When I first met Elisa Stancil, she was painting two walls of a library to look like richly grained dark mahogany. Though the San Francisco decorative painter charges thousands of dollars a week, depending on how many assistants she works with, faux marble and faux wood finishes can be far less costly than the real material, whether it’s wood or marble, noted the interior designer who had commissioned Stancil for the library. In fact, a marquetry wood floor that Stancil and crew painted for a client looked so real that a wood flooring company asked if they could copy it. “Now that was a compliment,” says Stancil. Not that she needs to rely on that sort of compliment.
The fact that she has worked on some famous residences with American decorating legend Mark Hampton and now is regularly commissioned by San Francisco’s two most illustrious interior designers, Paul Wiseman and Suzanne Tucker, is a testament to Stancil’s skills as a decorative painter.
Stancil started her painting career almost 20 years ago, after a several-year stint buying and restoring houses. “That’s when I learned about styles and periods in decorative arts and about painting techniques,” she says. Her first important project was the Manhattan apartment of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg, and one of her challenges was to change the pea green color on the dining room walls. “I came up with a Rembrandt-like tone by first applying a hunter green, then an oxford brown that I pressed into the wall with the brush,” recounts Stancil. “The inspiration came from Mark Hampton and the Steinbergs’ museum-quality collection of Old Master paintings. I’m very proud of that room [above left].”
One of Stancil’s numerous techniques is the layering of colors—in the living room of the Steinberg former apartment she used three tones of red (Venetian red, true red, like the nail lacquer, and blue red), one layered on top of the next. Another of her techniques is cross-combing a wall (above right). “It has a gingham-like look and a texture, and it very subtly says ‘I’m here,’” Stancil remarks. “The younger clients today are living in traditional houses with period pieces, yet they don’t want walls that look glazed or contrived. They’re interested in something more subtle, fascinating, romantic.”
Aside from being a faux painter, Stancil’s skills range from painting murals (the one below is copied from an original document in one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s period rooms) to handpainting a pattern, such as the one below right, which she adapted from a metal gate. “It resembles a quatre-foil design and has a Gothic feel,” says Stancil. “I like the drop shadow, which gives it depth and makes the pattern look as though the sun is shining through.”
One of the challenges in her profession is getting residents to understand the complexities of any decorative painting job, whether it's handpainting, stenciling, mimicking wood, marble or any other faux finish, or delicately applying subtle layers of transparent color to create a complex tone. “People think if they’re paying me $100,000 that I should be applying the base coat. But we’re not painters in that sense,” Stancil notes. “My job involves working with a designer to create the right background tones for the rooms in a house, and sometimes I have to develop dozens of samples for just one house, if it’s a large one. It's all about pleasing the client, which is so rewarding. One project I had was a Bay Area house with sad grey light in every single room. I knew I had to come up with something cheery for the master bedroom so I developed a juicy apricot tone, and the client loved it so much she cried.”
— Tamar Mahshigian