Tell us a little bit about yourself...
My name is Grace Brennan, I am a Scenic Artist working under the name EBGBScenic. My work as a Scenic Artist involves all kinds of scenic painting and has crossed over into set design and art direction. I started working for lots of visual artists but over time began working more on sets for TV, Commercials, Interiors, Theatre and Film. Scenic painting covers all kinds of set and decorative painting. In theatre the terms Scenic Painter and Scenic Artist are largely interchangeable, Scenic Painters will have done virtually everything you can see on stage. For example, there may be a painted cloth hanging at the back of the stage, a fake wooden floor, a textured brick wall or some plain black masking that you’re not supposed to notice. The skills range from those of an artist painting a backdrop to a decorative painter creating faux finishes like marble, as well as all sorts of practical problem-
solving. In film and TV, Scenic Painters and Scenic Artists are more divided. Artists do things like backgrounds / backdrops whereas Scenic Painters don’t generally do as much representational painting but do the majority of other tasks such as all the finishes and surfaces of the sets.
What made you choose this career?
I studied art but I wasn’t quite sure what to do next! I had lots of practical skills and felt knowledgeable about painting but wasn’t quite sure how to turn my skills into a career. I worked for a decorative finishes company and somebody there suggested that I would be really suited to being a Scenic Painter in theatre. It’s a really varied role and seemed to fulfil lots of things I wanted at the time as it was really practical and hands-on.
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If not please explain your journey.
I had a degree in Fine Art which led to some of the work I did early in my career. When I started to look into becoming a Scenic Artist I was recommended a Post Graduate 4 term course run by RADA that was very vocational, primarily involving working on the shows the academy produced and ending with a long professional placement. This course was brilliant and a great introduction to the role of a Scenic Painter as well as getting to meet lots of people that worked in the industry. Although the course was Post Graduate RADA did not insist that applicants had a degree beforehand, just that everyone applying had to have experience in one form or another.
Sadly this course doesn’t exist anymore, however having done the course and met more people in the industry I now know there are definitely multiple ways to become a Scenic Painter. Formal education can help make connections but isn’t the only way.
Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
Training at RADA gave a good insight into being a Scenic Artist in many ways as it illustrated the workload, the long hours and need for teamwork. When I went on to work at The National Theatre it felt like a much bigger (but comparable) version of RADA. A downside of training is it may give a false sense of the quality of work that you do day to day, when you train you learn to do the most fantastic projects, when you are working lots of the projects will be more simple. In addition it is great to learn how to run a team or a project when you are studying,
but you may wait years to do the same thing professionally. In general training allowed me access to a world that I hadn’t known how to access before. However from the other side, having worked for lots of big institutions I can see that there are lots of routes in, they can just be a little trickier to discover. I would encourage anyone thinking of going into this type of work to try and get as much experience as possible (maybe trying to get involved with a youth theatre group or see if you can help at a scenery company) because this can lead quite quickly to paid work and you might find that you don’t need to train as you are able to learn on the job. I would never suggest anyone should work lengthy periods for free, or
presume that doing so is an option for most people, but if you are able to spend a few days or evenings giving your time it may be just as much of a gateway as a professional course.
Who inspires you?
When I worked at The National the Paintframe was headed by Hilary Vernon-Smith who was a trailblazer for women in these kind of positions. Higher up posts in theatre, TV and Film are dominated by men, even though there are far more women at a junior level, so it was great to see someone that had maintained such a prestigious position and who was really positive about helping others.
What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
The lack of financial security as nearly all the roles are freelance. If you are younger starting out it doesn’t feel as intimidating but as you get older this has a massive impact. It is difficult to get a mortgage, you are totally dependant on your physical capabilities and it unfairly penalises women if they want to have children. These things are all difficult to overcome. There have been periods when I have had to take on very stressful work as I needed the better day-rate even though the workload wasn’t sustainable long-term. The main way I
have navigated this is with the mutually supportive relationships I have with other painters where we try and help each other, get each other work, put each other forward or job share.
What do you want to change about your industry?
I would like jobs and opportunities to be more widely available to everyone, so they would be openly advertised and people would be selected by a group of people (not just a single manager). I believe this would drive up the standard of work and improve the diversity of the workplace. Film and TV are made of short-term limited companies with lots of sub-contracting so there is nowhere to voice concerns or try and make positive changes in
the workplace. Often the only person you can discuss this with is the person that employed you so it feels risky to raise issues. I also wish it was more common to have fixed-term contacts, understandably people can’t have permanent contracts for short-term jobs but it is not uncommon to only know day by day if you are needed. In the bigger picture I wonder if the long hours and early starts will always unfairly penalise women, it would be amazing
(for example) to see the potential provision of childcare, especially on film lots employing thousands of people. I can’t see why this couldn’t happen apart from people not wanting to disrupt the ‘status quo’ of a male dominated industry.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field?
Try and get some experience of the role, it could be helping out at a local amateur production or at school, just to get a sense of how things work. Try and get some experience at a scenery company, this may be unpaid if you don’t have much experience but it will give a good insight into the kind of work they do – sometimes it’s fascinating, sometimes it’s really repetitive. As I said previously I would never suggest anyone did this long-term
but it could quickly lead to paid work. It is not just about getting a foot in the door, it’s also about seeing if it’s what you actually want to do. It can be really satisfying learning something for the first time, but will you be happy doing similar tasks year in year out? If you are exploring careers in theatre, TV and film it’s worth remembering that your role might be quite far from the action (for example you may be building a set in a different part of the
country and never go to the theatre or soundstage) so it’s a good idea to get a real sense of the work environment.
Studying is a great gateway into scenic painting and there are lots of vocational courses that are very job focused. If you are studying I would suggest keeping your options as open as possible and to try to determine what you can only get through studying versus what you can learn on the job. For example if you study set design and scenic painting you could easily go into either area, if you just study scenic art it’s much harder to evolve into design.
I would also try and future-proof your career as much as possible, scenic painting is a fabulous field but some areas are increasingly likely to be done using other technologies compared to a few decades ago (for example backdrops being printed or projected rather that painted). There will always be areas that require specialist skills
but having some complimentary skills is definitely useful, it’s amazing being able to hand make a beautiful model box but you’re much more likely to be asked for a CAD render, so if you are studying take the opportunity to pick up as many skills as possible. It may also come in useful later in your career having work that is less physically demanding or can be done remotely.
If you are looking into studying there are sources of support out there. I received funding from Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (Qest) for training. Equally RADA (and I’m sure this applies to lots of institutions) have lots of funding and support options. I would suggest applying for courses regardless and then exploring what financial help may be available if you get offered a place, your college or university should be able to help you do this,
don’t be intimidated to ask for all the help available.
Finally don’t feel that you have to study to get into the job. The most important qualities I think a scenic painter can have are being a supportive team player, enthusiasm, curiosity and a willingness to take on your share of the dirty work, these are all qualities that will always be more valued than a formal qualification!