Given that his field is relatively rare, I thought Ben Lai would be secretive about the decorative painting techniques he employs. (Click here to see what those techniques can yield.) To the contrary, he has no problem with fellow tradesmen looking over his shoulder and even agreed to do some quick video demonstrations for Core77, which we'll have coming up.
The video demos took a little cajoling, but that had more to do with Lai's packed work schedule than fear that an onlooker could duplicate what he does. With nearly twenty years of experience in the field, he understands that his techniques are not something you can just pick up by seeing them a few times. "Half of it is the chemistry, the mixing of the paints," he says. "Even if you can see or do exactly what my hands are doing with the brushes, if you don't have the chemistry of the glazes down, you simply cannot produce the effects."
Before we get to the video demos, we thought some of you would like to know what it's like to work as a decorative painter and hear more about the peculiar blend of art and science that categorizes this field. Lai gave us the story, below.
Core77: Industrial design is such a broad field, it's difficult to adequately explain what it is to someone at, say, a cocktail party. I'm guessing your field, decorative painting, has the same problem.
Ben Lai: For sure. It encompasses a lot of different things.
Let's start small. What are some of the basic types of jobs you find yourself doing?
Some of the basic jobs that I do entail wood graining, painting something to look like a particular type of wood on various types of surfaces. Sometimes marbleizing. I basically produce painted textures to enhance a space.
Some of your clients are obviously super-rich. The first thing I thought was, why wouldn't they just buy that type of wood, or buy that type of marble?
Lots of reasons. There are certain types of marble that are extinct, and there are certain types of woods that would actually cost more money to get [than it would to hire me]. On other jobs there are existing doors and moldings within the house, and you don't want to tear it all down and put new ones in. Or it's a situation where you have a house that already has real wood in there, they added space to the house, and they want the new wood to look like the existing antique wood. So I come in and match it to the real thing. And sometimes it's a restoration project, where we are repairing something that has been damaged.
So, for the most part it's not just an economic issue.
Right. Sometimes I have to match something directly in the middle of a wall and blend it in, because they had to cut something out. Let's say they moved a light fixture and now there's a hole in the middle of a marble wall. Another time I had to do a fireplace mantle where the client lit a fire and forgot to open the flue, and it filled the whole room up with smoke. The mantle was this hand-carved stone from who-knows-where, like Morocco or someplace. The stone hadn't been sealed, it was extremely porous; so when the smoke came pouring into the room, it blackened the whole top side of the mantle.
They tried to get some folks to clean it, and it was a really volatile process, some guy has to spray chemicals and you'd have to clear out of the room for four days with no guarantee it would work. So instead they hired me to go in there, base it out and repaint it to look exactly like what it used to look like.
You sound pretty cavalier about what type of stone it was. Doesn't your job require you to memorize like, hundreds of different kinds of materials?
Had you ever worked with that particular type of stone before?
No. A lot of my work is improvisation, every job is completely different. To be a good decorative painter, well, it's hard to do anything by the book. Every job requires a different set of tools, a different set of colors, and a different technique. When I walked into that job I'd never seen that kind of stone before. That's true of a lot of jobs I go on, where I've probably never seen that material that I'm matching.
And yet you can reproduce it.
That's part of my trade. Part of being a good decorative painter requires you to be a great color mixer, it's probably the most important skill in decorative painting. You need to match color to, like—I don't even know how you measure color scientifically, a spectrometer or whatever it is; you've got to match it perfectly.
That being the case, you would think they'd invent a camera-machine to perfectly match color instead of leaving it up to the human eye.
Well, matching colors is always tricky because, let's say if you're taking marble or wood, every angle you look at it from, it looks a little bit different. Here's a piece of wood, from this angle it looks a little bit greener, from another angle it looks more red—which color do you pick? So as an artist I need to create something that's sort of a middle ground, aesthetically. I need to be able to see, as an artist, how to do that.
The field also requires a fair bit of science, no?
Absolutely. The technical aspect of decorative painting is all chemistry. You have a certain color to match, so you've got to mix something and get, you know, the right amount of blues, the right amount of greens or umbers in it. You need to be able to mix any shade of millions of color possibilities and combinations.
So you've never been tempted to use a technological solution to do color matching?
