Perception---you have that power.

There is purpose in design. There is information in a setting. There is truth in your environment. Fake or real, it's there.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spatter is Magical Visual Texture

Spatter texture by Scenic Artist Jessica Amador for Andrew Layton and Kelly Kissinger’s scene design of Oedipus Rex.

Visual Textures inform us whether or not something will be slimy, furry, prickly or flawlessly smooth.  In order to effectively create readable textures for the stage, we are familiar with the idea that the textures might need to be enlarged, their apparent depth enhanced by color, contrast and even actual size. The reader (your audience member) of those textures is usually seated in a distant range of 30 to 75 feet away or more. To provide useful information regarding the textures of the scene, they need visual assistance from the set designer and scenic artists.

Charred wood and spatter texture by Scenic Artist Jaime Giovannone. Her website is:

The apparatus that tells us what a texture will be before we touch it combines information from the physical eye and personal experience. For example, never having touched angora before in my life, I was prepared to touch something soft, judging from the apparent shadows and glossy highlights of the fur fibers. Upon actually touching it, I was astonished at how extremely soft and fluffy it felt, almost oily and slippery despite the apparent fibers of its fur. Now, before I touch angora, I know exactly what it will feel like.  We are adept at assuming what the texture of things feels like. By developing a theory and proving it through experimentation we can for example believe that talcum powder will feel nearly identical to flour, but not corn meal because of the apparent grain size. Apply this idea to painted scenery, say, a rough brick wall, and you will likely have the visual stimulation of your tactile senses because you have touched a variety of brick walls in your lifetime.

Brick spatter texture by Scenic Artist Jaime Giovannone.

Visual texture on stage often means creating a kind of pointillism on an otherwise flat surface. After a scenic artist spatters paint onto a wall, for example, the surface remains physically flat and the flatness is relieved by small dots of differently colored paint. The purpose of the spatter is to diffuse the reflective surface so that whatever is seen against it is not viewed in harsh contrast or stark flatness. The spatter helps create a visual disturbance which functions like atmospheric perspective in that it separates the actors from the background environment.

This is a design for Oedipus Rex. The Scenic Artist for this show was Jessica Amador. Scene Designers were Andrew Layton and Kelly Kissinger.

Above in the image of Oedipus Rex is an example of effective spatter for relieving the surface of totally fake stone. Actors are more easily seen against the spattered surface. Imagine the doorway on the right if it were just painted with flat interior paint. It would pull focus away from the actors.
Scenic artists are adept as visual trickery using spatter. Their paint spatter can contain dots of color that are different values of the same hue. For example, a yellow wall on a stage setting could have a spatter system of light yellow and dark yellow dots on top of a medium yellow base. The wall will still be a yellow wall, but it will seem more vibrant, and more alive and less dead flat. Actors and objects in front of the spattered wall will appear more three dimensional because they are set-off by the variations in spatter rather than the flat background which had no way of providing a difference to our perception of textures between the actor and the wall.

This is a sample of yellow based spatters on a yellow wall, provided by Jenny Knott. Jenny is the Paint Product Manager for Rosco Laboratories.
 Spatter and other paint techniques add depth and shine to the surface of this stair unit and the surrounding platforms. Scenery is for A Little Night Music.   The Scenic Artist for the show was Jessica Amador, and the scene designer was Mike Dempsey.

Collaborating with a lighting designer, the set designer or a knowledgeable scenic artist can widen the range of visual texture. The scenic artist can change the apparent depth and color of the texture on backgrounds to work in combination with the lighting designer’s color palette for any particular scene. The result of this collaboration is like magic, and it is only color theory.  Imagine a grey stone wall. The scenic artist will know to paint the grey color using a mixture of ultra-marine blue and Van Dyke Brown or some similar combination to make an exciting grey. Using colors to make grey is an old scenic artist technique developed because merely adding black to white in order to make grey creates a “dead” color. By sticking to the use of color to make grey, the scenic artist is providing a grey which has both warm (brown) and cool (blue) colors in it. This mixture is often called Payne’s Grey.

Jenny Knott shows how to spatter the basic greys of mortar color here in preparation for painting a mortared brick wall. 

