Theatrical Scenery: Preparing a Scenic Drop




Introduction: Theatrical Scenery: Preparing a Scenic Drop

About: In a past life I was a scenic designer, living in New York and building plays and fashion shows. Now, life has slowed down a bit and I'm figuring out how to be a good husband and dad.

This Instructable shows the first part in the process of painting a scenic drop. Later Instructables will show the drawing and painting techniques used. If you just can't wait and really, really want to paint a drop check out Scenic Art for the Theatre by Susan Crabtree and Peter Beudert.

A "drop" is a piece of scenery used in film and theatre to establish the location of a scene. Usually a drop is a large piece of fabric that has an image on it and hangs in the background. By using drops and other pieces of scenery it is possible to create convincing location changes. Over the last few years computer generated landscapes have become the method of choice used in film. However, live theatre still relies heavily on printed or painted drops. This instructable will show you the basic methods used in the preparing a drop used in theatre.

Also, it's hard to take pictures of every part of this process. Paint gets everywhere and I didn't want to ruin my camera. I drew the illustrations to clear up any confusing explanations. If you see something that isn't clear, tell me so I can clarify.

Step 1: Time, Space and Money

So you've been roped into painting a drop... now what do you do? You need to remember that before you even THINK about painting a drop you need:

1. Time to do it.
Don't think this is a one day process. You need time to paint, then let it dry, add more paint, let it dry again, etc. If it's a small project... okay, maybe a couple LONG days. Just don't expect to paint something 45' long and 20' high in "a day or two". Those are famous last words. If you're painting outside, it can be hard to paint after dark, so budget that into the time.

2. Space to paint it in.
Drops are usually BIG. Meaning you have to have a big space to paint in. I've had to paint on a roof and in a Chicago apartment. I don't recommend either. Shop space where you can lay it out on the floor or hang it on a frame are the best bet. (I prefer the floor.)

3. Money
Money is always an issue. No one wants to pay, but they want to have everything. Just remember before quoting a price make sure to work up a thorough estimate. You need to buy the fabric, paintbrushes, rollers, staples, pencils, chalk lines, paint trays, mixing buckets, rags, drop cloths, and a dozen things not listed here... and most importantly PAINT. Just remember, the bigger the surface, the more people you hire and the more colors you have, the higher the cost.

You actually HAVE all three of these things?! Awesome! Now we can get onto the fun stuff.

Step 2: Ordering the Fabric

First you need to get the material you are going to paint on. There are various types of fabric depending on the necessities of the scenery. For this Instructable we are going to be preparing a natural muslin drop.

Muslin is a light weight canvas. There are different weights in the muslin family, but usually they are all pretty thin. Medium or heavy weight muslin are used in drops. Larger drops require heavier muslin. Don't think artist canvas, think bed sheet. "Natural" means the muslin hasn't been bleached.

Seamed or Unseamed
Because drops are usually very large, you are given the option to have a seamed or unseamed drop. Seamed drops are made up of several pieces of fabric that are sewn together. Unseamed drops are one continuous piece of fabric, which means the fabric may need to be made special for you. If you want unseamed, expect to shell out some cash.

Usually seamed drops will work fine. If you are painting a drop for a play, the audience is usually at least 15'-20' away. At this distance a small seam will be invisible. The only time a seam is a problem is if a drop is "backlit". Backlit drops have lights shining on the back of them to create a realistic look. If there is a seam, it creates an ugly line right through everything.

Fire Retardant or Not
The safe way to go is to order fire retardant fabric. It's required anywhere you work in New York. Other areas may have less strict rules. Check with the local fire marshal.

Most drops hang from a pipe. To do this the top edge is reinforced with a jute band and grommetted (starting with one at center and spaced a 12" intervals). Tie lines are then passed through the grommets which are used to tie it to the pipe. Putting in your own grommets isn't difficult, just time consuming. Sewing jute is a little more difficult. The best thing to do is have it grommeted when ordered. They have heavy duty machines that can easily handle the job.

