Painting the Wall of Jane Eyre

By Michelle Fullerton, Alley Theatre Charge Scenic Artist

Painting the Paneled Wall Mural for John Coyne’s Scenic Design for Jane Eyre was a fun and challenging project that required a unique combination of techniques.

In most cases, a large-scale landscape like this would be produced as a full-stage backdrop. For a show in the Hubbard Theatre, that would mean a 60 ft. x 25 ft. piece of muslin that is painted in our Scene Shop and then hung from one of the line sets on stage. John’s design, presenting the backdrop of this lovely pastoral scene, but painted onto a piece of “hard scenery,” a huge curved wall complete with panel and crown molding, is a unique take on a traditional scenic design style. The slightly blurred, abstract style of the painting plays into the idea that this is a memory play and we’re just catching a glimpse of what exists in Jane’s mind.

In order to achieve that diffused, blurry style, I chose to paint the entire piece with a pneumatic paint sprayer. Which is essentially a very large airbrush. This tool allowed me to get lines that were fairly (but not quite entirely) crisp like the horizon line, as well as very soft and misty areas like the sky. One of the challenges of this project was recreating a flat painting on a dimensional surface. It meant being extra vigilant about getting paint into many little corners and crevasses, and gave me even more respect for exterior muralists and the challenges that they face in painting on a variety of different surfaces.

One of my favorite things about creating backdrops, especially landscapes, is custom mixing paint colors. Scenic Artists typically use a vinyl acrylic paint that is specially made for film, television and theatre and has a palette of about twenty colors. From those twenty colors, we’re able to custom mix an almost limitless palette. On traditional muslin backdrops, painted using brushes, we can mix a variety of colors from our reference photo or rendering and then blend or layer those colors right on the drop as we go, just like a fine artist does on a canvas. Since I used the paint sprayer for this project, I was limited to applying one color at a time. I mixed fourteen colors from the image that John provided as a reference, which is a rather large palette for a backdrop. Instead of blending colors as I painted (known as wet blending), I applied thin layers of different colors and allowed that to create the subtle shift in colors across the wall. In order to produce a fine, even spray, the paint needed to be thinned with water before using it in the paint sprayer. This increased the chances of the paint dripping (a Scenic Artist’s nightmare) and so increased the need for patience in applying careful, thin layers. Although challenging in many ways, I enjoyed the freedom that the blurry style and use of the paint sprayer gave me.

The wall is approximately 65 ft. x 18 ft. (or 1,170 sq. ft.). Because we treated this large piece of scenery as a backdrop, our talented crew of Scenic Technicians built and entirely assembled the wall in our 14th-floor Scene Shop so that I could paint it using a scissor lift. They then very carefully disassembled it and transported it to the stage via our freight elevator, where they once again (very carefully) reassembled it onstage.

I’ve been working as a Scenic Artist for almost twenty-five years. I’ve done my fair share of faux wood, faux marble, landscape backdrops etc. and although each show is different and challenging in its own way, which is just one reason why I love my job so much, it’s always extra fun to get a project like this. I love John’s creative use of traditional styles, made fresh and interesting with a little twist of the abstract. It was absolutely a pleasure to be a part of this show, as always, it was a team effort and I’m very proud of our finished product.

Jane Eyre runs Now through May 5, 2024. Tickets are available here.