Anyone who's ever watched an interior design program on TV has heard of faux finishing. You know, that sponge-painted wall that's supposed to transform your kitchen into a Tuscan villa. Except that, even after studying the do-it-yourself book you picked up at the Home Depot, most of us will end up with something that more closely resembles dirty cinderblock than weathered stucco. That's why faux finishing, and decorative painting of any sort, is best left to professionals.
"Faux," the French word for "false," refers to painting techniques that mimic such materials as marble, wood, plaster, and linen. The term can also encompass murals, stenciling, and decorative finishes added to furniture and cabinetry.
"[Faux painting] has changed since the 80's and early 90's when everybody was doing sponge painting," says Windsor Mill-based Dee Cunningham, of Deelite Design. "It's evolved; it's more sophisticated. The trend is more natural-looking, Old-World finishes like you would see in Europe."
Sam Robinson, president and founder of Valley Craftsmen in Baltimore, agrees. "A lot of folks are aiming for a certain kind of European feel. Everyone's looking for that sense of surfaces that have acquired a sort of earthly beauty and have gotten that way over time."
Whether a homeowner wants to evoke the feel of the English countryside or early-1900's Italy, one thing is a constant: People want a customized look that they're not going to find in their neighbors' homes.
While faux techniques have been popular for years, their applications throughout the home have changed.
"In more modern décor, there's an unexpected use of faux painting, like using silver or gray or putting it in an unexpected place, like on a ceiling or furniture," says Cunningham. "Ceilings are big now. For example, in a foyer, something expected would be a cloudscape, but you could do a faux treatment to make it look like a tray ceiling. Or you could use metallics to balance the light from the chandelier."
Baltimore-based decorative painter Ann Boss just finished gilding a ceiling in 23-carat gold in a townhouse in Georgetown. She specializes in high-end finishes, many of which employ centuries-old techniques that take years to master. A lot of her clients hire her to paint molding and furniture to look like a particular type of wood.
"Wood-graining makes more of an impact on smaller pieces," says Boss. "You can do a really intricate burl on a tabletop. It's really spectacular."
Why would someone want a table painted to look like a certain wood rather than one made of the real wood? Cost and availability are the main reasons. Many of the more exotic woods are extinct, says Boss.
"If you want really spectacular woods, like Cuban mahogany, it just doesn't exist anymore." But a skilled craftsperson can replicate its deep, rich, red quality in paint. That's particularly appealing if someone has a piece of furniture made of a particular wood and wants other elements in the room to match it.
Sometimes, wood-graining is a more cost-effective solution for changing the look of, say, a melamine bathroom cabinet. "We can do wood grain on things that wouldn't normally have a grain on them," says Boss.
As with wood, some of the more interesting-looking marbles are basically extinct, says Boss. "Sienna marble, with its really rich yellows and tans and whites all swirled together, has been mined out." Rather than settle for a plain white marble, many homeowners opt to hire faux finishers to create a more attractive variation.
"Venetian plaster is very hot right now," says Boss, referring to a technique that gives walls a rich, burnished quality. She suggests using the finish in smaller areas—say, a powder room—because it's expensive and loses its impact over a large area. One variation of Venetian plaster, called marmorino, gives walls a more textured look that's "kind of a matte, sandy, suedey finish," says Boss. As for colors, "It seems like the richer colors are still very popular."
Another faux finishing technique that's evolved is stenciling. Gone are the floral borders of yore. Today, a skilled stenciler might use a large, multi-layered stencil to create an extremely detailed, embossed look. "Stenciling is a completely different look than hand-painting," says Amy Ketteran of Mt. Airy-based Ketteran Studios. "[Yet] you still get that hand-produced feeling. It doesn't look like a machine printed it. Also, you can do a faux finish underneath. You get beautiful results that you'll never get with wallpaper."
Beyond Walls and Ceilings
Of course, decorative painting is not limited to walls. Enhancing the look of kitchen cabinets with painting techniques has long been popular. "We've always done work on cabinets," says Valley Craftsmen's Robinson. "The simplest application of the painted finish would be the wiped glaze." For instance, cabinets could be painted an off-white color, then topped with a complementary shade of semi-transparent glaze, sometimes called a drag finish. "You're left with a residue of the deeper transparent color," Robinson explains. "It gives you subtle texture and collects in the crevices of moldings and accents them."
More elaborate decorative painting applications on cabinetry include glazing with two colors, striping, crackling, antiquing, and painting or stenciling them with special motifs. "Any aesthetic inspiration that's driving the design of the kitchen can be referred to in the design of the cabinetry," says Robinson.
Boss, who also does hand painting on furniture, looks to old pattern books for inspiration. She recently embellished a drawer front with a floral motif dating back several hundred years.
Cunningham has painted faux wood inlays on doors and floors. Yes, faux finishing can even be used on floors—either by painting directly on them, or with decorative floorcloths. Once made out of old sails to protect expensive carpets, Ketteran explains, floorcloths tend to be made out of heavy canvas treated with durable paint and sealer. They can be painted to look like tile, Oriental carpet, or a custom design, and are generally used in entryways, kitchens, or any high-traffic area. Since they can be easily wiped off with warm water, floorcloths are especially useful in households with children and pets.
Larger than Life
Murals are another faux-painting application that's hot right now. While they're especially popular in children's rooms, murals go way beyond the fairy-tale themed nursery.
"Most of my jobs are in dining rooms, foyers, living rooms—spaces that people want to make look special," says Ketteran, who specializes in murals. She is currently working on an entryway mural that's a series of panels. "It's a little more sophisticated to break it up into panels, or doing something just above a chair rail, rather than doing a floor-to-ceiling mural," she says. "A good muralist can walk into the space and tell you what's going to work." Ketteran adds that a mural shouldn't take over the room, but rather complement the space and become part of the surroundings. Murals can, and often do, go hand-in-hand with other decorative painting techniques. "A faux finish and a mural can work together beautifully," she says.
Ketteran does not paint directly on the wall, instead painting her murals on muslin. The completed mural is installed by paperhangers, similar to hanging wallpaper. The benefits to this painting technique are that it's less intrusive to the homeowner (since Ketteran works in her studio rather than in their home) and the mural can be removed and rehung if the homeowner moves.
Trompe l'oeil—French for "fool the eye"—is a specialty within mural-painting. Practitioners of this technique, like Cunningham, use a much higher level of detail to create a realistic-looking, three-dimensional image—say, a fake window, or a niche in a dining room wall. A trompe l'oeil plaster carving might add dimension and architectural interest to a room, or replicate a historical feature that would be otherwise unavailable.
Hiring a Faux Painter
The cost of faux finishing varies widely. It depends on such factors as whether you hire a firm or an individual, the craftperson's experience and training, the complexity of the technique, the cost of the materials, and even the location of the painting. Some faux painters charge more to work on awkward spaces like ceilings, which may require them to rent scaffolding. Some charge by square footage, and some charge by hourly rate.
Higher-end finishes like gilding, wood grain, Venetian plaster, and trompe l'oeil cost more to do because there are more steps involved, Boss explains. "Wood grain generally involves four to five steps or more." With murals, the level of detail will likely affect the cost.
No matter what type of faux finish you're after, Ketteran urges potential clients to seek out a trained professional. Adds Cunningham, "An artist's experience goes into pricing. As an artist you have to be constantly working on your craft and honing it." Says Robinson, "[Faux finishing] is for folks who can afford to add that extra level of imagination."