Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cobalt Studios: Summer Scene Painting #1

Cobalt Studios

Summer Scene Painting at Cobalt Studios

Early Experience
I have had the privilege over the years of acquiring some training as a scenic artist and being mentored by some very excellent people in the field.

My first mentor was a designer named Rory Scanlon.  Rory was the first person I ever met who had no conception of his limitations.  To him limitations did not exist and therefore he was magic.  Rory saw potential in everything.  If Rory had never done something before and you asked him if he knew how to do it, his answer was more likely to be, "I don't know, I haven't tried yet," rather than "No."

Rory was a great example to me.  He is also a very good friend to this day.  Rory does not know what he cannot do, therefore he can do anything.  My first real experience with scene painting came with him on Pippin, a show I designed.  I had no clue how to make what was in my head appear at the end of my paintbrush.  Rory showed me how.

Grad School
I was accepted as a grad student at Mankato State University in Minnesota.  The scene design teacher there was a man by the name of Tom Bliese.  Tom was a classically trained and an excellent scenic artist.  I used to watch Tom paint and was amazed at the things he could make a brush do.

I took his scene painting class in the third quarter of my first year in graduate school.  I remember thinking, "This guy knows what I want to know."  So I decided that no matter how strange something was or how far outside my comfort zone it was that I would trust him and believe him.  I was teachable.  Many of the other students complained when he said we needed to put our paintbrushes on the end of a bamboo stick.  I thought, "He knows what I want to know..."  I never complained.  I decided to learn what was being taught.  Because of that, I did pretty well in that class.

First Job
Right out of graduate school, I worked as a scenic art intern at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York.  The Studio Arena at that time was a LORT-B house.  It no longer exists because it was a very dysfunctional theatre, but that is a story for another time.

About a week into my internship, the charge artist decided to hire a third hand because the show we were painting was very large.  He said a guy by the name of Glenn Henley was coming to work with us, he had 17 years experience in Hollywood and also said that I could learn a lot from him.

Glenn and I hit it off straightaway and he became my best friend in Buffalo, New York.  Glenn decided there was something of worth about me and set out to mentor me.  He never asked for a dime, he just took it upon himself to give me more and more training.  I loved him for that.

One night, at eleven PM, Glenn called me and asked if I wanted to make a quick fifty.  I said, "Glenn, you know I always wanna make fifty bucks."  He then told me to meet him at the Kavinoky Theatre in half an hour.  I went and painted a marble floor with him till four in the morning.  I made fifty bucks, but I learned a new technique.  The new technique was far more valuable than the fifty.  Truth is, I would have gone over there without the pay because I knew when I hung out with Glenn I was going to learn something.  I was going to put a new trick in my bag, I was going to become a better painter.

In Fall of 2000 I accepted a position at Brigham Young University-Idaho as a teacher of Scene Design and Technical Theatre.  After a couple of years, there I began teaching a scene painting class. I based the structure of the class on the one taught by Tom Bliese as well as syllabi from other programs around the country.  I based the projects on other experiences I had as a professional painter.

All through the years, from grad school on, I had wished to attend Cobalt Studios for additional training.  Cobalt Studios is a scene painting school in White Lake, New York and was started by Rachel Keebler and Howard Jones in 1988.  Howard left Cobalt in 1993 for other pursuits.  I became aware of Cobalt in around 1990 and had desired to study there ever since.  Rachel and Howard are two of the most respected scenic artists in the business.  The honor roll of guest lecturers at Cobalt are a who's who list of the best scenic artists in the country.

2014 Sabbatical
I worked without a sabbatical for fourteen years.  It wasn't the fault of the administration or the university that I hadn't taken a sabbatical, I just never took one.  Several of my colleagues encouraged me to take a sabbatical and I finally put a proposal together and submitted it.  My proposal included the Summer Scene Painting Session at Cobalt Studios.  My proposal was accepted and I attended in July and August of last summer.  I am very glad I did.

Cobalt is situated on about eighteen acres in White Lake, New York.  There is an old farmhouse, several outbuildings and finally the studio.  There are two summer sessions, The first is referred to as the rhubarb session and the second is referred to as the blueberry session.  Both so named for the plant that is in season during the session.  I attended the blueberry session.  I much prefer blueberries to rhubarb.

There are hundreds of blueberry bushes on the property and I grazed on them every day on my way to and from the studio.  It was idyllic.

Selfie in front of the farmhouse

Behind the farmhouse, the path to the studio

The farmhouse without the selfie

Beautiful bluestone wall

One of many outbuildings on the property

An extinct blueberry bush

Hundreds of blueberry bushes, millions of blueberries

Looking up from the hammock

The property extends to the treeline.  The bushes in the midground are blueberries

Sunset over Cobalt

Mossy log

In the farmhouse and the studio, there were examples everywhere of great scene painting.  Paintings intended to inspire and awe the students.  Showcasing possibilities.

The Pièce de Résistance 

Three dimensional scenic art



Tutorial on trompe l'oeil 


Marble by a master painter

More trompe l'oeil

Still more

This one is by Howard Jones

Wonderful stuff


The Studio
When Rachel and Howard created Cobalt, they built the studio from the concrete slab up.  Everywhere I've painted until now was an existing space that was retrofitted to be a studio.  Cobalt is a building designed for one thing.  Painting.  It was refreshing to be painting in a room designed for just that purpose.  Everything made sense.  Everything there belonged.

The studio had a sitting room where people could gather for instruction, offices, a paint mixing room and the studio floor.  After a few days, it dawned on me that the mixing sinks were actually bathing tubs.

The studio floor, covered with bogus paper

Paint carts

Paint carriers


More tools

Straight edges

Kraft paper

The mixing room

shop built roller covers

Brush racks

Sprayers and dyes

Everything has a place

The tub, I mean sink

mixing table

Product shelves

More product

It begins
I had a fair amount of training before I attended Cobalt.  My biggest fear going there was that it would be remedial.  Going to Cobalt was a career long goal for me.  I had wished to attend for twenty-five years.  I had built up expectations and was terrified the experience would not live up to them.  I was wrong.  Expectations exceeded.

Kimb Williamson, one of the teachers made a comment to me the first week that they liked having their peers attend Cobalt.  I told her I didn't consider myself to be a peer, rather I considered myself to be a student.  I approached my time at Cobalt as such.  I decided I was not there to demonstrate things I already knew.  I wished to learn what was being taught.  If I had not been teachable my time at Cobalt would have been wasted.  Every time Kimb or Rachel corrected me I replied with, "Thank you."  I didn't try to justify bad behavior or explain myself, I just thanked them and corrected what I was doing.  Instead of getting my feelings hurt because I was being corrected, I approached it with the attitude that they thought enough of me to correct things I may be doing wrong or things I could be doing better.

I could do that because of the great respect I have for both of these great scenic artists.

I was giddy for the whole three weeks I was at Cobalt Studios.  I had two goals for my time at Cobalt. First, I wished to become a better painter, and second I wished to become a better teacher of scene painting.  The semester after I returned from Cobalt I taught scene painting.  Most of what I taught was informed by my time at Cobalt.  Rachel and Kimb have codified the training of scenic artists. I am thankful for the time I was able to spend with them.  I hope to attend some of the special seminars in years to come.

This blog post is intended to introduce the readers to Cobalt Studios.  I will blog about separate paint techniques in subsequent posts.

I heartily recommend the training at Cobalt for anyone who wishes to pursue scene painting as a vocation.

Kimb Williamson and me

Rachel and me alongside the "wild blueberry"

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