Michael Hoover trembles. Armed with a paint sprayer, the charge artist at the Guthrie prepares to meet the enemy — a job he has never done before that he must do on a limited budget. It's been some 20 years since he began in the business. He has trained in studio arts at the University of Minnesota, done commercial work in the private sector, and worked in many paint shops. Yet, Hoover still confronts new problems that keep him awake at night.

At the Goodspeed Opera House, Diane Fargo struggles with a building that has no fly space. Most shows rely on roll drops. “It's hard to find people who know how to work on drops,” Fargo laments. “A lot of painters come from faux-finishing backgrounds.” As charge artist, she oversees the process. Fargo says that as shows get bigger, she finds that any job she might give herself will be interrupted, so she paints less and less, spending her time coordinating the efforts of staff and freelance scenic artists with carpenters and prop people.

Some challenges are show-specific. Fargo negotiated the intricate and intense color palette designer Ken Foy used in his designs for Can-Can. Layered colors required new ways of applying paint. Financial limits and the need to find many people capable of interpreting his designs notwithstanding, the effort resulted in one of her favorite shows.

Leo Meyer of Atlas Scenic Studios applauds James Noone's designs for Judgment at Nuremberg, designs that required his artists to paint on glass. At the Guthrie, John Napier's scenery for Martin Guerre suggested period rural France with “over-the-top textures” and a floor that had to look like giant timbers. Created by stirring paint into glue and clay, it looked rough, but barefoot dancers didn't have to worry about slivers on the surface, which had a rubber-like flexibility to accommodate them. And John Lee Beatty's design for To Fool the Eye, also at the Guthrie, featured a translucent drop that had to be painted with fabric ink. “You get one shot at it. You can't put another coat over a translucency,” Hoover explains, adding that as with a stained-glass window, you can't block out a section that doesn't turn out, so each section had to be done perfectly.

At Hudson Scenic, charge artist Jane Snow is proud of what her team accomplished on Bob Crowley's design for the Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night. Beginning with an exotic Xeroxed collage of Moorish and Islamic architecture with elaborate perforated screens that would shimmer when lit from the back and front, they got down on their hands and knees, stenciling, gluing lace, and painting to achieve an ethereal effect. They worked with Crowley to select a rubber-backed fabric to paint that would withstand splashes from the pool the set also featured. “We often talk about how we are amateur chemists,” says Snow. They deal with pyro as well as water, and it is the scenic artist's responsibility to make sure the materials they use won't burn the set down.

What It Takes

The art of scenic art requires a different kind of good chemistry, too, the kind needed to execute a designer's vision. Snow says the best scenic artists share “a good analytical eye, the ability to look at things and not see your own vision of them but someone else's vision, and a good ear, the ability to listen to what the designer has to say, [which] involves a great deal of interpolation and extrapolation.

“The designer renders ideas in a much smaller scale, usually half an inch,” Snow adds. “Our job to look at that and flesh it out in full scale. Think about what happens if you blow up a graphic reproduction; you get a big, fuzzy, indistinct image.; colors wash out. Designers hope scenic artists can take their small image and duplicate the richness of the color, the value, the content, and perhaps even enhance it.”

A scenic artist also needs to know what not to enhance. “Fine artists are used to working on things by themselves,” Fargo notes. “In theatre, we work as a group, and it has to look like one person did it. Some fine artists don't understand that part of your job is to add and help the design but not to redesign what you don't like.”

The best scenic artists have training in both studio art and theatre. Long Wharf charge artist Keith Hyatt is also a cabaret performer and has appeared on stages he's painted; once, he went on for an absentee in three numbers in the Long Wharf's Christmas show.

Hyatt developed his dual interests early on. As a child, he worked for his father, a painter and decorator. In grade school, he created productions he could design, and found clothing for costumes. When he studied at Purdue University (in Indiana), he planned to design, but after doing a few small shows on the East Coast, he was frustrated by the stiff competition and lousy money. He took classes at a studio run by Lester Polakov, but he says working for top designers at the Long Wharf, his home, helped the most.

Scenic art also proved second nature to Meyer, whose father, a textile designer, let him experiment in the studio, grinding pigments and working with plaster casts. His dad also built him a marionette theatre, and Meyer says he's been hooked since. In his teens, he won student stage design contests sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon, majoring in design and taking classes in other theatre arts, and then trained in fine arts at Pratt Institute in New York.

Snow painted her first sets in junior high, when she was 14, then painted and built sets in community theatre. She loved the sense of community that came from “nailing flats together and slapping paint on” in a group. “I loved the craft of painting scenery because it was so near to what I aspired to be, the perfect Renaissance person,” Snow says. The best scenic artists, she suggests, paint in “all styles, all manners, all sizes, all genres.” They sculpt, they draft, they apply texture to painted surfaces. That's what they did in the Renaissance, too,” adds Snow, who envisioned herself as “an assistant in Michelangelo's studio.”

All agree their task is multifaceted. “Professional scenery is more about texture than it is about paint,” says Hyatt. “We try to make different materials look like something they're not.” Adds Hoover, “Along with the painting comes the texturing of a particular object, the shine, the finish durability.”

“Some fine artists don't understand that part of your job is to add and help the design but not to redesign what you don't like.”
Diane Fargo

The best scenic artists understand theatre and fine art. At the University of Knoxville, Snow did a dual major in art and theatre, which grounded her in the basics essential to her work. When Fargo was an undergraduate art major at SUNY Binghampton, she took a work-study job in the theatre department. She went on to complete an MFA in scenic and costume design at Brandeis, one of the few programs with a staff scenic artist who taught painting. She found she was happy painting shows for designers she assisted, and before long, was working in theatres from the Alabama Shakespeare to San Diego's Globe Theatres.