Bottom edge
There are different ways to have the bottom edge finished. Sometimes all you need is to have the edge hemmed. Another option is to get a "pipe pocket" sewn in. A pipe pocket is a folded over piece of fabric that a pipe or chain can sit in. The weight of the pipe/chain will hold the drop straighter.

Where to order
Rose Brand is the biggest name in theatrical fabrics. They stock everything you'll need at reasonable prices and can usually get you your stuff in under two weeks. If you are going to order from them, I suggest doing it over the phone. The website is good, but talking to someone and working through the dimensions and options is the way to go.

Sewing your own
Don't. It is a HUGE pain in the butt. I've never sewn a drop, but I have sewn tall drapes that were a nightmare, and they were nowhere NEAR the size of a drop. If you insist that your sewing skills are awesome, don't say I didn't warn you.

Step 3: Prep the Floor

There are two ways to paint a drop, the Eastern Style or the Continental Style. I have no idea how these vague terms came to be, simply put Eastern = painting up: vertical and Continental = painting down: on the floor. (I just wanted to throw those in there so if someone brings out those fancy words you know what they are.)

For this Instructable we will be working on the FLOOR. If you are going to be painting on a frame (picture below) remember that the process is different, so you'll have to research how to properly secure and paint the drop.

I've only painted drops on the floor, primarily because the places I've worked have not had paint frames. I'm guessing, 9 times out of 10, you'll probably be working on the ground too. The big issue is that you need to be able to staple to the floor, which means it needs to be made of wood. Not many people have a nice WOOD floor that they want to staple too, so you need to get creative.

Drywall Floor
One option is to lay down plastic sheet on the floor, and then lay out 4' x 8' drywall sheets. You can staple into the drywall, and it will absorb the moisture of the paint. Anything that drips through the cracks will bet caught by the plastic sheet and absorbed into the board as well. It shouldn't be necessary to attach the drywall to the floor. If the drywall sheets are sliding around on the plastic, you can put small tabs of duct tape on the seams. Just don't tape the drywall seams completely or paint will puddle on the tape.

Concrete Floor
Another option is to work on a concrete floor and use concrete anchors to attach 1" x 6" boards to the floor. Put three anchors per board. I've seen drops bend wood as they dry, so make sure everything is secure. (Remember you need the boards to go around the entire perimeter of the drop. Don't leave a gap here and there, or there's no guarantee that the drop will be attached properly.) A plastic sheet can then be put down (over the wood or under) and taped in place. Finally you have a surface that can be stapled to.

NOTE: Plastic sheets catch and hold water, so if you are mixing a lot of water with your paint it can puddle under the drop and mess things up. Another option is to use rolls of brown paper-bag type paper, however I've had the brown paper stick to the back of the drop and make a mess of things.

Remember that a nice, flat surface is the best thing to paint on. These other improvised floors work well, a long as you try and keep everything as flat as possible.

Obviously the wood boards are the cheaper way to go, unless you or a friend happen to have a lot of left over drywall. I've heard that drywall floors are really a nice way to paint, but I've only done the wood board method due to cost. I'm sure there are other methods you could use with equal success. It really depends on your location and the budget available.

Step 4: Stapling the Drop

Stapling the drop is not too difficult, as long as you follow the steps in the proper sequence. Some of the steps are difficult to explain, so be sure to check the illustrations below.

Tools and Materials
Tape Measure
Hand staple gun
1/2" chisel point staples (easier than flat point staples, )

1. Snap a straight line.
The top of the drop will lay along this line.

2. Mark the top center of the drop
Measure the drop and mark the top center of it.

3. Line the top of the drop up to the chalk-line and staple it down.
When stapling down a drop, start at the center of the edge and work your way out from the center, first towards one side, and then towards the other. Only leave 3 or 4 inches between staples.

4. Spread out the drop on the floor.
Smooth it out on the floor as much as you can.

5. Measure the height of the drop from the smallest point.
What does that mean? When drops are sewn, they are usually a little over-sized, and the bottom is rarely straight. I've seen the bottom edge of a drop vary from 6" all the way to 1'. What you need to do is find the smallest height.

6. Snap a straight line for the bottom.
This line needs to be parallel to the top and needs to be the same distance from the top line as the smallest vertical drop measurement.

