The Class Connection: Christopher Winslow

According to one of my esteemed teachers, good trompe loeil has a sense of humor. Baltimore artist Christopher Winslows work makes me smile every time I see it always followed by a good head shake wondering how he came up with that. He has this uncanny ability to integrate the real space into his trompe loeil murals. From refined portraits to dining rooms with hidden doors to gymnasion walls, Winslows work is beautifully designed and impeccably painted.

Who taught you?

My father is a professor of geography, and wanted to explore the world with the family in-tow. I spent my teenage years growing up in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, then my father landed a visiting professorship at Trinity College in Dublin. So off the family went to Ireland. I had to finish high school by correspondence due to the fact that (in 1976) 40% of ones graduating grade was based upon ones Galic language skills. I applied and was accepted to the Dun Laoghaire College of Art (which was the best and most dynamic art college in Ireland at the time). My family returned to the USA and I ended-up finishing college in Dun Laoghaire, and living in Ireland for about 5 years.

My college was based on the Bauhause tradition which in the foundation year covered everything from etching to stone carving, animation to weaving, and all the basics such as color theory, composition, art history, etc. Each consecutive year we had to narrow our interests until the final year where we had a major and secondary discipline. I majored in print making (mainly serigraph, which has been invaluable to the stencil work I do now) and photography as a backup. I really wanted to major in painting but all the painting teachers in the school were only interested in teaching abstract so I decided to major in print, which was much more technical, and I was free to pursue representational work.

After art college I returned to the USA to conquer the art world, but reality gave me a good slap in the face. I worked for a year as a photo assistant in NYC getting great lessons on how to work hard and professionally, and how to be organized (two things not taught in art college). I left the commercial photo business realizing that it was a world I really did not want to be in.

I moved to Maryland to help a friend renovate an old farm house and picked up a book from his library that changed my life: “The Art of the Painted Finish for Furniture & Decoration” by Isabel O’Neil. That was in 1985 and the next year I had a commission to paint a huge hallway in an old mansion in Mobile, Alabama, including 30 cupids and trompe l’oeil drapery. I have never looked back.

Who inspires you?

Early on I was inspired by Vermeer, David Casper, Friedrich, George Tooker, Gustav Klimt, and all of the Hudson River School artists. And then I bought “The Painted House” by Graham Rust, which has been a wonderful inspiration and an eye-opener as to the endless possibilities that a blank wall can hold.

Renzo Mongiardino is a genius and great inspiration too, with his book “Roomscapes.

How did you get into this business?

In the mid-80’s there was little awareness of murals and nobody had heard of faux finishing. So in the beginning I got work through family friends. I decided to move into Baltimore city, so I took some photos of my work and hand-made about 40 folding cards. I took out the Yellow Pages and mailed the cards to every interior designer in the region, and then made some follow-up calls. Most of the designers had never heard of faux finishing. I got a couple of small jobs and then some more, and now it is 25 years later.

What was your lucky break?

I don’t think I had just one. It has been a slow growth of the right people seeing the walls and rooms I have done. I try and make every job a challenge, to see if I can do better, as there is nothing more deadly to creativity and the quality of one’s work than monotony. Your work is an advertisement of your abilities, so it should always cast you in your best light.

What is your “signature” project?

I guess the one room on my website that I seem to get a lot of response to is a recessed ceiling I did (a la Graham Rust) in which I used the architecture to enhance the trompe l’oeil effect of beams covered in grape vines. (Pictured at beginning of article.)

Which was your favorite project?

About three years ago I was commissioned to paint a historically accurate version of Washington crossing the Delaware River. I say accurate, because the original painting that is so famous, hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the German artist Emmanuel Leutze, has quite a few creative interpretations in it, such as: the flag is wrong for the time of the crossing, the boat used is incorrect, the ice flows are the type that form on the Rhine, not the Delaware River etc…..

This project was so much fun to do because I had to research the clothing, the type of boats used in the crossing, the correct ice flows, type of arms they would have had etc. I remember one morning in December, where I got up at 3 am and drove 3 hours up to where Washington made the crossing and photographed the scene at dawn, as the ice flows slowly drifted down the river. It was a moment I won’t forget soon, because I realized I was standing on hallow ground, made so real to me by all the accounts I read about the event. It came alive in my mind. Then it was about getting friends and models together to pose in costume. The challenge was to take all of these pieces of information and bring them together in a cohesive way to make the scene I painted believable. The whole project took me a year.

Ironically I made up postcards of the completed painting and sold a number of them to the museum store that is located in the park where Washington made the crossing. What fun!

Who do you work for?

About a third of my work I get through interior designers, which can be an enjoyable experience, when the designer respects you and directs you, but doesn’t bully you to show you who is boss (esp. in front of the client). I have done a few commercial jobs, and these can be a lot of fun because of their scale and in some instances the leeway one is given creatively. Commercial work is more about making a statement and not about if the mural matches the couch or drapes.

What are the types of work you do?

In the very early days I did murals, but I also did a lot of the usual faux finishes (sponging, ragging and plastic bagging) as well as stenciling.

I never understood why this was called faux, as faux was originally used to describe the replication of natural materials, such as marble, wood etc. As the world of faux has waned, the type of faux I am doing now has been around since Roman times, faux marble, faux boise, etc. There still seems to be a call for Venetian plaster .

How have your projects changed in the last 5 years?

I think they have become much more diverse. I’ve done everything from 10,000 square feet of murals for a school, to a commissioned painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware, to doing a dining room in faux bois. It’s great to not be typecast, as I thrive on diversity and a good challenge.

Anything else you think is important or interesting about your business or the industry?

Murals have been around since the caveman and faux finishing since Roman times, so I don’t think they will disappear any time soon, but I do think that unless we start seeing flush times soon, the market for product-based faux finishes may decline. I say this because when I started in this business I had to make everything from scratch, there was no product out there.

Then as faux finishing caught on and the market for it wasn’t just the upper level income bracket,

companies started to produce glazes, metallic finishes, etc., because there was a growing market base. Now that market base has shrunk an awful lot, as well as no design magazines are featuring or even showing anything in the decorative arts, everything is back to neutral walls and simple lines.

There will always be a market for us, I just think it is changing and shrinking and we all have to adapt to survive.