New School vs. Old

Are all scenic artists this well prepared? “The kids coming into the field today don't have enough really serious art background,” says Meyer. “The unions have been so changed that, quite frankly, I think the standards have been compromised. People are [often] underqualified for the salaries they're being paid.” Meyer searches for those few with the superlative skills he needs and puts journeymen next to experienced artists. Too often, he winds up giving lessons to newcomers, something he enjoys but finds difficult in this high-pressure, fast-paced business.

Fargo finds that too many people don't have the general art background that has served her so well. “Drawing, art history, an understanding of period styles, motifs, [and] architecture” are all essentials for scenic artists. “People who are really good at it have a mental catalog. They don't need a picture to know what dentils are or what a pediment is. They understand what the designer is talking about, and if a drawing is not complete, they can complete it,” she says. Although her design degree has helped her communicate with designers, Fargo doesn't think that's essential.

What should an aspiring scenic artist do? Hyatt says real education begins in the real theatre. “It was shocking to see how we don't follow the textbook rules. Every show is different,” Hyatt says; he suggests interning.

Most scenic artists advocate a mix of education, training, and apprenticeship. Meyer wishes newcomers would “spend time in museums, study architecture, study style,” and get some theatre experience. “I have people coming in who don't understand what a flat is,” he laments. Snow advises volunteering to see if the work is for you. If it is, “study art history, architecture, and have a knowledge of mathematics and geometry, and color theory, learn to draw, paint, and sculpt. Then apprentice at a scenic studio.”

“You can learn the tools and materials and tricks if you have a basic art understanding,” Fargo says, explaining that when a scenic artist tackles a flat, for instance, an understanding of light and shadow to create dimension makes the task relatively easy.

Fargo also believes scenic artists have an advantage when they have worked in many theatres and for different designers. “Sometimes a rendering is incomplete, and you can fill in the blanks if you understand the spirit of the work.” When designers don't get everything down, she says understanding how they think makes it possible for her to realize what they want.

In 1975, when Hyatt began freelancing at the Long Wharf, most designers brought assistants who did their painting, and did not always do it well. When he became full time in 1982, the position provided stability for him and continuity for the theatre. “It allowed us to keep an eye on budgets,” he reflects, recalling the way assistants would order supplies they needed, not knowing the theatre already had them, and throw out materials the show no longer needed but the theatre might want later on.

The Threat to the Craft

Although more non-profit theatres have been willing to commit to scenic artists, a threat to the field remains, and not just because too few young scenic artists are willing to commit to their craft.

These days, scenic artists sometimes must render designs that have been digitally created. “You're dealing with a bunch of dots, and that changes the way you have to paint,” Fargo says. Designers who scan drawings, work on the computer, and then rework with a brush can achieve interesting results, Fargo concedes, but she finds it sad that so many designers who paint beautifully no longer paint at all. When they use a brush, she says, “They are the energy behind their work.”

“A lot of the computer stuff we get is not as sharp and accurate as we'd like it,” says Meyer. “Some if it is OK. It depends on who the draftsman is who's doing the program.”

Snow is optimistic. “We're still here in spite of computers and the graphics industry, and I think we will always be here,” she says. “There always has to be someone with that eye and that ear to figure out how something really is supposed to look.”

Meyer puts it succinctly: “The best computer is still between the ears.”

What Designers Say

“There are many talented people who are trained in the art of faux finishes working in the theatre today,” James Noone says. “They are very good creating wood, marble, stone [and other] finishes as well as distressing. However, there are very few scenics outside the major union scene shops that I have come across who are trained in the classic sense of a scenic artist.” Too few have solid drawing skills, an ability to prepare and lay out drops, or paint 3D architecture or translucent drops or scrim. “I like someone who is an artist, not just someone who is trained to recreate a finish and follow steps,” Noone says.

Christine Jones is generally pleased with people she's worked with at regional theatres. In the city, she always tries to work with someone she knows. “It makes such a difference when you can just turn a project over to someone and know they will do a good job. You want someone with eyes that you trust, someone who can see what you see so you don't have to explain everything,” she says. “You give them a paint elevation, or the model, and they know what to do. What a great relief that is!

“There are so many different aspects to overseeing the execution of a design, and designers are usually working on more than one show at a time, so it makes a big difference when a painter can work without needing you there every step of the way,” Jones adds.

“Some people expect scenic artists to act like human Xerox machines,” says David Gallo. “I look for people who can push me further along.” Gallo doesn't hire scenic artists; shops provide the paint service. He realizes that some artists go from one shop to another, and he is less concerned with who they are than with who is in charge of the paint work. “My paint elevations reflect exactly what I want,” Gallo says, “but they sometimes require a fair amount of interpretation, and when you get into a groove with a scenic artist you can use verbal shorthand: ‘Soften this, punch that up.’”

“Professional scenery is more about texture than it is about paint. We try to make different materials look like something they're not.”
Keith Hyatt

Gallo has done drop-heavy shows without paint, sometimes because he is seeking a computer-generated look. He had to throw out some of the drops on Blues Clues, when weird corruptions in the files became manifest. Paint can be a problem too, he explains, recalling an incident when chemical properties interacted unfavorably and paint flakes began to fall from one of his sets. Still, he finds, “Oddly enough, some of the ones we liked the best were painted by human beings. I don't think scenic artists can ever be replaced.”