HOME DESIGN : Faux Painter Extraordinaire Turns the Bland into Real Art

Evan Cummings is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

"Faux" means to "fool the eye." Stephen Forsythe will not only fool your eyes; he'll fool your hands.

The 40-year-old painter can take ordinary drywall and create a look that resembles the finest imported silk. He can paint "suede," "linen" or "parchment" on your walls or turn wood and Formica surfaces into "marble," "rose quartz" or "granite." He has even transformed dismal gray cinder block into a muted, multicolored, 14th-Century castle wall.

Forsythe was a house painter for 20 years before limiting his work to specialty painting five years ago. Every day, the owner of Lower Court Design Guild in Fullerton spends hours in his studio inventing and perfecting glazing formulas and techniques that allow him to turn a whitewashed table into "malachite" with metallic "pearl" legs and gilded trim. A contemporary dining hutch looks centuries old after his creative treatment.

The painter-cum-artist is one of a small number of Orange County painters who can create faux images that look genuine. "You can find people who do faux marble, but when you look at it, it looks fake. I'm a perfectionist; if I can't do it and fool your eye, I won't do it at all."

When Robert and Judy Christiano of Irvine redecorated their master bedroom, they called in Forsythe. The result was a purple silk wall finish to coordinate with colorful draperies and upholstered pieces. A roller, sea sponge and brush achieved a silk finish. "I first cover the wall with the chosen color or colors; the grain-like appearance is done by detailing with sponges and brushes."

Wall glazes are made from oil-based paint and a commercial glazing product to which thinners are added.

Rag-rolled finishes are frequently requested by clients. "A common method of rag rolling is to saturate rags with glaze, roll into a cylindrical shape, then roll it up the wall, but that often ends up looking like a bad wallpaper job."

His method of "ragging" is to apply individual paint colors on the wall with standard paint rollers of varying sizes. Then he begins blending color to color with paint-soaked rags until a cloud-like pattern resembling a prism emerges.

For a linen-like finish, the technique is similar but requires additional steps "to achieve the graining of fine imported linen."

A multiple-step process that requires up to four individual glazing applications with "brushes, sponges or cheesecloth, depending on the existing surface," says Forsythe, results in a suedelike surface.

Fine wall finishes cost between $2 and $4 per square foot, he said, comparable in price to fine wallpapers at $50 per roll, plus installation. The advantages, he explains, contribute to their popularity: "Because the glazes seal themselves, there's no peeling, cracking or discoloring. It lasts forever and is washable with most household cleaning products."

Redecorating is easy because no stripping is needed. "If a client wants a different look in a few years, I can come back and change colors completely or just add some shading to get the desired effect."

Another advantage of wall glazing over wallpaper is that precise color shadings can be achieved through blending paint and glaze colors. Forsythe often combines as many as eight different colors--pinks, purples, blues, greens with such colors as orange, yellows, copper and bronze--to create a distinctive wallpaperlike pattern.

Norm Davis and his wife, Carol, hired Forsythe to paint several rooms in their two-story Yorba Linda home. Norm Davis recalls that a wallpaper hanger, who had installed paper in the couple's master bed and bath, ran his hands over walls searching for seams before he was convinced that it was paint and not wallpaper.

Furniture finishes range from a simple "wash"--new or existing surfaces painted over with a transparent layer of color--to "pickling," which makes wood appear aged. This is usually done in lighter tones and requires up to 14 separate steps to look authentic.

Faux marble countertops and pillars can take up to 70 hours. "There are times when the price of faux marble--if it is truly museum quality--is more expensive than the real thing," Forsythe says. "But I have clients who prefer it; to them it's like buying a piece of art."

Furniture refinishing costs are more difficult to estimate: "I really have to see what look the client wants, see the piece of furniture and decide which way to go before I can give a price," he explains.

"It's painstaking and you have to love it to do it well."

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