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The Death of the Paintbrush

by Corey Shelsta
South Dakota State University Theatre

     Large format printers get a lot of use in the theatre department.  We print our groundplans, technical drawings, and light plots.  We can print large radius sweeps in full scale to make them easier to cut in the scenery shop or print full scale cutting patterns for intricate windows.  The costume shop prints full size custom patterns for costume pieces.  One use often overlooked is using it to print stage size scenic elements.  In this article I will discuss some ideas and methods for using your large format printer to put your paint shop out of work.
   It started a number of years ago in a production meeting.  The prop master was bemoaning a series of specific paintings required for a production.  As I sat at the table I recalled having to track down a picture of cucumbers for a production of No Sex Please, We’re British, and who has not had to deal with reproducing that Kandinsky painting for Six Degrees of Separation?  “We need them all to be about two by three,” I heard him say as my mind returned to the meeting.  I glanced down at the light plot in front of me on the table, neatly printed on Architectural D size paper – 24” x 36”.
    I cannot even count the number of paintings, posters, newspapers, logos, and other things I have printed for props since that time.  Most often we simply scale up a jpeg found on the internet such as in the photo below of the Byzantine images from Pippin
Description: D:\jpg\Pippin_32.jpg

With the abundance of readily available images, almost anything can be found.  Other times we use an image of an actor that has been processed in a photo editing program to appear more painterly.  The completed image is then printed out and used on the set, such as the portrait of Grandpa Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace below.
Description: D:\jpg\Arsenic_11.jpg
                                    Arsenic and Old Lace

    The natural evolution of printing things for props led me to experiment with printing full scenic flat-sized pictures.  If I can print something that is two by three, surely I can print something that is two by fourteen.  The setup is actually very simple- a photo editing program installed on a computer and a large format printer.  I use Corel PhotoPaint and Adobe PhotoShop for editing the images.  For those on a budget both Macs and PCs have photo editors pre installed, and there are a number of free photo editors out there such as Picasa and GIMP.  My printer is an HP DesignJet 500.  It prints images up to two feet wide.  Had I known that I would be using it for printing scenery when I purchased it, I would have looked at a three foot wide (or larger) model.
    The first full set I printed was for a production of Leaving Iowa.  The set began with a map of Iowa I found on the internet.  Description:
                                      Leaving Iowa Map

I took sections of the map and layered them on a scaled image of the flats.  Each section was stretched, distorted and color manipulated.  The rough images are shown below. 

          Description: \\moray.jacks.local\corey.shelsta\Documents and Settings\My Documents\My Files and Documents\Drawings and Shows\iowa flats\iowa_flat1.jpg

          Description: \\moray.jacks.local\corey.shelsta\Documents and Settings\My Documents\My Files and Documents\Drawings and Shows\iowa flats\iowa_flat3.jpg

                              Leaving Iowa small scale jpegs

    It is much easier and faster to work with a small image and then blow it up to its full size right before it is printed.  The printable width on a two foot printer is actually slightly less than two feet.  In order to cover a four foot wide flat, the images were divided into horizontal sections and printed on paper sheets that were two feet high by five feet.  The extra paper at the ends gives us part of the paper to hang on to while it is being put in place. 
    The flats were hard surfaced and painted white.  Unpainted ply can show through the surface of the paper and distort the colors of the image.  As this was our first attempt, the shop crew simply used the white paint we had on hand which was a flat white.  Gloss works much better as it gives a smoother surface for the adhesive to bind to.  Once the paint was dry, we used a spray adhesive to attach the paper, making sure to keep it stretched as we placed it.  Each section was then added, carefully lining up the seams. 
    Another lesson learned from this first time experiment was the effect of humidity in the South Dakota summer on paper.  As can be seen in the photo below, wrinkles and folds appeared in the set as time went on.  Description: D:\jpg\Leaving_11.jpg
                                          Leaving Iowa

    These were easily fixed, but heavier paper and better adhesion techniques as we have done this more have helped lessen the effects of humidity on subsequent projects.  Incidentally, the wrinkles in the paintings from Pippin were actually put in on purpose to add an aged look.  
    The New York skyline window in White Christmas was done in a similar fashion.  Because this was intended to look like a window, we had the advantage of the window frames to hide the seams.  This picture was blown up and divided into 8 equal sections measuring approximately two by fourteen.  It was spray mounted on gloss white hard covered flats and the window detail added on top.  The effect was quite stunning on stage when the curtain went up on the scene.
Description: D:\production\Christmas_50.jpg

Description: D:\production\Christmas_47.jpg
White Christmas

Some tips for printing scenery:

    Printing scenic elements has saved us a lot of time in our shop.  Complicated designs that would take days to paint can be done in an afternoon.  While not a substitute for good scenic painting, it offers an additional technique to be used in our productions for often very dramatic effects.