Mike MacNeil, Decorative Painter and Wood Graining
Decorative painter Mike MacNeil has been looking to the past for his inspiration and style, to the work of Thomas Kershaw, an English painter and decorator recognized since the 19th century as The Prince of Wood Grainers and Marblers.
by Bob Graham
for his inspiration and style – more specifically, to the work of Thomas Kershaw, an English painter and decorator recognized since the 19th century as “The Prince of Wood Grainers and Marblers.”
Since first seeing a few of Kershaw’s panels in a marbling book in 1990, MacNeil has become intrigued with Kershaw’s decorative faux painting. “I like the quality and the realism he created,” says MacNeil, who recently moved his studio to a small town outside Phoenix, Arizona. Although wood graining and marbling date back to the early Egyptian times, popularity was greatest in the 19th century, largely because of Kershaw’s ability to make surfaces appear like wood. But by the 1930s, master painters who used faux finishing approaches stopped teaching apprentices, fearing the loss of a competitive advantage in a dwindling Depression-era marketplace.
A naval engineer from British Columbia, MacNeil fell into a career of painting, moving into a civilian painting job in Vancouver “because if you’d been a ship painter, you’d be looking for a way out, too.” He apprenticed for four years under Italian-born painter Burton Salvano, who shared techniques in painting he learned from his father. As an apprentice, MacNeil also learned paperhanging, refinishing, sign writing and drywalling skills. But those techniques, coupled with what he’d learned about Kershaw, weren’t enough to satisfy MacNeil’s desire for knowledge. To learn more, MacNeil traveled to Kershaw’s hometown of Standish, England, funding the trips with money earned from painting and from teaching decorative finish techniques.
In England, MacNeil befriended William Holgate, who welcomed MacNeil into his home and his studio in Clithero, in Northern England. Holgate had a copy of Kershaw’s will, along with access to some of the tools Kershaw used.
Armed with a greater understanding of the tools and techniques—not to mention several pieces of Connemara, a greenish marble he found while visiting quarries in Ireland—MacNeil returned to the United States to create tools like those Kershaw had used more than 100 years before.
Though Kershaw’s tools were made of buffalo hide, MacNeil opted for rubber. “You get a cleaner sweep with the rubber graining tools, combs and rollers because of the cleaner cut,” says MacNeil.
Perfecting painting techniques by using Kershaw’s notes, panels and artifacts was no easy feat. Sometimes, MacNeil’s attempts resulted only in his wiping off the pencilled-in grain because it didn’t look real enough. And, as he points out, he constantly compared his work with the standard he found in Kershaw’s.
His growing ability to emulate Kershaw’s techniques drew the attention of the masters in the field. In 1993, while in London, MacNeil’s painting skill came to the attention of The Worshipful Company of Painters in London. The group, which traces its roots to the 13th century, represents some of the greatest painters in the world, and affords its members the opportunity to participate in the best of international competitions. Participating painters hail from England, Germany, France and Italy.
In 1994, MacNeil was invited to submit seven decorative painting samples for judging by architects, artists, interior designers and painters. Two of his samples were put on exhibit in London, just a few panels away from two samples of Kershaw’s work. Even today, MacNeil says this is a highlight in his 20-year career.
Once his work passed the group’s tests, MacNeil underwent strenuous interviewing by members of the Company regarding his knowledge of the painting trade. At the conclusion of that process, MacNeil was invited to Painter’s Hall in London for formal induction into the Company on March 14, 1995.
Following the induction ceremony, MacNeil became the first painter from North America to be named a Freeman of the Trade by the Worshipful Company, an honor bestowed upon Kershaw more than a century earlier. For Kershaw, the Freeman designation earned his decorative work international fame, as he won gold medals in some of the international competitions.
MacNeil’s devotion has been largely to teaching others the skills he’s mastered. He estimates he’s taught about 4,000 painters in week-long workshops all over the U.S., Japan and London. One of his students, Joe Magee, has worked on the Los Angeles homes of actors Johnny Depp and George Clooney.
