“The Digital Divide” Test One – Printed Muslin Under the Brush
The Scenic Artists and their teams wrote this as much as I did. If you’re a Scenic Artist, (or love and keep one), trust me when I tell you that anything in here that seems remotely professional comes directly from them.
Okay, a little housekeeping …
If you read the first article in this series, then you know the reasons, learned the rules and met the Artists. If not, click HERE, I’ll wait ...
Welcome back. I promise that’s the most you’ll ever hear from me in all of this. If you didn’t read it, here’s the gist;
B.I.T.N. wanted to see if digital printing on theatrical materials could be a helpful tool in the production process so we gave samples to two incredibly talented Scenic Artists to see if that was a dumb idea.
You can check out a video of the results on out You Tube Channel by clicking HERE
And if you’re a Scenic Artist, a Technical Director, Designer or Project Manager and want to try this yourself, then click HERE and I will hook you up.
Okay, that’s it. On with the show. Without further ado here’s what happened when Charge Scenic Artists Brigitte Bechtel and Angelique Powers put digitally printed muslin under the brush …
Muslin is a plain weave cotton fabric. Without a doubt it’s the most used textile in theatre. Woven in widths up to 40 feet, Muslin is used for Backdrops, Cycloramas, Scenic Flats and light bounces. Skilled Scenics can make it into just about anything.
The Sample I offered to Brigitte and Angelique was a black and white NYC skyline image. The material is a 8.25 oz per sq. yd, 100% cotton Muslin with a medium weave. It is rated NFPA 701, comes up to 40 feet in width and is printed seamlessly at that width using Big Image Systems’ Infinitus printers.
Neither Brigitte nor Angelique had any idea what the other had done. What surprised me was how similar their tests were. Both tested washes, barriers and sealers, and both had attempted to change the color of the sky with back painting.
First stop was the small but organized paint room at the Rarig Center, home to the University of Minnesota’s Theatre Program. I was there to meet Angelique Powers, Charge Scenic, teacher and Co-Founder of the Guild of Scenic Artists. With her was Guild Co-Founder and Scenic Artist Lili Payne, who currently specializes in murals.
“One of the things you can do with it is a simple wash of color with Scenic paints,” Angelique said.
She’d cut the sample into pieces to do a lot of testing at once on clean sections. She produced a strip of the printed city filled with brilliant color.
“All of the (printed) cartooning will still show through.
”She was right, the printed outlines of the buildings showed through the pastel-like Hues of the wash.
“I wanted to change the color of a B+W image so I used a thin wash of color. I used Rosco Off Broadway colors with fitch and chip brushes,” Angelique explained, “The ratio was about 1:5 paint to water, (consistency of Skim Milk).”
“You could then go back through and fill in more details but, with the wash, the material is still soft and flexible.” She crumpled the strip in her hand to illustrate.
Made perfect sense to this non-Scenic. The colors were vibrant but unrealistic, it made sense that you would come back over it.
How long did it take to apply?
“Oh, wicked fast,” Angelique responded, “It took minutes”
“And that was mostly washing her brushes.” Lili chimed in.
“Yeah,” Angelique added, “it took me longer to mix the paints …”
Meanwhile, in Arizona
The Arizona Theatre Company Scene shop sits on the outskirts of Tucson. It’s down a hot dusty industrial road on the other side of the tracks. You can almost reach out and touch the rusty desert Hills and there’s a great roadhouse within walking distance. Yes. It’s awesome …
I’ve been there before to meet with Charge Scenic Artist Brigitte Bechtel. She runs a tight ship, and I’ve never visited when the shop wasn’t loud and busy and hard at work …
Along with Brigitte I was also meeting two other Scenics who had a hand in the testing, Scenic Artist Mallory Harwell and Scenic Intern Kathlyn Anthony.
The sample was laid out on a shop table. She’d kept it in one piece, allowing her Scenics to play with different techniques across the entire image.
Another wash. Midtown glowed in blues, yellows and purples and the waters of New York Harbor were bright blue in the black and white distance …
“It looks like you did the same type of Thing Angelique did,” I remarked.
“I used thinned out Rosco “Supersat” and water,” Brigitte explained. “So this is a wash. Typically, one uses water, or a clear medium in order to thin paints for translucencies. I say typically because there is always an exception in Scenic Art.”
“How long would it take you to do that, say, if this were a full-sized drop?” I asked. She motioned to a roughly 2’x2’ area of the 4’x3’ sample …
“My little part was this area here, and I would say it only took me a couple hours, including mixing the paints,” she said, “So you could take this area and extrapolate out and get a sense of the time it would take.”
BARRIERS, SEALERS AND MAGIC SKIES
“I feel like you could buy that at Ikea,” Lili quipped, “That exact print …”
In Minnesota, Angelique held up the largest piece of her sample, the main area of the skyline which she had stretched and stapled to a wooden frame.