Armed with a flat grey background that has been painted using a mixture of colors to make the grey (rather than black and white), the lighting designer already has a better visual texture from which he or she can make the tone of the scene warm or cold by applying color theory to bring out the separate colors. The wall is still truly flat and grey to the audience member

If the scenic artist uses color theory too, the breadth of the change from applied lighting can be jaw-dropping. Imagine the same grey wall. Using the fact that the distance of the audience to the stage will help the audience visually blend the dots of paint, the scenic artist will, on top of his or her grey wall, spatter a duet or trio of colors. One is a blue-violet ranged highlight, the second is a deep warm red or Van Dyke Brown dark shadow color, and the third is the base color grey. Note that the highlight color can be the warm tone and the shadow color can be the cool color with similar results. 

Scenic Artist Jaime Giovannone shows the steps to create a basic grey but highly colorful and lighting designer friendly floor for a production of Ragtime designed by Heidi Hoffer.  Layers and layers of color spatter were applied to make this Lady Liberty floor reactive under many different lighting conditions.

So, by mixing colors to grey and making that the base color and spattering colors on top, one can greatly increase the usefulness of the built environment to fund the play’s meaning. The color theory of spatter success lies in choosing two or three colors that relate to the colors that make up the base color. The first relationship is an opaque highlight and the second relationship is an opaque shadow color. Both spatters can be created from opposite colors, a purer form of the original colors before blending to make the grey, or analogous colors. A third spatter color is often a spatter of the exact same color as the base color of the wall, useful in maintaining an even spatter.

Scenic artist Jessica Amador used spatter in addition to a stencil to create this floor which sits above holiday themed decorations. Look at the next photo to see how rich the floor looks under the light.
The scene design for this lovely Wedgewood inspired set for Scrooge in Rouge is by Bret Young. Jessica Amador was the Scenic Artist.

Collaborating with the lighting designer will aid in choosing which spatter color theory to apply. For example, on a grey wall made from ultra-marine blue and Van Dyke Brown (This mixture is commonly called Payne’s Grey), if the lighting designer chooses to light a scene with a key light of blue with greenish overtones such as Rosco R 369 Tahitian Blue, the scenic artist and set designer can choose a highlight (or shadow) spatter that is analogous to ultramarine blue on the green side of the blues, such as a turquoise or cerulean. This will insure that the Tahitian Blue light will bring out the greenish blues in the wall and deaden (again, using color theory) any reddish warms that have been spattered creating a larger contrast against which the actors will be seen and changing the apparent color of the grey wall to a greater degree than normal. The blue colored light is reflected in the blue spatter as well as the blue from the original grey base coat, making the wall almost sparkle. Add costume colors to the color decisions and a wonderfully enlivened palette can be found using colored lighting on selective paint spatter to enhance the scene.

Let me refer you to the online article from The Painter’s Journal, figure 4 page 14 which shows you the effects of analogus and complimentary spatter.

It should be understood that any old spatter of something darker and lighter than the base color will do. Scenic artists often create visual texture on a piece of scenery by spattering it with “dirty water” to break up to otherwise flat surface as illustrated below. Dirty water spatter is sometimes not completely opaque and is used to help disparate elements on a painting look like they are all in one painting as in Diane Fargo’s image below.

Blood Wedding floor spatter treatment by Jessica Amador. Scene designers were Andrew Layton and Kelly Kissinger.
The dirty water spatter here, done by Scenic Charge Diane Fargo, successfully marries the blue surface, the rope border, and the fringe at the bottom.

 But to really broaden the range and usefulness of visual texture one must collaborate with the other designers on their color palettes and choose spatter colors that will actually be able to be pulled out by lighting and contrast with the costume colors for a particular scene.  Interestingly, under normal work light you would only see a basic grey wall. It is only when lighting is applied that deadens or resonates with the spatter colors that you get exciting and useful visual texture.

For a few different paint texture techniques, let me direct you to “Creating Textured Surfaces” written by Jenny Knott for The Painter’s Journal.  Jenny is the Paint and Coatings Product Manager for Rosco.

Spatter is Visual Magic Special thanks to Jessica Amador, Diane Fargo courtesy of Jenny Knott, Jenny Knott, and Jaime Giovannone.