Faux Painting, Faux Schools
A hot trend in interior design and decorating is the use of faux and decorative finishes - glazing, muraling, Venetian Plastering, dimensional textures, raised embossed images, marbling, woodgraining, stenciling, and trompe l'oeil.
By Bruce Hackett
That time-honored philosophy holds true for virtually everybody, regardless of your age, where you live, what line of work you’re in, and how well-established you are. Striving to improve, get better, learn new skills, and master new techniques and technologies – these are admirable goals that will serve you well in your personal and professional life.
Just as a musician can broaden his opportunities by learning to play additional instruments, and just as a doctor can increase her earning potential by continuing her medical education, the professional painting contractor can help ensure a bright and prosperous career by taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities out there to learn and improve.
For example, it’s no secret that one of the hottest trends in interior design and decorating in recent years is the use of faux and decorative finishes — glazing, muraling, Venetian plastering, dimensional textures, raised embossed images, marbleing, woodgraining, stenciling, and trompe l’oeil, to name some of the more popular techniques. While these kinds of finishing techniques have roots dating back hundreds of years in Europe and elsewhere, their popularity in the United States didn’t really catch on until the latter quarter of the 20th Century. Now, you can barely pick up an interior design magazine or catalog without finding numerous examples of faux and decorative finishes in an astonishingly diverse range of applications.
As consumer demand for these finishes has skyrocketed, so has the need for qualified practitioners equipped with the necessary skills to provide the high-quality work the marketplace has come to expect. Consequently, during the past 10 years, and especially in the past three to five years, there has been a proliferation of faux and decorative finishing schools, workshops and classes offered in virtually every state in the union.
Therein lies the “double-edged sword” of this emerging market segment. For the serious painting contractor interested in acquiring faux finishing skills, the sheer number of choices of workshops can be daunting. How do you know what to look for? How do you differentiate between excellent and mediocre programs? How do you know you’ll be getting your money’s worth? In short, how do you select the educational offering that’s right for you?
PaintPRO recently interviewed a number of leaders in the faux finishing industry and asked them to share their thoughts on the evolution of the profession, where it’s headed, and how the schools and workshops can help raise the standard of quality demanded by customers and delivered by professionals.
In the “olden” days before the Industrial Revolution when virtually everything was done by hand, European artisans like Thomas Kershaw and his contemporaries set a standard for beautifully rendered, hand-painted faux and decorative finishes. “It was a small, tight-knit, and extremely proud profession,” said Ray Sandor, president and founder of Faux Effects, Inc., of Vero Beach, FL. “These people devoted their lives to their work, and they were extremely reluctant to divulge their trade secrets. Some even refused to let you in the room while they were working because they didn’t want anyone to see the techniques they used.”
One of the true pioneers of faux finishing in the past half century was Isabel O’Neil, who ran a school for painted finishes in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. One of her students was Joanne Day, who is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of Day Studio, Inc., in San Francisco, CA. “Isabel struggled to overcome people’s negative attitudes toward painted finishes which had been so badly damaged by the cheap antiquing kits so popular at the time,” said Day. “She successfully restored the reputation of painted finishes to their rightful place, which I believe is well beyond craft and more toward fine art.”
The American public first started showing substantial interest in faux finishes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Gary Lord of Prismatic Painting Studio in Cincinnati, OH. “But the field immediately started getting diminished by the erratic quality of work being done, and by the fact that the general public wasn’t yet able to tell excellent work from average work,” he recalled. “Some of the masters had published books that revealed formulas and techniques, but they were pretty complicated to learn on your own.”
By the 1990s, Sandor said, “Customers were traveling to France, Italy, Germany, and England and seeing the age-old quality there, and they began demanding that same level of quality here in the U.S. Ten years ago or so, a contractor could get by with a little ragrolling here, a little sponging there, and clients would be satisfied, but what used to pass as wonderful is now only a mediocre finish. The quality of old is returning, I’m happy to say. The bar is getting set higher and higher.”
