Painting Convertible Scenery – Spattering Scenery

Excerpt from “Scenery, a Manual of Scene Design” by Harold Helvenston (1931, page 58)

“In painting flats or units that are to be used in different scenes, under different colored lights, it is the common custom to paint a ground tone of neutral or almost neutral gray, either warm or cold in hue, and upon this spatter three or four or any number of different colors according to a definitely preconceived color scheme.  The spattering colors may be primary colors of light or pigment, secondary colors of either, or any other chromatic system pleasing or displeasing to the artist.  The value of these colors should be the same if there is not to be a predominance of any one color.  This however, is arbitrary.  

This technique results in a very flexible surface for lighting, and when properly combined with different hues and intensities of light it is capable of creating many imaginative and pleasing effects.  If any one light hue is used alone on scenery it has a tendency to bring out that particular hue in the setting.  If two colored lights are combined, the result will reflect its corresponding combination in pigment.  Thus a red light upon a scene that has been spattered with red will produce a red glow to the audience; a combination of red and blue will bring out the red and blue qualities of the setting or their chromatic result, which is magenta.”

Below are two scenes from the Scenery Collection Database at the University of Minnesota. Here is the link to go exploring.  I search “Interiors.”





And here is an example of spatter on full-scale scenery for the Quincy, Illinois Scottish Rite Theatre (Secret Vault scene).





Sizing with Whiting in the 1930s

The following excerpt is from “Scenery, a Manual of Scene Design” by Harold Helvenston (1931, page 55)

“Sizing is made by putting into a large bucket about three-quarters of a bucket of dry whiting, allowing water to flow easily into the bucket while a stirring rod or stick is used vigorously to dissolve the lumps and make an evenly consistent paste.  Three or four small cups of glue are then added to this mixture for binding purposes and enough water is added to insure the proper consistency for the easy use of the brush,  the amount of glue is variable and is usually determined by each individual painter in the preparation of sizing…if there is too little glue the paint will crack and if there is too much the sizing will stretch the canvas or cloth too tightly.  The whiting serves to fill the pores of the fabric and the glue acts as a binder to stretch it tightly on the frame.”


Netting – a modern method

My technique for netting is Flexbond glue in dye bottles. In many cases where the painted surface is NOT flat, 1/4″ detailing tape (for cars) works great! The important aspect of this entire process is to hand check EVERY single knot prior to cutting an placing in the drop opening. Contemporary looms allow a small percentage of the netting knots to “slip,” allowing the entire piece to shift the overall distribution of weight once it is hanging. This is fine for some theatrical applications, but not for shows with long runs.
I have yet to find any theatrical supplier that can guarantee netting without slipping knots. Therefore, hand check and individually glue each knot that slips. This is an incredibly time-consuming process, but having to re-net a piece takes even longer!






Original glue dots, I use much small amounts of glue as there is a tendency for the painted surface to “pucker” around the glue dots.


From Bradford Ashworth’s “Notes on Scene Painting” (1952, page 3)

“Netting comes in two varieties for use as scenery:

(a). the ordinary meshed bar of mosquito netting which is obtainable in many colors.

(b). the natural-color drop and border foliage netting which has a mesh of about one-inch square.”

I have primarily encountered one-inch square netting in Masonic scenery. Prior to the 1920s, each individual knotted intersection was carefully dabbed with glue.  After the 1920s, entire edges are smeared with a  4″ to 6″ wide swath of glue. Attached are pictures form various scenery collections in the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite.  In many cases, you can see the original guidelines, tack marks, and handprints.








Happy Thanksgiving!

As it is the Thanksgiving holiday, I have decided to share some scenery from the Blue Lodge design depicting a ship. Typically, the Masonic rocky shore scene includes either a painted ship or a cut-out ship that hooks onto the backdrop. In one Valley, they replaced the original ship with an obvious Thanksgiving decoration (the Mayflower). It is one of those “in-house” alterations that just makes me smile.



and the alternate for the same Scottish Rite Valley…


I have also included a few other original examples for context.

DCF 1.0






Linen Scrim

“Linen Scrim is still a finer and closer weave than bobbinet and is used mainly for effects such as an apparition or a vision scene, i.e., a subject is painted on the front of the scrim. When the light is removed from the front and brought up to reveal an object behind the scrim, the painting on the front disappears. Since scrim is only seventy-two inches wide, there are seams when it is used to form drops. These seams must be sewn as finely as possible so they will not show.”

