Mastering the Faux Arts

Whether you call in the pros or do it yourself, faux finishing can liven up walls, ceilings, molding, and pieces of furniture.

Faux finishing is anything but a modern invention. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians cut construction costs by creating with paint the elaborate architectural elements that were popular in their time. Throughout the ages, faux finishing has been used when the “real thing” was too expensive.

According to John Casey of Oak Bluffs – who, with wife Mary Ellen, has been painting and restoring houses on the Island for about thirty years – even in the early days of European settlement on the Island, faux finishing was used extensively in place of wallpaper, which, at the time, was only available custom-made and was therefore expensive. Cheaper wood was painted and stained to imitate more expensive and exotic types by simulating the colors and wood grains. When the couple was enlisted to help restore Edgartown’s Jared Coffin House (1823), they found a great deal of artistic trickery.

“It was an academic restoration,” John recalls. “We recorded and documented each layer of paint. We got down to the base and found this wood grain and colors that were particularly varnished to create an effect.”

What is “faux finishing”? Basically, it’s using paint, glazes, and other materials on a flat surface to produce effects that fool the eye. It can be a simple rag-rolling technique to create depth on a wall, layering and sanding to transform a new object into an ersatz antique, or painting an object on a flat surface to appear so real the viewer needs to touch it to verify its two-dimensional qualities.

Faux finishing has enjoyed a massive resurgence of late. It has, in fact, become so popular that various glazes and finishes such as Venetian plaster, sandstone, and metallic can now be found on the shelves of Lowe’s and Home Depot, right next to the books and videos that take the amateur step-by-step through the techniques. There are no shortages of websites and suppliers on-line, and on-Island paint shops can order the few materials they don’t have in stock. According to John Casey, Tivoli Paint and Decorating Supplies in Vineyard Haven carries quite an extensive supply of faux finishing materials.

Color-wash techniques are the simplest, and many can be mastered by amateurs. They require a base coat of paint and one or more coats of colored paints or glazes that can be applied or removed using various tools. Rags, sponges, combs, crumpled bags, brushes, stipplers – just about anything that can create a texture can be used. A wall can appear to be covered in denim or linen, stuccoed, or wallpapered.

Adding textures, like sand, metallics, or Venetian plaster, to a surface is becoming easier as more techniques, materials, and tools are becoming available to the general public. Striking effects can be achieved with instruction and a little practice.

Other techniques are best left to professionals, as they tend to look phony if not done well. Making a surface look like marble, tortoiseshell, leather, or stone falls into this category, along with wood graining and tiling. They usually involve layers of paint and glaze that are manipulated using specially made combs and other tools; feathers are used to create the indistinct lines of fine stonework. It takes a deft and experienced hand to get it right.

Distressing and antiquing are methods that use paint to change the appearance of an object – making it seem old or worn. Bonnie Alexander of Vineyard Haven is a master of the faux arts, going so far as to add a dust-like effect to the crevasses of an antiqued molding. It’s not unusual for people to touch a sample of wood that she’s “rusted” and check their fingers for ruboff. She’s stenciled grapes onto walls then added a thin layer of plaster to create a decaying appearance. Her tools for distressing include chains, rocks, pieces of cement, cotton balls, and her own fingertips.

Although Bonnie is proficient in all forms of decorative painting, she especially enjoys imitating historical features, whether on a wall or a piece of furniture. “I like to find out the vintage of the home and try to replicate it,” she explains. “I love to do the research.”

Although distressing and antiquing are accessible to the amateur, it’s a good idea to study old furniture to determine how a piece ages. Who hasn’t seen a badly reproduced faux antique sit forlornly for hours at a yard sale? In order to get a true reproduction, Bonnie says, “Wear it in the right places – where it
will age naturally.”

The ultimate in faux arts is trompe l’oeil (pronounced “trump loy”), a French term meaning “to fool the eye.” Also called illusionism, it’s a style of painting that gives the appearance of three-dimensional or photographic realism. It can be as simple as a ladybug on a stair, or as complicated as a full-wall mural that replicates the view of a Tuscan countryside through a crumbling wall. Architectural details are frequently faked using trompe l’oeil. A Dutch door appears ajar on a standard flat wooden one. A window with a seascape seems three-dimensional on a windowless wall. Rosettes appear to pop out of the trim below a ceiling. Because attaining the desired effect of three dimensions requires a talent for the use of light and shadow in painting, this technique is also best left to the pros.

The Island does have one such professional.

Linda Carnegie has moved from her house in West Tisbury to Cleveland, but continues to paint on the Island. Courtesy of Linda, the West Tisbury library has an assortment of trompe l’oeil critters, such as bugs and lizards straight from the Brazilian rain forest. For private residences, she’s combined her faux finish work with trompe l’oeil to create compass roses that imitate inlaid wood. She works through designers or directly with homeowners to create puckish murals and details in Island homes.

If you want some schooling before possibly defiling your home, many classes are available to learn the faux arts. They vary in level from true neophyte to seasoned pro. Paint suppliers, both on- and off-Island, frequently hold demonstrations and workshops to teach the public what’s available and how to use the materials. John and Mary Ellen often travel off-Island to attend shows, classes, workshops, seminars, and demonstrations to perfect their skills and stay current with the newest products. They recommend the monthly magazine “Decorate with Paint,” for the newest techniques, materials, and how-to’s.

For the professional, amateur, or would-be faux finisher, watching and learning are never enough. It takes a lot of hands-on experience to master the art of decorative painting. To recoin a familiar question: How do you replicate Carnegie Hall? “Practice, practice, practice.”