- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Homeowners have murals custom-painted on their walls for many reasons and find the right painter for the job in many ways.

A Realtor or interior designer may suggest it. Or they might see decorative walls in a shop or residence elsewhere and imagine a similar pattern for their own.

Roberta McCain, the mother of Arizona Sen. John McCain and a strong personality in her own right, took another path entirely.

While in Paris some 20 years ago, she met a young Virginia painter and invited him to stay in her Washington home for as long as it took to enhance the entrance hall of her Connecticut Avenue apartment. He stayed several months, coming and going at will. She says she put no limits on his imagination beyond suggesting scenes from Asia, and especially China, of which she is particularly fond.

“I should have been born a Chinaman,” says the woman, now 94, a constant traveler. Showing visitors the curiosities in the murals that cover the foyer walls and woodwork, she points to tiny details in the work with the expressive delight of a young child. “I’m just crazy about anything Oriental.” She also likes the color red, which dominates throughout.

The young man, whose name was Garvin — she has lost track of his last name and address — was paid $20,000 to cover the woodwork, ceiling and walls. He applied striking patterns of bamboo to frame the entrance to the living room beyond and imagined both intimate and open-air pastoral scenes.

“I didn’t say one word,” she notes. “I didn’t pay any attention.”

Keeping her distance apparently was a success. “I just love it,” she says of his finished work.

Putting murals and custom paint touches on the walls of various interior rooms is something of a trend these days, especially in expensive homes put up by developers. Those extra touches give a special personality to residences that might otherwise appear sterile and lifeless. The trend is part of a larger pattern around the country that has people investing heavily in their domestic environment.

Homeowners are attracted to the idea of decorating children’s rooms to provide an air of fantasy that mirrors a child’s natural creativity. They often enhance the main rooms of a house to give the illusion of more space with 3-D trompe l’oeil impressions of the outdoors. Large-scale murals in dining rooms add drama to a communal meal in that setting. Almost any scene or object can be re-created on a flat wall in the hands of a competent artist.

The artist, in turn, benefits from the challenge of producing something new with each commission, since most commissions reflect each client’s taste applied on a different interior.

Decorative painter Christine Meyers of Kensington was hired by a Georgetown Realtor recently to apply colorful glazes to the kitchen and bathrooms in an empty $3 million home being readied for sale in Northwest Washington. The techniques she used there represent only a small sampling of the skills that make up a muralist’s art. These include faux finishes and trompe l’oeil.

She has completed residential and commercial projects, doing walls of two-story staircases as well as wine cellars and basements. One of her largest projects was using trompe l’oeil urns and greenery to cover the electrical transformers that were an eyesore outside the Leisure World compound in Leesburg, Va.

She has copied Dumbarton Oaks’ orangerie; done a takeoff of a picture by Georges de la Tour called “The Cheat” in an elevator — changing it to become a scene of dogs playing poker; and put a tortoiseshell pattern on the ceiling of a sitting room. She can make a wall resemble limestone, burlap or linen, all through paint.

The empty house project required her to pick a base paint for each room and then apply a glaze she mixed herself.

French by birth, Mrs. Meyers is a student of languages and a lawyer by training who has never taken an art class but who found as a child that she was talented enough to make pin money from painting on silk. While her Web site (www.frenchinteriordesigning.com) gives away her origins, she is open to many styles and influences.

Her normal working method involves showing a new client various sketches and photographs from her portfolio to help stimulate and define what a client wants. She then may provide color drawings of the proposed work to get approval before beginning. With some projects, she stencils a basic pattern onto the wall; other times she works entirely freehand. She charges by the project or by the hour — a range of $60 to $80. The latter is more fair for her, she says, since conditions on walls vary. An average mural costs between $7,000 and $8,000. Putting an Italian vista on a dining room took her three weeks, working eight hours a day.

The history of wall painting is centuries old, she points out, and once could be enjoyed only by governments and wealthy patrons. Today, she says, it’s possible for people of lesser means to have them. The most popular request, however, is for a bathroom or powder room. She once painted a fake window in a powder room that showed a person climbing a ladder to get inside.

“My taste is more French than anything else, but I can do Asian and I love everything from Roman times,” she says of a career that has spanned 14 years.

She finds Washington homeowners in general “very conservative,” and very Provencal and Italian-minded. “They want what other people have. What they love from Italy — especially Tuscany — is scenery and ambience. Provence because of the climate and [its association with] painters. They should want California; a California vineyard in a bathroom would be gorgeous.”

To her puzzlement, she also has found a preference for cows, she says. “A herd of cows or goats.” Many people request that she use a canvas that is as thin as wallpaper instead of painting directly on a wall. That way, the work can be taken with them when they move.

But with any project, preparation is everything. She uses only brushes made of bleached boar bristles that she buys in France. “Most of the ones sold here are from China and aren’t good enough,” she says.

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