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  • By Jacqueline Hosford, ASID

Painting Fancy: Decorative finishes on walls, ceilings and more

Art by Celeste Korthase

There is paint and then there is the fabulous universe of what you can do with paint—or rather, what a decorative artist can do with it. From decorative paint finishes to murals, bas-relief plaster work and more, this is a very exciting world to explore. Modern, historical, elegant, subtle, bold or playful, there is just the right decorative paint touch for almost any project.

A bit of background on the history of decorative painting: We have been doing this since time began! Think of the prehistoric caves at Lascaux. And it seems that more often than not that vivid color was the norm, not the exception. In fact there was so much color it seems almost garish to our modern sensibilities.

reconstruction created by Vinzenz Brinkmann

It’s probably old news for some of us, but the ancient edifices of Egypt, Greece and Rome were not just white marble or dun-colored stone. Archeological science has revealed that these ancient ruins and statues were once wildly vivid with brilliant color. Even those grim medieval castles were once full of painted-on color and decorative imagery.

Painted plaster walls and ceiling - 3,500 year old Egyptian tomb

Painted wood vault Grandtully Chapel - Scotland 1600's.

Many of our ancestors across the globe would embellish their walls, ceilings and floors with paint, as their fortunes would allow.

I heartily recommend you make time in your schedules to view the two-part full-length video, Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings (2-part series), revealing the vividly colored lives of a husband and wife of ancient Egypt. The treasure trove of their burial site, replete with household items and painted walls and ceilings, remained hidden and pristine for 3,000 years. It’s hard not to gasp at the revelations about color and interior design and decoration.

Visualization and actual ruin:  Herculaneum

There is something inherent in our humanness that compels us to express through decoration. And part of our history as decorators of walls, ceilings and floors is tied to our history of building permanent settlements and structures. Throughout history, even more nomadic or less-settled societies would invest effort in transportable decoration such as tapestries and rugs. But as soon as a civilization could settle in one spot for whatever reason and decoration could be permanent, what humans have done with paint on those walls and ceilings is astonishing.

When I began my career in the late 1990s in the high-end ZIP codes of Manhattan, there was never a plain painted wall. If it wasn’t papered or paneled, it was delicately patterned with any one of various painted techniques of glazing: strié, cross hatching, or various techniques of rolling and ragging as well as Venetian plaster, textured plasters, marbleizing, faux wood, faux stone, tromp-l’oeil, ombré, stenciling and unlimited combinations of all of these. The possibilities are limited only by a dearth of imagination.

Many clients, designers and artists still work to achieve looks from historical eras. And often enough those styles rely heavily on the oldest decorative trick in the world, painted and otherwise embellished walls.

Then there are the adventurous, artistic explorers mining the possibilities beyond the usual. For me this is where the real fun can happen, a thrilling collaboration between client, designer and decorative artist to imagine and bring to life really special and unique decorative effects.

Of course, as always fine décor often presupposes wealth to afford it all. But today we have so many opportunities available to regular folks, with oodles of paint colors, sheens and effects all in a kit or a can. Online instructions and classes galore are within easy reach. With a bit of imagination, fearlessness and a modicum of skill and artistic ability, many of us artistic sorts can take on a decorative painting project.

But I will say this: It’s never as easy as the pros make it seem. I tried to do a faux-mahogany door once after watching an amazingly skilled artist do it quickly with a few brushed-on flourishes of various thinned paints. Easy, I thought. Agh! I worked frantically to get the right strokes and paint consistencies, desperate to deliver something worthy to my client. It ended up looking like “mahoga-pine,” a new species of wood! Fortunately my dear client appreciated the unique graining. (Mine did NOT look like these painted doors below!)

Faux Mahogany painted doors

Each decorative artist has their strengths. I’ve seen steel elevator doors that truly seemed to be made of mahogany, and wood baseboards that one would swear were rare and expensive marble.

Here is one of my recent favorites: Decorative artist Ani Brieger is wonderfully talented, in my opinion. I was first impressed with her work when she threw together a series of stretched canvas paintings to decorate a hallway in a designer show house. Those pieces reminded me that attempting to distinguish between a decorative artist and fine artist could often be a fool's errand. See what Ani has done with three-dimensional plasterwork. One is an utterly contemporary-style ceiling and a close-up detail. And a second is a raised plaster and gilt wall decoration. Wow!

My imagination is a-fire with fabulous design ideas when I see what these artists can do. Here are a few of my favorites; I’d love to collaborate with any one of them on any of my projects. Take a look at their portfolios. I think you will enjoy their work as much as I do.

Jacqueline Hosford, ASID, principal of Jacqueline Hosford Interior Design, loves working with clients to design their spaces for optimum function and each client's ultimate delight. Jacqueline is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID); is certified by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification; and is an adjunct professor of interior design, State University of New York (Purchase). Jacqueline is a graduate of Barnard College-Columbia University, and the New York School of Interior Design with highest honors. She can be reached at

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