‘The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop’ shows paintings at work

Originally from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, the mid-century backdrops are hand-painted special effects


Westminister Abbey, the Sonoran Desert, a Pennsylvania trailer park, a night view of an island city, a rooftop panorama of Madrid.

The behemoth paintings in “Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop,” an exhibition currently staged on the stage of Bass Concert Hall, are singular as works of art.  They’re beyond only trompe l’oeil. They offer a kind of realism that is visually convincing, yet they are nevertheless created to be illusory, to fool you into thinking you’re seeing something real.

They are also working paintings so to speak, with little preciousness to them. Their edges are rough and unfinished. Some have technical markings on the backside, others wrinkles from when they were rolled up, or folded, and stored away.

Fold marks crease the scenic painting of an exterior view of Pennsylvania trailer park used in the 1961 movie "Two Loves." Photo: Sightlines
Fold marks crease the scenic painting of a Pennsylvania trailer park used in the 1961 movie “Two Loves.” Photo: Sightlines

Normally, the Bass Concert Hall stage would be busy with Broadway shows and other entertainments. But these are hardly normal times and so Texas Performing Arts, the University of Texas’ presenting program, is using the Bass stage and backstage to exhibit the dozen MGM backdrops.

During Hollywood’s golden age almost every feature film used painted backdrops to make moviegoers think they were seeing the yellow brick road heading off into the distance or the temples of Damascus during the Roman Empire. Now, digital effects do the tricks that scenic painters once did.

hollywood backdrop
The verso of a scenic painting reveals the translucent backlighting effects. Windows have little to no paint allowing them to illuminated from behind. Photo: Sightlines

Concerned about the legacy of Hollywood’s motion picture scenic artists, the Art Directors’ Guild began the Backdrop Recovery Project in 2012. Some 207 historic backings were preserved which the guild then donated to museums, motion picture archives, and academic institutions. Texas Performing Arts’ scenic studio received 50 MGM backdrops which are used for study by theater design students.

Karen L. Maness, who is professor of scenic art and figurative painting and the scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, put the exhibition together. Maness co-authored, with Richard Isackes, “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop,” a comprehensive history of the hidden world movie illusion and creators of the special effects masterpieces.

We asked Maness about the under-recognized artists who painted the backdrops.

Sightlines: Why were the studios so secretive about the backdrop paintings and the artists who made them?
Karen Maness:
Studio secrecy was about control, efficiency, and market domination. The studios were fiercely competitive with one another, chasing their audiences’ eyes, hearts, and market control. Though the studio system has disappeared and Hollywood’s movie-making magic has become the stuff of DVD extras and used as a vehicle to connect with fans, feature film production remains tightly controlled through NDA’s until a film’s release.

S: Who were these backdrop painters? Were they art school-trained? Did any of them have art careers beyond scene painting?
KM: MGM’s scenic art studio was composed of the finest talent Scenic Art Supervisor George Gibson could find. He sought young artists just coming out of art schools and hired military men after serving in the war as mapmakers. Many of the scenic artists pursued art careers beyond scenic painting, and Gibson himself was an award-winning member of the California Watercolor Society and part of the California Scene Painters movement.

Others artists include:

  • Ben Carré was a master in the area of perspective drawing. “He was technically ahead of everyone in the department where perspective drawing and layout were concerned; his perspective was unbelievable!” After he retired from MGM, Motion Picture art direction pioneer (“The Jazz Singer,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” 1925), Carré continued to work as a studio artist creating smaller-scale original oil and watercolors. Gibson and Carré are cited among the artists who represented the California style of painters.
Duncan Alanson Spencer
A 1955 watercolor by Duncan Alanson Spencer. Courtesy of William Brandle.
  • Duncan Alanson Spencer (1911-1999), attended Chouinard Art School (now CalArts) and was active in the prestigious Painters and Sculptors Club of Los Angeles, inducted as a member in 1932, where he continued to develop his plein air technique. Before his employment at MGM, Spencer apprenticed at Beaumont Graphics, a firm that did illustration work for ad agencies and greeting card companies. In 1937 Spencer shared his portfolio with George Gibson; he was hired to begin work that day.
  • Clark M. Provins (1909-1991). Oil painter, watercolorist, and top MGM scenic artist, Provins is also known for his painted environments for LA County Museum of Natural History. Provins’ son, Michael who passed away in 1988, became one of Warner Bros. scenic art studio’s top portraitists before his untimely death.
  • John H. Coakley (1918-1970) also studied at Chouinard Art Institute. He was Gibson’s first MGM apprentice. At age 30 he would take the helm as Scenic Art Supervisor of Twentieth Century-Fox Scenic Art Studio. From the mid-1930s until the late 1960s, he exhibited watercolors in the Los Angeles area.

S: What skills did a backdrop painter need? People may be familiar with the term trompe l’oeil, but what painting techniques are at work in order to render these gigantic scenes?
KM: A master scenic artist must possess a complete command of architectural drawing, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, color theory, and in-depth knowledge of geological, botanical, cumulus forms. The Hollywood motion picture scenic artists were among the highest-paid members of the studio system’s arsenal of craftspeople. MGM’s scenic art department was considered the best among its peers. Gibson demanded his artists continually train their eyes and skills through observational painting from nature.

 “Behind the Scenes” continues through April 18. Reserve timed tickets and see health and safety protocols at texasperformingarts.org.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

Related articles