Some of the practitioners at the forefront of faux and decorative finishing in the U.S. twenty years ago felt they had a vested interest in improving the image of, and the quality of work emanating from, their industry. While some industry veterans discouraged the advent of schools that divulged their trade secrets, others recognized the need for education and awareness. Said Lord, “I had taken classes and built a reputation for quality, but I saw that the interior designers and the general public needed to be educated about what a good faux finishing job should look like. High quality work is what it’s all about, and if the public knows that, and professionals know how to provide that, it elevates the whole field. That’s why I started teaching.”
Ten years ago, there were only about a half dozen schools offered for those eager to learn faux finishing and decorative painting. Today, there are some 50-60 different companies promoting everything from one-day specialty courses to two-week comprehensive workshops.
Sandor added a word of caution, however. “The proliferation of schools is actually a little disturbing, in that everybody has sort of jumped on the bandwagon. Each of these schools surely has something worthwhile to offer, but I would warn PAINT PRO readers to try and take a really good look at the history and experience of the people who teach the workshops. You should look for individuals who have had significant success as faux finishers out in the marketplace.”
Day agrees. “I consider it absolutely essential for a teacher to continue to take work in the field. By continually using and honing your techniques in real-world situations, you stay in touch with coming trends and colors and looks that people want.
“I really try to pull at students’ potential. I want to go beyond technique. I’m interested in teaching them why certain techniques look better this way instead of that way. We’re moving more toward design and the psychological impact of a finish. My students want the content as well as the form.”
Staying active in the field also prevents workshop teachers from falling into a rut with their curricula. Lord noted, “My partner, Dave Schmidt, and I are part-time teachers because we still enjoy working in the field, meeting clients, trying new projects, pushing ourselves to the next horizon. Things can and do go wrong on a job, and it forces you to problem solve and perhaps come up with something brand new. That, in turn, might make me a better teacher when I pass on what I’ve learned to my students.”
Donna Mabrey, who runs Donna’s Designs and Faux Finish & Business Workshops outside Atlanta, GA, recommends prospective students gather as much information as possible about a workshop and its teachers before choosing. “You need to find out where they were trained, how long they’ve been in the business, and how long their school has been in business. If they’ve been around a while, they must be doing a good job or they would have come and gone by now. You should also request letters of recommendation from previous students of the school. Have they returned for additional classes? That’s a good indication of a workshop’s quality.”
Prospective students should also determine if the teacher is available for questions and follow-up after the workshop is completed. “Is there accessibility to the instructor once you’ve finished the class?” said Sandor. “There should be some way of reaching them to get additional assistance when necessary.” Mabrey agrees. “”I think it’s important to be there for the students afterwards. I’ll help them over the phone to go over anything we covered in class, but if it’s an additional skill, I’ll ask them to come to that class.”
Different workshops offer different techniques and different levels of instruction. Some are rather rigidly organized to cover a set number of finishes in the allotted time; others are loosely structured with built-in flexibility depending on which skills are specifically requested by each class’s participants. Some cater to those just getting started; others aspire to take seasoned veterans to the next higher level of expertise. Some limit their focus to craft and technique; others provide substantial instruction on how to start and run a profitable faux finishing business.
At Kelly S. King’s Institute of Decorative Finishes Inc. in Omaha, NE, “We give them a thorough business education because we want them to be successful. Too many people acquire faux finishing skills but fail to make any money because they don’t understand pricing, or overhead, or estimating. We teach how to work together with designers, architects and other clientele to help build a profitable business. There’s such a huge market for faux finishing, so much untapped potential, and it’s a shame when skilled artists lack the business smarts to make a decent living at it.”
Mabrey concurs. “Launching people in the faux finishing business is what we’re about. My goal is to equip them with what they need to make their dream come true. For many students, in addition to learning the finishes, they need help with a business plan, and advice on the pitfalls of running a business. I believe we must combine art and business if you want to provide a quality product and make money doing it.”
Day adds, “Even though I’m an artist type who is highly idealistic about the way finishes need to look, I fully recognize that you have to be able to bring it to the bank. That’s the real world. You have to be able to take what I’ve given you and turn it into cash.”
