The Surprisingly Intricate Art of Scenic Painting

Beau and I were in New York (not city) in part to go visit one of his former instructors at a place called Cobalt Studios, an arts and education organization that both creates backdrops for professional theatres and also trains scenic painters in the art.

We got a tour of the rustic facility, which is located on a roughly 150-year-old farm house in White Lake. Students who study scenic painting there live in a–well, rustic–farm house on the property and study in another building–maybe a barn?–on the property. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense trees and visited by deer throughout the morning and evening. It was truly an idyllic place to visit and spend time.

In the summer, they run an intensive scenic painting program that really pushes students’ skills as far as they can go. The things they created really shocked me for both their elegance and their false-realness. And that might be the paradox of scenic painting–those artists are tasked with creating realistic-seeming facsimiles of real things, or to evoke the essence of a time and place, often creating three-dimensional images that are flat, filled with approximated shadows and textures.

I saw shockingly real-looking hand-painted portraits of hanging drapes, of marble carvings, of piers with seagalls flying overhead.

I told Beau later, I didn’t realize this was like, a thing.

He asked, How did you think it worked?

I said, I thought they were printed. By machines. They always look so real.

He said, That’s the art.

So I was humbled by their talents and vision. We had the chance to chat with some of the current summer students, who were kind and hilarious, and also very talented.

The next time you’re at the theatre, I hope you’ll consider the careful hands who painted the intricate set pieces and backdrops.

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