The Paints

“The scene painter’s colours are known technically as ‘distemper colours.’ They are bought in the form of powder, and the only preparation they require is the admixture of water.  The usual proportion is one pound of colour to a pint of water, but some colours will ‘take’ more water than others; thus ivory black powder requires more water than vermillion.  The powder is merely stirred up until it dissolves, but each pot of paint will require an occasional stirring while it is being used.  The painter will also require a small pail for ‘letting down’ his colour and a half pail of dissolved size for mixing in before applying the paint to canvas, otherwise the paint on drying would fly off in a powder.”

Excerpt from “Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects” by Van Dyke Browne (1900, page 14)



“Glazing is very much resorted to in scene painting and can always by employed in an agreeable effect…for glazing purposes, a little strong size must be added to the working size, and the deeper and stronger the glaze is desired, the stronger the glaze must be. It must be not strong enough, however, to impart to your color the shiny or crystallized appearance, which is to be avoided as you would a pest…The best of all size for glazing is glue size, and can be improved by adding a little molasses, which renders it more adaptable for a dark, strong glaze, and, to a certain extent, prevents it from shining when dry.”

Excerpt from Frank Atkinson’s “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art” (1916, page 169)


Brush Care

“If rubber set brushes are not used, care should be taken that the ordinary glue set brush is not plunged into hot water, size, or glue. When brushes used for distemper work wear down so that the bristles get to short to hold sufficient amounts of color, they will be found of excellent service in dye work where a short, stubby brush works to the best advantage…Always clean your brushes well after using them in a flat tray where the bristles do not become mussed up and disarranged….Brushes that are frequently used can be kept soft between working hours by being laid in a tray of trough filled with a solution of part linseed oil, part coal oil and part gasoline.”

Excerpt from “Theatrical Scene Painting” (Appleton Publishing Company, 1916)




“The Scenic Painter oftentimes is requested to furnish sample drawings or sketches of the work to be performed, and to familiarize the beginner with the most essential rules of correct drawing, which necessarily must be known by all scenic artists, we have included, in this work; several chapters on pencil drawing, elementary perspective, pencil sketching, crayon drawing, in addition to the painting of scenery in oil, all of which are very instructive and necessary, as no scenic painting, no matter how elaborately executed in colors, can correct the faulty drawing of the scene depicted.”

Excerpt from “Theatrical Scene Painting: A Thorough and Complete Work on How to Sketch, Paint, and Install Theatrical Scenery” (Appleton Publishing Co., Omaha, Nebraska, 1916, preface)

The rendering below is from the Holak Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Performing Arts Archives.  These renderings are available in a searchable online database:

The attached rendering depicts a 31st degree scene, titled Classical Interior and is in numerous Scottish Rite Theaters across the country.


Corresponding scene by Sosman & Landis Studios, ca. 1912.  This was taken during the photo shoot this week for the upcoming Santa Fe Scottish Rite book.


Rolling Curtain

“This brings the painting to a conclusion, and when dry, draw all of the tacks along the bottom of the frame and up both sides, then carefully slide a 4-inch diameter wooden roller into the “roller apron” at the bottom, which is stitched in at the time the seams are run. It is almost needless to say that the roller apron must be absolutely straight and in square of the curtain, which was in turn mounted square on the painting frame. Range as many assistants as possible along the roller, leaving one assistant to lower away the hauling line. Let them the, all working in unison, roll the curtain on the roller, keeping it moderately tight. When you come to a seam, see that it is parallel to the roller; and if it is not, loosen or tighten the cloth at either side, as the case may require; otherwise you may find the cloth two or three feet out by the time the curtain is entirely rolled…”

Excerpt from Frank Atkinson’s “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art” (1916, page 164)

The pictures below are from the St. Paul, MN SOKOL Hall (CSPS, Czech-Slovak Hall).



