Scene painting has this in common with Mark Twain: reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Of course the nature of the work has evolved and so has the way scene painters gain their skills and earn a living. The background and occupation of James Rowse of DAP Studio in Carshalton, south London, provide a good example of these developments.
Rowse originally trained as a fine artist and spent some time as an exhibited painter. “Then by chance I met a carpenter who worked for the scenery construction firm Kimpton Walker and I discovered that it was possible to use my skills in the theatre,” he says. “I did a design course at what is now the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which included some scene painting. At that time the training was broad but not deep and more about practical skills than the design course it has become.” He was advised to become “a craftsman in rep”.
In 1991, Rowse joined the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry as a scene painter. “When I graduated there were five jobs to choose from in regional theatres. Nowadays aspiring scene painters will mostly be freelance or work for scenic construction companies.”
In 1995, Rowse moved to London and worked as a freelance, a role he valued as a way of working with and learning from a mix of people. Five years later, he got a job with Kimpton Walker himself, where he worked on many touring and West End productions including We Will Rock You, Starlight Express and Cats, and for English National Ballet.
After returning to freelance work later, production managers and designers began to approach him about taking on jobs on his own account. “I got the bug for giving a price for a job and I wanted to be more in control, so I set up in my own space in 2005.” In 2010, Rowse found a purpose-built scenic art studio in Carshalton behind the Cryer Theatre, which is now the home of Decorative Art Projects. “That name became too much of a mouthful. Suppliers began to write ‘DAP’ on packaging and paperwork. I quite liked that, so I went with it and it became DAP Studio.”
More recently, a new trust took over running the Cryer Theatre, and Rowse was able to obtain a more secure lease on the building. It includes one of the few paint shops in London, which has its own paint frame. “I like to be in control,” says Rowse. “Not being part of a construction workshop means I can paint without sawdust in the air.”
He agrees scenic artists need to “adapt to new technology” but is keen to emphasise the contribution a skilled scene painter brings to the production process. “A set model at a scale of 1:25 can’t convey all the detailed information, so there is a need for interpretation and to incorporate other references. Through this process, a relationship develops between the designer and the painter.”
A glance at the number of designers who are regular users of DAP Studio show that this is working for Rowse. They include Rob Howell, Bunny Christie, Soutra Gilmour and Jonathan Fensom.
Taking account of the changing nature of the employment market, Rowse also runs a number of training courses. On five modular weekend courses, run throughout the year, students can study specific topics. Each weekend focuses on a particular scenic finish including wood, metal, stone and brickwork. One module focuses on scenic decoration, ageing and distressed finishes. Two backdrop painting workshops explore different cloth-painting techniques: on a wooden floor, and using the studio’s paint frame respectively. In August, all the modules are available in an intensive four-week long summer school.
“I never take more than six students,” Rowse explains. “The emphasis is on preparing a portfolio and how to approach companies for work. Employers don’t want to see an example of work where the student was one of several who contributed to it. Here, anything they do will be their own work, even if the cloth they paint is only a couple of metres square.”
One student went on to an apprenticeship at the Royal Opera House, and another is working where Rowse started, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.
Another DAP Studio innovation is a service filling a need that has arisen as more and more scenic artists work as freelances. It is an online directory for scene painters. And as the studio becomes more established, other creative businesses are moving into the same building or next door. Downstairs is a film and television prop maker and a band rehearsal room.
Rowse’s work is to be seen in the West End, Shakespeare’s Globe, Chichester and in exhibitions such as the current Curtain Up, designed by Tom Piper at the Victoria and Albert Museum. With the DAP initiatives of training and the painters directory, his influence on the continuing future of scene painting is likely to be even greater.