Jean Pierre Menguy,
San Francisco, California
Murals, stainings, and faux-marble concrete finishes make this native of France more than a painter
By Jeff Woodard
came to the United States in 1981, his plan was to spend a year "just to put my portfolio into perspective." After that, he would return to his native France and continue his career as a graphic designer at an advertising agency. Twenty years later, he is a popular designer and painter of murals and faux-marble concrete finishes in San Francisco. In that time, he has occasionally returned to France, but only to visit.
"I felt like I was stuck in advertising in France," says Berthy, adding that work at the ad agency only required "about 25 percent of my creativity." After spending his first eight months on American soil in Chicago, he headed west and continued in the advertising field for 10 more years. "Advertising was not really my choice when I started out at 19. It was just a job to pay my rent. I never realized what I wanted to do."
While growing up in an environment rich in architectural history -- "800-year-old churches, castles and beauty all around you" he says fondly -- gave Berthy an appreciation for art in France, his intuition told him he would be moving on. The more time he spent in the United States, the more he sensed his "creative channels" opening. Berthy, 50, suggests that France might place too much emphasis on history. "There's no room to make something new. That is an issue to creative people."
As a teenager in France in the '60s, Berthy studied at an art school that stressed discipline. "We had to have short hair and wear uniforms," he recalls. "Boys couldn't talk to girls, and girls had to wear skirts." The school's curriculum centered on learning from some of history's most highly regarded painters. "In France, you learn how to copy artwork from the big painters like C³zanne and Monet," says Berthy. "We would take our canvas to the art museum and copy the masters. We learned the technique, and I was very good at copying. This helped lead to painting murals."
Berthy's career took a sharp turn upward in San Francisco when in 1983 he opened a previously untapped creative outlet: painting his house with faux finishes, and painting and selling furniture at garage sales. "A lot of people stopped by the sales and asked me if I could do walls," he says. Painting murals led Berthy down yet another path in his professional life just four years ago. "I was doing murals for a loft, and the building contractor asked me to do his house. 'I want you to paint my concrete floor like marble,'" he said the contractor told him. The contractor suggested that staining was an up-and-coming technique, but Berthy was not familiar with it. Berthy painted the floors of that loft project, a 20-unit complex. But less than a year later, he did his first acid-stain work.
Berthy learned that acid staining involves initial trial and error -- and using intuition. "In the beginning, you don't know what the result will be," says Berthy, who prefers the "stronger" acid stain over acrylic. "Acid gives concrete a tint, and different kinds of concrete will react differently." For example, fiber concrete is difficult to work with. "It has fiberglass in it, and it's used so concrete won't crack," says Berthy. "The fiber itself closes the pores of the concrete, so it's harder for the stain to go in."
All concrete is similar, says Berthy, but its contents can vary. "When they put more stone in the concrete, the effect is better for marbleizing because marble is just stone crushed together." Smooth concrete -- more often found indoors -- lends itself better to staining than rougher, outdoor concrete, says Berthy, because it allows the application to go on more smoothly.
Among the main challenges of staining application and faux-marble finishing is avoiding paintbrush marks in the concrete. Berthy says a flat sponge applicator is the best tool for the job, and he recommends a separate applicator for each color. "I use a sea sponge on the floors and on walls for faux finishes," he says. "The excitement is that you have to go with the instinct of creativity."
If the quality of the stain is very good, a faux finish is not required, says Berthy. "It depends on what the concrete looks like and what the need is. Sometimes the stain is beautiful by itself." When staining only, Berthy follows manufacturerÍs instructions. When he is staining and marbleizing, his creative juices begin to flow. "It's like a woman putting on eyeshadow," says Berthy of his marbleizing technique.
Painting the random white lines that give the marble effect its distinctive appearance does not require a scientific approach -- just painstaking detail and determination. "I get on my knees and paint the lines one by one," says Berthy. "I use a very small brush and a special paint for patios and floors to do the lines of the marble."
Berthy recommends staining the floor and waiting a day before using water to clean the powdery residue left on the concrete. "After that, we seal the floor. The next day, we come back with a sea sponge and match the color of the concrete with the paint. You make it match, reseal it again, and it's finished."
One of Berthy's main motivations is his belief that "if you know how to draw, you'll always survive." While Berthy speaks in terms of professional survival, his basis for this thinking is rooted in his art school days in France. "One of my instructors was a Jewish man, a survivor of the Auschwitz camps. The Germans would give him photos of their girlfriends to draw, and he did. He told us that he survived because he knew how to draw."
As his business grows, Berthy has benefited from career-enhancing experiences such as a recent two-day seminar at the Scofield Institute in San Jose, California. "It cost $600, and at first, I thought it was a lot of money. It was the best time I've ever had," says Berthy, quickly changing his tone. "It was like three days in Club Med! It took a week for me to come down." Berthy praised the industry professionals who viewed his portfolio and taught him a great deal about treating concrete. He encourages painters interested in concrete staining and faux finishing to attend a Scofield Institute seminar. "Use your creativity and understand the product first," he advises. "And prepare the client that how it looks on paper may not be exactly like the finished product."
Building his business means maintaining and expanding a portfolio illustrating his various talents. "They can see I'm more than just a painter, I'm a designer. Sometimes they want a mural done, sometimes the floor, sometimes they want it all done. After they see my portfolio, I know they will be confident to have me do everything." Berthy says he works almost exclusively with large contractors, and credits Lori Harris of the L.M. Scofield Co. with promoting his work.
Berthy also does artwork on canvas for commission. "I do lobbies, faux finish on walls, and choose color for the insides and outsides of buildings. I coordinate all the colors. I choose the carpet, so that everything flows together. There is a lot of competition with lofts and large buildings. Nowadays, the job has to be perfect; it can't be mediocre. It has to be just incredible. ItÍs not easy to do."
The dual ability to paint and apply concrete finishes works well for Berthy. "It makes me look good!" he says with a laugh. Turning "boring" concrete into something that resembles marble is "fantastic, wonderful. You won't be able to have the same progress with only paint. ItÍs a different story with the stain. ItÍs a magic feeling."