Bradford Ashworth’s “Notes on Scene Painting” (1952, page 3)

The images below are from the Pasadena, California, Scottish Rite Theatre for the 15th degree Treasure Chamber scene.





“Hanson Gauze is named for its purveyor, Joe Hanson, 423 West 43rd Street, New York City. It is a heavy durable gauze with small, square mesh. It has a ribbed side and a smooth side. It is manufactured only in a 30′ width and comes unfireproofed. The ribbed side, with the rib running horizontally, is considered the best side for painting as it catches the paint when either opaque color and dye is applied.
Bobbinet is a finer and more fragile gauze. Because of the nature of the weave of the mesh the end of a bobbinet drop may stretch and sag under the pull of tension of the battens. therefore it should be made several feet longer than necessary. This gauze is fine for a “fogging” effect. It takes dye or opaque color readily. It comes unfireproofed and is thirty feet wide. Other fabrics may be glued or sewn to the bobbinet. It can be used for borders, drops and even certain framed scenery.
“Gauzes (Hansen, Bobbinet, Scrim) are usually tacked down with a ‘strengthened’ tack. This is accomplished by driving the tack through a small square of cardboard. This prevents the tearing of the gauze when it shrinks.”
Excerpt from Bradford Ashworth’s “Notes on Scene Painting” (1952, pages 2, 3, and 10)
Below depicts the use of bobbinet for the Sanctum Sanctorum gates in King Solomon’s Temple (4th degree of the Scottish Rite drop). These images are from from Quincy, Illinois.


An excerpt from the “Practical Guide to Scene Painting and Painting in Distemper” (F. Llyods, 1875)

“Foils – They are used chiefly in fairy scenes, for the purpose of imitating gold, silver, and jewels of every shade and color. They can be purchased at any theatrical wardrobe and ornament maker’s, as well as a few oil and color shops.

White, gold and copper – Colored Dutch metal. This is also sold by the above-mentioned dealers. It is, of course, cheaper, but tarnishes sooner.” (page 15).

The foils that I have encountered on Scottish Rite scenery are 1/4″ -3/8″ crinkled paper strips with a shiny “metal” surface that catches the light. The pictures shown below were taken during scenery evaluations at the following Scottish Rite theaters: Wichita (fairy scene images), Salina (Treasure chamber images), Grand Forks, Winona, and Santa Fe (Hades images).











Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Ultramarine Blue – Part III

Continued and final excerpt from “Il Libro dell’Arte” or “The Craftsman’s Handbook” (Translation by D. V. Thompson,. Pages 36-37). 15th Century handbook for artists.
“When they are perfectly dry, do them up in leather, or in bladders, or in purses, according to the divisions you have. And know that if that lapis lazuli stone was not so very good, or if you worked the stone up so much that the blue did not come out violet, I will teach you how to give it a little color. Take a bit of grounded kermes (grain) and a little brazil (brazil wood); cook them together; but either grate the brazil or scrape it with glass; and then cook them together with lye and a little rock alum; and when they boil you will see that it is a perfect crimson color. Before you take the blue out of the porringer, but after it is almost dry of the lye, put a little of the kermes with the brazil on it and stir it up with your finger; and let it stand until it dries, without sun. fire, or wind. When you find that it is dry, put it in leather, or a purse, and leave it alone, for it is good an perfect. And keep it to yourself, for it in an unusual ability to make it properly. And know that making it is an occupation for pretty girls rather than for men; for they are always at home, and reliable, and they have more dainty hands. Just beware of old women. “
There are two things that I want to discuss: women creating the dye and the use of Brazil Wood for the botched Ultramarine batch.
This last part of the text concerning women surprised me first when I read it. However, I completely understood what Cennini meant in a fifteenth century social context. My perception of those at home are as caretakers – of both people and things. For a 47-year-old female, I was the first generation of American women who reaped the benefits of those who fought for equality decades before me.
I have a good friend who went to Berkley (a California University for those unfamiliar with it) in the 1960s. Two of her professors – in different classroom settings – explained to all the male and female students that women never became good artists because they had babies. As I think back to this statement from a mere fifty years ago, I have to smile when I read Cennini’s text “for they are always at home, and reliable.” Being a caretaker was an asset, as it made you reliable and able to stay put and do something right – like the complicated process of making lapis lazuli dye. And then I have believe that if you have a women making this expensive product with such a complicated process – would she not also know how to use it?
Concerning the use of Brazil wood: I have used these chips in natural dying at the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher Reunion (Labor Day event near a small town of Rollag, Minnesota). I was amazed at the vibrant reds that were created – almost rivaling the cochineal dyes. The scarlet hues that could be produced (depending on the mordant used on the fabric) would obviously work to “pump up” the violet tones of the Ultramarine if the batch didn’t turn out as vibrant as desired. But I also wonder if it wouldn’t turn the blue too violet to the extent that it no longer looks like ultramarine at all.
While doing research to look for samples to post, I stumbled across a vibrant blue dye that derived from “Eastern” brazil wood. I have included the powder and a fabric sample posted online as it is this color that would make sense to add to Ultramarine to make it more true to form. Once again, I wish I spoke Italian so I could literally look at the translation. Well, maybe after my Czech classes are done…
What I find interesting is that “Eastern Brazil Wood” often shares the same images with “Indigo” images during a google search. That might be the next color I cover as I am now curious.
Below are images of the wood and its extract. I have also included the extract from Eastern Brazil Wood and fabrics dyed with this extract.
There is a great site that discusses dying with Brazil wood.