“You can’t do starch. If you want to paint the back of it you have to seal it.” Angelique observed, “So I did Rosco Clear Flat.”
Why not a starch barrier?
“My preference for creating a barrier layer, (sealing), is always going to be a cooked starch recipe, (for cost reasons),” she answered, “but in my sample, your fabric, which is thicker and more absorbent than normally used muslin, just drank up the starch and I wasn’t able to get it to properly “seal” the backside of the fabric. When that sort of thing happens, I then choose to step it up a notch and use a PVA or Rosco Clear Flat.”
She spun the sample around to reveal the work on the backside. Angelique had transformed the sky to vibrant color. The buildings were painted flat grey …
“This is just Scenic Paint. It’s no longer as flexible.”
I felt it. Yeah, not soft. But would that be comparable to a completely painted drop?
I wondered if she had sealed the entire back of the sample, including the city area.
“Yes, but only once. Had I done it twice I would not have had the Holidays. I thinned the Rosco Flat just enough to get it to flow off the brush easier but still maintain a good viscosity.”
HOLIDAY – A term used by Scenics to describe paint that’s missed a spot or, “Gone on Vacation.” This explained the blobs of color visible in the sky. A missed spot of sealer had allowed the paint to take a vacation through to the front.
I wanted to know if Angelique had to modify the way she applied it to this printed material or if it was business as usual …
“I modified,” Angelique replied. “Because the printed muslin is so much more absorbent, I didn’t have any “Slide” with the paint; once it touched the fabric it was not moving, so that took a learning curve to get correct …”
After she got the hang of it the paint did not bleed in any uncontrollable ways. “That occurs often when having to paint on prints using a synthetic substrate,” she remarked.
Lili positioned the sample in the doorway of a storeroom, a light left on inside. Angelique flipped off the lights in the main room. Immediately, the white sky exploded into a multi-colored sunset over New York City. The grey behind the buildings masked any light from spilling through the cityscape.
“So now we have a magic sunset.” Angelique said. “In a sense it’s what your other product, (Translight) does, but what we have is the ability to fix it as we go. If a designer doesn’t have time to give you, the printer, all of the information, we as scenics can still have conversations with words …”
“I’ll let Kathlyn explain what she did …” Brigitte said.
At the Arizona Theatre Company Scene Shop we huddled around the sample. The sky had a similar color to what Angelique had done but it was bleeding through to the face of the image.
“This part, (The Sky) took a long time, but then again, I am learning,” Kathlyn said.
That’s okay, she’s an intern, she still knows more than I do …
“Was this all done on the back?” I asked her.
“Yeah, all on the back.”
She folded over the sky portion, revealing much brighter streaks of color.
“I marked off then painted over the marks,” Kathlyn explained. “I tested different barrier layers in each section.”
“When you say Barriers?” I inquired.
“I mixed PVF with water and then put down different layers …”
PVF is Plastic Varnish Flat. This is a sculptural Arts Coating very similar to Rosco Clear Flat. Kathlyn motioned to three sections on the back, left, center and right.
“On the left it was just one layer. Then in the middle it’s three layers and on the right I did one layer of a 1:1 PVF/water ration then over that I did a 2:1 ratio. To see if it would work.”
“And did it?”
Kathlyn flipped it back over. “Not particularly …”
Later, I asked Brigitte about the Holidays that happened during that test …
“I think this was due entirely to Kathlyn thinning the barrier layer (the PVF) too far down, or not doing enough passes with the mixture to build up a good coat, “ Brigitte considered, “I have used PVF interchangeably with Clear Flat for years – I find PVF a tad more flexible in my opinion.”
USING A PRINT AS A LAYOUT
Brigitte focused on the lower corner of her sample. This section of the city was intricately painted …
“This little section here was by a different artist trying a different technique. He was using this print as more of a cartooned layout, he was literally working on top of the print with opaque paints.”
The artist was using the black and white image as a layout and had taken his time to color in amazing detail. Each window was painted, shadows filled in accurately, it popped off the drop in three dimensions.
“the effect is really nice …”
“Yeah, he made it more painterly,” she replied holding the section in her hand, “It’s a little stiff.”
But that’s a lot of detail …
“Yeah,” Brigitte said, “This artist is more of a fine artist. I think you can still achieve the effect even if you mix the paints in a more “Scenic Art” type of way.”
I asked what type of paint he used …
“The Scenic used regular Rosco Paints, but he did not thin them down very much, if at all. He was working straight from the paint on a palette and mixing in a bit of water as he painted – very Bob Ross style.”
What did she mean by “achieving the same effect if the paints were mixed in a more Scenic Paint Style”?
“What I meant was to pre-mix his consistencies down a bit, so the paint flowed a bit nicer. He could have achieved a similar painted effect with less effort I believe if he had worked with a paint that was a bit thinner and approach the process in layers, rather than working up each of the buildings individually, from one corner out.”
