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The Modern Estate
Great Illusions

By Alexandrine Blanco

In praise of fakery—trompe l’oeil, faux marbleizing, and all the other decorative-painting techniques that transform the ordinary into the striking.

Arts_MainImage.jpgTen years ago, decorative painters reserved the word faux (from the French word for “false”) for anything that mimicked a natural element, like marble or wood grain or “trompe l’oeil.”

These days, the term has expanded to include newer techniques. “Faux” now covers subtractive sponging (using a brittle coral sponge to take paint off a wall, achieving a look of depth); color washing (applying many layers of paint with a translucent sealer, to create the look of an old wall that has been painted many times); using stenciling with the Venetian-plaster technique; and employing all sorts of materials—feathers, sheets of plastic, combs, stippled brushes—to abrade surfaces to give them an old, interesting, distressed look.

I learned the very demanding ancient technique of illusion painting at IPEDEC, a school in Paris that teaches classical techniques for faux marbleizing, wood-graining, and mural-painting that date back thousands of years. There I also learned the newer decorative-painting techniques. I used all of these methods in my practice as an interior decorator and decorative painter in my native France—mostly in Paris and Provence—working with architects, designers, French antiquaries, and private clients.

Pleasant Deceptions

Decorative painting aims to transform the all-too-ordinary into the striking. The technique called trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”), for instance, can transport the viewer to another place and time. Using cunning shadings, the trompe l’oeil artist makes whatever scene you’ve chosen to depict look three-dimensional. By commissioning a trompe l’oeil painting you can, for instance, create a lovely escape room, providing yourself with a continual, and welcome, reminder of a favorite vacation spot (say, a Provençal meadow studded with lavender).

Your illusionist can make a space appear bigger by painting a “window,” using faux stones, or by painting a door opening onto whatever sort of landscape you desire. Trompe l’oeil gives the illusion of depth—and erases the transition between the real and the painted world—by the ingenious use of light, shadow, perspective, and subtle gradations of color.

Faux marbleizing and faux wood graining can be used to give mantels, columns, and cabinetry a distinctive look. This old technique, which can be used in an infinite number of color combinations, requires the application of many layers of oil paint. One by one, layer after layer, the different colors build together to create a distinctive look that will beautifully enhance your walls.

The Look and Feel of Old Stone

Why just paint a wall when you can get creative by giving it a handsome Venetian plaster finish?

Venetian plaster, created by mixing ground limestone and marble dust with a lime putty, gives surfaces the look of old stone. A Venetian plaster finish can range in sheen and texture from the look of suede to a smooth, highly polished, marble-like finish (called “stucco Veneziano) to a distressed-stone-like “Tuscan” texture to a surface that looks like brick beneath chipped-away plaster. Venetian plaster—known for its translucence because of the lime included as a component of the paint, which is applied with steel trowels in five to six layers—can give your walls the beauty of a villa in Provence or in Italy. It can turn your walls or ceiling into a modern masterpiece, and these surfaces will become even more beautiful with age. And these days, decorative painters even use stencilling on the final coat, adding stripes, diamonds … whatever pattern the client desires.

Furniture Finishes

Your interiors can be given a customized and elegant European touch by using faux-finish techniques on your furniture. You can, for instance, use the techniques of Old World wash, peeled paint, or distressed paint to give your kitchen cabinetry an antique look.

Old World wash (color wash) is the application of many layers of acrylic paint to achieve a translucent finish in which the colors of the different layers show through.

The peeled-paint technique uses a blade to scrape the furniture and give the surface a crackled appearance.

The distressed-paint technique makes furniture look attractively old. The look is achieved by building up layers of acrylic paint (sometimes mixing different colors), then sanding the surface softly to make some of areas look old, or sanding the edges to let the raw wood underneath show through, or using wax with added pigment to obtain the look of antique furniture.

Hilton Vanderhorn
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