Decorative Paint Effects


Decorative paint effects have been used since ancient times: trompe I'oeil scenes of gardens, colomnades and views over bays were used by the Romans to decorate the walls of their villas. Since then, numerous paint effects have been popular, including antiquing - the art of making objects look older than they really are by 'distressing' them with a cracquelure finish, which replicates the fine network of cracks that can be seen on 'old master' paintings and antique porcelain and cabinets.

For many years, however, the materials and techniques of decorative paint effects remained the carefully guarded 'trade secrets' of master craftsmen - and forgers, of course. Today, an enormous range of products is easily available that allows the enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer to exercise their own creative imaginations and transform plain surfaces using such techniques as liming, marbling, crackleglazing, stencilling, rag rolling and a whole host of other exciting effects.


The natural beauty of wood is all too often hidden under a thick layer of paint. Colourwashing, on the other hand, allows these qualities to show while still adding colour to a room. It's a very simple technique to use on bare wood and you can vary the density of colour as you wish simply by adding more, or less, water to the paint mix. Bare wooden floors can be transformed by colourwashing them in thin transparent layers of diluted emulsion paint, which is absorbed into the wood. While there are ready-made colourwashes available, there are numerous advantages to using diluted emulsion: it dries quickly, there are thousands of colours, tones and shades to choose from, and emulsions are cheaper. You can also use any number of colours to create patterns simply by masking off areas and colourwashing them in different tones. The diluted emulsion, once soaked into the wood, will look less intense in colour, so it's a good idea to experiment first so you can see how many layers you'll need to build up the colour to the level you want. Because diluted emulsion dries very quickly, this won't take as long as you might think. If colourwashed objects have to be tough and durable, you will need to finish them with a long-wearing, protective topcoat of acrylic varnish.


Many decorative paint effects begin with a simple, flat basecoat of paint in a colour of your choice over which other colours are added. Stippling is an ideal way to create a two-tone textured appearance. The main thing to remember with a stippled effect is that the basecoat colour will still remain the dominant colour in the scheme. The stippled effect is easily created using a sponge or a 'ball' of cotton rags. Each will give a slightly different finished look: a sponge will give a fine stipple while rags will give a bolder, more 'dappled' effect. Experiment with both to find the look you want: in either case, dampen the rags or sponge with water, squeeze out the excess, dip into the stippling colour and 'dab' it gently onto the base colour. If you add too much stipple colour, don't worry. You can always 'blot' it out by stippling over it with the original base colour - or even add a third, different, colour.

Rag Rolling

Rag rolling - and its 'sister' effect of bag graining - also involve a stippling action. But, unlike stippling, these techniques are used to remove paint from a surface rather than add it. Most often it is a darker colour laid over a lighter base colour, and here the rolled or bagged colour will be the dominant colour in the scheme. While the topcoat of colour is still wet, a piece of cloth, folded into quarters and rolled into a 'sausage', is rolled upwards from the base of the wall. As it picks up paint, the rolled cloth leaves behind a pattern in the wet paint producing a delicately textured effect.

A similar but more 'random' and irregular effect can be achieved by using a plastic carrier bag half-filled with loose rags dabbed onto the wet paint. While rag rolling is a simple technique, it can get a little messy, and you will need plenty of cloths and carrier bags as they will soon become over-loaded with wet paint picked up from the surface.


This is one of the simplest ways to introduce colour, texture and interest to a surface. Once again, it is the background or base colour that remains dominant in the scheme, but it will be modified by random 'speckles' of one or more colours. The only drawback to speckling is that it can be a messy process, so cover any surfaces and adjoining areas you want to be kept 'speckle free' and cover electrical fittings with masking tape. Oil paint reduced with just a little white spirits is the preferred medium for speckling - you can even use metallic paints to add a sparkle. The tip of a stiff bristled brush is dipped into the speckle colour and then held about 100mm (4in) from the surface. A small stick - an old wooden school ruler is ideal - is dragged across the bristles towards you, launching flecks of colour onto the surface. Once this colour is dry, you can add a second speckle colour, if you choose.