No. You cannot do it. I mean, all paint stores actually have a machine that can read colors—you go to Home Depot, or Benjamin Moore, you bring in a little fabric swatch. And the computer scans it, gives you a digital readout of the color and they mix it for you. In my experience, I've never seen a successful scan of a swatch.
And what do you attribute that to?
Just the complexity of materials. Another thing is lighting and how a particular color or material looks in your space—how the color corresponds with the things in your room. And that's very important. If your ceiling is painted a warm white or a cool white, it affects the color of your wall. Everything within a room affects the color of the painting.
What are the base materials that you're working with to mix these colors, what kinds of paints do you use?
Because I have a fair amount of experience, I've learned to use all types of mediums. I think I could go to a supermarket and find something to paint with. But basically, there is oil-based, water-based and alcohol-based. And then you may get something really awkward like lacquer thinner-based or acetone-based, but those are more rare.
Having an understanding of the basic three is probably what makes me successful at the chemistry part of what I do. Because every situation you encounter requires you to use something different.
Okay: Oil-based. The reason you would use oil is if you need more "open" time with what you're doing. Oil is the slowest drying medium so it gives you a lot of time to do what you need to do. So let's say I'm doing a painted texture that will cover a twenty-foot wall, I need it to dry as slow as possible. So that I don't have stop marks and overlapping marks when I'm applying the paint. Water-based would dry so fast that you would see start and stop marks and overlapping brush strokes.
So if you used water-based, by looking at that twenty-foot wall the viewer would be able to tell when you took a lunch break.
Exactly. If for some reason you had to do a wall that size in water-base, you would probably need four teams of two people. Whereas if you do it in oil-base, you could probably get by with one team of three.
Water-base is nice because it dries really fast. For instance if you're stenciling a border or an overall wall pattern, you want it to dry fast so that you can get three or four coats done in one day. Oil base, you need an overnight dry.
Alcohol-base products are very tricky and I can confidently say that not too many people know how to use them. They dry instantly. I might use it as a first coat if I'm doing wood graining and I want the background nuance-y colors of some browns and mauves, right before I do some graining on top on the surface. I'd do an alcohol-base glaze, it would dry literally in like five minutes, and then I'd start graining on top of that immediately.
I understand oil-base paint is coming under fire for environmental reasons.
I learned everything in oil-base, but the wave of the future is probably water-base marbleizing. Today they are trying to phase out oil-base, with all the VOC laws everything is being converted to water-base. As a good decorative painter you need to evolve and develop new techniques, so learning water-base mediums is not only important for the longevity of my career, but also for [flexibility] depending on the project that we're doing.
For instance, if I do a water-base marbleizing, I could do four layers in one day. Whereas oil-base marbleizing, I've got to do four layers in four different days. So that's where water-base comes in. Also, oil-base yellows a lot, water base does not. With certain techniques you don't care if the surface yellows, like with really dark woods. If it ambers over time it might even look better. But if you're doing a white marble, you don't want that mustard yellow turning up later. So, that could be an issue.
The chemistry behind which type to use sounds clearly scientific. Can you discuss some of the more artistic aspects of the techniques?
Well, in order to achieve the effects that we are trying to get, it's about doing lots of transparent layers of paint. Very few jobs require you to use opaque paints. If you look at a piece of wood it's not just a brown, you can't just take brown paint and slap it on a surface and get a piece of wood. Within wood you would have the undertone, which is at least three different tones. You have the pores in the wood. Then you have the top graining, and then you have the finish coat. All of these different layers create complexity.
Same thing with marble. Depending on the type you could have three or four layers of just veining. Even with wall textures and doing plasters, the greatest finishes are created by doing several layers. So in this field it's important to understand transparencies and how to mix different types of media.
On one level, science is about achieving predictable results in a controlled environment, whereas art is about creating something much more personal and individual. How do these two things intersect when you're doing a job?
I'll put it this way: I often wonder how people can learn out of a book. Because when you learn out of a book, it's all about following steps. And I've found over the years that my job requires me to not follow the steps. It's all about improvisation, like if you start to marbleize something then realize it's starting to go too yellow, and you need to change the colors really quickly, which might mean changing products.
What this means is that when I'm on a job, a lot of times the things I envisioned I'd have to do to get the job accomplished does not end up being those specific steps. I end up doing completely different techniques to get the job to look good. A lot of times when you're trying to match something, or you're trying to get something perfect, you need to develop techniques and quickly mix different colors on the fly.
