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Stage Designs

Painting and dressing a set

On all scenery, only the down-stage areas (the parts that show) are clad, painted and dressed. The up-stage section of set (the part the audience does not see) is left open with the frame inside exposed. Having the frame exposed is favoured because it not only saves money, time and effort in dressing, but stagehands use it to climb up to gain access to other pieces of scenery, for attaching or fixing a section of set or to position a lantern.

In a modern theatre scenery is made with a metal frame. It is light, cheap, durable (will not warp and bow) and fire-proof. For intricate mouldings and details we use fibre-glass, plastic and polystyrene, whereas in the past it would have been wood, canvas and plaster.

Props and furnishings are placed to add atmosphere and the term for decorating a set is Dressing. Whereas carpenters and metalworkers build the sets, it is the prop-makers, scene-painters and set dressers that bring the scenery to life. A technician will specialise in fine art scenic painting, carving, moulding, textures, upholstery, armoury or furnishings.

The brick or stonework as seen in Serafino Brizzi’s Designs for Stage Scenery and the Stage Design with the Court of a Castle, or the marble cladding of John Devoto’s pillars would have been created entirely with paint effects, whereas for greater surface texture the underlying wood would have been cut, bevelled and painted with shadows as in Giuseppe Jarmorini's Architectural Capriccio or splattered with plaster as in Brizzi’s Interior of a Gothic Fortress.

In Serafino Brizzi’s designs the dressings comprise of the window grilles and iron rings, the winches set down-stage-right, the railings above the archways, the ironwork on the large doors upstage-centre and the trunks with padlocks and chains. All the metalwork would have been made from painted wood as the trucks and flats would not have been strong enough to support the weight of real iron.

A fantastic example can be seen in the Design for Part of a Stage Setting by an unknown artist from the Italian School (Bologna). This appears to depict the dressing for a stage-left proscenium leg. Many skills have gone into this dressing: the carving of the wheels and carriage base, the mouldings leaning against the proscenium leg, the sewing of the banners, flags and drapes - but the greatest skill lay in fixing the pieces so they could have been set and struck as many times as needed while keeping the integrity of the design. The series of parallel lines towards the left of the design indicates how this piece of scenery might have been constructed out of several layers, or its position within a larger scheme.

Not everything needs to be so elaborate - the plants, flowers and garlands seen in John Devoto’s Italian Coast Scene and Giuseppe Jarmorini’s Architectural Capriccio are also examples of dressing.

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