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Decorative Painting
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

In decorative painting, the question is, not whether you can afford to hire a professional, but should you afford the trial and error of climbing on your own do-it-yourself ladder?

Decorative painting, even the simplest finish, adds artistic perception to a room. The same room with the same paint, regardless of color, appears broader because it is mottled, says David Lyles of David Lyles Decorative Painting.

Mottling creates a sense of texture, dimension, and expanding space through a dancing play of marbling although walls are generally painted smooth. This 250 year old technique requires a base coat of one color overlaid with another color in an oil glaze- translucent tint, which the artisan, using a mottling brush or pad of cloth, swirls in an irregular dancing sort of motion. Add in a few more veins of color; all of a sudden, mottling becomes marbling.

"The medium and the tools are simple. So, it's not a matter of what is used. It's a matter of who's using it," said Lyles taking issue with the trend towards week-end painters dabbling in faux finishing, where the top coat is applied much like finger-painting.

"They're not capable of good work," says Lyles. "Traditional painters study years to do things that are faithful and fitting." Lyles' background includes five years of painting while working on a masters in theology followed by a stint as a project manager for Gloria Painting, where he saw the traditional Italian approach to decorative painting. Then, using his bachelors degree in business, he established his own company in 1988.

Good decorative painting creates a trompe l'oeiel effect--that's French meaning "to fool the eye," said Lyles.

Strie is a linear finish that makes a room feel taller; where mottling dances, strie stands at attention. A technique at least 400 years old, strie creates a delicate wood grain, and depending on method of application, which may be brushes, combs, cloths, or even pads of steel wool, each tool leaves a delicately striated feel and look bearing the hand of the painter. When embellished, strie leads to faux bois, a painted wood finish look.

The sponging technique fits into the porphry line of painting, an ancient way of using sponges to create the appearance of hard Egyptian or igneous rock embedded with fine grain crystalline mineral flecks. As old as the setting of Pompeii is porphry painting. But it's also a technique of many different looks; one resembles leuders limestone, Texas #1 statuary stone, and another softer look is called pounced finish.

"You never want to identify a finish by the tool," said Lyles. For a person can take a tool and do just about anything with it.

Counter to decorative painting's tradition of classicism, the faux finish fantasy delves into fantastical imagination. It's more individualized, more eccentric and idiosyncratic, whatever the painter makes up that day, said Lyles. "It's artistic expression of the painter at that time," often, embracing brash colors, extreme tension, or overly busy-poorly executed, design.

"In decorative painting, the key issue is, not what can we do, but what should we do because you can do a lot of things that you really shouldn't do," said Lyles. And yet, a lot that's being asked for in decorative painting is neither classic nor tasteful. This trend, although prevalent in other parts of the country, is not found in the Dallas/Park Cities area.

"How to make the room work for that person and the pieces already in the room--the fabrics and the carpets, the rugs, and furnishings--that's the art," said Lyles. And the key to success is the ability to listen, pay attention, then follow through. On one such project, Lyles painted iron railings to look like Bouvier pewter; he antiqued cast stone mantels with French limestone and applied antique plaster to all the walls, which he painted a sandy color washed sienna. What emerged was the warm, golden-gray texture of aging statue and a house with an historical sense of refinement.

Color washing, softer and more ambiguous than mottling, is Lyles' most popular finish; Lyles uses a terry cloth to get the soft layers of fading and wearing color. The most popular colors are the golden tones and brown. Today, all European castles and mills have been limed because lime was once used to prevent wood decay and infestation of termites. Packed inside the grain of the wood, the bright colored lime against the dark wood created a piece of beauty.

"The middle class wanted their houses to look like castles, too," said Lyles. So, they put lime in their wood. Historically, the extension of this practice is antiquing, i.e., color paint inside the grain of the wood.

In the ancient pyramids of Egypt, priests were the original decorative painters entombing the body of their dead pharaoh as they walked out backwards painting the pharaoh's life on the walls, said Lyles. A lot of those motifs and other motifs painted by Greeks and Romans are still used today along with vines over the bar, fruits in the kitchen, and other popular ceiling borders.

Before you embark on a decorative painting project, take a few moments to browse the internet or visit a paint store and acquaint yourself with the vast array of materials and techniques available. There are many paint primers (latex, alkyd, and stain-killing), paint finishes (high-gloss, semi-gloss, flat in latex and alkyd-based formulations, and smooth or textured finishes), and paint glazes.

There are many techniques. For instance, the Behr Premium Plus guideline outlines three steps to painting the textured castle wall look. Step one, paint two coats of eggshell sheen color in Kashmir; allow 24 hours to dry. Step two, cover with a coat of white smooth wall texture paint, applied randomly in an erratic dotted fashion with a dampened natural sea sponge; allow 24 hours to dry. Then rub the paint with a damp rag to soften the finish and allow two hours to dry. Step three, mix eggshell sheen color in elk tan with faux glazing liquid (1 part paint to 4 parts glaze) and apply with a roller in 2 ft. by 2 ft. sections from ceiling to floor. Rub randomly with a dampened sea sponge to remove glaze, and allow paint to dry. For added protection, cover with a sealing coat of faux glazing liquid.

Decorative painting requires more coats of paint and more painting experience than the traditional do-it-yourself projects. But, if you yearn for the artistic experience of decorative painting, try a bedroom first. On the other hand, if you find reading the instructions to be exhausting, you should consider an interior decorator and professional decorative painter.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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