Teaching Remotely: Scenic painting class offers support to students working apart

Monday, June 22, 2020

After COVID-19 was detected in Austin in mid-March, the University of Texas moved all of its classes online for the remainder of the semester. In this series, we explore how faculty in the College of Fine Arts are adapting their curriculum to an online format.

Instructor: Karen Maness, Principal Instructor of Scenic Art and Figurative Painting for The Department of Theatre and Dance, and Scenic Art Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts

Tell us about a class you taught this spring.

Our sudden transition online this spring was not without bumps or strain. However, it ultimately resulted in new opportunities for the students to explore remote hands-on learning outside of our Texas Performing Arts Scenic Art Studio. The objective of the scenic art course is to practice and study the art of scenic painting for the entertainment industry, developing manual skills in drawing, painting, research, surface treatments, production process, costing and finishes. 

Scenic Art Students, working on 36’ tall backdrop for a UTNT production of Bog Butter, designed by Stephanie Fisher. 

Fortunately, the students had the opportunity to prepare, layout, and paint two full-scale backdrops together, as seen above, from UTNT’s Bog Butter and below from The Butler School of Music’s production of Elixir of Love

Scenic Art Students painting a sky backdrop for Elixir of Love, design by Chris Conard. 

What was a challenge you faced in moving instruction online this spring?

When UT closed, the students were in process in their MGM Hollywood backdrop architectural painting projects. These 4’x6’ architectural detail painting projects from MGM’s 1951 film The Law and the Lady, still sit untouched on our Texas Performing Arts paint frame. 

Unfinished 4’x6’ MGM Hollywood backdrop architectural painting projects. Julio Muñoz (left) Mikaela Kelarek (Right) 

How did you solve it?

Our first post-pandemic project was the completion of their 18”x24” MGM Hollywood backdrop architectural detail charcoal value studies. The students were grateful for the dedicated time to complete this project.

MGM Hollywood backdrop architectural detail charcoal value studies.

How have your students responded in your class?

The in-person course demands students spend many hours together while working on their group or individual painting projects. When the pandemic hit, the initial plan was to meet synchronously once a week, but it became clear that the students desired time together. The course pivoted to lectures and demonstrations once a week and group drawing/painting sessions on a second day. The practice anchored our students in the familiar during the turbulent weeks following our campus closure. Our projects adapted for the students who did not have paint at home. The open drawing class offered companionship during isolation and emotional support for all. One hundred days out from the pandemic, and long after the course ended, this space continues for our students via zoom. Our attendees now include scenic art alumni from years past. 

The move online included video tutorials looking at industry practice for Broadway, Regional Theater, Italian Opera, Themed Attraction and in the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry, watching videos of techniques ranging from gold leafing, aging, distressing, sculpting, ultra- violet reactive painting, sky painting and drapery painting. 

A regret is that we were not able to work hands-on with Ultraviolet light reactive paint. A lecture and presentation on color mixing and industry use give a taste, but the medium requires a great deal of experimentation and access to a dark room. 

Have there been any innovations or solutions that you plan to carry into in-person instruction in the future?

Students experienced painting demonstrations in real-time and through recording for fabric painting and 2-point perspective layout. Photoshop was used to address drawing errors and show corrections. 

Fabric rendering project 

2 Point Perspective project 

The final project for each student is their portfolios, including Mikaela Kelarek’s 2020 portfolio.  

The majority of the students stayed fully engaged, though some students left assignments incomplete. Online learning has enabled us to move deeply into a wider variety of information required for the scenic art industry, from history to product use, to costing scenic elements for productions, preparing our students with the knowledge to move out into the industry.

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