Wall Magic

from Decorating
Wall décor can be as easy as a can of paint, or it can be an artistic faux-finish. Either way, decorative painting can bring a room to life.

Mix three parts chemist with seven parts artist, and you’ll barely be onto the formula for Darril Otto’s magical ways with walls. “I have my own secret recipes,” he says, “the result of years of experimentation.” Ever since Otto observed the repairing of his childhood home’s stucco facade, he’s been fascinated by mixing color and materials.

Based in Excelsior, Minnesota, Otto has worked with architects and interior designers as close as nearby Minneapolis and as far-off as Miami and La Jolla, California, transforming nearly everything from a whole house to a single powder room. Walls he’s treated can glow like mellow polished stone, reveal varying depths of color in different lights, or suggest materials such as grass cloth. “The subtle variations you get from layering and manipulating color create character,” Otto says. “My goal is to personalize the treatment for each family’s home and lifestyle. Once a color is determined, the possibilities are limitless.”

Italian Plaster
One of the most popular finishes today, this surface dramatically alters the texture of an ordinary wall. Otto’s technique involves applying four to five layers, or veneers, of a slow-drying plaster impregnated with slightly different shades of pigment. “I build it up like an oil painting,” he says, “and create a sense of movement in the color.” In the final step, he applies a wax coating for a soft, reflective sheen. The result, Otto says, is something you want to touch, even caress. “Since people are using natural materials like travertine and wood now,” Otto notes, “they no longer want to paint a wall to mimic something else; they want a material that is itself.”

Increasingly, Italian plaster is being requested throughout modern houses, unifying the open flow between spaces. Yet, because its reflective quality helps move light, it’s also great for darker or more traditional rooms.

Matte Plaster
If you love the depth and variations in tone that plaster veneers provide but want a nonreflective surface, this is an appealing choice. The shading is similar, but faster-drying matte plaster absorbs less pigment than Italian plaster, making it better for less-saturated colors. “The light effect is almost like suede, and it’s fast becoming as popular — if not more so — as waxed plaster, as people opt for a more toned-down, restful ambience, Otto says. For a different take on a traditional look, say for a dining room or bath, he also suggests striping or checkerboarding in matte plaster, a technique in which the pattern is slightly raised, almost like impasto, with an edge that snags the light. “Plaster,” he says, “is as tactile as it is visual.”

Decorative Paint Finishes
Otto also specializes in paint finishes, which he creates by building up shades of pigment. For a glazed wall, background, for example, “I add color to each layer of semitransparent glaze, so that several shades recede through the finish,” he says. “At first, you think you’re seeing one color, but as you come closer, the texture is revealed. The effect is like matte, but at an angle, it has a slight sheen.”

With custom stenciling, Otto can create designs that are
historical or individual (such as a family crest, or a feng shui dial) in his studio and apply them in a pattern that resembles that of a woven damask fabric.

More time-consuming and costly than these is a crackle
finish, applied over both paint and glaze for an antiqued effect that resembles the look of old china.

Otto sees each job as unique, and his enthusiasm for his work is infectious. All sorts of textural effects, he notes, from strié to cross-hatching and distressing, can be used with any of these painting techniques, lending even more choice to each.

Before You Start
Go over your painter’s portfolio to see the range of techniques and to determine what appeals to you. Next, choose colors. “The choice of color is primary,” Otto says. Before anything goes on the wall, he presents a client with sample boards to approve, with the caution that effects in miniature can look different when projected onto an entire wall.

Remember that this is an investment: Plaster finishes are expensive (about $4–$10 per square foot). They’re also practical and durable, because they wear as well as, if not better than, conventional paint. The real purpose of the investment is living with walls of sophisticated, mellow beauty.


Surface Treatments Fit All Styles

Does the architectural or decorative style of a house indicate a preferred wall treatment?

Not really, according to painter Darril Otto. “There are surface treatments that will enhance any home, modern or traditional,” he says.

Otto might surface all of a home’s living spaces in Italian plaster and apply a more muted matte plaster to the master bedroom and
bath, sometimes with a calming strié effect. He finds that pale, watery colors are gaining increasing popularity in bedrooms because of their subtleness.

Otto advocates adding the excitement of shiny waxed plaster to an often overlooked part of a room: the ceiling. For a dramatic dining room, for example, he covered both walls and ceiling in a deep cabernet color — “beautiful by candlelight,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be a strong color” to have that effect, he notes, citing a bedroom with matte salmon walls and a bone-color waxed Italian plaster ceiling. “In the daytime, the salmon color is reflected onto the ceiling; after dark, there is a whole different effect,” he says. “A waxed ceiling brings the light in a room alive.”



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