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Dirty Work - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

Dirty Work

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The action of Restoration takes place over the course of a year, during which time art restorer Giulia performs a gentle cleaning on Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. Though the actual restoration strove to be “invisible” to visitors, our intrepid props department wanted Giulia’s work to be subtle yet noticeable to an audience. Which means that they had to come up with a method to “dirty up” the statue so that Giulia could “clean” it each performance.

In order to share some of the painstaking processes that go on behind the scenes of every show, La Jolla Playhouse’s Associate Properties Master, Kelly Corrigan, recounts below the ideas and trials that led to the “dirtying and cleaning” technique used on the David:


Playwright/actress Claudia Shear (“Giulia”), restores the David in RESTORATION, by Claudia Shear, directed by Christopher Ashley, playing June 23 -- July 19 in the Mandell Weiss Forum; photo by Craig Schwartz.

Challenge:  Develop a “dirtying” treatment that can be easily applied and removed from the various David sculpture pieces each show.

Okay… well, we’ve done temporary dirtying of props before…usually on metal or plastic… and usually not to be removed and reapplied nightly.

In the case of the David sculpture, we would be applying the treatment to a sealed styrofoam surface, painted to look like marble.

This brings up concerns of staining…

We want to reveal a contrasting, clean surface of “marble” under the “layer of dirt.”  Any treatment that would leave even the slightest bit of staining, when compounded over the course of many shows, would diminish the intended appearance of the original paint treatment.

(We came up with plenty of those types of treatment!)

We decided our starting point would be a pigment with little or no binder (what keeps paint stuck to a surface).

We first tried tempra paint.  After all, it’s what we give our children to finger paint with, so it’s made to come off walls. The catch: it’s made to come off a wall with the aid of cleaning products. We needed something that would come off without having to use harsh cleaning agents; we wouldn’t want to end up taking the finished paint treatment off along with the “dirt.”

So, on to the next idea.

Tempra does have a bit of a binder to it, so the next logical step is to eliminate binder altogether.  We normally use liquid tint to add to a binder when we mix up paints.  This time we’d skip that step and just add water to dilute the concentrated tint.

This seems to work well at first:

It looks good.

It dries in about 15 minutes.

It wipes off easily with a damp rag.

It doesn’t stain.

It can be applied using a small aeresol sprayer.


…until the following morning.

After the tint had been on the surface for over 14 hours, it didn’t come off as easily as it had the day before.  The tint had stained the surface of the sculpture piece.


Well, we did get a bit closer to a solution… What we needed was a type of agent to add to the tint that would keep the tint from seeping into the surface treatment.  Something that could be reactivated with water after it had dried.

I knew it was a stretch, but…I decided to try hair gel.

I also decided to keep this oddball idea to myself until I gave it a try.

I added just a few drops of tint into the hair gel, dabbed it on and waited for it to dry.

10 minutes to dry!  Okay, that’s a go.

Wipes off with a damp cloth!  Check!

Reapplies to the clean spot evenly and easily!  Awesome!

Now to wait overnight.

I came in the following morning with my fingers crossed…