Commonly known as faux finishes, decorative painting techniques have been used for thousands of years. The approach can give new life to old furniture or give the appearance of any number of finishes.
Perfecting the technique gave artist Sam Robinson a career.
Maryland Institute College of Art in 1978, Robinson founded The Valley Craftsmen, a Baltimore firm that today is a leader in creating custom-designed decorative finishes.
As a student, Robinson was inspired by late 19th and early 20th century representational painters and gravitated toward a more realistic style, learning traditional, Old-World techniques. At the time there was little gallery interest in such work so he started a business that would tap into his skill and creativity, teaching himself first how fix furniture, then build it, working with clients to create one-of-a-kind hand-painted hutches, sideboards, and cabinetry.
Still, making a living one piece of furniture at a time was difficult, so The Valley Craftsmen maximized its economy of scale and began focusing on decorative finishes for entire rooms, which soon became the mainstay of the business.
The technique wasn't that popular at first.
"Decorative and faux finishing wasn't even something people were doing," says Robinson. As luck would have it, Robinson's business coincided with an increased interest in the decorative wall finishes, which, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, had all but eclipsed the wallpaper market, especially in high-end homes.
Today, faux finishing falls into two categories, paint and glaze finishes and plaster finishes. Painted finishes include murals, graphic patterns and designs, and faux finishes, which are intended to look like any number of surfaces including the textures of stone, wood and fabric. With plaster finishes, pigments and tints are integral to the material, which is typically applied with a trowel for either a smooth or textured effect.
Some of the more popular finishes The Valley Craftsmen have perfected over the years include marbling, wood graining, Venetian plaster and striés.
However, says Robinson, "we're past marblezing and sponging. Everything has become increasingly subtle. Interior designers are now working in chalk and limestone palettes — there are lots of in-between shades, so it becomes about texture."
To accent these pale neutrals, "we are seeing a lot of persimmon, mango, and dark indigo blues," says Robinson. "The cocoa and aqua palette is also still popular, and damasks and other graphic patterns have their place but are more reserved. Scenic murals are less popular but some of the tonal murals are still useful for certain styles of design."
Such tonal landscapes are a Valley Craftsmen signature, using a narrow color range that often includes khaki beiges and muted olive greens.
"The appeal is the subtle light palette," says Robinson, "which allows for a fairly elaborate design that doesn't demand your attention. For example, I recommend that the client place sconces, paintings or even mirrors on top of the mural."
Also popular among interior designer clients are the various traditional plaster finishes that Tim Thompson, The Valley Craftsmen's other principal and vice president, has been perfecting. The process involves integrating pigment into decorative plaster finishes and applying with a trowel.
"It is not a faux finish, it is what it is, it's not pretending to be anything else," Robinson says.
The finishes are applied to walls and accented by natural wood molding and millwork. Sometimes, custom stains or a hand-rubbed oil finish is used to give the wood a dusky patina. The result, says Robinson, is a unique, aged Mediterranean look.
The plaster finish can also be used to lend a sophisticated, contemporary look to dress up a brick fireplace wall or surround, creating a sleek monolithic limestone look. Adding scribed-in joints to give the appearance of large blocks creates a stunning focal piece.
"It's a particularly practical way to use the plaster finish and create a lot of wow factor. It is a really dramatic transformation," says Robinson.
Although the company now focuses mostly on wall finishes, Robinson says it hasn't turned away from furniture painting. "We never intend to have our own line of furniture, but we still do some fabrication if it's requested, even though our emphasis is on decorative finishes for houses, commercial structures, and historic restoration."