As one of Chicago's leading decorative artists, Douglas Coggeshall of Coggeshall Artistry has marbleized surfaces, created the look of weathered stone and painted murals in scores of homes.
by David Thompson
Douglas Coggeshall doesn't use a single one of these skills — he uses all of them together. Coggeshall revels in trompe l'oeil, the old-world style of painting where scenes and details are represented so accurately they "fool the eye" (to use the French term's English translation) into believing that a painted space is actually a real, three-dimensional space.
"Faux finishes are great and pay the bills," Coggeshall says. "They're the meat and potatoes of my business. Mural work is fun. But trompe l'oeil is like driving your most favorite car in the world and being told you can floor it and go crazy."
The style demands a broad palette of techniques. "You have to use everything you know to make it work," says Coggeshall. "It's so hard to do, but it's my favorite thing."
Coggeshall was one of two Americans who participated last May in an international trompe l'oeil festival in Italy. He was humbled and inspired by the work of his European counterparts. "I'm considered pretty good at trompe l'oeil in my area," says the 44-year-old artist. "I've been in this business for 20 years. But I went over there and saw artists in their 20s whose work was just unbelievable. I was overwhelmed." Coggeshall exhibited his own trompe l'oeil at the festival but didn't enter the competition. Next year, however, he intends to compete.
Since returning from the festival, he's backed off a bit in the way he applies color in his trompe l'oeil work. "That's one of the tricks I learned — to use really thin layers of color instead of going boldly forth and putting down broad expanses of color," he says.
Trompe l'oeil typically includes the painting of architectural elements such as doorways, windows, columns or balustrades in the foreground to offset the scenic vistas or other spaces beyond. One of Coggeshall's favorite approaches is to paint a broken wall with exposed stone in the foreground. "[It] is a really nice device to show the illusion of trompe l'oeil because each stone has its own perspective," he says. "You have those grout lines which go up to the vanishing point."
Coggeshall often combines his broken walls with other architectural elements. "If I have a window, for instance, it has to look like it's anchored in something, so I usually make the wall around it look like it's broken and show some stone to establish that this window is not floating in space," he says.
Another of Coggeshall's old-world techniques — which he sometimes incorporates in his trompe l'oeil work — is the grisaille style, which uses washes of gray upon gray to create the illusion of sculpture. His bag of decorative tricks also includes lettering (a client's favorite quotation, for instance, might appear carved in stone, or might run across the top of a wall, intertwined with flowering vines); leather effects; gilding; striping (to create a wallpapered look); wood graining (using layers of transparent glazes to simulate saw-cut woods); and other techniques. Coggeshall has taken classes to learn some of his techniques and has figured out others on his own. He happened upon what would become his most popular finish, which he dubbed "Parchment," by accident. "I was doing a cloudscape, and I was doing it in beige tones instead of blue," he says. "It was cloudlike without having distinct cloud shapes. And I thought, 'That looks kind of neat, I'll give it a name. Now I do it in any color combination you want."
Most of Coggeshall's clients are homeowners, though his work can also be found in hospitals, churches, restaurants, offices, hotels and hair salons. He relies heavily upon word-of-mouth references, but also runs newspaper advertisements, maintains a Web site and distributes his portfolio via CD and DVD. His biggest marketing boost comes every other year when he does the Hinsdale Decorators' Show House, a charitable event run by an Episcopal church. The church invites about 30 designers to decorate a house, at their own expense, then sells tickets to the public to view it. "For the last one, I turned the basement into a Moroccan wine tasting room, with hand-painted mosaic tiles on the floor and everything I could possibly think of," he says. The business Coggeshall derives from the show house feeds him for about a year, he says.
Coggeshall's career as a decorative artist is rooted in rock album cover art of the 1970s. His first painting experience came when, as a teenager, he recreated the cover of a Yes album on his bedroom walls. That led him to create an after-school business, in which he recreated Led Zeppelin, Rush and Yes album covers, as well as tarot cards, on the doors of his friends' bedrooms, charging $10 a job. Later, as a student at Southern Illinois University, he began painting murals to support himself. He graduated in 1985 with degrees in cinematography and graphic design, and one class short of a degree in fine arts.
Working as a graphic designer at a newspaper helped begin his career in decorative art. "I was responsible for the classified ads, and a woman came in to run an ad for the murals she painted," Coggeshall recalls. "I said to her, 'You can make a living doing that?' And she said, 'If you apply yourself.'" So he did, starting out by convincing his boss to let him to run an ad for his own mural work whenever there was extra space to fill in the classifieds. "In essence he was giving me thousands of dollars in free advertising," Coggeshall says. "And it launched me like a springboard."
For his hand-painted work, Coggeshall mixes artist oil paints with Benjamin Moore flat white oil-based interior house paint. "If you mix artist oil paint with interior oil house paint, it speeds up the drying time, because the interior oil paint has chemical driers in it," he says. "It sets up in about ten minutes, and it dries rock hard. And I get a broader range of colors. I get more muted tones. And I can get years out of a tube of oil paint. It's an old trick I learned in college back when I didn't have any money."
Coggeshall has tried employing a crew, but has found that he works better alone. "I ended up becoming a manager, fixing mistakes and dealing with my clients saying, 'Hey, I hired you, I didn't hire the B team,'" he says. "I don't want to be a manager, I want to be an artist. I love to get dirty. I love showing up and taking my shoes off and working barefoot. I love everything about this business. I don't mind taking on fewer projects. I stay small, but I like the control."
Coggeshall's clients can be as enthusiastic about his work as he is, sometimes too much so. "I'll be the first one to tell you that you're done," he says. "I'm not in this just to make a buck and take you for whatever you have. I want you to be happy and your house to be tasteful so you tell your friends. "I don't want your friends to come over and go, 'Oh my gosh, what happened here?' I want your friends to come over and go, 'Man, I want this in my house.'"