DROPS Scene Painting Drama 3315 Gilliam

Thus far, we have explored scenic art as a means to recreate the illusion of natural surfaces: plaster walls, wood, brick, stone, marble, wallpaper, and curtains. These techniques can provide you with the necessary portfolio of skills to paint in a large number of theatres, generally those that focus on straight shows, dramas and comedies. Theatres that produce musicals usually require scenic artists who are versed in the art of mural painting or large-scale drops. The last two projects for this course will focus on skills related to painting drops.

ASSIGNMENT. Recreate a landscape painting. The painting must have trees and vegetation, a sky and landscape vista. 19th century artists are famous for romantic landscapes. You will need my approval before you begin. Look for a composition that can be translated to your 3’ x 6’ door. You may need to crop your painting into the 1to 2 ratio. The Landscape project is due November 18.

The following are deadlines to assist you in the process. Keep up.

T 11/04 Project Introduction. Demonstration: foliage techniques.
W 11/05 Landscape Elevation for Approval. Base coat your door with appropriate color.
R 11/06 Cartooning the Drop. You will need to bring to class your elevation redrawn (copied on tracing paper) as a line drawing and girded for transfer to your door. You will use the class time to cartoon your drop.
T 11/11 Painting Layers. By this class, you need to have cartooned your drop. Class time will be devoted to laying in color … background and middle ground. We will discuss texture techniques for foreground execution.
R 11/13 Oversprays, Kicking Back and Juicing Up the Drop. You need to come to class with a White Out of your drop. All shapes and forms need color. We will explore techniques to advance and recede aspects of the drop.
T 11/18 Studio Class. You may use this time to prepare for the Scenic Art Exhibit.

W 11/19 Scenic Artist’s Show and Exhibit in the Lobby of the Ruth Taylor Theater. The Exhibit will open at 12:30 for UTC and will run for the second week on MEASURE FOR MEASURE.


Traditionally, drops are used in musicals as backdrops for the scenery or to provide cover as a transitional scene to enable the scene changes. Presentational in form, a drop can represent a street scene, a forest or a country path. A production may begin with a town square with shops and the sort. In order to change the scenery to the next location, a drop may be employed for a short "book" scene or "cross-over" number. Normally hung downstage, a drop will be lowered to cover the entire stage proscenium. (In our theatre, the drop would measure 22’ tall by 45’ wide.) A scene would be painted onto the muslin drop to represent a location as specified by the play. Behind the drop, the scenery can be changed to the next location. Most musicals are structured to use drops.

There are two ways to paint a drop, "down" or "up". Painting a drop "up" requires a paint frame, which is usually mounted to the back wall of the theatre or scene shop. Muslin panels are sewn together with horizontal seams (never vertical) and then stapled to the paint frame. This style of painting requires scaffolds for the scenics. It is a lot of work for the painters who have to go up and down the scaffold units, not to mention you need to start at the top and paint down. The advantage is that it saves space. The first ten years of my design work at Trinity, we had a paint frame mounted to the back wall.

Most scenics prefer to paint drops "down". It is virtually impossible to paint drops at Trinity as they need to be painted on the stage floor. Nonetheless, when necessary, we always figure it out.


There are numerous books on scene painting, which explain the procedures for preparing a drop. I will provide an abbreviated explanation.

A. Sewing the Drop. If we have a 22x45 drop, I would order medium weight 144" muslin from a company like ROSEBRAND out of NY. I would purchase 30 yards of 144" wide muslin. Cut the muslin into two runs, 15 yards each. T-pin the panels together insuring that they are ABSOLUTELY straight and sew the seam together. This will take two people as you are dealing with a large volume of fabric. (If you lack the skill, purchase the drop sewn by Rosebrand but you must allow additional time for this service.) Back the top of the muslin with 4" jute webbing. Sew both sides of the webbing to the drop, top and bottom. Then place a 3/4" grommet every 9" in the center of the webbing. Make certain the grommets are in a straight line or the drop will hang with wrinkles. Insert black tie line through the grommets to attach the drop to a batten for flying. On the bottom of the drop, create a pipe pocket. Fold back a pocket for a 1 1/2" water pipe to weight the bottom of the drop and keep it straight. Make the pocket 4" and double seam the fold back. Double seam for safety in the event a seam rips, you do not want a 45’ long water pipe falling from the fly system. Ultimately, you will need to put two 22’ pipes with a coupling into the pocket. Make certain the pipe is degreased, without rust and clean. (Some theatres use 1" pipe or thick wall conduit.)

