The Origin Story Of Earth Umber – The Overlooked Earth Tone You Should Be Using

Bridgette Dennett is a freelance scenic designer and instructor – currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Theatre at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She noted what a shame it was that, when compared to Rosco’s more popular Burnt & Raw Umber earth tones, Off Broadway Earth Umber was “the neglected stepchild sitting in a corner.” Bridgette reached out to Rosco’s Jenny Knott for some details about how the paint came to be and then wrote the article below defending this forgotten color inside Rosco’s Off Broadway range of Scenic Paints.

Yes, Earth Umber is a color that a scenic artist could easily mix on their own, but for someone that typically works at small schools with limited assistance, I think this paint – which is only available from Rosco – offers enormous value.

One of Bridgett’s students at Wabash College applies a wash of Earth Umber to the set.

Many times, the students that end up on my paint crews are incredibly enthusiastic (and I love them!), but they have little-to-no background in technical theater or the Fine Arts. While they do well with following instructions – mixing paint isn’t a task that I can easily trust them with. Enter Off Broadway #5358 Earth Umber. With its solid, mid-range value and warm chocolaty color, I have been using Earth Umber on nearly every show I have done the past three years.

It’s a great color to use as a second or third step wood grain color for floors, ranging from traditional brown, to blonde wood, to aged planking. All that’s needed is a little thinning, and students are able to paint with it immediately – without following a recipe or mixing pigments. I’ve also mixed it with Jaxsan and sawdust to create bark on topiary trees, roughhewn lumber on shipping masts, and as a base coat on a telephone pole. Its versatility is directly related to the reason I believe Earth Umber is often overlooked: this color is a solid, non-remarkable brown.

Earth Umber wasn’t one of Rosco’s original earth tones. It was developed by Jenny Knott, Rosco’s Product Manager for Scenic Paint & Coatings, in 2011. Rosco’s Canadian office reported that their film/TV scenic customers had been asking for a color that they could use to grunge set pieces and still have a flat finish. Jenny mixed up a couple of colors, but she wasn’t satisfied that they were a neutral “dirt” color.  After drying they inevitably leaned toward one primary color or another.

Fast forward to a few months later.

One of Jenny’s primary job responsibilities is to evaluate each batch of Rosco paint that is produced against a standard for that paint line. One day, one of the colors missed. That missed color became Off Broadway Earth Umber. Jenny tells the tale below.

“I was on the road staying with my mom in central Illinois. I was making samples in her basement for TransWorld, a haunted house trade show, when I received a packet containing several drawdowns from the factory of recent batches of paint for me to review. There was a note on one drawdown asking if I might evaluate it and give suggestions on what to do with it as it clearly didn’t even come close to the intended color. A “glitch” had occurred when making the color. The recipe had been misread and a different pigment had been used to make an existing Off Broadway color. I mention being at my mom’s house in central Illinois because I took the drawdown card outside and looked at it in daylight and it seemed to match the dirt color in her backyard. It was perfect for aging scenery, so a new paint color was born out of an accident. My first choice for a name for the color was simply ‘Dirt,’ but my second choice, ‘Earth Umber,’ was ultimately selected.”

As scenic artists, we all love “happy accidents.” More often than not, they turn out to be an unintended, yet perfect result. I believe this is definitely the case with Earth Umber and highly encourage you to use it the next time you need a warm-yet-neutral, earthy brown to paint onto your set.

 Bridgette Dennett is a graduate of Indiana University’s MFA Scenic Design program, with design and artist credits at The Rose Theatre of Omaha, Tampa Repertory Theatre, Jobsite Theatre, Stageworks, and a position on the 2015 team for the United States exhibit at the Prague Quadrennial. Visit her website to see examples of her work. If you’d like to learn more about the paints Bridgette mentioned above, you can explore the Off Broadway product page on Rosco’s website, or contact your local Rosco dealer and order a quart of Off Broadway #5358 Earth Umber to test for your next production.

This blog article was originally published by the Guild of Scenic Artists inside their Scenic Route blog.

Angelique Powers
Guest Author: Angelique Powers
A Founding Member of The Guild of Scenic Artists, Angelique Powers has an MFA in Scenic Art Design from the California Institute of the Arts and has been professionally painting theatrical scenery for over 16 years. Angelique also shares her knowledge, passion and experience with her students at the University of Minnesota as a scenic paint instructor. To see Angelique’s work, be sure to explore the portfolio on her website – Qpowers.com.
 
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