Our Paint Shop department can turn iron into gold, and wood into stone.

Painting a fresco of the Madonna for Romeo and Juliet, 2004
Paint Shop create a fresco of the Madonna for Romeo and Juliet, 2004.
Photo by Peter Coombs © RSC Browse and license our images

One day our scenic artists might be busy speeding up the natural ageing process by a few hundred years, the next they'll be mixing secret potions to slow it down. 

They must at one moment be intuitive creative painters, capable of precise fine art work, and at the next moment, speedy and pragmatic decorators. They must be capable of big physical work and meticulous touches. Rebecca Ashley, Head of Scenic Art is responsible for all the paint work, art work and texturing on our productions at home, abroad and on tour. This often means working simultaneously on several shows. Our workshop is one of the only theatre paint-shops which works on both props and scenery. Sets for our thrust stages can be quite minimal and props have become more complex, so painting props can occupy most of the Paint Shop's team's time. 

The production designer's brief

Everything starts with a brief from the production designer. It's a way of capturing the collective imagination, so we're all bringing it to life together.

After looking at the 'model box' (the 1:25 model of the set), the scenic artists collect samples of paints and finishes. Once these decisions have been made, the scenic artists can progress to painting the set. Sometimes the designer specifies the exact colours they want but often the Paint Shop team have to ad-lib, looking at the model and mixing up colours to match. This can be tricky and time-consuming - often you can't buy the exact colour so the team build it up, applying a base and then up to seven glazes on top. For example, if you're painting on a piece of bare wood and it has to look like mahogany or marble, it will require many layers of colouring and finishing.

At the model showing, the scenic artists carefully grill the designer and director about how the set will be used in case this impacts on the finishes they use. Will actors be walking around bare-foot? Will blood be used in fight scenes? The team also asks the lighting designer what illumination will be used on stage, as colour tones are very dependent on lighting states.

There has been a scenic Paint Shop in Stratford for many years - reports from our archives suggest that it was a scenic artist returning from lunch that spotted and raised the alarm about the fire which gutted the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1926. Since the 1960s, the fashion for scenic backcloths has passed and three-dimensional realism is popular. For example, the floors the team make for productions must look exactly like the real thing (sand, wood, metal and so on) not just a representation of it.

Walls and floors are a big part of the team's work. For each new production a fresh painted floor is required. The floor for King Lear (2010) might look like a sheet of plain dark wood but there were at least three processes in its preparation. Firstly the team applied a stain to make it look older, then they coated it in sealant for protection. Finally they apply another sealant containing a mattifying agent to take away shine and ensure it looks natural. These three processes are just to make it look like a normal piece of wood!

Brick by brick, stone by stone...

Bricks are a house speciality. In the last 20 years since Terry Hands was Artistic Director (see 'Colouful facts and figures' below), doing bricks has become a bit of a joke for the Paint Shop as designers have been very keen to bring brickwork into their sets. To create a brick wall, the artists use a thick foam material which is carved into brick shapes by the carpenters, then broken down into authentic looking textures with chisels, knives and sandpaper. Most of the paintwork has to be distressed because designers want sets to look real and lived-in. Everything the team make has to be given a patina - anything too 'new' looks flat and strange on stage.

Colour requirements can be astonishingly precise. The Paint Shop team once had to re-paint a 100-piece blue and white-striped Cornish-ware tea-set because the designer wanted the blue of the Cornish-ware taken down a tone because under the stage lighting the original colour looked too pale...

The Paint Shop's work doesn't finish with the opening night of a show because there is constant maintenance of paintwork.

Careers in Painting

Anyone considering a career in scenic art should be prepared for demanding and often nocturnal hours. 'Paint calls' are particularly tough - this is when the scenic artists go onto stage during the show's technical rehearsals to complete final touch-ups or alteration. The calls often take place between 11pm and 4am because this is the only time they can get on stage without actors and crew around, and still have the time for the paint to dry. For example, if a floor is too slippery, the Paint Shop team would go in at midnight and apply a sealant that will dry before the actors arrive the next day. The department hasn't yet witnessed any actors leaving the stage with paint marks on their costumes...

Scenic art is definitely not a job for the impatient. For Anthony Ward's 1998 design for The Tempest, the Paint Shop had a particularly painstaking task: the island (where The Tempest is set) was to be covered in pebbles. That would be fine in itself but during this show, the actors had to fall to their knees so real stones could not be used. Eventually after some research, the Paint Shop team found foam pellets that were both fireproof and durable. They carved each pellet by hand into a pebble shape, and then painted each one in realistic stone shades. All 37,000 of them.

Shakespeare - colourful facts and figures

  •  Finishes are created using a variety of different tools from the obvious brushes, rollers and spray guns to more inventive equipment such as feathers and newspapers - used for marbling.
  •  For a production of Measure for Measure, a piece of black marble had to represent a war memorial with thousands and thousands of dead soldier's names. To speed up the process of generating names, a computer programme was used.
  •  When Terry Hands was Chief Executive of the RSC in the 1980s, he decided to use the whole of the stage area for performances so the whole of the back wall of the theatre (a brick wall) was painted black. It was then re-painted like brickwork. Several paint samples were prepared and the wall was painted in different brick tones. It was agreed that the effect was perfect but the colour of the brick wasn't quite right. In the end, the back wall had to be painted seven times to get it right.
  •  Before the introduction of modern fluorescent paints, the Paint Shop had to create a formula that could be painted on a set and that would react under ultra-violet light. The perfect solution was created by mixing Schweppes tonic water with blue Daz washing powder - the potion worked perfectly!

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