We've finally caught up with the Mesopotamians, who are credited with giving up on plain walls and inventing faux finishes - about 5,000 years ago. To modern faux finishers, amateurs and professionals, a monochrome drywall or plastered wall is an easel. Using paint and a variety of other materials, tools and techniques, any hard surface - wall, ceiling, floor or countertop, even furniture - can be made to look like something else, wood, stone, metal and more.
The definition of faux finishing is broad and covers everything from paint and texture mixes that approximate other materials (most familiar are faux marble finishes) to stenciled patterns and the photorealistic freehand art work known as trompe l'oeil ("trick of the eye") that creates a realistic illusion - often an outdoor scene, as if you were looking through a window.
Venetian plaster: the gold standard
The modern root of faux finishing is Venetian plaster, says Annie Miller, a Tucson faux finishing contractor who uses a variety of faux techniques, but traces it all back to attempts to duplicate Venetian plaster.
"That's how faux finishing started in this part of the world, trying to emulate the masters in Europe," says Miller, who has been doing faux finishes since the early 1990s, most often using modern materials and techniques with her company Annie Miller Faux Painting and Sophisticated Surfaces.
Although there are dozens of faux styles - some emulating Venetian plaster's deep, textured look, others simulating stone, wood, metallic and glazed ceramic - Venetian plaster is still the most difficult and, often, the most expensive because of the labor and experience required.
"I was at a seminar in Las Vegas 25 years ago, and the man said they charged $35 a square foot," Miller said, adding that you can't charge even that much in Tucson today.
Fortunately, some of the modern takes on Venetian plaster are less time - and budget - consuming.
"When I started doing this they had the original marble plasters, now they have synthetics that take about 50 percent of the labor out of it," says Miller.
Clark R. Reeves, owner of Master Faux, still specializes in traditional Venetian plaster, but admits the cost - typically $10-$15 a square foot - puts off many Tucson clients. But there is enough business, along with other faux work, to keep him busy.
"It's just labor intensive," so much so that Reeves says he can't afford to do it for less, even when compared to the $5 to $7 per square foot he typically charges for other faux finishes - and sometimes for as little as $3 a square foot on simple faux jobs that require very little prep work.
Like Miller, Reeves said he does a lot of faux wood finishes, often on doors - a good way to make a secure and durable metal door more attractive and match a home's décor - and sometimes cabinets.
Reeves said he used to do faux finishes on concrete floors, making them look like stone, wood or tile. There are several companies in Tucson that do faux concrete floor finishes, including Rogo's Finishing Touch, probably the oldest local faux finish company.
Off the wall: floors, countertops, decks, too
Owner Rogelio "Rogo" Rodriguez said he started working by himself doing floors 30 years ago and now has dozens of workers doing floors and some walls, countertops and pool decks. He said faux finishes and the materials they are applied to have evolved continually over the 31 years he's been in the business.
Rogo's uses a proprietary resin and concrete-based mix to put a thin top coat on the surface, horizontal or vertical, that is then hand colored to create whatever look the client wants. The floors, walls, ceiling and countertops of the Rogo's showroom, 3535 S. Palo Verde Road, display the variety of finishes possible.
It's difficult to tell what in the showroom is real and what is faux-finished concrete and drywall. The company also offers traditional Mexican tile, brick, slate and flagstone.
Rodriguez said faux techniques continue to evolve. Rogo's latest faux innovation is a metallic-look finish that is applied to a patented light foam-and-concrete material that can be cut and sculpted into almost any shape, including bathroom basins. Rodriguez said the company has been installing kitchen countertops using slabs of the foam-and-concrete material, instead of cast concrete. He said the material, which weighs a fraction of what cast concrete does, puts less stress on the supporting cabinets. Other advantages are that it doesn't crack, as sometimes happens with cast concrete, and it offers exact color choices - something that Rodriguez said is difficult to do using dyed or stained concrete. It also can take dozens of faux finishes that can make it look like everything from marble and granite to Mexican tile and flagstone.
DYI - or not
While many of the materials used in faux finishing are available in hardware and big box stores, and YouTube is loaded with how-to faux videos, experience and technique remain a huge part of getting the desired results, say Miller, Reeves and Rodriguez.
Miller says some of her work is from people who attempt these finishes on their own, get in over their heads, and call her to bail them out. In some ways, she said, that's good, in that it makes them appreciate the skill involved.
" 'That's sponge painting,'" Miller says she's heard people say when sizing up faux jobs she's done. "I get that a lot, 'It's just sponge painting.'"
But Miller says she brings more to the job than an inside knowledge of various faux techniques. Her initial consult includes advice on color choice, as well as textures.
Besides help with colors and textures, that consult could include faux work the client may not have considered. Miller, like many faux finishers, sometimes tackles furniture, too, both stand-alone pieces and built-in furniture and cabinets.
One of the examples on Annie Miller's home page is a cheap particleboard built-in cabinet that has been made to look like mesquite. The cabinet, which forms the base for a wall-length set of open bookshelves, would have cost thousands of dollars and have to have been custom made, if done in real mesquite.
The extreme of faux finishes, trompe l'oeil, sometimes blurs the lines of craft and art.
Trompe work ranges from the sometimes crudely rendered scenes of cypress trees, red-tiled villas and sea views painted between brick arches on the walls of many Italian and Mexican restaurants to near-photographic detail paintings.
Rodriguez hired Tucson muralist Joe Pagac (his best-known work is the ever-changing upcoming bands mural on the side of the Rialto Theatre) to paint a mural on two walls of his office that give the appearance of looking out on a beach and ocean from a seaside home's patio.
And Rodriguez said Rogo's craftsmen have worked with other artists to integrate the company's faux stone and tile work with images on clients' projects.
To expedite work and save money, Rodriguez said Rogo's crews mostly use custom-made decals for the inlaid detail tiles and figures in the faux finish floors and walls they create.
An ancient European plaster formula and finishing technique using a plaster containing marble dust that is troweled on to walls and then burnished, and sometimes sealed and polished, to get a smooth finish that appears to have depth.
Ways to save money
Because some faux finishes, especially Venetian plaster, are so labor intensive and therefore expensive, Annie Miller says clients sometimes ask her to "do a wall that says 'wow!" and then do simpler faux finishes or simple paint in complementary colors on other walls in that room.
Or, Miller says, concentrate your budget for faux work on what she calls the two most important rooms in a house: The entrance room and the powder room, the rooms that make the biggest impression on guests.
• Annie Miller Faux Painting and Sophisticated Surfaces, anniemiller.com
• Clark R. Reeves, Master Faux, email at email@example.com
• Rogo's Finishing Touch, rogosfinishingtouch.com
Dan Sorenson is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org