7. Mark center on the bottom floor line.
Now that you have the bottom chalk line, mark center on it. I usually just use a square and chalk line to run the center point down from the top center. This ensures that when the drop is stapled the center is straight, which is very important when it's time to start drawing.

8. Mark center on the bottom of the drop.
Measure the bottom of the drop and mark the center point on it. Be sure to calculate center separate from the top. Sometimes the top and bottom edges are slightly different lengths.

9. Staple the bottom.
Line up the bottom to the chalk-line and make the centers match. Staple the drop down starting at the center of the bottom edge and work your way out. First to one side, and then the other. You shouldn't need to pull anything tight. Only leave 3 or 4 inches between staples.

10. Staple the sides.
Finally staple the sides down. Start at the center and work your way out. You can pull a LITTLE to get the side straight, just don't make things taught. Only leave 3 or 4 inches between staples.

NOTE: Usually drops have drapes hung at the sides to hide the side edges, so it's rare that the sides will be perfectly straight. If you need the sides to be perfect, snap a chalk-line square to the top corner and line the edge up, then staple it down. Remember not to pull anything too tight.

Step 5: Mixing the Sizing Solution

There are two mixtures that I have used to size a drop. One way is using starch, the other way is using watered-down paint. The paint method is my favorite. Although it costs more, I find it much easier. The starch method is only necessary if you are backlighting a drop.

Starch Size Recipe
1 lbs Laundry Starch (You can use corn starch, but I hear it tends to get damp in humid environments. Do NOT use liquid laundry starch. It is not the same thing. Trust me.)
1 gal Boiling Water
2.5 gal Cold Water

For this recipe you need to be fairly precise, if you use too much cold water the mix will get very thin. First heat the water to a boil. Once the water is hot, slowly mix in the starch. After you've mixed in all the starch, mix the hot water slowly into 1 gallon of cold water. Then mix it into another 2 1/2 gallons of water.

Paint Size Recipe
1 gal White Paint (Or whatever color you want to start with.)
1 gal Cold Water

This recipe is less precise that the starch recipe. I usually start with a gallon of paint and then add half a gallon of water. After I stir it thoroughly, I check the consistency. I always try to get a "thick milk" or "motor oil" consistency. I just keep adding water until I get it to where I want it. Usually that means a 1:1 ratio, but sometimes it's a little more or less.

Step 6: Sizing the Drop

Applying the size to the drop is not very difficult, however it's best to work with at least two people. If the drop is really large you will need more that two. The objective is to spray the size and brush it into the fabric, but you need to make sure there's an even blending across the surface. You don't want to let one part dry and then come back to continue the size (if you do it won't look even).

Tools and Materials
A stiff bristle push broom
A garden sprayer
A funnel
A filter (a piece of cloth works well)
The size

1. Filter the size.
Put the funnel into the neck of the garden sprayer and lay the cloth inside of the funnel. Slowly pour the size through the fabric. Garden sprayers are notorious for clogging, filtering the size helps it spray better.

2. Broom in the size
Pick a corner to start in. Have one person start to spray the size while the other works it in with a broom. It doesn't have to be sprayed on very thick. Just put on enough that once the broom goes over it a couple times it looks even. The broom-person needs to work the size into the fabric, imagine your scrubbing the floor with the broom.

3. Work in strips.
When I size drops I usually start at the upper left corner and spray an area about 5 feet wide, while working it in with the broom. I will continue down the drop until I have a vertical strip that is sized. Then I go back to the top and start another 5 foot strip, which I make sure I blend into the first area. I continue across the drop in this fashion until there is an even coating on the whole surface.

4. Spot check.
After the sizing is done I go back and check to see if there are any spots that look a little thin. If there are I spray a little more size and broom it in. Make sure these spots are blended in well, you don't want them to stand out.

Step 7: Let the Size Dry

If you haven't given up yet, good job! Go get yourself a refreshing Heineken. There's nothing you can do now anyway, the drop needs to completely dry before you can paint on it. Fans help the drying process a LOT. So put 'em out there. If you're working in the sun, sorry, no Heineken for you. Size usually dries really fast in the sun, so you can get back to work right away.

