Furniture Painting For Budding Artists

September 15, 1990|By Linda Lowe Morris

It's not often we get a break, not often we can conjure up the latest high-style looks in the comfort of our own basements. But that's exactly what we can do with the latest trend: painted furniture.

You'll find painted finishes everywhere on furniture this year -- everything from the faux wood grain and faux granite and marble to fantasy squiggles and polka dots. And then there's Southwestern folk art painted furniture and Amish primitive painted furniture. The current vogue for these has just seemed to fuel the passion for painted things.

While some of the fancy painted finishes are strictly the province of the professional artists or require a great deal of study and practice to copy, there are many styles of painted furniture you can duplicate in a weekend starting with a flea market find.

First you might want to collect some of the latest shelter magazines and design books to get ideas -- both for the current color ways and for designs. The easiest things to do are color blocks -- you might get an old cupboard or chest and paint the drawers in a color or colors different from the cabinet. Or consider painting the background a solid color and then adding lines and curves freehand. Sponged or spattered finishes and simple stencils are also easy. The best thing about being creative is that you don't have to follow rules.

Once you've gotten a few ideas, look for a piece of furniture to tackle. It could be something you already have, maybe something left over from college days that you've stuck away in some dark corner. Or you might want to go out hunting at auctions, used furniture stores or yard sales.

Look for something with good lines. Unlike refinishing furniture, you don't have to worry too much about the kind of paint or finish that is already on the piece. Part of the fun is seeing the potential hiding beneath the surface.

For materials you'll need paint brushes, satin or semi-gloss latex enamel paint and -- if you want to give your creation extra protection -- a clear varnish or polyurethane in a low-gloss or matte finish.

If the piece already has coats of paint or varnish on it or if it has raised grain or splinters from being exposed to the elements, you'll need fine and medium grades of sandpaper and a face mask. An electric orbital sander would be nice to have but if you don't, you can just make a sanding block by wrapping sandpaper around a small chunk of wood.

Stencils can be made from heavy paper, but the best material is a 5-mil polyester film you can get in flat sheets at arts supply stores. The polyester film (Mylar is its trade name) can be washed between uses or as paint builds up and it's transparent. You'll also need an X-acto knife and a cutting board for cutting the stencil.

(Stenciling can get complicated so you might want to consult a book. A good one is "Stencilling: A Harrowsmith Guide" (Camden House Books, paperback, $19.95) by Sandra Buckingham.)

If you've bought used furniture, make sure it's sturdy. You may have to reglue and clamp the legs of a wobbly chair or table. Then sand the piece to smooth out rough edges and to give the paint a good surface to grip onto.

Remove any hardware if you don't want it to be the same color as the piece of furniture. You might want to replace it with something new or just paint it a different color. You can spray-paint hinges and pulls using different colors of metallic paint.

Fill in holes or cracks with plastic paste. Wipe away excess paste, then let the paste dry and lightly sand the surface with fine sandpaper.

If you're painting raw wood, you might want to put on a primer coat. Otherwise just plan on putting on a couple of coats of your final color for good coverage. Alternately, a thinned-down latex on raw wood will give a streaked look that you might like.

Use non-toxic paint and varnish if you are doing furniture for a child.

One Baltimore couple, an artist and a writer, have furnished their downtown apartment with painted auction finds. A Hoosier cabinet was given a new coat of white. Then the slide-out enamel counter top was painted a deep blue and then speckled with white. To make the speckles, a toothbrush was dipped into white paint and then rubbed over a comb. A piece of screen would also produced speckles. Practice on a piece of paper or old board to find the technique that gives the results you want.

The couple also decorated chairs with different deep pastels against a white background. Dots, lines and squiggles were added freehand. (Again, any freehand designs should be practiced before working on the actual piece.)

A coat or two of varnish was put on to protect their work -- otherwise the latex paint they used might crack or stick to objects placed on the painted surface. Pieces that have been varnished or covered with polyurethane can be wiped clean with a damp rag, a good thing to consider if you're working with white or light colors.

"Most of the furniture we buy is just cheap furniture," says the artist half of the couple. "It's not like it's some priceless antique, but there's always something about it that caught our eye that we liked.

"The most important thing in doing that squiggly kind of furniture is just to relax," she continues. "Don't worry if you mess up. Don't worry if the paint doesn't go on perfect or evenly, because they need to look spontaneous."

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