Pascal Amblard: Demeures Peintes

Detail of the classical mural in the Salon aux Pins, by Pascal Amblard

Internationally renowned muralist Pascal Amblard  has for the last 20 years been painting  murals and ornament in hotels, palaces, and elegant homes for an appreciative clientele across Europe and North America.   A graceful and intuitive painter whose exuberant work blurs the line between fine and decorative art, Pascal is   equally fluid as a generous and patient teacher of his craft, a true painter's painter. He spent many years teaching at  IPEDEC in Paris,  and is a popular instructor of mural workshops in France, Italy, Sweden, and the U.S.  Pascal plans to develop a mural program in his own atelier  soon, and we can't wait!
Pascal Amblard
I had been following the career  of  Pascal Amblard for some years when I finally got a chance to meet him at the Decorative Painters Salon of 2008, at which time I was  (some might say) uncharacteristically tongue-tied as I watched him joyfully fling red paint all over a collaborative mural.  For reasons I cannot quite  explain it took several meetings over a period of years before I could speak with Pascal as the fellow ornamentalist I knew he must be.  Creative, fearless, and inspired, yes, but is he really the humble  genius everyone tells me he is?

At last it is my great pleasure to present this interview,  in which I tried very hard not to ask any questions that might be  too embarrassing, to either of us. 

Demeures Peintes:  the Book
When news reached our shores that Pascal Amblard was writing his first book,  it was anticipated that it would be a technical manual of sorts, for the many decorative painters who look to him for inspiration and support.   Or, perhaps it would be a lovely catalogue of his past work.   However, to my surprise and delight, the book, Demeures Peintes, Painted Homes,  is a lavishly illustrated coffee table book,  a spectacular collection of site-specific work created expressly for this publication in some breathtaking architectural spaces.    Each project is presented with an analysis of the space, concept sketches, and detailed photographs of the rooms,  transformed in unexpected ways. One might favorably compare it to some great trend-setting books of the past: Roomscapes by Renzo Mongiardino, or The Painted House by Graham Rust,  but Demeures Peintes is an entirely original examination of the process of designing for the room. 
A peek inside Pascal Amblard's glossy new book, showing the decorated "Library" of a 17th century castle near Lyon.   I don't have a coffee table, and I drink tea, but you get the idea.
Why did you write the book in this way?
There are many books out there that tell you how to paint a mural but, as far as I know, no one has taken real examples in order to show you what happens before you grab your palette and your brushes.  How do you create a mural, how do you adapt to a place, how do you find ideas, keep them or question them, how a projects evolves and lives, how do you adapt your technique in relation with your design and with the specifics of the place... all these aspects are fundamental but hardly referred to in mural painting books.  
I also wanted to do a book that would please the eye as well as the mind.
Ceiling in the Villa Claudinon by Pascal Amblard

How do you think of murals as part of interior design?
Ideally, the space is designed with the plan of having a mural.   But more often, the mural comes as a problem solving option and this is more exciting because it forces you to manipulate more elaborate concepts and acquire a deeper understanding of what you do.  Besides that, murals have undoubtedly a very particular charm. They are different from a painting because they are bigger than you, just like a film seen in a movie theater is more commanding than the same one seen on your TV.
Painted ornament has the same type of quality.  It transforms a room strongly, very efficiently.  It can create an atmosphere just by itself, compensate for a lack of balance or a lack of space in an interior, bring light into a dark spot,  greenery in an urban environment, originality in a room devoid of personality.

What do you look for in a room when designing something for it?
Each room has a proper soul. I know nothing about feng shui but if you are open you will feel things in a room. Once you sense the logic of the space and understand the taste of its owners you can let ideas come up and make choices. I think you usually have two options to consider, either harmony or contrast.
For the ceiling in the Villa Claudinon, I was into harmony; I just wanted to produce a nice piece of painted decoration that would fit into the room.

mural in the Salon of Hôtel du Maréchal de Tingry 
When I designed a 7 ft high Hand for the salon of Hôtel de Tingry,  I was into contrast; I broke with the convention of the cozy bourgeois interieur and I came up with torn papers glued upon one another showing out of proportions elements.