Gilding is an ancient technique that traditionally involved applying a very fine layer of gold to the surface of an object; today a whole range of metallic finishes such as silver, copper and bronze are available. Because of its value, real gold is often substituted in decorative schemes with 'Dutch metal', which is gold coloured and comes as transfer sheets. This is available from artists' materials suppliers but it can be a little tricky to apply. Fortunately, gilt effects also come in a range of easy to use alternatives: gilding powder, in a range of metallic finishes, can be brushed onto a 'tacky' surface or mixed with a medium to create a metallic paint. By far the easiest way to add a touch of richness is with a gilt cream. This can be used to add highlights. Try it on stair balusters, moulded cornices, picture and mirror frames and door panelling - or, it can be used to 'touch up' existing gilt that has lost some of its sparkle. The gilt cream is simply applied using either a clean finger or a brush and, when dry, buffed up to a sheen with a soft cloth.


Stencilling patterns or motifs is a great way to introduce accents of colour into a room. Stencils can be simple or 'naive' in style - ideal for children's rooms - or they can be intricate and grand, making them perfect for more formal rooms. Cut the designs from stiff stencil card and apply the paint using a stiff, round bristle brush in a dabbing motion through the cuts in the card. Stencil paints are water- based, but acrylic or oil-based stencil paints can be bought in small pots, while the sticks are wrapped in sealed film. Small 'tester' pots, available at DIY stores, make ideal stencil paints.

You can buy ready-cut stencils and pattern books for you to cut your own. You'll need a sharp scalpel to cut the card. If you can't find a motif or pattern you like ready-made, leaf through some books, look at some antique ceramics or visit your local museum for inspiration and draw your own. If you make a stencil out of stiff acetate, you will be able to transfer the design onto it using a photocopier.


Simulated marble is not an easy technique to master so be prepared to practise. Take a look at some 'real' examples of marble: black, white and grey are not the only colours. There is a huge range of marble - Sienna, Carrara, Serpentine, Egyptian green, to name just a few. When you create a 'faux marble' effect, you will be working with a limited colour range - perhaps just three different colours - but you can create an infinite range of subtle tones and shades. Artists' oil paints create the best marbling effect: they take a while to dry so allow time to work on the whole effect while still wet. These can be expensive, so use them for smaller objects; for larger surfaces, you could use oil-based interior paints in a satin finish.

1 Mottling

Over a light basecoat colour, start with the darkest of your three colours and gently stipple it onto the surface. Then move to the mid-tone colour, blending the two colours where they meet by dabbing the brush gently while the two are still wet. Repeat with the lightest tone of the three colours.

2 Veining

The veins in marble are the most outstanding feature. With a fine artists' paintbrush, draw the veins using colour mixed from your three pigments. Paint veins in varying thicknesses and directions. Use a piece or photograph of real marble as a guide.

3 Blotting and blending

Any thick lines of paint can be blotted with a tissue or clean rag to reduce them. 'Feather' the veins by brushing gently backwards and forwards over the surface with a soft paintbrush. Let the paint dry and then seal the surface with a semi-gloss polyurethane varnish and buff to a sheen with a soft cloth.


1 Coating with glaze

Crackleglazes are water-soluble glazes that are applied as a 'sandwich', either between two layers of paint or between wood and a layer of paint. Apply an even coat of the glaze to the surface, painting in one direction.

2 Adding top colour

Now add a 'top' colour. Stir the colour well and brush it onto the surface in the opposite direction to the direction you applied the crackleglaze. Don't over-brush, or you'll stop the cracking process

3 Second coat of glaze

Adding the second part of a two-part crackleglaze to the surface will open it up and create a fine, criss-cross network of cracks. You can speed up the cracking process by gently heating the surface with a hairdryer, but this will create slightly deeper cracks.

4 The finished product

Although it dries clear, the glaze causes the paint on top to crack, thereby revealing the underlying wood or painted colour. The beauty of crackleglazing is that it gives tired, old and worn items a rejuvenating facelift, while new items treated in the same manner will be 'aged' in soft, mellow way.

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