The next step is to draw out what you will be painting. I will cover the drawing process in a later Instructable.

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    2 years ago

    Very helpful, first time doing a backdrop like this. I am prepping the drop for someone else to paint which leads to my first question, after the drop has been sized and dried, does it still need to be clamped for painting the scene? (other than for ease of working) i.e. is there still a risk of shrinkage? Is there a certain type of white paint that should be used for the size or would a big tub of decorators water based emulsion work? and same question for the scene paints, is poster paint ok? - an added complication is that this drop will be attached to a roller and raised like a roller blind so a certain amount of paint flexibility is required - no cracking


    Reply 2 years ago

    I would suggest leaving it clamped. Once it's sized it may not shrink as much, but it can still shrink.

    For sizing, I would suggest white interior latex house paint. I would usually get paint with an eggshell sheen.

    For the actual scenic paint I also suggest interior latex house paint. Again, I would usually get paint that was eggshell and mix a little water into it to make it flow better, but just a little (like maybe 1/2 to 1 cup per gallon of paint). If you add more water the paint will become runny and translucent (which might be something you want if you are looking for a watercolor-like effect). If the painter is new to scenic painting, I would suggest mixing water in gradually and testing it for flow and coverage.

    In my experience any interior latex paint, if applied in thick layers (or many layers which become thick), will crack if a drop is rolled or bent. However, as long as the paint isn't very thick, paint cracking shouldn't be too much of a problem. Watering down the paint thins it, helping to prevent cracks. Note that there might be tiny little cracks, but they shouldn't be visible at a few feet away.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Thank you for the response blksheep, very helpful. I am based in the UK and had never come across latex paint before so assumed it was quite specialised. I realise now we just call it emulsion over here and I have 10 litres of white in my garage. The only place I have to size it will not be practical for doing the scenic painting so I will have to unclamp it and hang it. I will warn the painter to use as little water as possible.


    Reply 2 years ago

    One precaution, the water in the paint will also cause some shrinking/deformation as the drop dries (even after it has been sized). If you have no option to paint on the ground and MUST hang it, I suggest stretching the canvas while it is hung. An option for stretching hung drops is to use clamps and ropes. What you do is, along the sides of the drop, take 2 pieces of wood (flat, smooth, rounded corners and edges) and clamp them together with the drop in between using a c-clamp. Tie a rope to the clamps and then stretch the fabric by pulling on the ropes and tying the rope off to something. You'll probably need several clamp points along each side. To weight the bottom, you can do a similar clamping procedure and hang weights from the c-clamps.


    3 years ago

    Great tutorial. Help! I volunteered to paint a backdrop 6 foot x 3 foot for a display stand at a Sugarcraft Exhibition and now am panicking, as thought I could airbrush it with my very small compressor BUT have been advised by my art tutor that this will not do the job. He has recommended I Gesso the Calico cloth, then use oil paints to paint a daytime Indian sky, which when complete and dry has to drape over a board fixed to a table. Any helpful suggestions asap welcome as to suitability of oil versus acrylic medium mixed with fabric medium??? Thanks


    Reply 3 years ago

    Without knowing the too much about the project, it's hard to give insightful advice, but below are some things that might make it easier:

    I would suggest water based paints. Acrylic will work, but I would often use latex house paint and thin it with water. Just be careful. Latex house paint can't be thinned as far as artistic paint. If you thin too far it will look chalky when it dries. Aim for thinning to the consistency of whole milk, or a little bit thicker House paint is nice to use because you can get the paints mixed to the colors you want, without having to try and mix a large batch from a limited selection.

    Also, I would suggest stretching the fabric on a wooden board and then apply gesso. It will want to shrink, so ensure you are generous with the staples. It would be best to keep it stretched while you are painting. If you need to remove it from the board so you can place it on the display, wait until it dries completely.

    If you like using airbrush to create a sky, you can get inexpensive airbrushes and compressors at the big home improvement stores. I used to use auto body airbrushes. Thin the paint to a milk consistency and it should go through just fine.


