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Knowledge for Sale

by Daina Darzin

The Faux Finish School: 17th-century castle wall recreated from 11 layers of drywall and plaster using Faux Effects products.

Want to make $50-100 an hour?

Successful decorative painters can do just that, which is one reason faux finishing schools are making themselves available in many configurations, from traditional classroom instruction to videos to interactive Web sites.

"It's much more lucrative," stated Martin Alan Hirsch, director of The Faux Finish School in Louisville, KY. Hirsch's contracting company, Decorative Finishes Studio, just finished extensive work in the home of a country music star, he said, and "our income from three weeks there was probably what a regular painter contractor makes in six months."

Faux finishing classes are geared for everyone, whether you're a rank beginner, an art school dropout looking to start a new business, or a working painting contractor. Several instructors emphasized that you don't have to be an artist to do faux finishes. Many of the techniques are very simple, although other, more complex methods involve duplicating woodgrain or marble, which can require as many as 15 separate steps, as well as trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye"), which does involve some artistic skill. The range of classes available includes everything from economically priced quick overviews to a glamorous excursion to Europe to practice hands-on faux finishing in an Italian villa.

Whichever you choose, the timing couldn't be better: In terms of design trends, high-end homeowners are striving to make their abodes more individual and luxurious than ever. Both current trends - homey, authentic Old World looks and clean-lined, elegant contemporary designs - lend themselves to faux applications. Traditional-minded clients favor such techniques as layered peeling paint and plaster finishes, as well as classic frescoes. "As crazy as our society is, customers want a sense of permanence in their home, not some contemporary wallpaper that is out of style in six months," said Hirsch. Modern design, on the other hand, is perfect for more subtle pearlized and metallic faux finishes. Either way, the market for unique decorative painting is an ever-growing entity.

Back to school: For those ready to take the plunge and make a real commitment to decorative painting, in-person schools offer a wide variety of instruction. In most cases, the instructors also run a full-time decorative painting contracting business, thus keeping up with current trends in the real marketplace.

Martin Alan Hirsch's The Faux Finish School is a full-time working studio, now in its 12th year. Featuring three curriculums, the first, The Art of Faux Finishing, is designed for the contractor who wants to get into the faux business. "We teach the beginner or the person who's self-taught the business and art of the field. We discuss business and large-scale applications, including prep," Hirsch said. The five-day course costs $1,795.00

Where will they apply their newly developed skills? Hirsch noted that in the residential market, foyers, dining rooms, and kitchens are the most requested location for faux, while in commercial, it's a popular request in restaurant design. "They all seem to be getting on this 'We're tired of wallpaper' bandwagon," he said.

Hirsch insists that great creative ability is not a requirement for success. "With our more advanced levels, yes, you need to be a little artistic," he admitted. "But the rest is product and technique, and the business end of it. What makes us different is that we teach people how to do this as a business; to complement their contracting business or go into this full time."

The similarly priced Designer Wall Finishes class, also five days, is geared for the advanced decorative artist who has already been in business for some time. Covering more complex multi-layered finishes, such as Old World frescoes, the class is designed for pros who want new, impressive samples for their portfolio. All of Hirsch's students come in from out of town; a discount is available at a hotel near the school.

Painting contractors frequently send their most artistically minded employee to a faux school, but Hirsch cautions this approach can sometimes backfire. "The problem that usually happens is we instruct them so well, you lose them and they go out on their own. They learn these techniques and they see how lucrative this business is: They're making $15 an hour and they could be making $150." Hirsch said some contractors make their employees sign a release, "saying that we're going to send you to the school, but you're going to be committed to me for two years, otherwise you have to pay back the cost of the school."

For those with more cash and time, the school's third program is by far the most glamorous. "We take a class to Italy for two weeks and teach advanced marbling and woodgraining in the field," Hirsch said. "We stay in a villa in Tuscany. We also tour the entire countryside - Venice, Rome, Florence." The $4,200 for two weeks includes classes, room and board, and everything but weekend excursion travel and air fare from the student's home to New York (air fare to Italy is included in the package). "We base out of a villa and travel to different locations. This is where we take our students for inspiration."

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