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Background Finishes for
Decorative Painters: Part 1


By Alannaha Pritchard, BFA,
West Coast "Paint-In" -- Decorative Paint Conference

One of the hardest decisions sometimes is how to finish the background for your decorative work of art. This becomes much easier if you do your background first!


What is the difference between a warm color and cool color?

Lighten colors: usually by adding white or, if a mixed color, adding more of the lighter mixed shade.

Darken colors: usually by adding brown / black (sparingly), dark blues, greys, or the opposite color on the color wheel which tends to dull the color. Example -- red darkens with the addition of its opposite green . . . yellow with its opposite blue or violet.

Not sure of the color? Try adding white to the unknown color and the main color becomes more obvious.

Now -- let's move onto a simple background finish, often used for decorating interiors, which works really well for background finishes on small wood pieces.



Sounds decadent, right? This technique is so effective, and so simple. Smooching is simply the layering of a glaze color over a previously-applied base color which has dried. Before the glaze color dries, saran wrap is crumbled and laid over the surface, patted down, then gently removed, and the item is left to dry. It is always a good idea to put a light coat of varnish over this to protect it from drips, etc. when you start painting your main decorative piece. For the best effect in this type of finish, use a basecoat and glaze which are close in tone or color, or both.

Example: Main decorative pattern design has pastel blues, pinks, sage greens, ivory, peaches, and white in it. Basically a fairly cool design. If you were to take your background color from this. . . let's say a green. You would want some contrast so you might make up a warmer green from the original, perhaps darkening it slightly to make the foreground design stand out. This will also warm the blue somewhat. Do your first base coat with another shade of this color or a warmth-added shade of one of the other colors (neutral), like a somewhat blued ivory, or even another green with blue and ivory added.

You can choose to work light to dark or dark to light . . . (I prefer the effect of dark to light, I find there is more control this way -- it is always easier to darken then to lighten.) If you like the effect, go ahead and paint some of the colors from the main palette in a spot which would be painted with the final design. Now, stand back and look at it! Nothing should vibrate at you . . . do the colors work? That is .. does the foreground stand out form the background, subtly?? If you are better planner than I, this could be worked out on paper first . . . I am always in such a hurry to get started that I bypass this more logical step. I haven’t given any formulas here, because the best choices are your own . . . color is such a personal thing!

Before you start the real painting of your central design:

Lightly sand area where design pattern will go and apply base coat, then sand lightly again. (Paper bag sanding works great, doesn’t take much finish off.) If you are painting in a light palette -- use white or ivory basepaint, a dark palette -- use grey, red or dark green / blue or black for basepaint. (Red creates a very nice undertone if you are painting with browns / golds and oranges.) Now go ahead and paint.

Piece finished but you’re unhappy with it?

Don’t redo . . . just glaze it. Buy glaze or mix your own (medium plus a small amount of paint). This is a simple way to pull up or soften colors in a piece so they are more exciting. You can even glaze, then reglaze multiple times . . . just make sure that each coat is dry or one layer will pull off the other. You can glaze a piece to be lighter, darker, warmer or cooler. In fact, I pre-make different intensities of warm and cool glazes (in small amounts) just for this purpose. It is always a good idea to keep a record book of successful color combinations, complete with painted swatches. I do this so I can easily duplicate colors in a piece that may become damaged, or create a piece for a special order that has been chosen by a client by color from my portfolio.

A note about mediums:

I always work in acrylics, so my base coat, glaze and varnish are all water-based. Occasionally for an old-world finish I will lightly spray my background, then whole piece with matte Krylon; then finish off with tinted wax.

If you work in different mediums, make sure they are compatible. Something I was taught, always goes through my head when I mention this to students, "shiny faces need no cream, but dry ones might," or don’t use acrylic over oil, but you can apply oil over acrylic. You can use a water-based varnish over acrylics but not oil, however, an oil-based varnish can be used over an acrylic-painted piece. Sometimes it is just easier to stick to either water-based or oil so you don’t have to guess results.


Always sand lightly and varnish to protect your piece. If you are varnishing with a oil varnish be careful of tone of varnish . . . some will yellow, some are red-based . . . these may or may not effect the beautiful color that is in place on your piece.

Next month . . . Part II -- Splattered Finishes

Alannaha Pritchard is a decorative painter and teacher who lives in Victoria, BC. She is currently organizing a convention for decorative painters to be held in Victoria on March 20 to 23, 1998. Call for info: 250-995-3244

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