Tag Archives: scenic art

Kelly Mangan

Interview with Kelly Mangan

The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.

Kelly Mangan: Prop Master/Scenic Designer & Artist

by Corey Umlauf

Kelly Mangan
Kelly Mangan

Kelly Wiegant Mangan has had a wide range of experience as a prop master and scenic designer. She has worked as a resident scenic designer and prop master for Stage One, The Louisville Children’s Theatre (where she worked on over 120 productions), two national videos, and one Broadway residency with The Great Gilly Hopkins. She has served as the Prop Master for various groups including Shakespeare Santa Cruz and The Utah Shakespearean Festival in the Randall Theatre. She has also served as Scenic Designer for the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and The Western Stage in Salinas, California. She was a scenic artist for The Chicago Historical Society, Chicago Scenic, Scenic View, Tamara Backdrops, and Funkouser Backdrops in Chicago. Kelly has also worked as a scenic artist on the film “The Insider.” She took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions for me about her career in props. Continue reading

Good Links for a Good Friday

Tested has another great episode of their talk show where Adam Savage, Will Smith and Norm Chan discuss building an inexpensive toolkit for beginner makers. By “maker”, they mean someone doing small-scale fabrication of wood, various metals and plastics, some fabric and leather, model-making, and a bit of electronics, so really, it’s great advice for beginning prop makers as well. You can either watch a video or listen to a podcast of the show, which runs about 41 minutes long. They have also written down the list of tools they suggest, though it’s a good idea to listen to the show because they talk about how to buy tools and why you should get certain tools as well.

In case you missed it, I came across The Painters Journal, a publication about scenic art that ran from 2003-2010. All 22 issues are available online to read. Scenic art deals with paints, coatings, texture and sometimes even sculpting, so many of the articles are invaluable to props people as well.

Make Magazine has posted ten tips for using a circular saw. They’re all pretty good, though I would add that hearing protection should be worn too, as circ saws are almost always loud little beasts. A dust mask is usually a good idea as well.

I liked this recent article about Nick Ruiz, a theatre carpenter in the San Jose area. It’s simple and probably familiar to a lot of us in the industry, but stories like this are so rarely written.

And just a reminder that you have less than a month to enter the Prop Building Guidebook Contest! Surely you have a photograph of a prop you’ve built, and who doesn’t want a grab-bag of prop making supplies? The entries I’ve received so far look fantastic, so thanks to everyone who has already submitted.

McDonald and Hagen scenery

Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

I’ve been finding a lot of great advertisements for theatrical property companies and other related businesses from The Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory. These ads appeared between 1898 and 1913. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the theatrical business scene in New York City from a century ago. I also love the style of the ads themselves, with their odd mix of formality and flair.

Morse Company Theatrical Properties, 1903

Turner Prop Storage

Douthitt Set Dressing

Gebhardt, props

Perry, Ryer and Co Imports

Prof. Dare Inventor

I like the previous man’s name: Professor Dare. In addition to prop-related businesses, I’ve also found some interesting ones for scenery studios and scenic artists.

Continue reading

Scenic Dope and Monster Mud

Scenic dope is a general term for a number of materials used for a number of techniques. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a ceiling paint known as calcimine was popular. It was essentially whiting mixed with animal glue and a bit of water. Whiting is powdered and washed white chalk, aka calcium carbonate. Set builders used it to prime flats for painting, or a thicker form to adhere muslin to flats. Along the way, it evolved into recipes and formulations which could be used for all sorts of texturing.

If you add linseed oil to whiting, you can make a simple caulk. If you mix whiting with casein (milk protein used as a binder in casein paint) and water (and borax if you want anti-fungal qualities) you can also make a simple joint compound. With the introduction of latex paint (really, acrylic paint, as it contains no actual latex), we now have the modern equivalents for the building blocks of scenic dope.

As it is a material which undergoes frequent experimentation and improvisation, no set recipe exists. A good place to begin your own experimenting is with a gallon of latex paint, 2–5 tubes of painter’s latex caulk, and 1–2 cups of joint compound. The thinner recipes (more paint, less caulk and joint compound) make good coatings for foam, while the thicker recipes (some push the ratio to equal parts paint and joint compound) can hold some heavy texture as it dries, almost to the point of being sculpt-able.

Note that the recipe calls for latex caulk and not silicone caulk. Silicone caulk is more common and easier to find in hardware and home improvement stores, but silicone does not bond with anything, which makes it impossible to mix into a recipe.

For a more flexible recipe, you can mix joint compound with glue (animal, or PVA). This is especially helpful when you are coating surfaces that have a bit of “give”. The harder dope recipes may crack under strain, whereas this one will bend.

