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Faking a Painted Masterpiece

A tutorial to create a faux prop painting of an art masterpiece for filming

I have a technique that I’ve used several times to fake expensive paintings as background props. If you don’t have any painting experience, have an art student do it for best results. These faux paintings can add a great deal of life and authenticity to a set. They can also cover huge chunks of blank wall.

First a small warning. If you’re making a duplicate of a painting less than 75 years old (for an ironic example, an Andy Warhol painting) – don’t make an exact duplicate. If you make an exact copy of any painting you can get into copyright trouble. I would suggest you make a ‘Warhol-like’ painting and you’ll be fine.

Follow these steps:

  1. Put Together a Frame – Cut 2” x 2” beams of wood into four lengths that match the desired size and (more importantly) ratio of the artwork. If you preserve the proportions of the work, you can make it almost any size you want and it will look right. Hammer the four beams together for a frame.
  2. Buy Painter’s Canvas – At your local home warehouse, buy a house painter’s canvas drop cloth. You can get large pieces very inexpensively (for example, 9 foot x 12 foot is usually around $25). Note that the drop cloth often has a seam in the longest direction, so you will probably get two large sheets (for example, two 9 foot x 6 foot sheets) from one cloth.
  3. Staple the Canvas to the Frame – A staple gun works well for punching through the canvas into the wood. Start by stapling the canvas at the center of each side (like a cross), so the first staple will go in the outward side of the bottom board. Staple in the center of the length (for example, on a 6 foot long bottom board, the staple would be located 3 feet from the side). Pull the canvas tight and put the second staple at the top center. Then the left side center and finally the right side center. Further staples should progress outward to the edges as you pull the canvas tight.
  4. Spray the Back of the Canvas with Water – Fill a spray bottom with water and spray the back of the canvas. When the water dries, the canvas will shrink and pull itself tight against the frame.
  5. Paint the Face with Gesso – Paint the face of the canvas with two coats of gesso. Gesso provides the foundation of the painting and will keep the paint from soaking into the canvas. If a close-up of the painting is required, use fine sandpaper to sand the surface until it’s smooth.
  6. Get a Small Picture of the Artwork – The size of the picture will be determined by the size your tracing projector can handle. My projector can handle a 3.5 inch x 3.5 inch piece of artwork.
  7. Project the Artwork onto the Canvas and Trace – You can buy an inexpensive projection tracer at most craft or hobby stores. I use the Artograph Tracer JR. Opaque Art Projector that cost me around $30 (on sale). Use a thick pencil or charcoal pencil to trace the outline of the artwork onto the canvas surface.
  8. Paint the Work – This is usually easier than it seems. Most artwork is shown in the background, so a fairly good facsimile can be managed with acrylic paint even if the original is made with lush oils. While you’re working, stand back from the artwork often and squint your eyes. It will give you an impression of how the work will appear on film. Obviously the closer the work will be photographed by the camera, the more painting time will be required to make it pass for the real thing.

This process may seem complicated at first, but it actually goes pretty quickly. You can often manage a passable reproduction in about four hours.

(c) Copyright 2006 by Dan Rahmel