With the testing over, I caught up with Angelique and Brigitte to reflect on the experience. Exactly how did digitally printed Muslin behave?
“Overall, what would you say are your biggest concerns?”
“There’s definitely still some R&D to do to get a reliable mix of materials to play nice over the ink,” Brigitte said.
“Also,” Angelique added, “as a Scenic, I’d be nervous with the idea of being stuck with a layout that I would have a hard time changing. If the designer makes a mistake with a print, you can only tweak the printed image so much before you would wish you would have done it from scratch …”
Okay. So care would need to be taken in the design phase, and more research is needed. Both of them had mentioned and revealed some specific challenges and I wanted to make sure I understood.
1. “BRUSH SUCK”
Angelique coined the term when discussing how the Muslin took the paint. She’s quick to point out that it’s not a technical Scenic term, but I wanted her to explain a bit more.
“It goes to the idea of fabric wicking or sucking the paint right off the brush and not letting it shift or wiggle a bit before it gets absorbed into the surface.”
Is this common in working with Muslin or was it something that was more pronounced on this sample because of its weight/weave?
“Not nearly as much on this particular material, and the answer to that is dependent on a lot of factors. You call your material Muslin, but I find it to be thicker and much softer than canvas.
2. “ALTERING THE PRINT”
Angelique had taken the time to conduct water testing on the image.
“Originally, I had done water testing because you had mentioned your concern about how a printed muslin would hold up in an outdoor environment. So I decided to test how easily the ink would come off under wet conditions.”
She had shown me how difficult it was to scrub the printed image from the Muslin. This made me think of what the consequences of printing the cartooning or a pounce outline incorrectly and having to alter it.
This led to an attempt to erase the printed image using water and a green Scotch Brite pad.
“If a Designer had designed something into an image that we didn’t want, trying to wash it off to erase it might be one part of a solution to hiding the error,” Angelique cautioned, “but hard and potentially time consuming. So this is good for you the printer, but not necessarily for us.”
This one was for Brigitte. The Clear Flat Angelique had applied largely held back the Holidays in the sky, the barrier test Kathlyn did didn’t hold back the paint. Of course she’s an intern so she’s there to learn, and she freely admitted that her specialty isn’t backdrops, so she gets a total pass. But the PVF and the ratios she used didn’t successfully provide the barrier needed. In your experience, why not? Is this a common problem across the board or did you feel it was it more pronounced with this particular sample?
“I suspect that the weave of the printed Muslin is a tad more open than on Muslin we typically work with, so we need to take care to adjust our barrier layers appropriately to fill the holes in the weave. My intern, not having the background knowledge, approached the sample as a more typical process to begin with. It’s a common problem, and when dealing with a barrier layer on a new fabric it’s important to do what she did; test test test!”
Now I wanted to know what were the positives? From the standpoint of traditional Scenic techniques, did this sample behave in the way that you are used to Muslin behaving?
“ish”, was Brigitte’s response. “At first it was a bit harder to work on, since the material had already been through a treatment process during printing. However, once we got the feel for adjusting our materials and techniques to the new substrate it was very easy.”
Angelique agreed. “Once you’ve learned the nuance of the fabrics’ capabilities, it becomes much easier to manipulate the fabric and image.”
Could you actually see where it could be a useful tool in the shop?
“In a time crunch for sure, when the Scenics do not have the resources to spend two weeks on a drop,” Brigitte remarked.
“I agree with Brigitte,” Angelique said. “to me a printed drop is a tool to help me get a complex job done in a shorter amount of time, similar to pounces and using a projector for layout.”
As Lili had remarked;
“I just did a planar painting event. I started my painting by doing this bright yellow and magenta underpainting then I painted on top of that. It would be fun to do a massive Backdrop in the same way. If it came from the factory printed in something entirely NOT what the drops going to look like in the end, but it’s that first step.”
All in all, a solid start. Like any Scenic endeavor it takes a bit of experimentation to achieve the final desired effect, but because the prints are on materials that a Scenic is already familiar with the extra challenges of working with a vinyl or poly material are not relevant.
Plus, that’s the point of the series, to arm you with enough information to get the jump on it.
B.I.T.N. isn’t interested in replacing a Scenic. Along with our parent Big Image Systems we’d rather be a part of the process, not a replacement for it …
IN THE NEXT “DIGITAL DIVIDE” – Angelique applies UV reactive painted highlights to a digital print and we throw a Rosco Pica Cube UV on it to see how it works.
1. The Guild of Scenic Artists is a community, real and virtual, created by and for Scenic Artists. Click below to learn more about this terrific organization;
2. Check out more of Brigitte Bechtel’s work on her page;
3. Learn more about Angelique Powers by clicking here;
4. Take a look at the work of Scenic Artist Lili Payne by clicking here;
5. See the work of up and comer Mallory Harwell by clicking here;
6. And yes, even Interns have their own online portfolio, click here;
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