You can add any number of additives to your recipe. Water putty and plaster allows it to dry harder but more brittle. Paper pulp really thickens the mix, and it can become almost like a thin clay, which is great for sculpting bark or rough stone on your surfaces. Sand can be added for a, well, sandy surface. Really, if you want a chunky texture, you can add almost anything chunky that you have laying around. In addition to mixing materials like sand into the mix, you can also sprinkle or dust it onto the surface while the dope is still wet. This will give it a coating, or crust, that you may find to your liking.

Theatrical suppliers make any number of products which mimic scenic dope, each with slightly different properties, but formulated to give consistent results. Rosco’s Foamcoat and Sculptural Arts’ Sculpt or Coat are just a few.

Because the recipe consists of latex paint and joint compound, both of which are water soluble, the resulting surface needs to be water-proofed if it will be outside or around moisture.

The properties of dope are similar to the wheatpaste used in papier-mache, and it is frequently used in conjunction with fabric. Strips of fabric are coated with dope and lain over a surface to create textures.

“Monster mud” is a term which began to appear in the late twentieth century to describe a mixture used frequently in the haunted house industry. You mix five gallons of joint compound with one gallon of latex paint. You can then submerge cloth—a large weave like burlap works best, though clothing or other fabric works as well—into the mixture, squeeze the excess mud out, and shape it. You may also spread the mud on straight to add texture. It may take up to several days to dry, but it becomes rock-hard (though not water-proof). It’s a clever way to mimic sculpted fabric, though any kind of flowing surface lends itself to this technique.

Supplies for gold leafing

How to Gold Leaf

Gold leafing is one of the easiest and most common ways to give a prop a gilt look, or even to make it appear like a solid piece of gold. Real gold leaf is actual gold hammered into a sheet as thin as a piece of tissue. For theatrical purposes, we nearly always use metal leaf which replicates the look of gold. There exist more complicated and elegant ways to gild an object, but the quick and easy way I’m going to show you involves applying the leaf directly to an object which has been coated in gold size.

The materials you will need are the gold leaf, gold size, a brush for applying the size, another brush that will remain dry, and your object. The most common sizing I’ve seen in theatres is Wunda Size, which is one of the few water-based sizes, meaning easier clean-up and less fumes when wet. (You can read an interesting treatise on gold size if you’re interested in learning more.)

Supplies for gold leafing
Supplies for gold leafing

You need to prepare the surface you are leafing. The leaf does not hide or fill imperfections; If you wait until after you’ve put the leaf on to sand the surface, you will simply sand the gold leaf off.

The color underneath the gold leaf is called the “bole” color. Traditionally, terra-cotta clay or red paint is painted underneath to give a warm feel to the gold. A yellow or golden bole gives an even, neutral look, and helps cover up any cracks or uncovered spots. These are the two most common boles you will find for theatrical purposes. A black bole gives a very cold look, and is good for imitating Art Deco pieces. Other boles you can experiment with are various greens or even blues.

Pieces with different boles painted on
Pieces with different boles painted on

Once your bole is applied and dried, you brush on your sizing. You want to make sure you work it into every crack and crevice. You must wait for it to dry completely before you begin with the gold leaf. This can take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes depending on how much you put on, as well as the temperature and humidity. Technically it’s not “drying”, it’s becoming tacky. Size can remain tacky for hours, even days, before it dries, which is one of the properties that makes it desirable for gold leafing.

Applying the sizing
Applying the sizing

Now that the sizing is no longer wet, you can carefully take a sheet of gold leaf. Start smoothing it onto the surface with your fingers, and finish up with a clean and dry paintbrush to work it completely onto the surface. As you get overlapping and overhanging pieces, you can remove them by brushing really hard with the brush. At this point, it’s almost as if you’re burnishing the gold with your paintbrush; you want to rub it until there are no more gold flakes sloughing off of the piece.

Laying the leaf on
Laying the leaf on...
Working it in
... working it in...
Brushing it smooth
... and brushing it smooth.

I realize it may look like I misplaced the leaf, but I left the end bare to illustrate the differences in the boles as seen in the following photograph.

Examples of gold leafing on top of various boles
Examples of gold leafing on top of various boles

It is difficult  in a static photograph to make out the differences which the various boles give you. What makes gold leaf interesting is how the various surfaces catch and reflect light, and how that changes as either the object or the observer moves. The bole color you decide to use is dependent on the colors and tones of the set and costume, as well as the type of stage lighting used. Don’t lose too much sleep over it; the majority of items gold-leafed for theatre are either red or yellow depending on how much warmth or age you want to give the object.

You will notice gaps and cracks in your gold leaf where pieces failed to stick. You can take smaller flakes and apply them to these spots, again using your bristle brush to rub the leaf onto the surface. If you find particularly stubborn areas where the gold leaf won’t stick, it means you need more size. Go back and touch up the uncovered areas with a second coat. Once it has dried again in ten to twenty minutes, you may return for round two of applying the gold leaf.