WINTER IS BEER. Using beer as a binder to create realistic ice and snow effects

Okay, confession time … I suck at Scenic Art ... Yeah, I know, that's exactly how I started the last How To I wrote on applying stage makeup.  But as far as I'm concerned, this is a How To, as in;

"I would really like to know HOW TO do that thing that I suck at ..."

This article could not have been written without the immeasurable input from Angelique Powers. BITN can’t thank her and the Scenic Guild enough for this …

When BITN visited the Scenic Guild earlier this year, and the conversation drifted to painting with beer, I knew that I had our next How To.  Angelique Powers; Scenic Artist, Educator and Co-Founder of the Guild Of Scenic Artists was more than happy to fill in the may blanks.  The result is this cool How To.

And yes, that’s a pun …

This How To is going to talk about the scenic technique of using beer and Epsom salt to create super realistic ice and frost on a Plexiglas surface.  If you’re an old Scenic dog you probably know this trick.  But if you’re new to the business, or if you’re doing Scenic for a High School production, a display window or trying to add a little wintery magic to your Holiday event or environment this technique is cheap, easy and the results are amazing.


In the art world a binder is defined as – “A liquid component of paint that solidifies as it dries and thereby serves to bind the pigment particles and develop adhesion to a surface. Also known as binder.”

Any scenic knows that, of course.  And binders are generally one of two types; plant based such as linseed oil, methyl cellulose, extracts and gums, or protein based such as egg whites or Casein. Even todays most advanced scenic paints use one of these two naturally occurring elements as the binding agent in their lines.

But painting is only one part of a Scenic Artists’ job.  Another part is taking stuff and making it look like other stuff;  MDF to stone.  Foam to wood.  Plywood to rough oak.  For this part, paints and pigments take a backseat and the binding agents become important all by themselves. It’s the part where a scenic gets to apply both experience and experimentation based on the needs and rigors of the job.

Set Design for “Terminus”

When Angelique Powers was charged with doing the scenic for The Abbey Theatre’s American tour of “Terminus” in 2011 one of the effects she had to produce was the effect of ice and frost on burnt glass.  This meant solving two interesting problems.  First, what to use to create the icy look and second how to bind it to Plexiglas.

To achieve the look of realistic frost and ice,  Angelique relied on a tried and true Scenic technique;  Epsom Salt.

Epsom Salt crystals

“It’s all about the shape and size of the salt crystals before you dissolve them with a liquid. Epsom salt is made with magnesium and is a larger prism shape, vs table salt is more like a tiny cube. Dissolving salt ruins its original shape and once the water has evaporated, science happens and its left all wonky and stretched out – ie frosty finger shapes!”



Next was the binder that would hold the salt to the plexiglas.  “Beer makes a good binder because it can hold your medium to the surface but can be washed away with a good scrubbing,” Angelique explained, “We will often mix it with tints and glazes to create faux wood treatments, and they used to use it with dry pigments for drops.”


To ensure that some scenic elements held up to heavy traffic, Angelique applied the mixture to what would be the underside of the piece.  To achieve the look of cold burnt glass, a black tint was applied to the mixture to approximate smoke and soot.

Now it was my turn …  I had sprung the idea to do this How To on Angelique out of the blue, there wasn’t really a photo documentation of the process, so I figured if I wanted to show how this works I had to roll up my sleeves and buy some beer …

The sacrifices we make in pursuit of knowledge …




4 tbsp. of Epsom Salt per one cup of beer.

A mixing container

A Whisk

A suitable substrate

Chip brush, (if desired)


SURFACE AREA COVERED – This will vary wildly depending on the ultimate effect you want to achieve.  A little goes a long way, and depending upon the design requirements.  A cup will get you far.



I wanted to know if there was a certain beer that worked better than another, knowing only enough about beer to tell you that there’s a million of them, and they are all different and stuff. 

… A beer snob I am not.

“It’s a dealers choice,” she said, “as in whatever one you want to take a sip of before you mix it.” She told me a lot of Scenics say a lager works best.  She once did a sampler – for the sake of art – “I did find that a nice, full bodied beer (like a Fosters) works best.”


Angelique walked me through the steps.  “You need to prep the beer prior to adding the Epsom salt,” she begins.

Pour your beer into a bucket. “Stir it up really well,” she advises, “so it gets extra foamy.  Then let it sit for an hour. The longer the better, even overnight to really go flat before mixing it with the salt.”

While the beer is going flat, it’s time to prep the surface.  In this case, clear plexi.  “If I know the plexi is going to get a lot of traffic I have been known to give it a light sand with a 200 grit sandpaper,” she told me, “but most of the time I can just make sure it’s a nice clean dry surface.”

NOTE – She’s never done this technique with the plexi installed and in a vertical position.  It could be done, she says, however the process would be much harder. She recommends laying the Plexiglas flat on paper or drop cloths to make clean up easier.  



Once the beer has turned flat it’s time to add the salt and apply the mixture.  Knowing what I know about how bars smell at closing time, I asked Angelique if there is an, uh, odor problem.  “After it dries and evaporates it’s fine,” she says, “It’s during the process that your shop can smell a little like a frat party.”

RATIO – 4 tablespoon of salt per 1 cup of beer.

“Pour it in and whisk it until the salt dissolves into the beer,” she instructs. “Once again, I’ll let it sit for another 5-10 minutes to flatten out any bubbles if needed, then will give it another quick stir.”


VISCOSITY – The mixture should have the consistency of olive oil;  it pours and can holiday easily, but it’s slightly heavier than water.



Angelique explains the application. “I’ll start out with a slow, careful pour,” she says,”If I want to control the shape a simple chip brush can apply and shape the placement.  I have done a bit of splatter along the edges to give it a little bit of a fade.”

I wondered if I had to take more than one pass. “You shouldn’t need two coats,  Besides, if you pour a second coat it’ll simply dissolve the first one.” She continued, “it really comes down to whether to add a little more in one area to get rid of holidays, or using a rag if it’s spread too far and you need to wash some of it away.”


As Angelique explained it, this is a sit and wait type of drying process.  “Direct fans won’t be your friend on this, it’ll just push your liquid around.  This is the type of technique I like to do at the end of the day, so it can do it’s science overnight and in the morning I have magic!”



The next day, the results were in! and speak for themselves.  The Beer had evaporated, leaving behind an incredibly realistic crystalline sheet of ice over the plexiglass where the mixture was applied.  I wanted to ask Angelique about the effect and how it would hold up. How tough was this stuff?

“It will scrape away if you really try, but generally it holds up really well, especially in low-traffic areas,” She explained to me, “Undisturbed, it can stick to the plexi for years before it starts to get weird …”

My own test resulted in pretty tough stuff. It’s hard to scrape off, (not impossible, it’ll wash off easily), but you don’t need to treat it with too much care if it will be in low traffic area of your set.   I was curious as to whether this could or should be sealed …

“You shouldn’t need to seal the frosted effect,” Angelique summed up, “but if the scenic piece is going to get a lot of handling, I would suggest thinning a simple clear flat with some water and lightly applying with a preval type sprayer.  You need to be very careful with this application that you don’t over saturate or it will all dissolve.”


So there you have it.  An amazing Scenic technique that can easily and cheaply add a frosty touch to your set, display or live event.  Even I could do it, and like I said …

I suck at Scenic Art.  But now I suck just a little bit less …

To learn more about the Guild of Scenic Artists click HERE





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