During the summer break, our Backstage Bar has become a Paintshop once more as The Rivals prepares to make its riotous debut. Here we talk to Scenic Artist Cliff Thorne who’s been hard at work hand-painting the backdrops of our 18th Century set.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what a Scenic Artist does.
I’ve been involved in building and painting scenery for the past 30 years; starting with Aardman Animations in film & TV and, more recently, Theatre. In the last 5 years I’ve spent more of my time working in Theatre as digital imagery has taken over from live sets in many film productions.
As a Scenic Artist, I find myself doing everything from painting large canvases, which is what we’re working on for The Rivals, to making stuff look older or newer than it is. If you’ve got a prop that’s been brought from the outside, that could be changing the appearance of it or making one particular material look like another. For example, making timber look like stone or making canvas look like a sheet of metal or other special paint effects.
How did you get involved in working on The Rivals?
I do a lot of my scenic art here at Bristol Old Vic as a freelancer. I get called in by whoever is the production manager, in this case Nic Prior, and that’s exactly what happened with The Rivals.
What are the backdrops going to look like?
There are seven backdrops. The largest two are too big to paint in here so they’re going to be done as scanochromes (big prints). We may have to work on them to make them look exactly the way Tom Rogers, the Set Designer, wants them to look but we’ll have to see how they’ve turned out when they arrive.
They’re from images that already exist, so we have digital copies going to the printers ready to be printed up. They may come back looking just right or they may come back needing to be adjusted – needing to be brought into focus in some areas or made to look shabby because they’re supposed to look like old scenery that’s been in the back of a theatre for 100 to 200 years.
The five smaller ones, which are still relatively large by most standards (5m²), we’re painting those up from small scale pictures, photographs and thumbnails from the internet. So it’s been a challenge but we’re rising to it and they’re looking very very good!
How are you going about bringing Tom Rogers’ vision to life?
The painted backdrops or canvases create elements within the rooms. That is his concept. They have to look like they’re pieces of scenery that have been around for a long time so we’re painting the canvases as new and then we’re going to have to age them. We’re going to have to tear holes in them and water stain them, spray them with dark colours and fade them out in various ways in order to get to the particular state of age that he wants. Once all this initial paint work is complete, Tom will be the one telling us exactly how far to go.
Is there anything interesting you can tell us about the set?
There are no side walls and there’s no back wall. There are a lot of enormous picture frames which frame the large canvases we’re painting and they fly in and out throughout the show. They’re also on tracks so they can be moved side to side by the cast in order to set up different rooms. So sometimes these large frames have canvases behind them to look like paintings within frames and sometimes the frames are aligned in certain ways as arches to create vistas and avenues.
Which is your favourite backdrop for the show?
Right now we’re painting a canvas which depicts an 18th Century hunting scene. That’s been the most interesting one to paint. It’s like we’re painting a giant oil painting.
What are you looking forward to most when the show debuts?
It’s always rewarding to see the finished product on-stage. So I’m looking forward to seeing how the backdrops piece together with the rest of the set, how the cast interact with them and seeing the audience reaction to them.
The Rivals continues our 250th Anniversary Season 9 Sep-2 Oct. For more information and to book tickets, click here.