Which of the projects in this book was your favorite to paint?
My favorite is the Salon aux Pins. I think it resembles me.
I like a mix of classical and innovative, loose and tight.  I have some sort of passion for Italian pines; I think these trees are obviously intelligent. Other trees are pretty smart,  too,  but I think they cannot be so beautiful without having some kind of strong vegetal awareness. I have always loved painting them and for the first time I could devote a whole room to them. I also appreciate architecture and I think that classical or traditional architecture shows a beautiful sensitivity to natural elements.
Nature is a temple in which living pillars 
 Sometimes give voice to confused words;
 Man passes there through forests of symbols
  Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Salon aux Pins, room mural by Pascal Amblard
Salon aux Pins, detail: old paper visible through the paint
I also love painting quickly in order to avoid the trap of cleanliness that would have frozen the whole thing into formal classicism. I guess it looks like old wallpaper  from a distance but when you come close it is quite rough.  The idea of letting the underlying wallpaper show through means  decoration is not contrary to creativity. There is often more density and depth in objects or decorative pieces than in so-called "Art."

Which space presented the greatest challenge?
The "Library" (in a 17th century castle on the Lyonnais Slopes) It was a difficult to understand room because of the awkward restoration that had taken place in the last century. There was definitely a Renaissance style to it,  but it had been watered down. It was really like playing on a piano that is out of tune, and having to invent new chords to make it sound right.  On top of that I did the job during a freezing, snowy winter and there was no heating at all in the old castle. 
Thank God the farmers who still live on the estate are welcoming and have good liquor!

What has been your greatest breakthrough in doing this work?
During this whole process, I have seen myself instinctively solve problems and make choices that eventually proved to be inspired.  I think I am understanding what the word "experience" means even if I do not feel it as my own experience but rather like a capacity to let years of work and practice produce their results through me.  
Do you have a  favorite or most inspiring mural, or place?
Villa Valmarana ai Nani, near Vicenza, where Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico painted many rooms.  The rooms are relatively small and it is really impressive to be so close to such marvelous pieces. 
When you stand in front of one of these walls you know that, in this very spot, Tiepolo was physically present. I guess that conceivably some atoms of his body are still in the air and that you can inhale them. 
This is a fantastic feeling, some kind of compassionate and loving artistic anthropophagy.

A Tiepolo-inspired painting by Pascal Amblard
[Lynne's comment: I agree about the Tiepolos:  nothing quite prepares you for being surrounded by this work in its original setting. It's a transforming experience. "anthropophagy" - nice $50 word, btw. ]
What would be the ultimate project for you to paint? 
All right, let us dream:  I would like to meet a client with a pretty big space, walls and ceiling, who would ask me to use a classical language in order to illustrate elaborate contemporary concepts like the ones quantum physics has created  and relate them with the intuition that mystics have had for centuries.
This would be big enough so that I could invite all my friends to collaborate. And of course, this client would would love me so much that he would pay all of us very well for the weeks and months this project would take to prepare.
....  After that I would be really famous and I could keep pretending I am humble.
 [busted!! oh, and don't forget you will need a tall redhead on this dream job!]

Detail of Pascal Amblard's display at Maison et Object, 2010
Bonus pictures!  In recent years Pascal Amblard’s work has been exhibited at the fabulous Maison et Objet show in Paris.  Much of his newer work has been ornamental in style, panels mixing media, scale, periods, and styles, to great effect. 
This recently completed ornamental paneling for a designer showroom in Paris was inspired by the Salon Doré.   Gilding by Malek Moussouni.
You can see more of Pascal Amblard's work at his website .
Demeures Peintes by Pascal Amblard, (in French and English)  published by Editions Vial.

unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post by and © Pascal Amblard and photographer Yves Inchierman, used with permission