Brazil wood chips



Brazil wood Extract



Eastern Brazil Wood Extract and products dyed with it (A little to bright for Indigo?)




Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Ultramarine Blue – Part II

Continued excerpt from “Il Libro dell’Arte” or “The Craftsman’s Handbook” (Translation by D. V. Thompson,. Pages 36-37). 15th Century handbook for artists.

“It is true that the fine kind is more useful in illuminators, and for making draperies with lights on them. When you have this powder all ready, get six ounces of pine rosin from the druggists, three ounces of gum mastic, and three ounces of ne wax, for each pound of lapis lazuli; put all these things into a new pipkin, and melt them up together. Then take a white linen cloth and strain these things into a gazed washbasin. Then take a pound of this lapis lazuli powder, and mix it all up thoroughly, and make a plastic of it, all incorporated together. And have some linseed oil, and always keep your hands well greased with this oil, so as to be able to handle the plastic. You must keep this plastic for at least three days and three nights, working it over a little bit every day; and bear in mind that you may keep it in plastic for two weeks or a month, or as long as you like. When you want to extract the blue from it, adopt this method. Make two sticks out of a stout rod, neither too thick nor too thin; and let them each be a foot long; and have them well rounded at the top and the bottom, and nicely smoothed. And then have your plastic in the gazed washbasin where you have been keeping it; and put into it about a porringful of lye, fairly warm; and with these two sticks, one in each hand, turn over and squeeze and knead the plastic, this way and that, just as you work over bread dough with your hand, in just the same way, . When you have done this until you see your lye is saturated with blue, draw it off into a glazed porringer. Then take as much lye again, and put it back in on to the plastic and work it over as these sticks as before.  When the lye has turned quite blue, put it into another porringer…and go on doing this for several days in the same way until the plastic will not longer color the lye; and then throw it away, for it is no longer any good. Then arrange all these porringers in front of you on a table, in series; that is, the yields, first, second, third, fourth, arranged in succession; and with your hand stir up in each the lye with the blue which, on account of the heaviness of the blue, will have gone to the bottom; and then your will learn the yields of blue. Weight the question of how many grades of blue you want; whether three, four or six, or however many you want; bearing in mind the first yields are the best, just as the first porringer is better than the second. And so if you have eighteen porringers of the yields and you wish to make three grades of blue, you take six porringers and mix them together, and reduce it to one porringer; and that will be one grade…but bear in mind that if you have good lapis lazuli, the blue from the first two yields will be worth eight ducats an ounce.* The last two yields are worse than ashes: therefore be prudent in your observation, so as not to spoil the fine blues for the poor ones.” To be continued tomorrow…

* My research on the value of a 15th century ducat (as I am a nerd for context): A ducat was the internationally accepted gold currency produced in Venice (it had about 3.5 grams of gold in each coin). Some websites post 1 ducat as the equivalent to $150 USD. Today’s monetary equivalent for a 15th century ducat is greatly contested and some believe it could be worth $250. Leonardo made about 50-100 ducats a year, and at the end of life had some years that he made approximately 400 ducats. In 1453 Medici had a wealth of 200,000 ducats.

The pictures included in the post below illustrate Cennini’s process!  They are from Randy Asplund’s webpage concerning book illumination techniques.  Here is the link:

Asplund describes Making the 15th century style Schiff Book, including great process pictures and materials.  It is a great website!


Materials needed for creating blue paint to illuminate books


Grinding blue and turning it into a fine powdered pigment


A 15th century porringer