Painting Your Tent, From Pavilion to Palace

HL Alasdair Mac Roibeirt

Tent painting class handout

One of the biggest purchases most reenactors will make is a tent. Shelter and security for your belongings is pretty important, especially for longer events. Having space to entertain or teach is also central to many of the things we enjoy about the SCA.  Many people will use a modern tent for years until they find the desire or resources to move onto a canvas castle. There are a number of merchants and manufacturers who sell period or period style tents, the object of this class is not to discuss the merits of one manufacturer or one style over another.

This class is intended to help those of you who have decided you want your tent to have some more personality, some pageantry and grandeur.  To personalize your tent and make it truly one of a kind.

Surviving tents from the period of time covered by the SCA are exceedingly rare and are almost exclusively the belongings of the exceedingly wealthy. Aside from these, we can see additional examples from manuscripts and tapestries.  They vary in size, shape and materials of construction, but they do have one thing in common: Rare is the plain white tent.

Links and Resources

There are numerous sites available with images of historic tents, below is a list of some of the ones we found to be the most helpful.

The House Greydragon website shows a tent listed as being on display at the Historical Museum (Barfüsserkirche) in Basel, Switzerland. It is a tent attributed to a guild and is a plain white tent with additional lines of blue material stitched down over the seams, as well as additional lines added in the wider body piece presumably for aesthetics.

The second link includes a number of different links including one to the Carlos the 5th tent. An extravagant tent covered in applique, and couching.

The third link takes the search farther afield to a number of middle eastern tents, where applique and intricacy take a step up to a new realm.

The fourth and final link is a collection of various manuscript images of tents found online, many of which share much with the later period surviving examples.

Using these resources, we were able to get a feel for the types of decorations that adorned tents historically. The one major motif that immediately jumps out is the use of architectural elements on the tents. Arches and columns seem to be pretty common and lend themselves well to repetition.

These pictures help us get an idea of what they looked like and from some of the surviving tents we know that they used a variety of means to do this.  We don’t know if this was purely for aesthetics or if the decorations served a second function such as water proofing, strengthening, or even as a patch for damage. 

With modern materials and modern needs, we can make an attempt to bring ourselves visually one step closer to the past by using the example of clothing that use paint for decoration.

Painting for decoration in early times was by no means a novel concept. Portraits, furniture, frescoes, and even clothing was all painted to liven it up or give it a personalized flair. We know that they used appliques, embroidery, and couching for tent decoration but we don’t know for certain at this time if paint was used for tents and if so how prevalent it was. The added weight, expense, and cost of appliques, embroidery, and couching are more of a factor for us than for our predecessors, thus we turn to paint.

From the images we have we can see that most tents had a relatively simple and repetitive artistic motif for outside decoration.  Gothic arch work and geometric lines are the most common. In some manuscripts, as well as the guild tent in the first link a badge or arms has been added to the tent as well, thus making it even easier to identify who was who.

From our research into fabrics and paints, as well as the efforts of numerous others who have done so before us, we settled on exterior latex acrylic paint for our tent. In our case, Olympic Icon, Paint and Primer in One.

Laying Down Paint

Step 1 – Design. After looking at a number of pictures we decided to do simple gothic arches on the walls and place my main charge in the space between them. For the roof we went with a series of cross hatched lattice work surrounding the edges of the four roof “faces”. The tent in question is a 20×30 p Panther Primitives square marque ™. Due to the detachable side walls and uneven spacing of roof seams, we went with a design that would not require lining the top and sides up perfectly to make it work.  One important consideration is if your walls overlap. When we did the initial layout, we did the walls without thinking about where the arches would line up with the next panel and as a result, we have a break in the visual at the points that the walls overlap. When you are doing your design think how it will go up and how it might change if your walls are in a different spot, also think about what tools you want to use.

Step 2 – Layout. Once we had the design figured out, we made stencils, first for the walls. and later for the roof. We began by going through and tracing the design from the stencils over the entire section to be painted. Initially we used regular pencil but quickly found that it showed through the paint and switched to colored pencils. By using colored pencils of the same color as the paint the lines blend in and avoid showing through later.

Step 3 – The paint. This was the hardest part, much like that first cut when sewing once we put paint to canvas, we were committed. We cut the paint 1 to 1 with water by volume. The best thing we did with this was to break it down into manageable portions. We painted the walls first using a combination of bristle brushes and foam brushes. Going back to the design phase all of our lines were based on the size of brushes we were going to use. 2” boarders and 1” interior lines made it much easier. After allowing the paint to dry fully we added a second coat to equalize the color and darken it some.

Step 4 -Touch up. Sometimes you slip, or paint on the wrong side of the line, getting a small tester of paint that is close to the color of your base canvas will help hide those blemishes as well as..

Step 5 -The Outline. Using a contrasting paint to outline your design makes the image really pop and adds to the grandeur. Going over the edges of your painting will both add detail and help to hide some of the unevenness that may result from painting. We initially tried a number of fabric markers and paint pens but found they faded or ran in the rain.

Step 6 – Repeat. After you have done your first run through and gotten your initial design done, set it up at events and let others enjoy your efforts. By breaking it down into smaller pieces you have something new every few events and you often find people looking you up to see what else you have done.

By doing the walls, then the lower section of the roof, followed by the peak and edges, and finishing up with the smaller details it breaks it down into manageable portions and helps to avoid the dragging of a long-term project. Additionally, it doesn’t leave you a half painted tent to go to an event.

Some considerations when you are designing your paint layout. The paint will sink into the fabric and make it stiffer than the surrounding canvas. This means that large painted areas have a potential to fold repeatedly at the edge of the paint and create weak points and areas prone to cracking. While not a lot, paint does add some weight to your tent so think ahead. I have enjoyed my tent for several years now and can say it never fails to get attention, painting it makes it stand out and gives it a unique character and presence in my camp even without banners and nice furniture.


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