Final Project: Translucency
Three weeks of intensive scene painting instruction were drawing to an end. I credit Rachel Keebler and Kimb Williamson with creating a program that the value per dollar is unmatched anywhere. It was relatively inexpensive. Scenic artists wishing to receive this training would be hard pressed to find a better value anywhere. First, it's the best training available, and second when you include housing and food into the fees, the tuition looks pretty modest.
Rachel and Kimb never seemed bored with what they were doing. Always engaged, always energetic, always in the moment, always teaching. There was no wasted time at Cobalt. It was fun for me to spend eight hours a day with a paintbrush in my hand again. It had been a long time since I had been able to do that.
Week one, we were in the studio for about eight hours a day. Week two we averaged between eight and ten hours a day, depending if we went back to the studio to finish things after dinner. Week three, I spent about twelve hours a day in the studio, and loved every minute of it. I wanted to make sure I finished every project and finished them well. Rachel and Kimb were in the studio for most of this time. I did some math while I was there and figured that the time spent in the classroom by the teachers in those three weeks would have equaled the time I spent in the classroom in two semesters.
That's intense. Two semesters worth of work in three weeks. I came back to BYU-Idaho and immediately taught scene painting. We met two times a week in three hour blocks. And we got through almost exactly half of what we did at Cobalt. I loved my time there. I would go back again in a heartbeat.
The Final Project
After the tiger on velour project, we began our translucency project. Cobalt employees had been working behind the scenes sizing muslin for our last project. They had stretched muslin on half the studio floor and put two coats of starch on it. As a class, we then put a final coat of starch on that side. To do a translucency, it takes three coats of medium to heavy starch on one side and two coats of medium to heavy starch on the other side to create the conditions for this project.
While the third coat of starch was drying, we sat in the classroom and listened to Rachel and Kimb teach about the steps and techniques involved with painting a translucent drop. The idea behind a translucent drop is to paint an image on the front and a different image on the rear so that when the light shifts from frontlight to backlight, the image shifts.To do that, you have to paint the front in more of a watercolor style, in other words no opaque paint.
Since Kimb was my mentor on the previous project, Rachel was my mentor on the translucency. I was given two images, as was each of the students. We were all painting different things. I was given a photo of a pagoda in the sunset with sunbeams bursting through at the horizon. The other image I was given was of another pagoda, but this one was at dusk or early morning and was hazy. I was to paint the first image on the front, but use the color scheme and lighting style of the second image. Then on the back I was to paint the setting sun. The idea was that when the piece was lit from the front it would look more like the second image but when it was lit from the back it would look like the original image.
Once we were given the images, we were to spend a half an hour or so and develop our best guess at a plan of attack. We were to write down all of our questions ahead of time and then schedule a visit with our mentor to have our questions answered. The idea was that we were supposed to replicate the meeting between a scene designer and the charge artist. These are the images I received.
|The first image. Note the sticky notes. They were my questions for the designer|
|The image for the paint scheme on the front. Not recreating the actual image, just the paint job|
|I added this picture to show the scale of the image|
To restate, I was to paint the figurative stuff (the pagoda) from the first image but with the lighting and coloration of the second image on the front. Then on the back I was to paint it in such a way that when it was backlit, the image would shift to the lighting of the first image. I think that is clear.
Step #1: Sizing and The Test Flat
The shop employees had already sized the muslin twice with starch on one side, and then we as a class did the third application. We did that at the end of business one day and then came in the next and cut the muslin into the sizes we all needed. Then we stapled it directly to the floor (which was covered with homasote and bogus paper). We stapled the unsized side up, then we proceeded to put one more coat of starch on it. When that was dry we added a second. In total, to get the translucency, it takes five coats of starch. Three on the backside and two on the front.
In addition to the regular piece, I also stapled some sized muslin to a small test flat and added the extra coats of starch to it as well. When working with complex paint jobs, it's important to create a test flat. It's better to test things and find out if they work or not on something you aren't committed to rather than making a costly mistake on a full size piece.
