Exciting Film Career as a Professional Set Painter

Updated on June 12, 2020
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna wrote and directed several plays, taught acting for kids. She is a former talent scout, and at times directs or performs.

Set Painter Jobs

Being a set painter is not being a painter of army paint sets. Though kids young and old enjoy the hobby of painting a whole regiment of army paint battlefields set, this is a real job on a film set design. When hired, you arrive with your paint supplies ready to paint the set or standby in case they need a quick touch up while filming a scene.

Consider Being a Set Painter

If you are a professional painter, or you like to paint houses, buildings, fences and want to branch out career-wise, consider being a set painter for the film industry.

You meet talented people from all over the world. Not to mention the pay is exceptional, the benefits are excellent, and you are working in a very creative environment.

Painting Imaginary Places

Listening to her talk in the video about being creative on the set of Peter Jackson's movie Mortal Engines is an inspiration. She mentions working for hours, and not noticing you've worked for hours is the kind of job to aspire to occupy.

Mortal Engines: Painting Sets

Runaway Productions

“Runaway productions” is a term used to describe films produced outside of Hollywood on location. The words coined from the idea that the production runs away from Hollywood to make more money. It is not profitable for Hollywood, but it is excellent for you if you live outside of Hollywood and want to get a job in film production as a set painter.

Certain cities invite runaway productions to film in their area because they want the money, like Seattle or San Francisco. Some, including states, offer credit or tax incentives, like Massachusetts or Georgia, to save the film production money.

Cold Call Film Offices

How Do You Get Hired onto a Film Set?

Pull out your yellow pages phone book and call film commission offices to see if they can add you to their list of set painters available for work. The idea is to get a set painter job on a film production that comes to town or within a 100-mile radius. Work the production to start developing your resume—film credit.

Start as a set painter on a film as a non-union member. Build your contacts—use business cards—to procure more work after the film wraps.

Become the Lead Painter

Discover how quickly you will advance to another production. You might even get a gig as the head painter or standby painter. The secret to doing this is getting to know the production designer of each job you get on film production. Say something like, and mean it, “I want to work with you again.” It can escalate from there.

Carve a little niche for yourself as the only painter in a 100-mile radius who works for films, television, and commercials.

Work Within a 100-mile Radius

Establish yourself as the lead painter in this 100-mile radius. That way, your reputation leads you to more work. One production designer will tell another production designer, who will tell another, and well, you do the math—that’s a lot of painting gigs.

Keep in mind that word of mouth is the best impression on whether you work or not in this industry.

Success Story

Steve is a scenic artist, head painter, and he paints movie sets. He makes the wood look like metal, metal look like wood, and the old look new, and so on.

On the movie production of Don Juan Demarco, the crew painted the whole town while Steve put moss in the fountains, using dark green auto paint on water.

How did Steve get his first job? He told a carpenter who he worked with, who was going on to a TV series production, that if they needed any painters, to have them give him a call. They did, and he went to work in the paint department.


Steve studied art in high school and worked as a construction draftsman and illustrator in the Army. He went to the Art Institute in Chicago for a year. For over fifteen years, he has been designing and painting sets for television.

He joined the union by getting into the Seattle IA local 15. But, it was not doing what the members needed to find work in the film. So, Steve pitched in and helped form Local 488, a studio mechanics local union. After he moved to L.A., he joined 729 the painters local but kept his membership in 488.

How Much are Union Fees?

Fees vary by location of each local union in each city. The LA Local 729 is the best union to contact for more information.

Steve says working in films is a team project. If you get the reputation of being hard to work with or self-centered, the word gets around. It is essential to be able to deal with high pressure, short time frames, and last-minute changes.

Feature Films in Various Cities

Steve says the union has helped him get work for just being a member. "But, those in my position, a seasoned set painter, at my level get jobs on our own."

Besides working in Seattle and Portland, Steve worked on features in Minneapolis, Memphis, Cincinnati, Salt Lake, Hong Kong, and Twin Falls.

Then, of course, he worked on shows in Hollywood the whole time even before he moved to Los Angeles, the heartland of the making movies.

Questions & Answers

  • How much does it cost to join the union?

    Local #729 requires an overall membership fee ($4500), application fee ($100), and first quarter dues ($280.00). The cost is roughly $5000. There are several speculations that allow someone to join the union. The main speculation is 30 days of work on a film production on one given year. Local #729 is transparent and available to answer anyone's questions. I recommend, if you are serious about joining the union, to call them and get all the details on how to become a member of the union.

