A Life in the Trades: April 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010.

By Abigail Watson-Popescu

Belmont Technical College’s hands-on approach to teaching building preservation breaks into two divisions: the construction track and the decorative track. While I learned quite a lot in my carpentry class this past quarter and found it to be good fun, as a student with a keen interest in historical interiors, I have chosen to pursue the decorative track. The decorative track focuses primarily on teaching the preservation and restoration of interior decorative work. This line of focus features courses in wall finishes, gilding and composition, marbling and wood graining, ceramics and plaster, as well as introductory courses in model and mold making and paints and clear finishes. As our director Dave Mertz likes to say, if you repeat the information often enough and there is enough repetitive practice using the information, it will hopefully stick once the students are out of the program and in the field. I find this to be entirely true regarding the building block sort of architecture upon which this program is designed.

In the introductory courses of Model and Mold Making and Paints and Clear Finishes, students have a chance to explore and experiment with a particular medium, whether it is molding rubbers, plaster, aniline dyes, milk paints, or the production of homemade walnut dyes, to name a few. These introductory courses allow us to plunge into the process of getting our hands dirty all the while learning the chemical properties of each component and media, resulting in an understanding of what works with what (and often vice-versa). This occasionally requires learning the hard way, involving extra work to make up for novice mistakes. (For instance, learning never to use a nylon brush for oil paints, or a natural bristle brush for latex!)

Dave Mertz also likes to say that students usually don’t believe they have a free hand to experiment (often because there is grading involved)—but in these intro classes, we really have been given free reign to plumb the great unknown (once armed with a great deal of encyclopedic knowledge from our sage professor, of course). This process of experimentation in the introductory courses allows us to really find out how the various media work for ourselves. Once we’ve got a handle on the media, students in the decorative track then go on to employ their knowledge of paints, stains, molding rubbers and plaster in more refined ways, with the end goal of reproducing historical finishes and plaster decorative features.

As a student pursuing the decorative track, I have, up to this point, delved into producing rubber molds of three-dimensional objects, from which I then produced plaster reproductions.

Mold and plaster cast derived from model created by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

Three-dimensional plaster cast from brush on mold by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

This spring, I will take my experience of creating molds and producing plaster casts to a more practical and applicable level in the advanced plaster course. In the forthcoming plaster course, we will learn how to repair and reproduce decorative plaster elements, such as the components of a plaster ceiling medallion, via the mold making and casting process. In this course, students will also learn how to repair and reproduce traditional three-coat plaster, as we work on our ongoing restoration of Belmont Technical College’s Field Lab house in Morristown, Ohio.

Plaster medallion reproduction from original, Belmont Technical College. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Another pair of advanced material science courses encompassed in the decorative track that build upon knowledge learned in the introductory classes include Wall Finishes and Graining and Marbling. Having taken the Wall Finishes course this past Winter Quarter, I found it grew organically from the knowledge I acquired from the Paints and Clear Finishes class. My final project for Paints and Clear Finishes involved producing a wood sample board, featuring various types of wood in a variety of finishes.

Paints and clear finishes wood sample board by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

I experimented with making dyes out of natural earth pigments such as Prussian blue, as well as producing homemade dyes from walnuts that I picked in the fall. I even went so far as to make my own encaustic paint out of beeswax and pigments from a recipe I discovered in The Painter’s Handbook by Mark David Gottsegen. I relished the experience of making traditional finishes, which allowed me the feeling of putting myself in the place of a historical artisan, even though I occasionally found it to be very hard and frustrating work (particularly in producing the very labor-intensive traditional French Polish!)

French polish on mahogany by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

This experimental introduction gave me a familiarity with paints and clear finishes that enhanced my creativity when it came to producing an interesting and visually pleasing finished wall in the more focused course. The wall finishes course taught me the intricacies of a variety of paints and decorative finishes, which culminated with the production of a finished mock-up of a room, including walls, moldings and ceiling. When it came to deciding how I would undertake developing a color and decorative scheme for my wall, I took my instructor Jeff MacDonald’s advice to heart: “Never underestimate the power of a limited palette.” And, indeed, I chose a limited palette of golds and sage-like greens. I found that choosing a limited palette allowed me more room to experiment with a variety of finishes to produce a visually interesting but cohesive wall.

Finished wall by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

In going with a historical sort of feel, I decided to depict a parchment paper-like effect for the main portion of my wall. I did this by creating a glaze treatment made of raw sienna oil paint, primer, and an oil-based glazing liquid, which I thinned out with mineral spirits in order to achieve the appropriate weight (not an easy task!) This resulted in a yellowish hue that was lighter than my gold wall. The weight and hue of this glaze would give just the right effect of crinkles of parchment paper, when ragged on with crinkled newspaper-weight paper. I chose another glazing treatment for the portion of the wall below the chair rail. For this treatment, I used the sage green oil paint of my trim, glazing liquid and mineral spirits, which I applied in a horizontal wave pattern using graining combs. Lastly, I turned to the traditional stencil (which I traced and cut out of Mylar) in a thistle pattern for the corners of the ceiling to add the finishing touch to pull the whole scheme together.

Top view of finished wall/ceiling by Abigail Watson-Popescu. Photo by author.

My work on finishes will culminate with the Graining and Marbling course this spring. In this course, I will learn how to create marbling, or stone-like effects, on wood using paints and glazing liquids. The wood-graining portion of the course will likewise involve the use of glazes and combing techniques to produce a faux-wood grain finish, much favored in many historical buildings.

I was pleasantly surprised by a wonderful and expansive example of traditional wood graining of the late 19th century while I was investigating the Italianate YWCA building in my hometown of Titusville, Pennsylvania for my building pathology report last quarter. The cabinetry and woodwork in the kitchen and main office of this building is beautifully finished in wood graining, albeit unfortunately suffering from serious damage over time. Seeing the damage to the original wood graining in this building has piqued my anticipation for learning how I might combine my knowledge of repairing the damaged wood (which involves epoxy-consolidation and sanding) with restoring the artistic element of the traditional wood graining.

Detail of traditional wood-graining in YWCA building, Titusville, PA. Photo by author.

What I enjoy most about pursuing the decorative track of Belmont Tech’s BPR program is that reproducing or conserving artistic decorative elements enables me to share in the historical process, allowing me to walk in the shoes of the historical craftsperson, as it were. While I certainly would not consider myself an accomplished artist by any stretch of the imagination, learning to preserve, repair and reproduce decorative elements allows me a certain appreciation of the work of the craftsperson at a level which I could not have had prior to this hands-on experience. In many ways, I feel that regardless of a person’s level of craft, having the experience of producing a decorative piece with one’s own hands gives one an in-depth appreciation of the level of skill and labor that has gone in to the making of so many of our incredible historical buildings. And while interiors might not be a number one criterion for the National Register (although it seems the tide is changing a bit on that front), I believe that the preservation of interiors is central to the preservation of the fine artistic accomplishments of the past. The decorative track of Belmont Technical College’s Building Preservation and Restoration Program cultivates not only an appreciation for the work that went in to the production of historic interiors, but also an ability to preserve and repair these interiors wherever they might be failing. In this way, the spirit of the historic artist lives on in those who practice and conserve their work going forward. As a student on Belmont Tech’s decorative track, I am proud to be a member of this movement.

By Abigail Watson-Popescu