Building My DIY Corner Background

It was a few months ago that I ask my very understanding and supportive partner if I could move everything out of one corner of our open layout apartment and build a set to shoot portraits in. She instantly said 'Sure', and that's why I love her. I wanted a space where I could let someone stand or sit and get comfortable. Sixteen square feet of floorspace in which the subject could settle. 

I was of course inspired by the classic acute wall of Irving Penn, but that's sacred photographic ground that I have no business treading. Mark Seliger also had a nice set built to take portraits after the Oscars earlier this year. That was very nice too.

There were a few constraints I had to work within. First was that there is a radiator on the outer wall which I had to build out and over so that the surface could go all the way to the floor. I also really only have room for about four feet of wall on each side; four feet wide by eight feet tall on each side. This of course makes things easier at the lumber yard, however the truck I had access to to transport the wood wasn't big enough to handle a full 8x4' sheet of ply, so I had to cut them in half and put it back together on the wall.

Using five 2x4s I created a frame for the left wall so that it stood off the top of the radiator by a smidge. I then stood it up and screwed it into the wall with a couple of drywall screws so that it's not going anywhere. The panels in the right wall are actually screwed into studs, so it's definitely not going anywhere either, but that does make me a little nervous when I've got to dig through all of the paint and compound to remove the whole thing when I move out someday. That could be a real pain in the ass, but I'll deal with that problem when I come to it. Maybe I should have built a frame for it as well.


Walls in place

Taping detail

Once the panels where up there were a few layers of tape and compound to fill in the countersunk screw holes and cover any seems. This is typical wall building stuff which I picked up from my father as a kid. It was my first time doing any of it in probably 20 years, so I'm a little out of practice and without the best tools for the job, but this was not about being perfect, in fact, what I was going for was a little bit of character.

Hannah's test

The next step was painting, and I had to call in an expert on this one. My friend Hannah builds sets for Hollywood blockbusters. So if you saw the subway station in the latest Spiderman movie earlier this summer, you saw her handiwork. After a quick dinner of take-out grilled cheese sandwiches, Hannah was kind enough to show me (and use very simple words to describe) how the big boys and girls would do it. The first layer is built up with what is known as 'fat paint'. Basically joint compound with a little paint mixed in to give it color. We used a couple different shades for this. One a bit darker than the other by adding a little black pigment  The 'fat paint' is applied with a wide knife, mine is 10" wide for example. The trick is to use both light and dark shades and move them around so that then interact and give each other visual texture without working them so much that they blend and become a solid color somewhere between the two shades. Or even worse, start to swirl and your wall starts to look like a fudge ripple ice cream. This is very hard and requires a bit of practice. Hannah then used a float sprayed down with water to further blend the two. Once that dried she started playing with very watered down 3rd colors to give it a bit more depth. After about an hour worth of work her small test section looked like the image above.

I tried to copy her work over the next couple of days and failed miserably. Hannah is just too good and I don't have the muscle memory, patience, or coordination to pull it off like she did. So I decided to just make up a new batch of fat paint and give it a shot using the principals I'd learned. What I made looked decidedly less subtle and a bit too swirly, but it was a start. After it was dried, I sanded down and patched a few places that didn't feel quite chaotic enough, but quickly realized that this is one of those instances where it's very difficult to make seamless changes after the fact, so after fiddling for a few days, I just started over again with the fat paint and covered the whole things with a second surface which is what I moved forward with. Again, after it was dry I sanded down any obvious problems and started on the next step which was to glaze over the top with a watered down mixture of matte medium (basically clear latex paint) and a bit of color. In this case I pulled in some burnt umber to warm up the wall that I felt (and still feel) was a little too green for my taste. I used a brush for this but it did leaf bristle marks, next time I'll try a foam brush. You can see a small test of this next layer in the upper left corner of the wall in the image on the left. You can also see the places I tried and failed to 'patch' before starting over.

The thing is that each layer you add plays with the colors underneath and gives the whole thing more complexity, but also introduces subtle changes in color and tone that are sometimes hard to control or prepare for. At least for someone like me who has limited experience with it. I'm sure there are painters out there who are shaking their heads at the village idiot right now.

All told I think I spend about $150 on materials and tools and as of this writing, the wall is complete and being used in a number of test shoots I've been doing recently. The thing is, despite a lot of compliments from my followers online and other fellow photographers, I'm not sure that it's done. The overall tint is a bit too green and pattern a bit too busy, perhaps. The washes over the top also give it a bit more reflectivity than I'd rather have. There are more test and trials to be done. And there lies the problem. Starting over means destroying what I have, and what if I don't end up with something I like even as much, well too bad. Then again, as Bob Dylan once said, "If something's not right, it's wrong" so I think I need to head back into the abyss. Perhaps it's the kind of things where I'm continually adding layers and starting over so that the wall has a life-cycle of it's own throughout my work in front of it. Maybe after a few more test sittings just to make sure. Time will tell.