Barbra Streisand's Arts and Crafts Library

Barbra Streisand's Greene and Greene inspired Library
A couple of years ago I had the distinct pleasure of working with Barbra Streisand in her Malibu home.   My commission was for a mural in the Greene and Greene-inspired Library, reproducing a frieze of  rose branches painted by Charles Greene in the Thorsen House in Berkeley.
 As with the Thorsen original, the frieze is painted in oils on canvas and glued to the walls on site.  Each branch of roses was composed for the exact spot in the room and many details were added on site to achieve a perfect balance with the handcrafted woodwork and the atmospheric lighting.
now available at amazon.com!
Ms. Streisand was utterly involved with every detail of this amazing house, and has just published a book chronicling this work called "My Passion for Design."
There are huge color photos of each room, each decorated in a different historic style, including details, painted finishes, custom wallpaper, antiques, and commentary on the immersive process required to complete her dream home.  The book itself is an incredible document to her passion and tenacity.  
Equally fascinating are the detailed shots of the antique rose varieties blooming in the garden. 
Now that the book is published,  I am proud to share my contribution to this unique period-inspired interior.
The soaring ceiling of the library, with frieze mural by Lynne Rutter

In addition to the mural I also painted a set of custom tiles to create the look of volcanic glass mosaic, which were initially meant for the fireplace, but instead became a set of coasters.

<--- one of a set of faux volcanic mosaic tiles painted by Lynne Rutter for Barbra Steisand.

A detailed description of how I painted these tiles is recorded in this previous post.

all photos in this post © by Lynne Rutter   
except book cover image via amazon.com


One night show: Suspended Layers

Sierra Helvey has been a member of my team for some years, and has been lately hard at work on a group of her own fine art pieces.  
Please join us at the studio for a reception and special show (and sale!) of her latest work:

Sierra Helvey:  Suspended Layers
Thursday, December 9, 2010,     5:30 -9:30 PM
Lynne Rutter Studio
2325 Third Street #207, San Francisco

"For the most part my work begins with a study and awareness of realistic form, playing with it on an intuitive level.  I like complexity and distortion that occurs when you simply interpret something into two dimensions.  In this physical translation, there I find is great capacity for experimentation."   - Sierra Helvey

You can see more of Sierra's work on her site:  Suspended Layers


Ebony Cerused Oak - how to create this hip finish

ebony limed buffet, via 1stdibs

The last few years I have been getting more requests to "do something" with old furniture pieces, adding ornament, refinishing wood,  repairing gilding, etc. I love working on furniture and the special challenges each piece presents.
"before" orange varnished oak

One of the hardest things to work with is bright orange oak --- a tough one because of the assertive grain among other issues. Oh yes, you can fill it and paint it,  but why not find a way to work with it?
In this age of cheap laminate furniture, solid wood is something to be celebrated!

One project I had recently I took my inspiration from a midcentury piece of cerused oak, also known as limed oak.

Inspiration:  1943 Paul Frankl limed oak dresser, at 1stdibs.
In the sixteenth century this finish was created to help deter insects and rot in oak beams and paneling, by filling the grain with lime or lead-white and wax,  but after a while it became a fashionable way to lighten up and enhance the the look of the wood.     Cerused oak finishes  were also fashionable in Art Deco and midcentury interiors for  furniture, floors, cabinetry, and paneling, and is now once again very much on trend.
Note: I am not talking about the pickled "slimy pink" whitewash that was all the rage in the 1980s.  

A good cerused finish shows the grain in contrast to the rest of the surface.   High contrast between the wood and the grain is a really effective look.  Please note this is not a technique useful for any kind of soft wood (pine, cedar, redwood, etc.) nor do I advise trying this on any kind of plywood or veneer.

Inspiration: circa 1950 James Mont bench in ebony limed oak.

I found many instructionals for liming wood on the internet but none with pictures.  I like pictures!  So I decided to share the process of transforming this orange varnish oak piece into something more fabulous and moderne looking.

