Strokes of Genius


A regular guy gets painting lessons by watching two pros at work

January 19, 2008|By ROB KASPER

During these gray days, it is easy to be struck by a home-improvement notion. You are cooped up in the house, staring at the same dreary old walls, and suddenly you have an inspiration to paint them. A three-day weekend, like this one, comes along, and before you know it, you have a roller in your hand and paint splotches all over your body.

I have been there, attempted that. Motivated by a mixture of can-do spirit and winter boredom, I have painted a room. The results were, well, spotty.

Recently, I took another look at the paint-a-room project, but this time I tried to figure out how to do it the right way. I watched two pros, Ector Alexandratos and Nick Demopoulos of Ionian Painting. I also read Painting for Dummies, a just-released, how-to paperback written by Katharine Kaye McMillan and Patricia Hart McMillan, a mother-daughter team that gives decorating advice.

My education in painting yielded a few tips, such as the correct way to open a paint can -- gingerly work a putty knife around the edges of the lid. But I did not come away with startling insights. The keys to a successful paint job are preparation and experience. As Alexandratos put it: "Good work takes time. Ninety percent of painting is preparation."

His statement echoed what my father, a weekend painter, had told me decades earlier. More proof, I surmise, that kids should listen to their fathers.

Not much prep work was needed on the walls of the 30-year-old Bolton Hill townhouse that the two men were painting. There was no old wallpaper that had to be peeled off, very few settlement cracks that had to be patched, no walls that needed to be washed or sealed, no holes in the wall created by wrestling children.

The children of the owners were grown and gone. The painters noted that the walls showed little sign of wear from five years ago, when the duo had first painted the home. "You are not going to find an easier job than this," Demopoulos said.

Right away, I noticed a difference in how the pros approached the job. I am always itching to get the paint on the wall, but the pros were in no hurry. They went through their pre-painting motions at a measured pace.

Instead of moving furniture from one side of the room to the other, as I have done, they clustered it in the middle of the room. They covered the furniture and the ceiling light fixture with sheets of thin plastic. They then secured the sheeting with painter's tape. This blue tape kept the plastic sheets from moving, but it was not as sticky as masking tape.

When you pull up blue painter's tape, they explained, it does not damage the surface of what it was covering. Masking tape, on the other hand, is strong stuff. "Masking tape will remove everything except the wrinkles on your face," Demopoulos said.

Next, the painters covered the floor with dropcloths and secured them as well with the blue tape. The cloths protect floors from paint spills, and taping them down keeps you from slipping on them, they said.

Painting for Dummies advises that old newspaper can also be used as dropcloths, but the book warns that newspaper does not protect as well as the fabric cloth.

Once the furniture was covered, the paint cans were opened. Instead of a screwdriver or a paint-can opener, the pros used a putty knife and gently worked it around the entire rim of the can's lid. This opening method keeps the lid flat, they said, enabling it to close firmly and properly store any leftover paint.

By listening to the pros and reading Painting for Dummies, I garnered a few facts about paint. These days, most household paints are water-based latex, rather than oil-based. Pairing the two can be tricky. If, for instance, you try to put a latex semi-gloss over an oil base, the paint won't hold. You have to apply a prime coat of flat paint, Alexandratos said.

Paint, like gasoline, comes in a series of grades, with the premium stuff, the type of paint with more pigments and complexity, costing the most money (as much as $40 a gallon). The book and the painters recommend using the highest-grade paint you can afford. It simply looks better longer, they said.

The sheen of paint -- how shiny paint appears when it dries--is also important (see box). For this job, the painters used the same tint of light-yellow paint for the ceiling and the walls. But the paint had different sheens. The ceiling had a flat finish and the walls had a eggshell finish, which has a slight sheen.

The painters started with the ceiling. Painting the overhead section first made sense because the ceiling dries faster than the walls, they said.

Alexandratos painted the edges of the ceiling with an angled sash brush. The brush had synthetic bristles. "It has good spring," he said, and demonstrated by pushing the bristles down and watching them snap back into line.

A quality brush is worth every penny, Painting for Dummies says.

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