Watching Richard W. Prouse and Irina Portnyagina paint this backdrop for Shining City is like watching a carefully choreographed dance. “We did what we would prefer to always do, which is work really, really fast,” says Prouse. Fast barely cuts it. What you see above was painted in less than 25 minutes. The team works off a paint elevation provided by scenic designer Anna TK.
Still, Prouse and Portnyagina have some room for interpretation. The sky is translucent—a signature of Scenic Art Studios, one of the leading paint shops for Broadway theatre. The building opaque, as planned, but Prouse considers the windows: “Whether or not the windows will be translucent I haven’t decided yet,” he says. “Maybe they’ll be slightly translucent because it’s glass and it would be reflective so you would see the light of the sky in the windows or the reflection of the building across the street which you have to make up.”
Prouse has been a scenic artist since he was 17 years old and a union member for the last 33. At age 24, he was designing, painting, and building scenery for nearly every theatre production in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I just figured I better get to New York because clearly I could do this,” he says. “I struggled as a designer, but as a painter I knew I could copy anything, so I decided to be a scenic artist not a scenic designer.”
The idea of copying is much more nuanced than it seems, which is why Prouse says his eyes are his most valuable tool. “That sounds really corny, but I think I’m one of the few who just naturally tends to get preoccupied with whatever it is I’m painting out in the real world. If it’s a sky, then my journey home I’m staring at the sky. If it’s bricks I’m looking at bricks. If it’s pavement I’m looking at pavement. Soaking it all in. I tell my students: The whole world is your homework and if you don’t open your eyes then you’re lost on the floor when it comes time to paint.”
As for Portnyagina, she found herself on the painting floor 19 years ago and has no plan to leave anytime soon. As she describes the feeling of starting work on a brand new piece, her excitement mounts. “When I see on the floor the rolled muslin totally white I have this anxiousness, I can really feel it,” she says. “That’s what I’m going to miss when I’m retired, the white muslin on the floor.”