Many workshops constantly update their curricula every six months or a year, dropping techniques that have perhaps fallen out of fashion and adding new ones. Consequently, students can take the same class a second time and learn a new set of skills. “We change our courses all the time,” said Lord. “We don’t want to get stale, and we don’t want to grow bored with what we’re teaching. We’ll often determine course content based on demand, and what’s hot in the market.”
Mike MacNeil of Los Gatos, CA, is an advocate of the flexible approach. “I listen to what they want to learn, and teach that. I try to give them what they want. I believe they should learn as many wall finishes as they can, because that’s where you’ll make most of your money. Marbleing and woodgraining are important too, but they’re more difficult to master and take a great deal of practice. My emphasis is on teaching the skills. If you’re any good, the money will come.”
Mike Hoppe of Hoppe Brothers & Sons’ Faux Masters Studio in Yorba Linda, CA, said he offers private instruction to workshop participants who have identified an area of special interest. “Once they receive a basic foundation of knowledge in faux finishing, some students request private lessons, and we’re happy to do that. My philosophy is: Once you’ve taken the class and you’re struggling with something, let’s go one on one. We’ll get you up and running.”
Effective learning requires an environment conducive to learning, with sufficient quantities of quality tools and materials on hand. Some workshops utilize large, showroom-type space; others offer cozier surroundings. “It’s good to know where the workshops will be held,” said Sandor. “Lighting is crucial to help students learn how colors and textures should look. I also believe students should work on easels or some other vertical surface when experimenting with techniques because vertical surfaces are what you’re going to be working on at job sites.”
As for the actual paints and materials used in faux and decorative finishing, there are two schools of thought. One involves the use of a specific line of well-regarded, high-quality products available only through certified distributors; the other advocates the use of any high-quality product available at your local paint or art supply store. As Lord puts it, “To be a good artist, you need to know all the various media and how to use them well. You need to find the product that works best for you, and the only way to do that is by experimentation.”
Lord and others endorse the Faux Effects line of water-based products. “They have a big repertoire of product, and it works well. But I also use, both on the job and in teaching, a variety of other products. For me to be a good teacher, I have to present myself honestly.”
MacNeil adds, “I don’t sell product, I sell technique. I use all acrylics, but you can buy it at the paint stores. These new exclusive lines are very good, but I can get any result they can with materials that have been around a long time.”
The cost for the various workshops offered ranges from as low as $60 for a one-hour course to $3,000 for a three-week intensive program. In most cases, the cost includes tools and materials, workbook and other printed pieces, and a portfolio of board samples to take home with you. Travel, hotel and meal expenses for those traveling from out of town are typically not included in the workshop price.
“Decorative art is now a definitive part of interior design,” said Day. “It’s as common as wall-paper, straight paint, or wood paneling. The option to glaze your wall or do Venetian plaster, or some other special effect on architectural surfaces is now part of the mainstream. I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”
MacNeil recently completed two projects that would seem to push the envelope of faux finishing applications. He woodgrained a 1956 Ford Country Sedan, and he applied a red marble finish to a professional surfboard. “Of course, these aren’t the kinds of jobs you see every day, but it’s a good indication of how creative and imaginative clients are becoming about the possibilities of faux finishing.”
Hoppe says he sees faux finishing and decorative painting used in most of the commercial establishments he frequents. “Look in the malls, the high-end stores, the restaurants. More than half have some sort of faux finish, Venetian plaster, or mural, some of them quite labor-intensive. Now that the masses are heavily into faux finishing, the more elite want something different. Everybody’s doing ragrolling and sponging. If you have the budget, there’s almost no limit to what you can do to set yourself apart from the pack.”
Faux finishing workshops, Day believes, will continue to evolve. “As the Internet continues to expand in reach and influence, the kind of information you now get in workshops will ultimately be available for free on websites. Magazines like PAINT PRO will continue to product informative articles on how to do these things. It’s true in every industry, and it’s true in ours. We are rapidly becoming an information society.”
Various general websites, such as www.fauxlikeapro.com, offer listings and other information that, while not comprehensive, are a goofd starting point for a prpospewctive student to begin researching the various wqorkshops. Trade magazines also provide fine resources; indeed, this and future issues of PAINT PRO feature a number of advertisements from workshops.