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Painter of Backdrops: Unsung but Not Unhung

November 10, 1985|SAMUEL GREENGARD | Greengard is a Burbank free-lance writer. and

Painter Robert Reid knows his name will never be whispered about in high-brow art circles. He's aware, too, the general public will probably never bang his door down asking to see his latest creation. He has no agent and no gallery representing him. Yet, every day, thousands of people view his art in prestigious museums all across the country.

Reid, a 29-year-old painter based in Los Angeles, is one of only a handful of individuals nationwide who create giant backdrops for museum exhibits and movie studios. Whether he's trying to re-create the desert highlands of California, the parched savannas of Central Africa or the tropical rain forests of Indonesia, it is his task to create a painting so realistic viewers feel like they are part of the scene.

"There's a million things that go into one of these paintings," Reid explained. "It's not something you just sit down and create."

Indeed, a typical backdrop measures 50 feet wide and 20 feet tall; the largest are three, even four times that size. They can take as long as 10 weeks to complete. And, of course, they must be accurate to the last detail. Not only must dimension, depth of field and quality of light be perfect, but in the case of a museum backdrop, the painting must blend together with artificial plants, animals and soils to create a totally realistic habitat.

Highly Skilled Craft

Don Llewellyn, an associate professor at USC who heads the design division of the school's drama department, puts it this way: "Scenic art definitely wouldn't fit into influential art circles. It wouldn't even fit into most people's homes. But this is a legitimate and highly skilled craft. It takes a lot of talent, knowledge and ability to create this kind of art."

With a background in commercial art, Reid began painting scenic backdrops seven years ago. Today his work appears in the L.A. County Museum of Natural History, Milwaukee's Neville Museum, Reno's recently completed Wilbur May Museum and San Diego's Sea World--where he built an 8x100 foot mural of Antarctic ice shelves for the park's Penguin Encounter exhibit. Embedded in fiberglass to withstand subfreezing temperatures, that backdrop took more than six weeks to complete.

"The great thing about scenic art," Reid said, "is that it is so much larger than the artist. It's challenging and it's unique. It's a whole different way of thinking--and painting." Another scenic artist, Clark Provins, who spent nearly 40 years painting hundreds of backdrops for MGM, Disney and other studios, calls it "the most interesting profession a person could get into."

Now retired, Provins got his start in the 1930s, after attending prestigious art schools and serving as an apprentice. Over the years, he has created huge, painted replicas of the Sistine Chapel and the Cathedral of Notre Dame as well as scores of nature scenes for the movie studios. In addition, he, like Reid, has painted several backdrops for museum exhibits. "A lot of people call themselves scenic artist. But very few people can do this type of work exceptionally well," he said.

Unusual Approach

By other artists' standards, Reid and Provins approach their work with an attitude that might be considered a bit unusual. "I consider myself successful when people don't notice my art," Reid said. "The idea is for the scene to blend into the entire habitat and not jump out at the viewer. That's not an easy thing to do."

Indeed, a successful scenic artist must work hard to ensure total authenticity. The artist's reputation and institution's credibility depend on it.

Working from a photograph--and sometimes sketches--of the original scene, the artist must first partake in painstaking research. Volumes of books must be studied and field samples have to be analyzed. When Reid created a backdrop for the tule elk exhibit at the Natural History Museum, for example, he spent several days in the Owens Valley collecting plant and soil samples--which he hauled back to his L.A. studio for reference.

But that's only part of the picture. Once the research is completed, there's still the formidable task of completing a perfect scaled-down version of the final painting. Measuring approximately one-twelfth the size of the backdrop, the detailed model must be carefully scrutinized for minor flaws and imperfections.

Finally, after receiving approval, sometimes months later, work begins on the actual backdrop. In the movie business that often means applying acrylic paint to a huge cotton sheet which, Provins says, "moves like a sea." Using stepladders, scaffolding and other equipment, the artist--sometimes a team of painters--works in sections until the final painting comes together.

The process is no less complicated for creating museum backdrops. The painter works on an enormous canvas, that, when finished, is mounted and shaped in a large semicircle. By surrounding the viewer it creates an eerie feeling of dimension and authenticity.

Sense of Perspective

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