Oftentimes I do feel like a chemist or scientist on the job. I set up a little table with all my colors and my media on it and I'm just mixing away like a chemist. I'll have ten cups of glaze laid out mixed in different tints in different types of products. I'll have a side of the table where it's water-based, a side of the table where it's oil, a side where it's alcohol-based. And then I just—you know, I don't quite know how to explain it—I just let it flow. I just get in there. And half the time I don't consciously know what I'm doing, it just kind of flows. I instinctively know what I have to do to get it done.
With a lot of creative jobs, I find there's always some unexpected thing you have to do that you didn't know about when you were learning the trade. For example when I studied industrial design, I never suspected I'd have to sit in on hourlong conference calls with marketers. What are some of the things you find yourself doing on the job that people wouldn't suspect?
Well, sometimes you spend two or three days just preparing for a job, on-site. What that means is sometimes you have to take things out of the space. You have to put plastic over things, protect carpeting, hardwood floors, or furniture that might be in the space. In a multimillion-dollar apartment I'm working in, I mean, a rug alone could cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I've worked on jobs where just the master bathroom, with the marble that's put in and the fixtures, it's a four hundred and fifty thousand dollar master bathroom. I mean, that's more than the price of most people's apartments.
Have you ever messed anybody's things up?
No, knock on wood! And that comes from just taking your time and not overexerting yourself.
And then you spend a day or two mixing colors. That usually takes a lot more time than a lot of people realize. Just mixing colors alone is time consuming. The largest amount I've had to mix was a five gallon bucket. The smallest amount could be like, two tablespoons.
And your work is often done under the direction of designers, no?
The best jobs are the ones where you get to work with the architect or interior designers. Because they're the ones with the great creative minds, they're coming up with all these great ideas. And they have vast resources in terms of trying to find different things to do.
So it's almost like they're an art director, or movie producer?
Exactly. That's ultimately what an interior designer is. They're orchestrators, conductors, working with the client to achieve a final look. The interior designer is in charge of hiring the whole crew to make sure the plumbing is done correctly, the electrical, all the outlets are placed where we want them to be placed; all the colors are perfect, all the moldings are in place.
Wait, isn't that the general contractor's job?
A lot of people think that, and a lot of people would directly hire a general contractor. But a general contractor does not have the aesthetic values of an interior designer. A general contractor is basically the supervisor who oversees all the trades. But the interior designer and the architects, are the true conductors. Because they know the big picture. They're creating the music.
In other words the general contractor is not ripping his hair out if the color's a shade off.
Do you only work with high-end designers?
It ranges. I work with small, low-end interior designers where we do modest priced homes, all the way up to the high-end interior designers where we've worked in the most expensive buildings in Manhattan.
One of the better jobs that I've had was for this divorced traffic cop in Jersey. He was preparing for retirement and had this crappy house—dirty, dark. His wife had been gone for a long time and his place was a dungeon. We took the job on to help him out and re-did the whole house. He loved it, and at the end of the job, seeing that smile on his face was great.
Do you ever have to deal with difficult clients?
Some of the clients that I work for might be [having us do the job] because it could be a tax write-off. Or you have men of the family who just don't give a crap what you're doing, they're only doing it because their wife wants it to be done, and they'll voice their displeasure that you are in their house. And sometimes you do jobs for people where they don't stand up to the designers, where they basically hate everything that's going on but they don't have the balls to tell the designer that they don't want it. And in the end, when you're done, they're just dissatisfied with the work. And it shows, it shows in their faces: They're just not happy. That's discouraging, when you're doing a job for someone and they're not liking what you're doing, for whatever reason.
With the traffic cop, he had probably the crappiest looking house in a neighborhood that was being replaced by mini-mansions. We basically did the most simple techniques possible to fit his budget, stripped down all the walls and redid the whole house, two floors. Simple stuff, texture on the walls, wood-grained all of the trim to make it look like nice mahogany, got him colors that he really, really wanted. At the end it looked like a million dollars and he was so appreciative—we basically gave him a new house, is how he phrased it. That's why I loved that job.
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Read Part 3: From Brooklyn to Belgium - The Origin Story of a Decorative Painter