I approached my test flat in an organized fashion, making notes with a sharpie pen here and there. I tried several things and found some that worked well and some that didn't necessarily. I had painted translucently before, but never on two sides. I knew from previous experience that anytime you add white paint to another paint it begins to turn it opaque. That is the kiss of death in a translucent drop. I have learned that if you wish to make something lighter, just like in watercolor, you use the background (in this case the muslin) as a lightener and add water to the paint. Because I have been a watercolorist in the past, this seemed intuitive to me.
I used Rosco Supersaturated paint on the front. I think I used straight burnt sienna for the light color and van dyke brown for the dark. I think those are the colors I used. Because Supersaturated paint is heavily pigmented, it's possible to thin it with water many times and still have punchy color but create a translucency. All of those things together seem like they'd cancel each other out, and yet it works.
|The last size coat applied|
|The test flat, front side|
When I was satisfied that I had the right combination of paints for the front side of my piece, I turned my attention to the backside of the test flat. I used Dharma Pigment Dye for the sunbeams. The pigmented dye is very powerful and you get a lot of bang for your buck. Once I had the back painted, I took it to the back room where we could go dark and I put a light behind it. It worked. I showed it to Rachel and she seemed to get excited by it. That was encouraging to me.
|The backside with pigment dye and opaquing|
Step #2: The Base Coat
I put the burnt sienna in a garden sprayer and sprayed the entire piece with the lighter color. When you paint with a garden sprayer, it's important to keep your nozzle in the same orientation for the entire pass. It's important to start off of the work and spray onto it and also to finish the pass off of the work. Then you don't get dark spots. It's also important to paint rapidly. It took longer to mix the paint and strain it into the garden sprayer than it did to actually paint the piece. One other thing I learned about garden sprayers is it is important to give them a name. The reason for that is if you have used the sprayer named "Marvin" and liked the way it painted you can count on it to paint the same way as it did the last time when you use it again. Lots of cool tricks I learned at Cobalt.
Step #3: The Pounce and TUFBAK
While the base coat was drying, I converted my image to a transparency on the copier and projected it onto a piece of brown kraft paper. Then I made a pounce. A pounce is when you perforate a design into kraft paper and then use powdered charcoal to transfer the image to another surface.
I transferred the image to the muslin, then I used the same pounce and transferred the image to a product called TUFBAK, which is four foot wide masking tape essentially. I never knew it came in four foot widths! I transferred the image to two pieces of the TUFBAK, one on the front and the other on the backside. More on that later.
|The overhead projector, an indispensable tool of the scenic artist|
|Image transferred to kraft paper with sharpie pen|
|Pounced and ready to hit with the charcoal bag|
|Rubbing the charcoal bag on the pounce|
|what that looks like|
|The image transfer|
Once the image was transferred to the piece, I then transferred the image to the TUFBAK. I put two pieces of TUFBAK together, front to back, then transferred my image to it. I had them pinned together so they wouldn't move, then when I cut it I only had to cut once to have a mirror image. That would come in handy when I painted the backside.
I then placed the TUFBAK to the front of the work to mask it. Then I was ready to spray the van dyke brown in the areas where the pagoda was. Anywhere you have a seam with the TUFBAK it's important to cover it with a strip of masking tape. It's better that way.
|TUFBAK applied to the openings in the pagoda|
|The sheet of TUFBAK on the cutting table|
|The TUFBAK applied|
|Getting ready to paint|
|The van dyke brown sprayed on|
|A couple of coats to get the depth I wanted|
Step #4: Aerial Perspective and Details
The second image had an element of aerial perspective to it that the first image did not. I asked Rachel if she wanted me to replicate that in my piece. She indicated that she did. I cut a piece of kraft paper in a horizon shape and laid it down over the pagoda to act as a friskit. Then I sprayed the van dyke brown again. That gave me a foreground that was a little darker than the pagoda in the midground.