  • I have been painting residential interiors for years and have been searching for a change. I would love to do this. Are you required to have art/design credentials versus house painting experience (with a creative, somewhat artistic nature)?

    The artistic side of the sets is the responsibility of the art director and production designer. As a set painter, you would be working under them. Their creative knowledge would influence your career as a set designer. Credentials are nice to have, but passion wins every time.

© 2017 Kenna McHugh


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    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      11 months ago from Northern California


      It depends where you live. Assuming you live in a union town. Pull out your yellow pages phone book and start calling film commission offices and production companies. Ask them to add you to their list of set painters available for work. Don't wait for someone to call you and offer you a job. You need to keep hustling by looking in the trade publications: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

      Trade publications list movies in production or pre-production. Go down the lists and contact the movie's production manager. Keep at it until you are on a set as a painter.

    • profile image


      11 months ago

      How do u start

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Nice article! I live in a non-union town and worked on a few productions. I live near the Sierras, so film companies shot here because of the backdrop. I am a professional painter by trade, so I do the film productions part-time. I've met a lot of nice people and movie stars.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      15 months ago from Northern California


      That is great. If you are on a set as an extra, you will see the standby set painter. They sit there and wait to see if the production needs anything painted or touched up. Most of the time, they sit there. So, that is an opportunity to network and find out about gigs or trade secrets.

    • profile image

      Jaime s aguirre 

      15 months ago

      Yes thank you. As a matter of fact i do know people that work there. I do background work ( atmosphere talent) ill ask a PA or AD. Thank you

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      15 months ago from Northern California


      Thank you for posting this question. You live in the right area and should contact Local #729. Getting in the union is not easy, but once you do get in the rewards are worth it.

      Now, you need to build your resume. Get hired on non-union movies or commercials. Ask your family and friends if they know anyone who works in the business. Contact them and let them know you are a painter who wants to work in the film business. Ask them for a referral.

      In the meantime, read the trades and other publication relating to film production. Look for notices and respond to them. Make yourself known as an experienced painter who loves film. Keep at it, and you will be working film and digging it.

    • profile image

      Jaime s Aguirre 

      15 months ago

      Hi i have 3 in a half years of painting. I mostly do new remodels in west lake village and thousand oaks. From crown moldings to basebords and all in between. I would love to start as a set painter with the experience i already have but dont know how or where to start from.. Would really like some help.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      19 months ago from Northern California

      Alexandra, You are your way. I admire set painters because they are so creative and invaluable to a production. With tution fees waved at Junior Colleges in California, you are saving money as well. Stay in touch and let me know about your sucesses.

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      Thank you for sharing this article with the public. I’m going to school at West La college and I’m currently enrolled in the film production 100 class. My goal within the next couple months (when I start directed studies) is to start working on non-union films as a set painter. Thanks again!

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      20 months ago from Northern California

      In my article is an example of Steve. He knew someone who worked in film, so that was helpful for him. That is networking. Contacting videographers helps because they contract out to other production companies and can let you know when a major production is happening in your town. They might know someone who needs a painter to help paint a set and refer you. Oakland is a union town, which means the good jobs are through the union. But, you can work your way in by working on non-union films. The pay is not as good. If you are passionate about working in the movies, that shouldn't matter at first, you can work your way into the union.

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      What do you mean by networking? How does contacting videographers help a painter get a job on the set. BTW: I live and work in Oakland, CA.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      20 months ago from Northern California

      Hi Larry, Thank you for reaching out. I rather respond here if that is okay with you because it might help others who aspire to work in film. First, where do you live? Do you live in a major city where there is a lot of film production? If so, start locally and make contacts at local production houses or videographers and network. Let me know if this helps.

    • profile image

      Larry Shakir 

      20 months ago

      I been painting for 20years,I am interested in being a set painter how can I get involved in doing this.larryshakir1@yahoo. come is my contract.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      2 years ago from Northern California


      Thanks for reading my article. Good point. There are so many different types of jobs in the movie business. That is why countries, states, and even cities offer incentives to draw production companies to their region.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      There are so many jobs out there that few people would think of as a career or even part time job. This one sounds interesting. Thanks for showcasing it.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      2 years ago from Northern California


      It is interesting and varied. If you are not assigned to one show, you can work for various production companies and meet different and creative people.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      2 years ago from Norfolk, England

      I bet being a set painter is an interesting and varied job. I'd love to be able to do something like this.


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