Transformative Films & Finishes

Stacey Freed

ceiling medallionYour customers are online right now at Houzz and Pinterest, gathering design ideas for their walls, floors and ceilings. They’re finding out about metallic paints and faux plasters; sandstone finishes; and artisan finishes like crackle with an aged-metal patina.

They’re oohing and aaahing over Venetian plaster or brushed-suede accent walls.

While DIY might be all the rage, your customers know that the best possible outcome will happen only if they call you. But there are, “an infinite number of distinctive finishes that could be applied to an infinite number of hard surfaces,” says John Bubenik, owner of The Color Craftsmen in St. Louis, MO, which does custom interior refinishing work. Some design options may be easy for you to create, but there will be many for which you, like your customers, will need to call in a specialist—a decorative artist.


Narrowing the options will be one of your biggest challenges. Bubenik’s goal is to help people achieve their objective, but he finds there’s often a communication problem. He spends a lot of time asking customers about their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes. “If they say they want a ‘rustic look,’ we’ll brainstorm. I’ll throw out words to see how they react—natural wood, stone, brick, timbers. Knowing what they like might help me think in terms of stains versus paints versus textures,” he says. If they say they like stucco, “I need to narrow that down to whether they’re looking for the texture and feel or just something with visual interest. Some of the Euro plasters have subtle movement visually but no real texture.”

For many finishes, all the major paint companies have numerous ready-made options. Many even offer step-by-step instructions on their web sites, detailed supplies’ list, how-to videos, and more.


Here are some popular techniques and methods for doing them successfully:

STRIÉ: Relatively simple, but time-consuming, strié (a French word meaning ‘streak’), can make the painted surface look as if it were hand done by brush centuries ago. Start by rolling on a base coat, then glaze (a mix of paint, glaze and extender) and paint over it with a wallpaper brush, for example, to wipe away the glaze.

With the glaze, Bubenik says, “you want a long open time. You don’t want it to set up too quickly.” It’s difficult to do this on large swaths of wall, so you can tape off one section, paint, and then flip the tape and do the next section. “You don’t want to have a line across the wall,” Bubenik says. He suggests trying the effect with different types of brushes, “maybe one with notches cut out of it every quarter inch,” or using a horsehair brush with 7″-long bristles.

STENCILS: Patterns, such as paisleys, are popular on a wall, or a medallion on a ceiling where a light might hang, or even a faux Oriental rug on a concrete floor. For these designs, you can use stencils. These can be created out of a plastic sheet that will hold its shape and adhere to a surface with a spray adhesive, or there are premade, one-time-use stencils, which have an adhesive backing to keep paint from seeping underneath.

“It’s not difficult for painters to lay out a stencil, but there can be a lot of math involved,” says Wendie Laurel-Croston, owner of Refined Walls in Lima, NY. For a ceiling medallion, “You have to find the center of your wall and work out from there so each side is equal.” A good stencil can cost $100 or more—she recently purchased one for $1,300—and, “you may need to purchase more than one if, for example, you’re troweling mica through it and you have to keep cleaning it.”

Preparation is key to stencil work. “Make sure the surface is well-sealed,” Laurel-Croston says. “If there’s any dust under your layers of paint, when you remove the one-time-use stencil you’ll remove the paint down to the drywall.”

PLASTERS: This is a great look when your customers want texture. While there are synthetic options available, most professionals avoid them. “To the untrained eye they look okay,” Laurel-Croston says. But they don’t harden as well and can wash off with water.

Bubenik likes to use traditional lime plaster that comes in a variety of colors or can be tinted. “As soon as it loses its glisten, you work it with the trowel to line up all the platelets (fine particles) to reflect light differently and create the subtle color shift,” he says. “It’s a technique that’s hundreds of years old. That’s part of its romance.”

But plaster can be difficult to work with. “A true Venetian plaster—really any of the decorative techniques with troweled micas or plaster— really needs to be done by a professional,” says Laurel-Croston who analyzes a surface before plastering. “Prep is extremely important to a level-five Venetian plaster. Any nick in the drywall or gypsum, any seam not completely smooth, is going to telescope through with your trowel.”

There are also many types of plaster, each offering something different, says Laurel-Croston. “In marble-based plaster, you can make it rough, shiny, embed a design, put it on thickly, or incorporate different layers of glazes. In metallic plasters, there are different ways to apply it to bring the sheen up or down. You can make it look like velvet on the walls. There are sandstone plasters for an old-world look. And there are clear plasters you can mix with other plaster for a different layer of translucency.”


To create the different looks, you’ll need to invest in a few tools such as stainless steel trowels, a wide selection of cheap brushes and artist’s brushes, and stippling and glazing brushes. Bubenik suggests investing in, “a couple of different products on sample boards and … some nontraditional tools,” he says. “You might roll on a sanded product and don’t think it looks interesting, but you draw a wallpaper-smoothing brush through it and you like the striated texture. Or you could put a glaze on top, and where it pools in the pits and grooves, it will be darker —and on the high peaks, not show at all.

If you want to learn more, many colleges have decorative painting classes. The International Decorative Artisans League (IDAL) offers education and advocacy, and hosts a yearly convention.

Both pros say it can’t hurt to try these techniques on your own, but if you’re in doubt, call in a decorative artist. Bubenik suggests getting the names of the decorative painters in your market before going ahead with a new project. But keep in mind that it’s a two-way street. “I have painters I call for different projects and they do the same for me,” Laurel-Croston says. “A good, talented painter makes my work look good by getting the walls ready for me. A bad painter is my worst nightmare”

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