Often your play or musical will require stage scenery that needs to look like a textural surface: a real plaster wall, cement, brick, dirt, tile, or rough barn wood, to name just a few examples. This surface application must be lightweight, durable, and cost-effective, and it has to look real to the audience.
This article contains a simple recipe and technique to achieve that look. As in any recipe, once you start with the basics, you can experiment with variations to suit your needs.
This technique is for hard scenery (scenery built with wood). It is not suitable for muslin-covered flats, backdrops, anything that must fly into a fly loft, and other soft surfaces. It is particularly effective on luan covered flats, platforms, stair units, turntables, rolling units, special furniture, and other hard surfaces.
The quantities in the materials list below are sufficient to apply texture to about 100 square feet of scenery.
- 1 gallon of joint compound (purchased from any hardware store).
- 1 gallon of flexible glue (recommended: Rosco FlexBond, which is available through most theatrical supply stores or rosebrand.com). Elmer’s Glue and wood glues are rigid glues and will not work. You’ll use about a third of this, mixed with the joint compound at a 1:3 ratio.
- A half teaspoon of universal tint color of your choice and 1 teaspoon of raw umber color tint, sold under the brand names Pro-Line and Cal-Tint, among others, and available at most paint stores (not home improvement stores). Universal tint is a concentrated pigment, not paint.
- 1 gallon of water-based primer. Recommended: Benjamin Moore Fresh Start, Kilz, BIN, Z-Prime.
- 1 gallon semigloss latex (water-based) house paint, color of your choice.
- 1 quart of water-based glazing medium (Benjamin Moore, McCloskey’s, Sherwin Williams or Rosco Clear Flat or Clear Gloss).
- Wide putty knives (at least 4 to 6 inches)
- A natural sponge (not a household sponge)
- Roller pan, 9″ roller frame, 9″ roller sleeve
- Chip brushes (various sizes from 2 to 4 inches)
- Bucket of water
- Plastic buckets for mixing
- Long stir sticks, or a drill motor with a “Jiffy” mixer
- Sawhorses are handy for supporting the scenic elements you’re working on.
Roll a coat of water-based primer on the wood surface to be textured. This seals the wood surface and creates “tooth” (gripping power that helps the texture compound adhere to the wood). I do not recommend bypassing this step. If you are texturing many surfaces or pieces, you may want to place them on sawhorses for easy access.
While your primer is drying, you can get the texture compound mixed and ready. Using a large plastic bucket, mix three parts joint compound to one part flexible glue. A “Jiffy” mixer (a metal mixing paddle that’s sold at paint stores) is handy for this.
The glue will give flexibility to the joint compound. Without it, the joint compound will dry rigid and brittle. Unlike the walls in a house, stage scenery moves, so the texture has to be flexible to adhere to the surface and move with the scenery. Without flexible glue, joint compound applied to scenery will crack and fall off when the scenery is moved.
Once you have mixed the joint compound and the flexible glue to the consistency of peanut butter, add the half-teaspoon of tint. This is to color the joint compound so if it chips on your scenery, it will not show a white chip mark.
Advanced texture: Once you are comfortable working with this basic recipe, you can add other items to the joint compound mixture to give it additional texture: ground walnut shells, sawdust, clean kitty litter (not the scoop kind), vermiculite (a plant soil additive), shredded paper, and so forth.
Once the primer is dry, you can apply your prepared texture compound. Spread the texture onto the wood surface with a putty knife. You can spread it smooth or put grooves in it or make dashed skipping lines—whatever you choose. Do not, however, put the compound on thick. A thick application of the mixture will take forever to dry, and it will crack. If you want to build up the surface, multiple thin coats that are allowed to dry between applications will work much better.
As you spread the mixture, keep in mind that the glazing and painting techniques that you use in the next steps will create different colors to the high and low areas of the textured surface, emphasizing the irregularities.
When the texture is completely dry, you can paint it. For the look of an old plaster wall, roll a base coat of the semigloss paint over the textured surface. It needs to be semigloss because you want a slick surface for the glazing, which you will apply in the next step, to slide over.
In a separate bucket, mix the glazing compound with a half-teaspoon of the raw umber tint. Depending on the glazing product you’re using, you may want to add a small amount of water (read the directions on the can). Using a chip brush, apply the tinted glazing product on the semigloss surface. Important: work in small sections and do not allow the glazing to dry.
Take a wet natural sponge and pat, wipe, or rub off the glazing product from the highest parts of your texture. Leave the glaze in the holes and deepest parts. Move on to the next section and do not allow the edges of the first section to dry. If you do, it will leave a ring or dry mark. Your working and drying time will depend on the humidity and temperature of your work area.
Once the glazing product is dry, you can add a highlight to the highest surfaces of your texture using a lighter color of paint. A “dry brush” technique is effective for this. Get a small amount of paint on the brush and then wipe most of it off on the lip of the can, and apply the paint lightly to the high parts of the surface.
One of the great things about this technique is its versatility. You can use it as a starting point to create so many other effects. The best way to learn what you can do with it is to experiment and see what you can devise on your own. Try spreading the texturing compound with some other tools such as a mason’s trowel, spatula, or cake frosting knife. Make patterns in it by rolling twisted rags on the top, stamping it with foam rubber stamps, or scoring it with a fork. You’ll be surprised at how many different surface textures you can create. ?
The door, bricks, lower wall section, and stoop of this scenery for the Cincinnati Playhouse production of Doubt were all textured using the technique described in this article. At top, a surface textured by the author to resemble old painted concrete.