    6 years ago

    Thanks for the tips. I found a couple things here I would like to use but I thought I would share these from experience. If you need canvas for your drops, Home Depot sells 9' x 12' 10 oz canvas tarps for about $25.00. They have worked well for me for years and larger sizes are also available. One other tip is that if you own a paint sprayer and know how to use it. It will save lots of time and paint. I use an automotive type sprayer or air brush depending on the details and find I do not need to size the canvas, sprayed lightly, the paint drys very fast and the cloth is not saturated with paint. thus keeping the weight to a minimum. (check out the t-shirt guys at the Mall for some tips. lol) These are big time savers. I know cause most of my orders are for people who think they can get it today or tomorrow.


    6 years ago

    One more tip. ( I hate to see you work so hard.) If you have a video projector and laptop available, hang your canvas and project your image onto the canvas. you can use markers or chalk to draw your scene in place at a fraction of the time needed to scale and copy the image. I promise you,..... you can out line your project and maybe get a cup of coffee in the time it takes to put those scale lines on the canvas. Have fun with it.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you for this! I am doing a project at University and have to great a Scenic Drop, Costumes and Props, so this has was very handy to get me started

    Great tutorial, thanks. What type of paint is best for painting on muslin? I want very vibrant colors. Any suggestions on types/brands and painting technique would be very helpful!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I typically use regular latex house paint for painting drops. It works well, is relatively inexpensive, available in tons of colors and water soluble. Way back when Valspar paint was cheap and covered really well. I don't know how it stacks up now-a-days but might be worth a look. Behr paint is pretty good l, but sometimes you need to do multiple layers to make it thick enough.

    For technique, there are many. But the best thing to keep in mind is that house paint is kind of like watercolor. You can thin it down to make washes. Just remember that if you thin it too far it will look chalky. Hope that helps. Let me know how it turns out!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Are you planing to post the Instructable on the drawing process any time soon?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hi Stephannie

    Sorry I never got around to making part 2. Essentially what I do is create a grid of 1' x 1' squares, starting at the centerline and the top edge of the drop. Use a chalk line to snap lines. I believe you can get something like powdered charcoal to use for snapping the lines.

    Next you make a drawing of what you want to put on the drop. The drawing needs to be to scale, ie 1/2" on the drawing = 12" on the drop. One the drawing is complete, put a centerline on the drawing
    and again, draw a grid starting at centerline and the top edge of the image.

    Once this is done, you simply draw on the drop what is in the corresponding square of the drawing. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Drawing on a large surface like a drop can be a pain. Use vine charcoal (available at art stores) to do the drawing. It can be erased using a wet rag.

    Drawing on a large surface that is stretched on the floor is best done standing. It's a good idea to make a lining stick. Attach the vine charcoal to a wooden dowel or broom stick using a rubber band. Drawing standing is kind of weird. So don't expect to be a master at it right off. I still usually just use knee pads and draw on my hands and knees.

    Hope that helps.


    13 years ago on Introduction

    This is very helpful as I've inherited the job of head of scenery at the highschool I work in. I've done 4 shows and 3 drops in the last year and a half. We are currently painting a drop of a Central Park scene and I forgot to size!!! I'm using Rusco paint thinned out and I've only laid in a pale blue sky and a perspective grey road, so can I get away without the sizing? It's almost like I sized with color instead of white. I guess I should probably size what's not painted before I continue. Also, I'd love to hear about your drawing process. I started sketching with soft graphite, but now I realize I can't get rid of mistakes. What do you use?


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    This is obviously dated, but I would have suggested that you size using the paint formula that is given as an option in this article.  Without any sizing, you will end up using far more paint when applying the various colors because the muslin will absorb  what is applied.  Sizing prevents this absortion, allowing the paint to adhere to the top of the fabric.  Thus your paint color will be more vibrant and the drop will be lighter, easier to handle.  
    Also, more paint  may result in cracks when the drop is folded and it will definitely be heavier.


    13 years ago on Introduction

    This is great im so glad to see another techy on this site. you did a great job keep it up id love to see more


    Reply 13 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks. Hopefully I'll have a couple more theatre-related Instructables up soon.