Faux Painting Schools
At decorative painting schools around the country, painting contractors have discovered the profit potential in learning faux finishing techniques. From glazing to Venetian plaster, wood graining to trompe l'oeil, decorative finishing techniques can achieve a huge variety of looks.
by Bruce Hackett
The exponential increase in popularity of faux and decorative finishes is now common knowledge. What was once a modest niche market among select clientele in high-end residences has become decidedly more mainstream across the country. Thousands of painting contractors have discovered the profit potential in learning the various techniques of decorative and faux finishing at scores of workshops, schools and classes offered in virtually every state in the nation.
The decorative finishing field has come a long way in a relatively short time, says Janie Ellis, a 17-year veteran as both an artisan and teacher at Anything But Plain, School of Decorative Finishes Inc., in Houston, Texas. “It wasn’t all that long ago that most of the public saw decorative painting as sponging, and they saw stenciling as bunnies and bears on the nursery wall,” she notes. “That’s about as far from what we do as you can imagine. Our industry offers so much more than that. The options are almost limitless.”
From glazing to Venetian plaster, from marbling to dimensional texturing, from wood graining to trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”), decorative finishing techniques can achieve a huge variety of looks for all tastes and budgets. “We’re illusionists,” says Ellis. “We alter the area we work on and fool the eye of the people viewing our work. We create the illusion that this wall is 400 years old, or it’s an old and crumbly stencil, or that it’s been hand-painted, or there’s an open window there when in fact there’s no window at all. That’s really what decorative painting is all about.”
Different workshops offer different techniques and different levels of instruction. Some are 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 class participants. Some cater to those just getting started; others are designed for seasoned professionals looking to add the latest advanced techniques to their palettes. Some limit their focus to craft and technique; others provide guidance in the business skills needed to earn a successful living at decorative finishing. Still others concentrate on the sub-niche of decorative cabinetry and furniture.
Anything But Plain is typical of the better-known schools that offer a robust schedule of classes that runs the gamut from basic to very advanced. “Four years ago, almost everyone who came to our classes was looking to do decorative painting on a professional basis. Now, although we still get many professionals, we’re seeing more and more people who have perhaps been egged on by HGTV who want to do rooms in their own homes, family members’ homes, and friends’ homes. They want to know a lot of information, but they don’t typically come from a painting background, or even an art background necessarily. We’ve added a number of classes to accommodate this change.”
For them, she says, the place to start is a beginner’s course like her company’s Wall Basics, a two-day class that provides the fundamentals of how to prep a wall, how to select and organize materials, how to work and manipulate the material on the wall, and how to properly clean and maintain equipment. “For those who are more ambitious, we have a five-day course called Go Pro, which is geared for those who truly want to start a business and get into this for a living. And we have made Go Pro a prerequisite for all of our more specialized, advanced classes so we can explore a great deal of products and techniques without having to take up time reviewing basics for a few.”
Ray Sandor, President of Faux Effects International, Inc. in Vero Beach, Fla., is generally recognized as the pioneer of decorative finishing workshops. “Back in the late ‘80s, I noticed there was a tremendous gap in knowledge about how to do these finishes, and with 30 years of experience in the field, I was well positioned to teach people about the business. It has just exploded since then.”
Sandor has noted a couple of interesting changes in the business in recent years. “Five years ago, glazing was the main finish used everywhere, and secondary at that time were the trowel-on finishes. I think that’s been reversed now. The majority of wall finishes we’re seeing now have the old-world plaster appearance, with no sheen to it at all. Glaze work will always be around, still quite popular, but it’s more supplemental. Consequently, we’re offering more technical designer finish classes that cover techniques of working with traditional, non-synthetic plaster.
“Also, ceiling art is becoming more popular — tray ceilings with ornamentation, cloud painting, gold leafing, that sort of thing,” Sandor adds. “I think it’s also interesting that we’re seeing an increase in online product sales, probably because more of the average homeowners are getting involved these days. Decorative finishing is much more mainstream than it was five or ten years ago. It’s really become a part of everyone’s interior décor. Our classes, though, still are made up mostly of professionals, or people who are serious about getting into the business.”
Sandor and Ellis both feel strongly that decorative finishing teachers must remain active in the field. Both employ teachers who have experience doing a variety of actual finishing work. “I think that’s crucial,” says Ellis, “because it’s easy to do a small sample board, but until you’ve done large walls, you can’t teach anybody anything. There are all kinds of problems you run into on a job that you’ll never come up against if all you’re doing is small samples. So we hire only people who have field experience who can share that with our students.”
At Hoppe Brothers & Sons’ Faux Masters Studio in Yorba Linda, Calif., much of the focus in decorative finishing instruction is on cabinetry and furniture, according to Mike Hoppe. “There is much decorative painting on walls and ceilings, and that’s great, but there are so many opportunities to use these specialized techniques on installed cabinetry, wood doors, banisters, baseboards and furniture,” he explains. “For example, we can show how to take a white Thermafoil door from Home Depot and add a wood-tone color and a few coats of glaze, and you’ll swear it’s a wood door. You don’t need to be an artist per se. As long as you know what steps to do, and the techniques, you can make common wood cabinets and woodwork look like something else entirely, something elegant.”
Faux Masters Studio offers a range of decorative finishing classes, but Hoppe is most excited about the advanced cabinetry and furniture class he’s introducing later this year. “Once you learn how to dissect a finish, you can do anything, regardless of whether it’s been stained, lacquered, painted, whatever. When you can show customers how to take cabinets from where they are and get them to what the customers want, and do it without stripping, you’re a magician, you’re a hero. It’s totally doable, and we can show you how.”
Sandor is heartened by what he sees. “Interest continues to grow among professionals to learn new techniques, and we keep adding new classes to reflect that. The interior design trade continues to find decorative finishing to be very appealing, so there’s certainly no shortage of work, and not just in high-end homes. The business is very solid.”
Ellis concurs. “I see it continuing to get stronger. We’re doing much more Venetian plaster work these days, and I think that’s a trend that will continue. Homeowners and their decorators are looking to use decorative finishes on just about every surface they have — cement, wood, ceilings, floors, walls, everything. They’re not so interested in straight paint anymore, and of course, wallpaper has waned tremendously. You see faux finishes everywhere, not just in 20,000-square-foot homes. I tell my students that, no matter what level you’re at, you’re going to find buyers for your talents. And as you get better, you’ll get an even higher level of clientele. There’s room for everybody in this business.”
For more information about faux and decorative finishing workshops, classes and training opportunities, visit our Web site at www.paintpro.net and click on “training.”