A Long History
Theatre and the stage has a long history in Britain, ranging from Medieval mystery plays and Royal Court pageants and masques to modern-day performances. Changeable scenery has continued to play a role, with painted cloths used to decorate the stage or form background context.
The Restoration played a key role in the emergence of the scenic artist by bringing about greater artistic freedom to all aspects of mid-17th century theatre. Once the theatre had been established outside the Court, scenic art flourished with a change in form of the theatre stage and artistic freedom.
The Scenic Artist
In Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), scenic art had what could be considered its first celebrity painter. Recognised as the leading native decorative history painter, he had influence and status as a Painter-Stainer, Serjeant Painter and as a director of Kneller’s Painting Academy.
Recognition of the scenic-painter as artist has, however, not always been universal. Establishment of the painting academies brought division between what was considered a “craft” and “fine art”. Some scenic artists have been able to move between these two worlds. For example, George Lambert (1700-1765) became one of the first scenic painters to be employed directly for the Covent Garden theatre, and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) who worked for the Drury Lane Theatre as a scenic artist for the majority of his career. Some Royal Academicians, including Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) designed for the theatre, taking up these commissions once they were established artists. Designs for backcloths by Walter Sickert (1860-1942), John Piper (1903-1992), Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932), David Hockney (b. 1937) and most recently Chris Offili (b. 1968) have kept the connection between “fine art” and “craft”.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the majority of scenic artists worked directly for the theatre. Since then, scenic artists have continued to flourish as a separate profession keeping traditions which would have been recognisable to the King’s painters 700 years earlier while at the same time developing new skills to work with diverse materials and elaborate designs.
Techniques and Production
The scale of stage cloths and other scenic art forms part of challenge to be managed by scenic artists. Extensive paint frames are required to hold large stage cloths, and the production process often involves cloths and scenery to be ‘squared up’ as the design is transferred from a model to the much larger, full-size piece.
As the artist, Chris Ofili, explained when comparing painting stage cloth to paintings: “It’s liberating….you can draw a line for a minute, normally I am only drawing a line for a few seconds…..I would use my wrist, arm and maybe shoulder, with this there are steps, strides and twists.” (interviewed by Christina Young, February 2012)
The techniques used by the scenic artist also need to take account of stage setting in which it will be used. For example, a scenic artist rarely paints a flat colour but breaks it up or dottles it so the lighting designer can make the scene look warm or cool and so change the mood of the piece.
Materials and Suppliers
The materials in use have developed over time, with scenic artists developing new creative skills to work with diverse materials and elaborate designs. Many of these materials have been developed for specific use in the entertainment industry. In particular, scenic artists are now able to buy hundreds of products for painting and texturing scenery from theatrical chandlers.
For example, the fabrication of PVA and acrylic polymers has revolutionised a way of working that was otherwise unchanged for centuries. Most of the scenery painted by scenic artists up until the late 1970s and even into the 1980s was executed in distemper – a mix of powdered pigment and size. This changed when a range of specialised emulsions were made available to the entertainment industry that were more opaque and so suited to 3-dimensional scenery and stage floors.
Other materials have also found their way into use. Rubber crumb, for example, has become another staple in the Scenic Artists’ repertoire. It can be obtained in three grades – dust, crumb and lumps – with all three being used different contexts to form texture and manage scenery weight.