Synonymous with the best in painted decorative finishes, Bob Levey remains a modest man who credits his success to the European masters that taught him his trade.
by Robert Simpson
with the best in painted decorative finishes. As one of the most established and highly regarded decorative painters in America, Levey’s clientele list reads like the Who’s Who of the Los Angeles area—Ira Gershwin, Liz Taylor, Bob Hope, Tom Cruise, Henry Winkler, Kevin Costner and Tom Jones. Yet Levey remains a modest man who credits his success to the European masters that taught him his trade.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Levey moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1952 where his father, a drummer, played professionally with jazz legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gellispie.
“After completing school at Hollywood High school, I planned to follow in my father’s footsteps and make a living as a jazz drummer,” says Levey. After moderate success in the music business, Levey made friends with Norman Efros, a fellow drummer and who also owned a painting business. Efros employed a number of Hollywood studio painters and one named Vic Delore became Levey’s inspiration to enter the decorative finishing business.
“I went out on a few painting jobs and when I saw Vic do some wood graining it hit me like a bolt of lightening that I could, and should, be doing this,” says Levey.
“After this experience I purchased some early volume books written by European masters on decorative painting techniques,” says Levey.
“I spent some time working with Bob Coleman, a master grainer for the studios and then I met an old Englishman named Gilbert Batty,” says Levey. Batty was renowned for his decorative finishing done in the homes of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day—Skeleton, Crosby and Hitchcock.
“I apprenticed under Batty for nearly two and a half years and during that time he taught me painting techniques he had learned while apprenticing with his uncles and grandfather early in the century. He was able to teach me wood graining and specialty finishing that many believed had been lost through the centuries,” explains Levey.
After completing his apprenticeship with Batty and still driven by his quest for knowledge, Levey decided to include faux marbling in his portfolio. To achieve this he traveled to New York and spent intensive study time with Isabel O’Neill’s award winning pupil, Ina Marx.
“It is the techniques I learned from all these sources, and years of experimentation that account for my present day success,” says Levey. “I gained some good technical knowledge from the books but it was by working with the masters I learned how to manipulate the colors and what types of tools should be used—all skills necessary to compete in today’s markets.”
But the industry has changed over the years and Levey sees more and more decorative and furniture painters entering the industry without the proper training. “There are a lot of people who try to learn these arts very quickly and then try to charge a high dollar. I would say that 70 percent of those in the industry don’t have the basic foundation or skill level to be running their own business,” says Levey.
“Those who are serious about becoming a good decorative painter should consider spending a few years after art school apprenticing with an established painter. They should learn the basics of color and materials, and how they relate to interior decoration” says Levey.
Levey suggests that a decorative painter should understand color well and know the different techniques used to create the various styles and eras of furniture, murals, wood graining, marbling, distressing and aging wood. “It is a real broad area that a person must understand before they can call themselves a decorative painter,” says Levey.
Levey is renowned for his variety of finishing techniques. Hanging on his office wall are 200 samples of different techniques and finishes he’s learned or developed over the years. “Once you have your foundation and understanding of materials it is a matter of taking all that information and copying what you’re looking at. As well it’s important to listen to the client and be able to visualize what it is the client wants,” says Levey.
“Understanding color is the most important aspect of the job,” says Levey. On some jobs as many as 12 steps of color are laid on top of each other to get the desired effect. “On wood finishes it sometimes means bleaching the wood prior to laying down the base color and then building my colors up from there. Understanding how to maintain transparency between the layers of paint to prevent a muddy appearance is critical,” says Levey.
To achieve the perfect finish requires the eye of an artist. “Gilbert always told me to look deep down into the wood or the marble. One doesn’t see a single color when looking deep into the wood one sees textures of colors. If it is an antique piece that I am trying to copy I have to create with paint and stain all of the colors that result from the natural aging process. So looking deep into the furniture and seeing the different levels gives me a clue how to simulate the color in paint,” says Levey.
Levey always starts with a sample piece to get a concept. “Usually my final piece is better than the sample—a sample is like working notes,” says Levey.
Unfortunatly too many people take classes from a community college or art school and then go out and start their own business. A real decorative artist needs to know how to match the real thing. “It’s like hitting a perfect note in music,” says Levey.
“Distressing furniture requires the same artistic eye,” says Levey. Just as with marbling or wood graining trade it is very important that painters look at the real thing prior to beginning a project. “The same thing goes for antique furniture—decorative painters need to study a lot of antiques and see how they are naturally distressed,” says Levey.
Distressing furniture is considered one of the most difficult decorative techniques and very few are able to do it successfully. “Distressing wood requires an understanding with the eye of what it is that is being reproduced and one of the steps often missed when distressing wood is sanding. After distressing a piece of furniture, sanding will remove any sign that a tool was used or that a man’s mind planned it out. Distressing means trying to create something that has naturally occurred over several years and if sanded properly will leave markings that are natural and beautiful,” says Levey.
In 1995, during a recession in California, Levey left Los Angeles and moved his company to Basalt, Colorado. “There was an over-abundance of labor in Los Angeles, all charging prices far lower than what decorating professionals should,” says Levey.
To his surprise, after his first job in Colorado, he found that many of his former clients had homes in Colorado. “ I did one job here and I saw all the homes and realized that it was basically the same clientele as I was working with in Los Angeles,’ says Levey. “After experiencing the beautiful landscape and openness of Colorado, I picked up the telephone and said to my wife ‘guess what, we’re moving!’”.
And while the pace may have changed Levey’s work load has remained the same. “We have two to four people on the job at all times,” says Levey.
Levey attributes his success to looking for the next challenge and is always trying to improve his craft. “ I remember the story of Michelangelo, who on his death bed said it was a shame that he was dying because he was just learning about the painting business,” says Levey.