Thinking outside the paintbox: Decorative painters on the Vineyard


While the variety of choices for interior painting has come to encompass more adventurous colors and color combinations, another way to get a distinctive look is to integrate decorative painting into a room – either as a full treatment or for accent painting.

For the imaginative homeowner, a unique look can be achieved through the use of murals, tromp l’oeil, faux finishes that mimic marble, wood, or metal, or even a unique type of plastering. Decorative painting can add dimension to a room, help to define a particular style, or set a mood. While there are products on the market for the layperson, for anything other than the simplest sponging techniques, a professional is often needed to create a look that’s as individual as the client and the space. To match the variety of techniques, there is a variety decorative painters on the Vineyard.


Artist, muralist, illustrator, author, and designer Margot Datz has had a decorative painting business for 32 years. Although she specializes in murals and trompe l’oeil (designs that create the illusion of windows or other architectural features), Ms. Datz says that she can also provide a variety of looks with faux finishes. For the movie “Message in a Bottle,” she transformed a canvas deck into teak (a technique called faux bois). One of her more unusual requests was to paint concrete to look like more interesting concrete.

Ms. Datz explains why clients choose faux finishes: “Sometimes it’s to cover mistakes. Sometimes it’s to antique something or make something look much more earthy and lived in rather than that cold contemporary look. It can create a look of earthiness and patina. In faux finishings it’s almost limitless what you can do. You can make anything look like anything. It can integrate surfaces and textiles. Four colors on a wall subtly vibrating at the same time can have an amazing effect.”

What Ms. Datz enjoys most is executing art on walls with murals and trompe l’oeil, since she says that this type of work employs her artistic talents to the fullest. She has worked on hundreds of homes and institutions and commercial sites, including two of her most recent projects – large murals for the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Y.M.C.A. of M.V.

Ms. Datz notes that her style changes dramatically from job to job. “The biggest compliment,” she says, “is when somebody doesn’t recognize one of my projects as my work.”

Despite the grand scale of some of her more notable projects, Ms. Datz also enjoys doing small detail work. “The scope of a job can vary tremendously,” she says. “I take into consideration a person’s budget and what both the room and the client requests of me.”

She notes that trompe l’oeil is very effective in reinventing a space. She says, “It’s particularly fascinating how it can completely change how you experience a room. A little room that feels suffocating can suddenly become ventilated.” She helps clients perceive an idea by first painting on a photograph of the room to be decorated. She says, “It’s boggling. It can effect how we actually physically and emotionally feel about a room.”


Keren Tonnesen, who is also an artist and decorative painter, also stresses the mood enhancing benefits of adding texture and dimension to a room with faux finish work. “There’s so much that you can do with color that affects your mood and changes the size of a room,” she says. “Getting more complex with color, you get different effects and different moods.”

Ms. Tonnesen specializes in color consultation and has an appreciation for the effects of multiple layers of different colors. “The most gorgeous, luxe fabrics are made up of different thread colors where the overall effect is monochromatic. The same principal applies to a wall,” she elaborates.

“I think that texture and layers are always more interesting than a flat wall color,” she says. “lt can be really subtle. It can also give a period look. Like a French country kitchen where the walls look like plaster. You can achieve an aged look or a period look. It can work with your décor and make it look more authentic.”

Multiple applications are the keys to decorative painting. Says Ms. Tonnesen, “Everything is layers. What you’re using is a lot of color and translucence to layer it up. That’s how you build up the look of marble or stone.” Ms. Tonnesen creates, among other looks, marble, wood, metal, and even fabrics such as striated silk and she sometimes uses up to eight or nine different layers of paint. After an initial consultation, she creates sample chips for clients to choose from.

A challenge is what Ms. Tonnesen enjoys the most. “The thing that I like doing is the repair work where I have to match something to something else.” For one client she mimicked the wood on some old boat models. She has also matched previous faux painting jobs.” The bigger the challenge, the more I like it.”

Small touches can sometimes make a big difference. Says Ms. Tonnesen, “I think it’s really interesting to just do a base board. If you have an elegant house that’s a touch that’s so classy.”


Jeremy Smith uses a unique form of plaster to create the illusion of textured surfaces. Venetian plaster is made of ground aged limestone and marble and was often used in ancient Venice as an alternative to using excessive marble and stone in a city built on water where weight was an issue.

Applying the product with a spatula or trowel and then burnishing to create a smooth surface with the illusion of depth and texture achieves the look. Mr. Smith says that Venetian plaster can be used over any wall surface – paint, drywall, plaster, masonry, brick, concrete, or wood, and can be used inside for polished marble or stone effects or outside for faux stucco.

“Traditionally, it’s more of an old world look,” he says. “But you can get all kinds of effects like a contemporary, mottled look. You can even get rusty metal.” Mr. Smith, an amateur artist, works part time at Tivoli Paints where he has samples of the Venetian plaster looks available.

Mr. Smith notes that the application costs about the same as tiling. He notes the many advantages of Venetian plaster: “It’s totally green. There are no VOCs and it’s hypoallergenic. It’s water resistant so you can use it in shower stalls and for back splashes. Because it’s lime, it has a high ph, which makes it mold and mildew proof. It’s breathable and tends to absorb carbon dioxide.” And, he notes that you can easily paint over it since it only mimics the look of texture.

With so many options for creating a distinctive and complementary look in your home, you might want to look beyond the paint store color wheel for inspiration.

Says Ms. Tonnesen, “If people have these gorgeous houses they should do something other than paint the walls white. I hate white walls.”