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.
After graduating the 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."
And while residential projects still account for the bulk of the The Valley Craftsmen's work, some of Robinson's favorite recent projects include large public spaces that have compelled him and the artists he works with to think big.
The Immaculate Conception Chapel at Mount St. Mary's and the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, for example, are two historic buildings that needed period appropriate redecoration.
"We were given a tremendous amount of creative latitude and did the kind of work we expect someone to be restoring in 50 to 100 years," says Robinson about the chapel project.
Because such public spaces are larger than most residences, the challenge is often reinventing finishes for spaces where at first, the scale might not seem to make sense.
"We did the Buddha Bar in DC, and they wanted a red crackled finish, which works for something small like a cabinet door, but we had to do it over a 3,000-square-foot wall," says Robinson. "Another fun project was The Hill Country Barbeque Market, also in DC, where we created the look of a gritty, beat-up 100-year-old barbeque joint, complete with the illusion of cracked walls, boot scuffs on the floor boards, soot-stained ceilings, and old, worn wood."
At the core of Robinson's passion for his work is the joy he still gets from painting. Whether he's working on a canvas of his own or developing a new finish to replicate antique wood, it's the opportunity to innovate that keeps him and his team in the lead.
"After over 30 years in the business, the single best thing we offer is experience and good design," says Robinson.
Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Valley Craftsmen
The Valley Craftsmen offer unique and custom-painted finishes for furniture, walls and more. Decorative painting and faux finishing generally costs between $2,000 and $8,000 for the average room. Pricing is based on the size and complexity of each project, says Sam Robinson.
"A typical room is 400 to 600 square feet," he estimates, "and typical wall finishes range from $4 to$6 a square foot. Fancy plasters are $6 to $8 a square foot, and $10 or more for to the most elaborate finishes."
To reach The Valley Craftsmen call 410-366-7077 or go to valleycraftsmen.com
About Sam Robinson
Personal: Born in New York City. At age 6, he moved to Seoul, Korea, where his parents served as missionaries. A return to the United States landed Robinson in Maryland, his mother's home state, to finish high school.
Education: The Maryland Instute College of Art, majored in painting and graduated magna cum laude in 1978.
Career: Founded The Valley Craftsmen in 1978. The business employs a team of six to eight artists.
Inspiration: Robinson grew up with grandparents who valued historic architecture and encouraged his appreciation of beautiful, old things. His early interest in art was supported with lessons in Asian brush painting. He is a regular participant in plein air art events and his work is currently represented by the McBride Gallery in Annapolis and Halcyon House Antiques in Lutherville.