Faux finishing is a technique contractors can offer customers for artistic variety.

This aged wall is all faux. Multi- layered techniques gave this room a completely rustic appeal. From drywall to relic in no time flat.
What can be accomplished on wall and ceiling surfaces is virtually limitless, as all creative contractors know. Perhaps another service a trowel tradesman might consider adding to his arsenal is in the area of faux finishing, defined by Linda Wheat, faux artist, as follows: "In the fine art scope of it, it's an interpretation of fine art into a craft that becomes part of an architectural element and enhances the space."

Faux (French for "false") finishes simulate many surfaces and materials that were used in construction applications for centuries, from residential homes to palaces and ampitheaters. These finishes were called upon when the original material was not available, technically unfeasible or too expensive. Faux finishes can be used to recreate the walls of a centuries-old Italian villa or simulate a 10-year old brick wall.

Linda Wheat, owner of Artspirit Studio, in New Orleans, has been offering this service since 1996. Wheat is a classically trained artist who received her B.F.A. in painting from Goddard College, in Vermont. She studied at the John McCrady Art School and The New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts where she was honored with the Gwendolyn Laan Ozols award. Although most contractors don't have such a background, Wheat assures that faux finishes are an excellent option for walls and ceilings contractors to offer customers.

"Contractors can take classes at a respected finishing school and some technical art classes wouldn't hurt, especially color theory or design," Wheat explains. "There are marvelous classes all over the country. A contractor wanting to get involved could learn techniques and come away with a portfolio just based on what was accomplished during the training."

Making history

Illustrating Wheat's work is a historic 1800s French Quarter Home. The project was an ongoing labor of love. When the owners gutted and renovated the home five years ago, Wheat and her associates had color washed the walls and ceiling in pale cream and soft gray, and all of the trim was a crackle effect in pale butter yellow. Having enjoyed their home for a few years, the owners were ready to pay attention to this bedroom. They began the selecting colors and motifs found in fabrics and a recently acquired rug. The owners were aware of faux finishes and knew to specifically request them.

"The homeowners were well aware of what I could do," Wheat adds. "Initially, I think it was a quick unveiling; they got excited pretty fast. They have to trust you. They don't see what you see. You can do samples but still, they have to trust that you understand what they want."

Wheat was contacted through the contractor, Wegmann Construction, of New Orleans. The initial contract was when the house was being renovated. Having come to know the owners, Wheat devised a plan that not only reflected the owner's European heritage but also addressed the unique layout of the room. It boasts a dramatic multi-angled ceiling that dominates the room and low, windowless walls of differing heights.

"They didn't know what they wanted, just something special," Wheat continues. "We got to know each other in the process of doing smaller things and the ideas would flow back and forth between us. Homeowners have ideas and they want something that's theirs. It doesn't hurt to ask the homeowner if they might be interested in what you can offer in terms of a finish."

When all of the design particulars were worked out, Wheat began the next stage. Rather than painting out the existing color wash, it was incorporated into the new finish of stenciled and layered glazes. This gave complexity and depth to the final finish and added to the impression of age. For the ceiling, Wheat designed a crown and thistle stencil that subtly included the initials of the homeowners, and also related to the thistle motif, which was pulled from the rug.

The ceiling was then gridded, which was not an easy task being that many old homes are known for bowed or out-of-square surfaces, and this home was no exception. Lime green glaze was used for the stencil pattern, which was later over-glazed with slightly grayed red-orange tones. This glaze served to transform the previous color wash tones as well as embed and soften the green stencil design. The ceiling's molding was painted deep red and then Wheat added gold leaf embellishments to accentuate the height. Where the difference in height of the low walls was a concern at first, Wheat decided that she could "level" the walls using a vertical, glazed stripe pattern.

To add to the medieval feel of the room, the walls feature 11 small paintings of European medieval daily life, of more than half are original works of art that Wheat created specifically for this project. Wheat then supported her paintings by trompe l'oiel decorative plaster. The previously cracked yellow trim was then stenciled and then stried with an umber/olive glaze. The remaining wall space was stenciled with a broadly spaced pattern of gold leaf diamonds and then finished with an umber glaze to antique.

The products used to create this colorful room were a combination of Faux Effects products, as well as artist's acrylics for detail work in the period paintings. AquaGlaze and AquaColor were used throughout the room for color washing and stenciling and ColorSeal to protect the layers created in the overall design.

Lest contractors think this job is a classroom away, Wheat does point out that on a scale of one to 10, this project was a 10.

"Stenciling on the ceiling, the ceiling height, that was the hardest, technically," she says. "It required the most fine art skill that anybody might need. But the elements in it that are very reachable, such as the ceiling stencil. That is several steps but none are that complicated if you understand a grid, there are great stencils that can be bought. You can layer a color wash in a stencil and all three of those steps are doable. A colorwash wall is sometimes all people want. The "10" job won't be done right out of a class.

Wheat applying the lime green stencil to the wall. It was later color washed using red-orange tones, which softened the stencil design.

Accessible art

Faux Effects Inc. is one manufacturer offering training in faux finishing. Wheat recommends that readers should go to manufacturers of faux products for training.

"Faux Effects does a great job of training people," Wheat says. "With my background, you can get what you see in the pictures. The spectrum of abilities is vast but the low end (beginner level) of it is extremely achievable and a beginner can get amazing results.

"I don't feel elite about this but I started from a different place than a contractor. Most painters have a good eye for color and look at it for a long time. They pay attention to color and learn from that. I recommend a color theory class. It's hard to get it out of books. Books are not the way--one needs to experience this technique. And you have someone there to give immediate feedback about the process. No matter how many pictures one takes, there are things left out. The real experience of a class is invaluable."

Today's master faux artisan can accurately recreate marbles, rare stone, fine woods, textiles, old world European plasters, textured wall finishes, along with a host of natural aging and distressing techniques.

Cat Faust, marketing and advertising representative of Faux Effects Inc., of Vero Beach, Fla., offers some more details regarding contractor training.

"We have classes from beginners to the artisans," she says. The Introduction to Faux Finishing Parts 1 and 2 uses Faux Finishes' Aqua finishing solutions, basecoats, all the way thru textures and a Venetian plaster system. You get a lot of bang for the buck in the beginners' class. It's not just paint by numbers."

Faust says feedback from contractors is positive as they see the dollar signs are going way up.

"There is potential to apply this on any surface but it is a high-end product line, it is a system and our products are all meant to work together," Faust adds. "Outside of that you take your chances. It could work perfectly with other products, but we have 200 products and cover every base and every surface."