Whiting was a white powder used in both priming and painting. Studios purchased this product in 300 lbs. wooden barrels.  Inside this thin wooden container was an inner wrapping on paper to prevent this fine white silica powder from leaking through the seems.  The pictures depict a barrel of whiting found on site at the Fort Scott Scottish Rite temple during November 2016.  It was ordered by Thomas Moses to create the scenery collection on site and was never opened.  We discovered and opened the barrel to find a perfect product, well-encapsulated for 90 years!  I emptied the barrel to transport the product for future restoration purposes.  The whiting is now the property of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.





Possibilities of Scene Painting

“Finally, it must be borne in mind that scene painting is hard work, both physically and mentally, and when indulged in every day will yield all of the physical culture necessary to the promotion of good appetite and sound sleep.  The work is fascinating and full of interest to those filled at all times with enthusiasm and the desire to excel; if you are not so constituted, it would be better not to make the effort.  Scene painting will promote all of the latent talent you possess and reward you in exact proportion to the ability and talent developed.”

Excerpt from Frank Atkinson’s “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art” (1916, page 201)





“A desert scene is not used very often in ordinary production, but nevertheless you should know how to make these settings if called upon to do so.  Often when a play requires a desert scene, the desert proper is painted on the backdrop and scene through cut and netted leg drop representing tropical vegetation…The sky in a tropical country is deeper blue in the North….The sky should be painted with no clouds, starting with ultramarine, then running through an Italian blue to a light emerald green into a light cream behind the lavender colored mountains that are seen in silhouette against the sky.”

Excerpt taken from “Theatrical Scene Painting: A Thorough and Complete Work of How to Sketch, Paint, and Install Theatrical Scenery” (Appleton Publishing Co., Omaha, Nebraska, 1916, 112-113)

Attached is an example from the Grand Forks Masonic Temple (Sosman and Landis Studio, 1914 installation)






Colors Change as They Dry

“And it must be born in mind that distemper colors change greatly in value as they dry out, especially those carrying white in the admixture, which dry lighter or higher in value.  ..the student must not let a few failures discourage him. True “color deductions” will come with experience, and unless trials are conscientiously persisted in, and in connection with the study procedure set forth in this manual, your progress cannot be other than slow.”

Excerpt from Frank Atkinson’s “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art” (1916, page 167)

For me, dry pigment is never an exact science – every step is based on intuition and experience.  I have always had a good eye for color, but all of the standard color mixing rules are thrown out of the window when mixing dry pigment colors.  The color, the manufacturer, and the age of the color all determine the final result.  Swatches of every colors is imperative to commence the overall restoration process.  Each step of color mixing is carefully analyzed before an application occurs.

Starting a  new composition from scratch is one thing, but matching colors on historic drops is something else. When amateurs have attempted minor repairs and painting on old backdrops the result is often disastrous – to the extent that a wrong color will continually to reappear after multiple layers are applied to the top.  In this case, the only option is to seal the entire surface and start from scratch.


I have encountered this unfortunate occurrence in all areas of the country where “cheap and inexperienced” artists caused the final repair to be four times the anticipated amount – far exceeding the expense of hiring a “professional” to start with.  There is a reason that conservation and restoration requires a great deal of training, understanding of historical scenic art techniques, and experience.

Below is a picture at the Danville, Virginia, Scottish Rite six years ago – I was color matching a damaged section on a drop.  Their collection suffered form severe water damage and was extremely tricky to touch up. Dye rings necessitate a series of steps to conceal them.  Add the challenge of a roll drop and the work becomes even more of a challenge.  It was my 20+ years of working with dry pigment at that time that greatly contributed to the overall success.

Unless you have studied dry pigment extensively, please leave it for those who have studied it.



Painting Skies

From “Scene Painting and Bulletin Art” (Frank Atkinson, 1916, page 30):

“In the preparation of sky tints, it will be observed that they are graduated in intensity by a greater or less quality of tone…and in laying them in, we place the strongest of them at the highest part of the sky, making them paler or higher in value and less intense as we descend to the horizon, where the use of blue is discontinued and other tints are used, suitable to the character of composition and the mood of the day.”

The image below is from the Scottish Rite theatre in Winona, Minnesota (Sosman & Landis design for the 3rd degee – Seacoast near Joppa).  It is currently in a storage unit with the remainder of the scenery collection on the stage.