What Does a Scenic Artist Do?

Dan Harkins

A scenic artist works for movie, television or theater production companies to paint backdrops and other artistic elements that are needed to lend the final product a fighting chance of suspending reality. The production designer, also known as the charge artist, may employ several scenic artists to paint movie or theater sets. For smaller productions, however, the director may also be the production designer as well as the scenic artist in charge of soliciting volunteers from the cast and crew.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

A few educational or experiential paths can lead to a career as a scenic artist and eventually a production designer. Many art school graduates favor large-scale mural art or realism. Others train specifically as set artists for theater productions. Sculptors and graphic artists using computer programs also may be enlisted as scenic artists to produce set pieces or devise the sketches for final storyboards. Though these are ultimately the responsibilities of the chief artist in the credits — the production or stage designer — scenic artists are frequently employed to actually do the artwork envisioned by the designer.

A scenic artist must be able to take direction and criticism from the designer and director, but also work independently to create work that lends credibility to the production. Not only will a scenic artist understand how to paint and draw realistic settings, but also the techniques of stagecraft that allow for realistic-looking natural materials, such as marbling processes that can make wood look like stone. Many of these special skills are earned through theater or film school education; the rest are picked up from colleagues and bosses over years of experience.

Many scenic artists in 2011 are employed by change artists overseeing digitized shows and movies that have vast arrays of scenery devised in post-production. Green screens are commonly used while actors play out a scene. Then, scenic artists use graphics programs like Alien Skin&reg or Perfect Photo Suite&reg to fill in the blank spaces later, frame by frame.

Some animated productions utilize as many as 100 or more scenic artists for one project. Three-dimensional modeling programs may be used to help writers and sketch artists visualize each character. Then other scenic artists are employed to color in various frames or provide landscape art in sections to mimic both the natural world as well as the particular style that has been chosen by the director and change artist to give the production a unique look.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - I personally think the problem stems from the fact that you need multiple artists for every bit of scenic art done in CGI. Before, you could get a piece from a single artist and they were able to make it cohesive and bizarre at the same time. These days it's essentially done by committee, which means it is likely to be less cohesive and less interesting as all the weird bits get ironed out.


Well, I think they are still called scenic artists, even if they are using CGI instead of paint. And even today you still have people using traditional techniques for one reason or another.

They actually didn't always just paint a background, particularly on science fiction shoots.

Sometimes they would use a real location and just warp the image to make it look otherworldly and sometimes they would build an entire miniature set with lights and all so that they could film it from above and use that (I think they did that for Bladerunner).

The CGI means that they can actually animate individual aspects of the background so it looks even more realistic, which is pretty cool.


When you re-watch old style films that used traditional scenic art it's actually amazing how beautiful the paintings are and how cleverly they trick the eye into thinking that the actors are standing in front of a large landscape, rather than just a backdrop. You see it a lot in old Star Trek episodes, because they needed to create different alien landscapes and cities and they needed to be able to do it relatively cheaply.

These days, of course, it's all put in by computer. Lovely, but not quite the same.

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