How to Become a Scenic Artist
by Elise Collins
Being a professional scenic artist is a challenging and fulfilling line of work/career that requires artistic skill, years of training, union membership, and the ability to work well with others. To understand what it takes to become a professional scenic artist, we will follow a theoretical artist, Artie, on her journey from average joe to professional scenic artist at Scenic Art Studios. Artie’s passion for scenic art may begin when she sees a Broadway show, when she checks out Scenic Art Studios’ Instagram page, or when she majors in technical theatre in college. Even though Artie has little to no painting experience, she has passion and a willingness to learn. Even though it is hard work, she wants to try to make a living off of painting.
Since scenic painting requires a very particular set of skills, Artie decides to pursue training. She understands that scenic artists are highly specialized painters that are required to work on large-scale two-dimensional and three-dimensional paintings that are often realistic. Therefore, Artie looks for courses specific to scenic painting instead of just taking general painting classes.
Scenic artists need knowledge of general painting techniques, art history, and techniques specific to scenic art. Artie decides to develop all of these skills through the three-year vocational school at The Studio and Forum of Scenic Arts. While at the school, Artie is trained by industry professionals about light and color theory, how to paint landscapes, and techniques for creating translucent drops. Artie learns how to draw, layout, and reproduce theatrical backdrops. She becomes skilled at making the two-dimensional look three-dimensional by using trompe de l’oeil technique.. By learning art history and painting techniques from the 16th to 19th century, she feels prepared to reproduce master paintings and pass the union exam…
Artie decides that she want to take it to the next level and work for Scenic Art Studios. In order to paint here, she must be a member of the union, the Local USA 829 branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (otherwise known as IATSE). Since she has cultivated her skills with The Studio and Forum of Scenic Arts, she considers entering the union through one of two tracks: the TRACK A Exam or the TRACK B “Open” Exam. After gaining three years of professional non-academic experience as a scenic artist, Artie could take the TRACK A Exam. She will be interviewed for 20 minutes, her portfolio will be reviewed, and several assigned samples which she paints will be evaluated. If Artie does not have enough professional experience for TRACK A, she could take the TRACK B “Open” Exam. This consists of a written general aptitude test, a home project, a 20-minute interview and a practical studio skills test. (More information on the union exams can be found here.)
After passing the union exam with flying colors, Artie pays the $3,500 initiation fee and joins the union. She gets in touch with Scenic Art Studios, asks about employment opportunities, and is hired as a journey Scenic Artist. Artie is hired as a journey Scenic Artist due to her talent for scenic painting, her strong work ethic, and her ability to get along well with others. While working 35-hour weeks in the shop, she has to be able to paint quickly to fulfill quick turnaround times, sometimes spending only a few days or weeks to complete a drop. Every day is different, and she must problem solve about how to create specific effects when approaching a challenging drop. She learns safety regulations, so she can keep herself and her coworkers safe. She recreates designers’ elevations on a large scale with precision and an eye for detail. While most painters deal with relatively small canvases, she paints thousands of square feet of drops and scenery each year.
After a couple months at Scenic Art Studios, working in a career she finds fulfilling with talented and supportive artists, Artie realizes that she hasn’t just discovered her calling – she has discovered a new place she can call home.