Painting a Believable Stone Finish
I value truth in materials in 3-D art making. But sometimes engineering and budget concerns make compromise the reasonable thing. In the proposal drawings for Gordon-Conwell Art Commission, a gothic arch would act as a visual unifier organizing multiples within. Lending its rich conceptual freight, it would serve as a link between the church past and the present. After a search for a ready-made arch, I came to the conclusion that in order to not compromise on quality and aesthetics, a custom 20’ x 12’ gothic arch would need to be crafted by hand. This was quite a daunting challenge in terms of both size and technical skill (see post on arch construction).
Several kinds of media were considered: metals, stretched fabric, paper, cast plastics or gypsums. But wood arose as the best material all around in terms of its workable qualities and light weight relative to most of the other choices. Additionally, it could be built in sections for transport and installation.
So do we then let the wood be wood? Stain it, preserve it, let the grain shine, or paint it? A decision had already been made to make full use of the space available in order to reference what the arch in history was invented to do – serve as an architectural element which displaces mass with volume. The gothic arch allowed not only windows in stone buildings but opened entire walls. For the first time glass replaced stone, filling the atmosphere with light. Therefore, a stone appearance seemed the most appropriate finish.
This to me was a risk. When trompe l'oeil is bad, it’s really bad. But in light of the potential positive effects, I believed that the risk was worth taking.
Here is a condensation of my process. First, the artist has to take time for quiet study. So I studied stone - real stone and photographs. Everything in nature has its rhythm. Rock possesses angularity in line and shape. Though a still element, it’s veining shares the jagged linear movement of lighting paths. Stone has a curious appearance of depth below its hard surface by means of value transitions in light and dark. Typical to nature, the striations and variation look as if they’ve been pushed around by water. As ice hardens and cracks throughout with rigid energy, rock too as the aspect of being shaped by water irregularly cooling to solid and cracking in the interplay of elements and temperature. The better able one is at capturing these natural rhythms, the more believable the effect is going to be.
The first coat was a light gray paint which has a stone aggregate in the mix. A deck paint called Restore found at most hardware stores rolled on with ease. It fills small holes and joints nicely. For the second layer, I mixed enough flat white to create a subtle tint to the gray. Using a sea sponge, I dabbed the lighter layer in an irregular and indiscernible pattern. Once it dried, I mixed another batch with a little more white and added a second treatment.
We’ve all seen stone patterning that is visually too intense. Some surfaces are not restful on the eye. I wanted this kind of stone to convey an intrinsic authoritativeness yet calm and quiet. Since veining looks as if it was acted upon by water, to emulate this affect, I misted the surface before painting. Then with a small brush, a flat black paint in jagged linear rhythms were applied to mimick stone. Then the black vein was misted allowing the pigment to flow by gravity. The top of the painted line was dabbed away. Because the brush-painted line had the potential of looking contrived, it was sublimated out to emphasize the more natural watery flow.
Once satisfied with the vein distribution, next step was to get a sense of depth within the surface. Here I simply painted over the existing lines, dark heavy here, light white there to add weight. Eventually the veins gave the appearance of recessing back into itself or broaching the surface again.
The last step was a unifying layer. I mixed up a watery white wash and dabbed it on with the sea sponge. This sublimated all veining and cinched the perception of depth.
Did it work? I was personally pleased. Believability for me would be the test of it’s apparent temperature. Stone always seems colder to the touch. And this arch is the coolest element in the room. Some say they had to touch it because it looked like stone, and others that they wouldn’t have known the difference if they hadn’t witnessed the process. The best comment I’ve heard so far was from a campus visitor. He said that he couldn’t believe that the seminary would spring [financially] for marble. So overall, to me it was a success and an enjoyable part of the artistic process.