Faux Finishes: Make the Right Choices to Create Beautiful Wall Coverings

by Stephanie Mesner

faux finish

Faux finishes are the hottest thing in wall covering since pre-mixed paint in a can. Instead of flat painted linen white, choices can include a soft-sponge cloudy texture in sage greens, or crisp wide stripes in neutral tones, or a scholarly stippling finish in leather browns. The choices are endless and the results can be beautiful when done right. Here are some of the key choices you'll need to make to ensure a great result.

Color: Before choosing the main color, consider: any color other than off-whites that you see on a color chip at the paint store will intensify significantly when painted over an entire wall. For instance, a color chip of light aqua green might appear to be screaming turquoise when applied to a wall. With that in mind, try picking a slightly lighter or more subdued version. For the base color you will need the tint that is 2-3 shades lighter on the color chart.

Add at least 2 layers color for your faux finish. The first layer should be the main color chosen and applied consistently over the walls in the technique desired, making sure to get all the way to the edges of base board, moldings and trim. The second layer of faux finish should be slightly lighter than the first and made from opaque paint. Therefore it will soften the first layer and hide any blemishes. Always keep the differences in the colors suitable and avoid high contrast combinations like the plague (such as royal blue on top of a white base coat). After you've mastered a suitable approach to color choice, try experimenting with complimentary colors such as a golden yellow base coat and light terracotta textured layers on top. Or try a lavender blue base coat with chalk blue "washed" decorative paint finish on top.

Oil or Latex? Some faux finishers insist that oil paint is the only way to go, but I beg to differ. I am an experienced faux finisher with over 20 years of professional service under my belt and have never used oil paints. What's the secret? Dilute the paint, work in layers and apply small sections at a time. If you're still not convinced here are a few incentives for using latex paint.

  1. Easy water clean up. No need for turpentine or thinners that give the painter headaches, are highly flammable (Thus making painters liability insurance higher) and are considered toxic waste.
  2. Drying time allows second coats to be applied within 1 hour. Oil paint takes up to 24 hours to dry.
  3. Latex paints are non-toxic and low odor. They are also kinder to the environment. Oil paint fumes remain in interior space for several weeks, especially during winter months.

Prep Makes Perfect: The walls should be prepared in the same way as they would be for a regular paint job. Unfortunately there are no short cuts with the prep, except for the fact that a faux finish does hide uneven color or surfaces on older walls very well. The trim, including base boards, door and window frames, and ceiling moldings should all be taped off unless they are to be painted after the walls. It is important that you use the right tape: blue masking tape, 2" from Anchor or 3-M. The wrong tape selection can mean an "un-clean" edge where the finish paint has seeped through the tape, or trim paint can be pulled off.

Which Faux Finish?: There are a million different faux finishes a painter could try, but the soft-sponge finish (also known as "add/subtract") is the reigning queen of finishes. It's relatively easy, works in lots of color schemes, is subtle, and everyone likes it.

faux finish dining

Sponging Techniques: After all of the materials have been prepared, the walls are base coated and you're ready to go. Start by painting an area with rough haphazard strokes, covering an area of about 2'x2'. Put the brush down and take your damp sea sponge (do not use synthetic sponges in this technique) and dab the painted area in a consistent, even motion, until all the painted surface has been "sponged off". Essentially you are adding paint with the brush and subtracting paint with the sponge. Continue sponging off beyond the painted area into an approximate margin of 6" surrounding the area to make the edges soft. Rinse and squeeze out excess water from sponge between every new area/shape.

Move on to the neighboring area. Leave approximately 3" un-painted border between other sponged areas and repeat steps described above. To blend the sections' edges, tap sponge back and forth over the 3" border and the previously painted areas until everything looks fairly consistent. Continue on until all surfaces are done. Step back to check your work, paying special attention to the edges near the tape. If you see bare spots along the taped edges, use a small paintbrush and paint and sponge off those areas. Do not be too particular as there will be another layer.

After all the walls are complete with the first layer, prepare for the second add/subtract layer. Follow the same technique as the first sponged layer while covering what you don't like and leaving unpainted what you do like. Blend over painted brush strokes with the same tapping method using the sponge. Also, do not follow the same shapes from the first sponged layer. Make new loosely painted odd shapes. Paint solidly along taped edges of trim and ceiling and sponge off in the same technique. Stand back and admire your work!

Stand back and admire your work! Faux finishes are a great choice for interior spaces. They're also rewarding projects for do-it-yourselfers with a flare for color and interior decorating. Have fun and try something in a small powder room and move onto the master bedroom once you've mastered a few tricks. If the faux finish is not what you had in mind, don't worry, it's just paint and can be covered easily. You can always try again. Either way, faux finishing will add a beautiful new dimension to your home.

Stephanie Mesner has been a professional muralist and decorative artist for more than 20 years. She is co-owner of Arteriors, Boston area's leading decorative painting company.

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