B. Stapling the Drop to the Floor. Map out your space to layout the drop. Make certain you have walkways around the drop. INSIST on good lighting from multiple directions as when you draw and paint, you do not want to work in your own shadow. Tape down plastic drop cloths so the drop will not stick to the stage floor. Establish a straight baseline. (I use the planks or plywood on the floor to line my drops.) Starting in the middle on the bottom, staple the muslin to the floor working your way out in one direction, then in the other. Make certain your line is straight. Then go to the top of the drop. Pull against the bottom starting in the center. Work your way out in both directions. This should create top, which is absolutely parallel with the bottom. Then, staple one side down start in the center and working out. Finally, staple the other end, center – out. In the end, your drop should be square with no wrinkles. Staple every 6 – 9". (If your stage floor is covered in masonite sheets, you will discover it very difficult to staple into this material. You may need to create a wooden "frame" on the floor, which you can screw down and then staple the muslin into the wood.

C. Base Coat the Drop. If you are going to paint a translucent drop, you will need to prime your drop with a starch mixture. See a scene-painting book for a recipe and instructions. Otherwise, base coat the entire drop with your sky base or the predominate middle tone color. Base the entire drop. This will shrink the muslin and provide a base for the painting.

D. Prepare the Line Drawing. The designer will provide a colored painter’s elevation usually in 1/2" scale. Sometimes, you receive a line drawing as well. If not, you will need to prepare your own. Protect the designer elevation by covering it with acetate. Then, use tracing paper to redraw the elevation showing only shapes and large blocks of color. You will use this to layout or cartoon the drop. Make copies of your line drawing. Grid the drawing using 2’x2’ squares in scale.

E. Cartooning the Drop. Grid your drop using a chalk line. The larger the grid the better. For your project, you may want to grid using 1’x1’ squares (no smaller). On a large drop, I usually grid every 2’. Select your chalk line color carefully. It comes in blue, red and white. As you may have discovered, it is difficult to erase the chalk so in theatres where this may be an issue, I purchase kite string. I place a screw outside the drop every 2’ and then stretch the string from screw to screw. This is time consuming so when possible use a chalk line. Then, using white chalk or vine charcoal and a bamboo pole, draw your drop. DO NOT draw texture or detail. This should be shapes and "paint-by-number" areas. Draw only what you need to lay-in your color. Depending on your drawing, you may want to go back with a magic marker and make your final drawing. (In the old days before magic markers, artists cartooned with a 1/2" liner and dye paints.)

F. Mix Your Paints. Before you start, mix all your paint (or the vast majority). Match color to the elevation by putting it on the acetate and drying it. You can wipe it off when you are done. Mixing color ahead of time will save you lots and lots of time in the execution. It removes that sort of decision making when you should be focused on wetblends and painting techniques.

G. White Out the Drop. Now, using the colored elevation, paint in the background colors first followed by the middle ground colors. Lay-in all the general shapes. Completely cover the entire drop before concentrating on texture and detail which establishes the foreground. Approach the drop like an assemble factory. Paint by numbers to achieve an overall painting.

H. Detailing. To create the illusion of perspective, paintings have layers which is achieved by over painting and detail. Backgrounds tend to be cooler in tone and flat in color (or slight gradual wet blends such as a sky.) Middle ground warms up a little and is defined by shapes. Foreground includes texture to define the objects. Duplicate the painter elevation.

I. Oversprays. Once you have completed detailing, you may need to go back into the drop to provide focus by shading the top and sides or washing down areas which are too prominent. Before doing this treatment, you need to gain a distant perspective of the work. Go into the balcony to see the drop from a distance or stand on a ladder or lift. When possible this should be done with the designer.

J. Hanging the Drop. Once you have completed the drop, remove the staples carefully. Hang and place the pipe in the bottom as soon as possible. This will help prevent wrinkles. (Make certain you counter weight the fly line for the drop.)

K. Getting Rid of Wrinkles. If you cannot hang the drop immediately, fold and store without pressing it or putting anything on top, which might make creases on the drop. Hang as soon as possible to "hang out" the wrinkles. If they persist, use a Hudson sprayer with clean water and back spray the drop. This will usually help it to shrink and flatten out.

Sample Drops