Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sky's No Limit

For many years now, we've had a silent running battle in the house. Kathi thinks the walls are too white; she finds them institutional, hospital-like. I say they have an “art museum” aesthetic—which is just a sophisticated way of saying, “Yes, they're white, perhaps even too white, but provided we have an easy justification we don't have to do anything about it”.

Well, we've been attacking the walls for some time now, and gradually reducing the whiteness. We've mostly just removed one white wall per room, but even that has made a dramatic difference (indeed the most, as any incremental changes would have diminished marginal value).

Our latest victim folly canvas has been a wall in the guest bedroom upstairs. We contemplated various blandly uncontroversial shades, but knew we were compromising. Ultimately we decided what we really wanted was to paint a sky: a night sky, fading into dawn, dark at the top and brightening as we go down.

This would be a good moment for an interlude pointing out that we have no painting skills whatsoever individually, and perhaps even less between us. We've painted a few walls with a roller, and even those were slightly touch-(up-)and-go affairs. The only reason we even contemplated this sky affair is because it was so outrageously beyond our skill that we were too ignorant to be afraid.

We knew we didn't stand a chance of any realistic sky-like look, so we abstracted. We would paint three bands in three distinct blues; that was easy enough. The problem was merging them. Kathi's Web reading implied that sponges were the way to go. But in a few moments, the paint lady at our fabulous local hardware store Adler's (may they live long and prosper) had convinced us this was a terrible idea.

Did she have an alternate suggestion? No, she didn't. It's always a bad, bad sign when all the staff in the paint department gather around saying, “Hmm, that's intriguing...I have no idea what you should do, but do let us know how it worked out!”, and that's just what they were doing here. But Adler's is a terrific store; the staff also went through several books with us, and finally, on page 128 of Decorative Paint Techniques & Ideas, we found something loosely like what we were looking for: a “graduated color wash”.

The book's suggestion hinges crucially around the use of glaze (indeed, in a 3:1 ratio to paint), applied with a 4" “good quality” paintbrush in long, lateral strokes. We tried a small sample on a piece of cardboard using a cheap, small brush, but we both knew we weren't really interested in how it worked out on cardboard; so we went at the wall.

It was terrible.

The glaze is supposed to slow drying (which it does), but it also streaks the paint. The result was an impressionistic set of lines, but hardly the sky we'd set out for. (To the book's credit, it looked pretty much exactly as the photograph suggested it would.) It wasn't bad, mind, just not a sky at all.

Worse, I'd missed a few patches while painting. Repairing this was painful. Wherever the brush begins applying, it leaves a broad vertical mark; you have to then go further in the same direction to cover up the mark, and then again, all the way to the wall's edge (and get the edging right, again).

Meanwhile, we were running out of paint-glaze mix, so we had to make some more. Since the lower-glaze ratio mixture was less streaky, we didn't add any more glaze, only paint. This produced better patches, but the entire process of applying patches was so frustrating we decided the wall was good enough, and left it to dry. Until we went back to inspect it an hour later, and saw a few more spots...

This time, I took the cheapo brush and tried to apply a little patch. Amazingly, there was no vertical brush mark! I tried another patch. Ditto. And another. And so on. Losing track of our careful markers (top 20% in deep blue, next 30% in middle blue, bottom half in light blue) I sort of just dabbed away wherever I found streaks. Well over an hour later, most of the wall had been painted over, this time in small patches with a small brush and with very little glaze mixed in.

The result:

The wall actually looks better than this photo suggests. From the other end of the room, even we find it a remarkably credible sky. All that random patching, it turns out, was just the ticket! And here's a little detail:

In moderation (and especially with patching), the streakiness of the glaze proves to be just the right thing to create a wispy sky.

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