scenic art was more about mastering skills and techniques to achieve specific results. I like to think of scenic art, and of scenic design, as art with a purpose. Using the elements and principles of art to your advantage, to tell a story.

The way that I imagine a scenic artist beginning the painting process is that they begin to apply certain elements onto the surface of thin, translucent “skins” that will eventually become the environment on stage. These “skins,” like pieces of a collage, sometimes overlap, sometimes are separate, sometimes contain so much material that they become opaque, and sometimes they are applied and then peeled off. This is the working and the shaping of the world we are creating. The artist works in collaboration and instruction from the scenic designer to create and implement these elements into the world on stage. We hope that the finished product tells a story by being a direct, physical expression of the themes, ideas, and hard questions posed by the script, channeled through the director’s vision, conceptualized by the scenic designer, and rendered by the scenic artist. The beauty of this process is that each rendition is different, just as every brushstroke is different.

In the case of the Fences set, scenic designer Vicki Smith and charge scenic artist Brigitte Bechtel handed me an opportunity to help create a set that needed to look grungy, used, and real: aged brick, rusting metal, peeling paint on wood, worn pavers. All these things proved to be very fun to try and replicate, but with such specificity comes a great deal of detailing and building upon what is already there. Just like those “skins” of the collage, the Fences paint treatment was all about layers upon layers and more layers. The brick aging process consisted of about 10 steps, starting with routing and grinding the brick surface to reshape and give texture and finishing with heavy color toning in certain areas to complete that dirty, used look. The aged clapboard walls were similar, beginning with color washing the raw wood to darker, cooler hues and finishing with the application of paint with a block of wood dragged onto the surface in order to create that chipped-away paint look. Much of these processes are about continuing and elevating the rich textures and patterns already found in the materials used on the set, and in this way, ATC’s scenic artists tell the story of Fences by keeping true to the environment of the play, and bringing it to life.