“My students are always doing the big ones, using the stuff I taught them,” MacNeil notes. “I don’t mind showing the secrets of the trade because it’s a benefit to painters and the trade.”
The distinction between painter and artist is an important one for MacNeil, who calls himself a painter. While some of what he creates can certainly be called art, it’s primarily because he uses the techniques of a painter.
MacNeil has created faux finishes for Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., and Sam’s Casino in Kansas City, Mo., and has taught his techniques to painters at Walt Disney and other studios across the nation.
He converted a metal-skinned airplane to appear as if it were antique maple and mahogany. To create this faux finish, one he says can be performed on any paintable surface, MacNeil first painted a base color, grained over it, and then softened it with a badger softener. Finally, to preserve his work, he added a clear coat, thus making the plane able to fly in all sorts of weather.
He estimates that painters can charge between $65 to $75 an hour for decorative painting, but should not rely on it for their main source of income. “It’s a good supplemental income once they can do it right,” MacNeil says.
Using new tools, especially the pencil line brushes, requires the most work for new faux finishers. “For someone trying this out for the first time, the hardest part is learning how to use the tools. It’s something new and something different that most painters aren’t used to. They have to develop a feel for it, and that requires a couple of tries,” MacNeil says.
A couple of years ago, MacNeil saw a round table design in an antique graining book, a sundial-like creation with light-colored semi-circles on a mahogany, walnut and maple board (see cover photo). He was taken by the semi-circles and other features, and contemplated trying the look. “It was in the stuff I was looking at from the 19th century and I started playing with it,” MacNeil recalls.
Working with a piece of particle board, MacNeil used a compass to design the semi-circles and all the loops, working line-by-line, circle-by-circle. It was a slow process, but essential to replicating the picture he saw in England. The next step was taping around the semi-circles, a meticulous, four-hour job, MacNeil recalls. He used quarter-inch vinyl tape, obtained from an auto supply store, for its flexibility. It curved enough to enable it to be curled along the outer edges of the semi-circles, MacNeil notes.
With the tape in place, MacNeil painted the particle board a base color of beige using acrylic paints, not the oil-based and stale-beer-based formulas that Kershaw used in the 19th century. For the mahogany sections, he marked off the areas with a pencil, then painted those sections safety or Day-Glo orange so there would be a glow when it was overglazed and grained, he recalls.
For the walnut sections, he worked from the beige base, brushing on a little black in the scumble. Using a small brush, he sketched the grain with black, and used his mottler to trace over the sketched grain. While the paint was still wet, he used a badger in an upward motion to soften the appearance.
The next step called for overglazing in the same color. With the mottler, he pulled down slightly on the edges of the brush tines with the edges of his fingers to create the grain like saw cuts. It was the most difficult part of the process, and one his students rarely perfect without a few mishaps along the way, MacNeil says.
For the maple sections, he used a pencil line brush to sketch the grain in watercolors. He sealed the lines with an acrylic varnish, an essential step to ensure pencil marks don’t vanish. Using a mix of raw umber and raw sienna in the glaze, MacNeil used a badger to create the grain. With a mottler to give it ripple cuts and then a badger to cross the grain, he softened its appearance. MacNeil was pleased enough with the result to feature the piece on his web page, and later he sold it for $3,500.
MacNeil doesn’t like to ponder whether he’s surpassed the skills of his mentor, even when asked if technological advances in the supplies and paints might give him an edge.
“I’m not bad,” MacNeil says, pointing out that 600 wood grains and 3,000 marbles and granites in commercial use, of which Kershaw was able replicate a fraction, are a tall order.
“I hate to say I am as good as him because he was the best,” MacNeil notes. “I’d say I am comparable to him, but I would never say I am better than he was. He was the best. It would be like saying you are Michaelangelo.”