How to Make a Cerused Oak Finish:


Apply Citristrip liberally.
1.  Make samples!
Don't do this directly on a piece you care about. Always test an area or get some scrap wood to try out your materials!

2.  Strip and clean:
First, we need to strip off that varnish.  I like Citristrip for this kind of thing. Let it sit for at least  a half hour then scrub in the direction of the grain with a stiff stripping pad or brush.
raising the grain with a brass brush
Once you have removed all of the varnish,  rinse the wood thoroughly with water.

3. Raise the Grain

While the wood is still damp, scrub lightly with a brass brush. Brass will not discolor the wood nor be too rough.
If you are starting with raw wood, simply get it wet and scrub it a bit to raise the grain.   Rinse thoroughly, then let dry.

4.  Light Sanding
After the wood is dry, lightly sand to smooth out the top, and get all the dust and bits off with steel wool and/or stiff bristle brush.

You should then have a very clean oak surface with pronounced grain pattern.
Clean oak with deep grain pattern

5.  Dye the Wood Black
Make sure your wood is dry, and let's get some color on it!
Do not use "stain."  Stain will absorb into the softer  parts of the wood more than the rest of it.   Instead you want to dye it. 

Apply the dye with a brush, rag, or pad
ebonized oak
Aniline dye will soak into all the wood evenly without leaving any kind of residue.
You may get it in powder form - like raw pigment but much finer ground - to dissolve in water or denatured alcohol. Aniline dyes tend to be opaque, leave no lap marks, and dry quickly.

There are also pre-mixed "super penetrating" dyes that use acetone as a vehicle and are very effective. If you buy this kind of thing, please read the MSDS carefully, and wear the proper protection.
In some cases you need 2 applications if you want to get a good solid color.

*****Note:  In this demo I used a dye that I had on hand, but check out this tutorial on how to make your own inexpensive iron acetate  to ebonize wood. This natural option for ebonizing wood  uses a solution made from steel wool and vinegar, and is an extremely effective and affordable way to blacken the oak.******

6.  Seal the surface:
At this point what we have is an evenly dyed, fairly matte, and absorbent surface. It needs to be sealed mainly to make it a bit slicker, which will make the following steps easier. 
tinting  some amber shellac to a clear black
Shellac is perfect for this as it will not build up or fill the grain, and it dries quickly. And if the shellac is tinted with a drop of black (or the same color as the dye underneath), it will add to the depth of the finish.  In addition to keeping the color from migrating into the wax, the shellac makes it easier to lightly wipe the liming off the surface while leaving it in the grain.
Remember too much tint will slow the drying time of the shellac and add volume, so use just few drops.

Apply one or two thinned coats of shellac to your surface and allow to dry thoroughly.

"liming wax"  my home-made mix of wax paste and whiting
7.  Liming:
Liming wax is available pre-mixed but I made my own by mixing clear microcrystalline wax and whiting (chalk).   You can also use white powdered pigment or lime powder mixed into wax paste.    Make sure the wax paste you use is a type that will dry fairly hard, and does not turn yellow. 

filling the grain with liming wax

Rubbing the wax into the grain and removing excess
Cover the whole surface, use a liberal amount of liming wax and push it into the grain with steel wool or a soft cloth.
Immediately wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. 

Sealing the surface with clear wax
Let dry thoroughly. You can repeat the liming if needed,  or go straight to sealing. 

8.  Seal the finish

To seal this finish you need only add another layer or two of clear wax, and buff.

Microcrystalline wax is made with low odor mineral spirits and dries quickly and quite hard and impervious. 

finished surface!

Options:   I have achieved this look using paints and acrylic finishes,  but I have to say using more traditional materials makes this far easier and the finish has more depth. It  feels very smooth to the touch and is quite durable as a furniture finish, and very easy to maintain.

You may also try this finish with different colors.   And obviously, the nicer the  grain of the wood, the more appealing the finish will look.