How to make stage backdrops

Updated April 17, 2017

Every great stage production captures the imagination of the audience through some from of visual art. A well-painted and designed backdrop can make an audience feel as if it has been transported back to the time of Hamlet, the Wild West or even a post-apocalyptic future. Creating a stage backdrop is a big undertaking, but with the proper planning and execution, it can be done with relative ease.

Draw out your plan on paper. This will allow you to add or remove elements at your leisure without having to repaint an entire stage backdrop. Note the dimensions that you want each aspect of the stage backdrop to be on your plan.

Measure your theatrical space. Your backdrop should be as wide and tall as is visible from the audience. Cut your linen canvas to meet these specifications with a pair of fabric sheers. Prime the canvas by painting a layer of gesso over the side of the canvas you wish to paint on. Place some heavy cans of paint or weights on the corners of the canvas so that it does not curl while drying. Let the canvas dry for 24 hours.

Mark out your design with grey paint using a 5-cm (2-inch) wide trim brush. Let the paint dry and begin applying the stage paint to the canvas to create the backdrop. Use a combination of rollers, 10-cm (4-inch) wide flat brushes and a trim brush for detail. If the backdrop is for an outdoor scene, remember the rule of atmospheric perspective. This states that objects in the distance take on increasing shades of blue as they fade into the background.

Let the paint dry for at least 24 hours. Use a matt-finish sealer spray on the entire canvas to ensure the backdrop does not chip or crack. Most theatres will have a bar or other device suspended from the rafters that the backdrop hangs on. If one is not available, nail the top of the canvas to the wall.


Scenic paint can be easily ordered online. Check for discounts on scenic paint.


If you are using a milk-based stage paint, check to see if the paint has gone rancid. Milk-based paint produces beautiful colours but a foul odour as well if it is old.

Things You'll Need

  • Grid paper
  • Pencil
  • Scenic paint (available online and at theatre outlet stores)
  • Linen canvas
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About the Author

Andrew DeWitt is a freelance writer/illustrator and stand-up comic with more than eight years of professional experience. He has written for Chicago Public Radio, Vocalo Radio, Second City Chicago, and The Lemming. DeWitt has a liberal arts degree with a double major in theater and creative writing.