When that was dry, I came in with a small fitch brush and put in some tree shapes similar to what was on the horizon on the first image. I also used that to fix a couple of mistakes.
|The aerial perspective painted on with a friskit|
|Details painted on with a small fitch brush|
Step #5: The Backside Opaquing
With the front done, it was time to turn the piece over and begin painting the backside. The first thing I did, once it was turned was to place the mirror image of the TUFBAK on the piece. Then I put a thinned version of the opaquing paint in a PreVal sprayer and painted in the areas around where I wanted the sunbeams to be. I also painted the backside of the pagoda with two or three coats of the opaquing paint in the PreVal.
|Spraying the sunbeams with opaquing paint|
The opaquing paint was made with equal parts Benjamin Moore white paint and Benjamin Moore black paint. Rachel likes to use a grey paint for opaquing because it's easy to see where it is. You could use pure white paint for opaquing, but then you wouldn't be able to see it very well as you painted.
When I was done with the PreVal, I then brush painted the rest of the opaquing on the pagoda and the ground. I used the PreVal to blend between the brush painted parts and the sprayed parts. The transition was very important.
|Brush painted juxtaposed with spray painted opaquing|
Then I used a custom cut roller to create the ripple marks in the water. We pour paint onto a food service tray and then use that as a charging surface for the cut rollers, much as we did with the foliage project. When the opaquing was done, it was time to remove the TUFBAK.
|Painting the ripple marks with a custom cut roller|
|All the opaquing done including the ripples|
|Sometimes this is the scenic artist's best friend|
Step #6: Kitty Litter and Dharma Pigment Dyes
I added kitty litter to the circle where the sun was supposed to peek out between the columns of the pagoda. Kitty litter is a great friskit. Then I added the yellow Dharma pigment dye. I sprayed it from a garden sprayer over the entire backside of my piece.
|Kitty litter sun|
|Yellow Dharma dye on everything|
After the Yellow Dharma dye was dry, I added a bit more kitty litter in strategic places and then I was ready to add the orange Dharma dye. I painted the bottom part of the water, as it looked on the first image, and I also sprayed the orange on the pagoda. For the orange I used a PreVal sprayer because I felt I had more control with that. I also brush painted some of the pagoda and the trees on the horizon line, but that was probably because I took the TUFBAK off a little before I should have. With proper coaching from Rachel, though I fixed that problem. I got the feeling from both Rachel and Kimb that they wanted each of us to be successful. I got that the entire time I was at Cobalt.
|More kitty litter|
|Orange Dharma dye|
Step #7: The Last Thing
After we were all done with our pieces, we spent about an hour cleaning the studio while we waited for our pieces to dry. This was our last project and the studio was going to be closed for a few weeks for vacations and such. We needed to get it ready for the next group of students. Once the paintings were dry, we did show and tell.
There were lights hung in the studio that would shine on the front of the work and other lights that were hung to shine on the backside. There were different colors of gel on some of the lights so we could change the images. Rachel acted as lighting designer and started out with regular front light on each piece in turn. Then she'd change the color of the front light to blues or pinks to show what colored light could do to a paint job. The lighting designer can make or break a great paint job. It's important to collaborate with them.
After we had exhausted all of our possibilities with front light, Rachel then turned on the backlight so we could see how successful our translucency was. She also mixed in some front light here and there so we could really see what light does to paint.
I was pretty nervous when my piece was hung up. Rachel confided to me when I turned the piece over what the degree of difficulty was of this project. I wasn't confident that I had succeeded at that point. She turned on the front light, then she added blue light, then she injected the backlight. Kimb said only one word. "Stunning."
|The front of the painting in regular light|
|With a little blue frontlight on it|
I truly enjoyed my time at Cobalt Studios. I learned so much. I grew as a painter, and I think I grew as a teacher of scenic painting. It was a dream come true for me. I had wanted to study at Cobalt for so long that I felt (as Scrooge would say) as "giddy as a schoolboy." I didn't take the experience for granted. I worked hard every day to learn what was being taught.
Thank you Kimb, thank you Rachel. This was a grand experience for me.