Click to Print

Decorative Paint Finishes With Barbara Jacobs

Color and interior finish specialist Barbara Jacobs talks about the exciting world of paint finishes.

As a color consultant and interior finishes specialist for more than 20 years, Barbara Jacobs has helped clients throughout the country bring together their personal design objectives and aesthetics to achieve unique and harmonious surroundings. She is a member of the Color Marketing Group that makes color trend predictions and of the International Association of Color Consultants.

What does a color consultant and interior finishes specialist do?
My job is really about helping people enrich their lives with color design and imagery. I have a variety of clients. I work with builders who are doing a whole community by suggesting the exterior colors for the whole neighborhood. I’ve worked on a project where a bunch of existing attached buildings were being rehabbed. In that case color was used to differentiate the buildings from each other. Color can do so much, from making a whole neighborhood feel more appealing and inviting to increasing pride in ownership.

In an office environment my job has to do with creating healthy spaces that help people feel more productive, more relaxed or more aware. In those cases color goes beyond what looks good to its function. You don’t want people dozing off on the assembly line because everything is painted gray.

Sometimes interior designers bring me in to help make color decisions. I also work a lot with homeowners' exterior colors. They’ll be building a house and already know their shingles and stone. They’ll show me photos or samples and ask my advice about the roof or exterior color. We’ll talk about color combinations and may test a lot of the ideas.

Inside the house I do everything from flat paint to decorative finishes. I gather information about people's homes and lifestyles and help them visualize a final color palette and combinations. The overarching connection among everybody I work with is that they want an experience or have a desire to express something, and I have to help them get that.

What do people say when they come to you?
Sometimes people have a painter coming in a few days and they just want help with colors. Or they want "something special" but they just aren’t sure what that something is. That’s when I introduce them to the variety of decorative finishes available, and many end up choosing finishes because that's the best way to express the feeling that they’re going for.

People will usually say, "I saw something in a magazine that I liked. I have a picture of it and this is what I want." Or they may remember a vista they saw and loved and want to re-create that feeling. Or they say, "I love the Tuscan look. Can we do that?" I try to make things happen for them either with straight paint or an interesting finish.

Do people know what they’re talking about when it comes to artistic finishes?
If somebody says "I want a rag look," I say "I’ll keep that in mind." But I focus on questions like "Do you want more pattern or less pattern?" not on what kind of technique they want. Some clients don’t have the ability to visualize what they want or articulate it. So part of my job is educating them and then going through the steps of figuring out what they really want.

So paint isn’t just paint and color isn’t just color?
There are lots of ways to think about color. There is solid color, then there’s broken color, which is using multiple colors together, and there are a lot of ways to do that. You can put two or three colors on one layer and use a pattern. When it comes to pattern, the more contrast you have in the colors you use the more the pattern will show up. Put black on a white wall and that’s high contrast. The smaller the pattern—the smaller the little pieces, like in a kaleidoscope, for example—the more uniform the effect becomes and the more subtle it is. Then, of course, there are metallics and pearlescents and a variety of finishes that let you add texture. It’s not just the color that creates the look; the finish is as important as the hue.

How do you develop or find the right color?
You can use a couple of different colors on the color wheel, or use a transparent color or a layered color. This is when people learn that color doesn’t have to be flat. I do optical color mixing where you may have more of a shimmering color. I can include a lot of colors and have an overall plum, but in that plum there might be some ambery-orangey and there can be greens. All that can be worked in subtly so it doesn’t look splotchy and messy.

You also do murals?
Sometimes a client will say, "I always wanted a china cabinet with a blue and white china," and we decide that we can do that in a mural. When I do murals for people I like to include something that’s really personal in it. Once when I was doing a tromp l’oeil bookshelf I blocked in all the books and painted in their background colors.Then I numbered the books on a diagram and asked the clients to put authors and titles on the books. They made up stuff that related to their family and it made the mural very special and personal for them.

Do you see any trends in what you do?
The trend is that there isn’t really a trend. Instead it’s a feeling that is more encompassing, including multicultural influences. Somebody might like traditional things and have a collection of African art at the same time. People want to create spaces that are sociable or relaxing or good for study. That’s how I go about what I do, too. I ask, "What are the main things that you would like to do in this place?"

I keep hearing that sponge painting is out. Is that true?
When decorative finishes became popular in the 1980s, sponge painting was one of the simplest techniques to convey. The problem is if it’s not done right you can see the edges and it looks like kitty paw prints. It was easy enough that a lot of people tried it, probably with not great results, which may be why it’s not so popular now. For me, a sponge is a really useful tool, like the trowel is a useful tool and brushes and so on. When I use the sponge for a finish, it doesn’t look like what most people think of as sponge painting.

There also seems to be some confusion about the word faux.
Sometimes somebody will say to me, "I want to do faux here." What they really mean is that they want a nice decorative finish. There is faux and then there is faux. If you do marble, for example, it should really look like marble, where you’ll say, "Wow that looks like real marble." Or you can create a fantasy marble with wild colors; it’s not supposed to look real. If you’re going to make it real, you have to have a bit of understanding of the stone and why the veins are there and the layers. It’s the same with wood graining. There is traditional wood graining that is so good you can’t tell it’s fake, and there is wood graining that isn’t supposed to look real. Faux wood grain and marble are both good ideas when you want the look in a place where it’s not practical to install the real material.

It seems as if Venetian plaster is being talked about a lot these days.
I’ve been talking about Venetian plaster for 10 years and suddenly it’s like a big thing because it’s dropped full-blown on the marketplace. I look at it as just another option. There are lots of different ways of doing it. I did Venetian plaster on a San Francisco tea shop. The walls were old and we covered them up with a troweled finish. The base was a dark, dark chocolate brown, then a red, then a wax on it. The rest of the walls are done in a raw-silk-like finish that is kind of shimmery. It’s a really beautiful finish that you roll on and use a big brush to pull through it and it creates the look of the bumps and slubs of silk.

Can people do these decorative finishes by themselves?
It’s not rocket science, and there are kits available today. But it’s very important to make sample boards and to practice. You need to get familiar with the material and the technique. Because once you get something like texture on your wall, you’ve got it! You have to remember, though, that the physicalness of doing a finish can vary tremendously among people. If more than one person is going to be working on the finish, it’s better to have one person do one level of application and then another person do another level. If you work side by side there is going to be a discernable difference in style.

Why are some people so afraid of using color?
It’s not uncommon that people have had a bad color experience and that’s made them afraid. They go from all white to picking a color that is too strong. Then they water it down and it’s too pastel, too minty. There are lots of ways to mix color so it’s strong but not scary. I have to teach people to embrace color and make it their friend.

Anne Krueger is the editor of's Decorating newsletter. She has written for In Style, This Old House, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times.

Advertisement will not be printed