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In the Paint

Lisa Mulcahy • Sets, Scenery and Rigging • September 1, 2016
Scenic artist Sean Saari creates an abstract watery floor using Sculptural Arts Coating paints for a production of Wake Walking at the Greensboro College Parlor Theatre.
Scenic artist Sean Saari creates an abstract watery floor using Sculptural Arts Coating paints for a production of Wake Walking at the Greensboro College Parlor Theatre.

Expert advice for giving your stage floor a face lift that will look great and last

Painting a stage floor to match your scenic design probably seems like a no-brainer—until you actually attempt it. Why? Changing your surface color actually requires some key knowledge to get the job right. For example, did you know that using latex paint—even only on part of your job—can change the acoustics in your venue? Depending upon the depth of your stage, the color you pick can shrink the look of your backdrops and set pieces. And if you don’t know the right way to apply floor paint to a stage, hello, streaks and scratches. We asked the top pros in the business for their sage advice on how to accomplish the task like a veteran, from choosing the right paint and equipment to application tricks to maintenance and more. 

Details Are Everything

 According to Dave Durbin, sales manager at BMI Supply, it’s the little details that make a floor paint job ultimately work. Say your goal is to paint your stage floor a versatile durable black. “Spend the money for quality paint and applicators and allow plenty of time for things to dry,” Durbin advises. “The stage floor is the single biggest scenic element—and sometimes the only one—for most events. You want it to look good and last for a long time, so invest in it.” 

Before you start to paint, prime your area precisely. “A thorough cleaning is the first and most important step,” says Durbin. “Use sweeping compound to sweep the whole stage, including areas you don’t plan to paint. Dust and debris from the wings can make it onto the painted areas of the stage during painting and while it’s drying. Then a warm water mopping, no cleaning chemicals. Let it dry completely.” When it comes to the paint you’ll apply, Durbin stresses that specialty stage paint is the only choice. “Avoid mixed blacks from the hardware or paint store; you want a paint that comes out of the can black and not something that started with a dark base and has pigment added,” he explains. “Really avoid all paints from your local retailers for your stage floor. Retail paints are made to stick to walls but the binder in them is just not strong enough to hold up to the traffic on a stage floor.” The right tools are, of course, also essential. “Use new, high quality roller pads like a pro-grade 3/8” nap,” Durbin says. 

In terms of the right application technique, “always keep a wet edge while rolling out the floor and apply in a random/scumble pattern,” Durbin continues. “Even if the paint can says it will be dry in four-six hours give it at least eight—more in humid or cold conditions. If you can, let it dry overnight. Unless the paint is an epoxied enamel, you should plan on sealing it—use a clear or semi-gloss clear sealer but again, avoid retail products which are made mostly for furniture and trim work, and use a sprayer or roll the sealer out in a random/scumble patter and maintain a wet edge. Then let the sealer dry overnight.”

How should you best maintain your painted floor, in terms of preventing wear from traffic, and using proper cleaning techniques? “If your stage is also going to be used as a paint space before load-in and tech, always put down drop cloths even if you plan on painting the stage floor before opening,” says Durbin. “Puddles and splatters from paint will dry as 3D texture. That means the next coat of paint won’t go down smoothly and foot traffic & moving scenery will eventually wear down or break off those bumps, exposing previous layers of paint. If you have to Coke your floor for performers to get traction, be sure to mop several times after the production is over with warm water. Never use the same mop heads that you Coke with for cleaning. Also, keep the wings, crossovers and other backstage spaces clean as well so that dirt and debris isn’t tracked onto the stage floor. Train your staff, faculty and students to not use the stage as a crossover to other parts of the building during the course of the day, especially in a cold climate where salt or sand is used on walkways. Put up barriers if you have to and direct them to use crossovers and hallways instead. Finally, sweep before every onstage rehearsal and sweep and mop before every tech, dress and performance.” 

Testing Is Key 

Collaborating with all of your technical associates is crucial in terms of any successful floor painting job, especially in terms of the chemical elements you’ll be using. “Regulations for chemicals are changing rapidly which means substrate composition and materials are changing along with the products that go on top,” explains Jenny Knott, paint project manager for Rosco Laboratories. And if what goes into a paint changes, that means its performance can change, too. It’s more important than ever that scenic artists test paints to ensure they meet performance needs and expectations.

 How should you approach the testing process, specifically? “Ask great questions between all departments to determine products, application methods and tools,” Knott says. “Ask yourselves: what are the physical requirements of the show? What is the budget? Will it tour? What about barefoot actors? What kind of maintenance will the floor require? What about costume fabrics—do they come in contact with the floor texture?” Gather information about the type of abuse the painted floor will undergo and the manufacturers’ suggested care and maintenance of not only the substrate but also the products used on top. And then test, test, test for repeatable, desired results.

Once you’ve got your surface set, make it lasts by using non-marking wheels on rolling scenery and glides on furniture, limit the use of spike/gaff tape, and consider the type of heels on shoes to not leave marks. “This all helps in reducing the amount of wear and tear to cut down on touch ups or replacement of sections of the floor,” says Knott.

Get Scenic-Specific

What particular steps should you take to paint/texture your stage floor to mesh with your scenic design? “This totally depends on the set design,” says John Saari, founder of Sculptural Arts Coating. “When I did productions of Cloud Nine and Searching for Eden the stage floors were painted to look like jungle foliage. For other shows, simulated painted brown earth, or concrete, brick, cobblestones, wood floors or other visual 2D textures require scenic art techniques,” says Saari. “In all of these cases, usually base coats need to be applied to lay in a beginning color, then the floors are stamped or painted with brushes, or lined then painted with graining techniques for wood floors, or wet scumbled and then cartooned. Sealing of a scene painted technique is recommended so it holds up well during the run of a show. We use Sculptural Arts’ Plastic Varnish Flat or Gloss depending upon the final desired result. Usually a flat finish is desirable but for some wood floors or marble tile finishes a gloss is desired. After the show is over, the floor is simply painted over with Artist’s Choice Masking Black again and sealed with Plastic Varnish Flat making the space ready for the next event.”

Texturing is another aspect to do just right. “If actual 3D textures are desired, and you don’t want to have to strip the floor in the future, a ground cloth of muslin may be used and the textures are applied to the fabric,” Saari continues. “The whole ground cloth then may be attached to the stage floor. Sheet materials such as lauan, fiberboard or masonite may also be used but need to be attached to the stage floor first and then the textures applied to the sheet materials. For Dancing at Lughnasa, a cut back drop was heavily textured with Artist’s Choice Paints, mixed with Plastic Varnish, Sculpt or Coat, joint compound and mulch. Leaves were added to the mix; it was stirred up with a drill and large blending bit, and then the whole surface was smeared and spattered with this concoction that was mixed in large garbage cans. Muslin was painted in the scene shop on a paint deck, left to dry, then removed from the paint deck floor, rolled up, transported to the stage where it was stapled and taped down along the edges. The taped edges were then painted to match. At strike, the tape was removed and the textured floor was rolled up and removed from the space without any adverse effects.”

 Textured or scene-specific painted floor is surprisingly simple to maintain, too. “Usually, simple damp mopping is required to maintain a floor during a run of a show, but if some scarring happens due to a dragging caster or other dragged scenic unit, it may be necessary to do a touch up of Masking Black and then reseal with a Plastic Varnish Flat and water mixture over the area,” Saari concludes. “These products are friendly to use with no odor, touch up easily, and dry fast with a box fan on them.” Pay attention to these steps for a great-looking stage base—your floor, and your show, will shine!  

 

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