The Class Connection: Dean Sickler

Dean Sickler was a finisher before there was faux. After studying decorative painting in the early 80s with some of Americas greats, he went back to college at age 36 to get a degree in art and art history. A working finisher, author and teacher, his technique and aesthetic are solidly based in tradition. This is a guy who plain likes to push paint and plasters around. His Dundean Studios offers 1-3 day classes on a variety of techniques and materials for both pros and novices.

Who taught you?

When I was trying to find some instruction in the early eighties there wasn’t much available. JoAnne Day in San Francisco had the Day Studio and that is where I originally learned glazing, simple wood graining and marbling. I worked with Grace Darby of the New York Isabel O’Neil Studio for two years in Dallas, Texas and she helped me interpret the incredibly dense book “The Art of the Painted Finish” by O’Neil. She taught me museum quality work. I then worked for several years under the guidance of a master conservator, Emilio Cianfoni at the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, restoring, repairing and refinishing furniture and architecture.

After a few years I realized there was a big hole in my life where art was concerned. I knew how to do traditional techniques like encaustic, oil painting, secco fresco and others but I just didn’t know why. I managed to get into the University of Toronto (at 36 years old) when we lived in Canada and got a degree in art and art history. As a mature student with prior experience, I was asked to teach a few classes in Materials and Methods, and a summer workshop on faux finishes and got paid for it.

In 2001, I was invited to the International Salon in Paris and was exposed to some really incredible work…, leagues beyond what I had ever seen in the States, in both design and traditional techniques. Since then I have been studying with Patrick LaHeyne, the late Pierre Lafumat, Bill Holgate, Yannick Guegan and others. Just being around masters such as Michel Nadai, Gert Jan-Nisse, Simon Pasini, Pascal Amblard, Sean Crosby, Pierre Finkelstein and others keeps me on my toes always reaching beyond what I am capable of doing.

Who inspires you?

Everybody and everything. I look at a tree or an old door knob and get inspired. It can make walking with me a trial. In terms of intelligent design; Jean Dunand: His Life and Works, the artist Andy Goldsworthy, anything Japanese, modern French and Italian. John Fowler and contemporary designers such as Bunny Williams and Rose Tarlow always charge my battery. Melanie Royals is always a step ahead of everybody else with her designs and so is Kathy Carrol with her techniques. Working in New York inspires me to look at the present and future of design but my feet are pretty much planted in the traditional past.

What do you get out of teaching?

A wise man once said; “the thought process is never complete without articulation”. If you cannot articulate clearly what you understand, you do not really understand it or maybe it is flat wrong. I believe teaching helps me to understand what I am doing and forces me to become a better artisan.

What is your favorite project or technique?

I just like to push paint, glazes and plaster around. Creating something out of nothing is the essence of decorative finishing and it satisfies my obsession to beautify objects and architecture. I would still do this if nobody paid me but fortunately that is not the case so far. I enjoy doing the plasters because of the aerobic effect during application and there is something about the physical effort in creating visual movement is appealing to me right now. Wood graining and marbling are always favorites.

How have your projects/products changed in the last 5 years?

I have always taught and believed in subtlety when it comes to wall finishes but the last 10 years have seen finishes get very dramatic and overpowering. It’s all you see when you walk into a room. It has become so clichéd that I have seen designers cringe at the word “faux”. People are looking for natural or “Earth Friendly” finishes. Subtle marmorinos and lightly polished venetian plasters have become very popular as well as textures with an off white to gray pearl luster. Once in a while I get lucky and can do a color but it is becoming rare. Soft pearl metallics, patterns and ornamental designs are also big right now. Products have not changed very much in the last five years but we have lost quite a few manufacturers.

Please describe your classes/schools including the practical applications to what you are teaching.

I think our model of one, two and three day classes will remain because it seems that is what people can afford right now. I am actually shrinking some classes from three days to two days to make them more affordable. We can do this because I just installed two large drying cabinets so we can apply two or three coats of texture in a day. In our basic Faux Design and Stenciling courses, we work on large wall and corner mock ups to give the feel of working in a real-life situation. Once you understand the basics of material control, it is easier to switch to different materials.
Did the process of writing a book change you
as a artist and teacher?

It took me five years to write and finish The Keys To Color. I have always been obsessed with the mechanics and presentation of color on material objects and have been carrying around a kit of pigments to every job site since 1975. It wasnt until I started to organize my notes and articles that I realized just how much I had been using intuitive knowledge rather than concrete information in mixing and matching colors. I was and am still amazed at how often a popular theory does not work in practical application. I had to keep revising my notes again and again until I was satisfied that the results were dependable.
For example, everyone knows that green and red make brown…but what kind of brown? It takes a particular red and a particular green to make a specific brown and then that color could go completely off if you view it under a different light. That is why I start off the book with a chapter on light and how to work with it. An artist can work with just three pigments to create what they want, but a decorative artist needs at least eight and preferably twelve to quickly and reliably duplicate neutral or de-saturated colors over a large surface. This a fairly complicated subject but something I think is necessary for everyone in the interior decorating business. Writing a book about the subject helped me to understand a system of practical color theory that actually works rather than just intuitive hit or miss.

Anything else you think is important or interesting about your business or the industry please talk about it.

I would like to see some educational standards and basic knowledge courses recognized by our industry. I have been offering courses in practical color theory, basic painting knowledge, essential business and others for years but these courses almost always go begging. Everybody knows they need this knowledge to be professional but how can these courses compete against someone else offering a beautiful mural vignette or fantastic glass beads and glitter in a class. Creative people always reach for the shiniest thing in the room! If practical courses based on written standards are recognized as part of a certification program or follow guidelines set by trade organizations such as IDAL, I think it will go a long way to increasing professionalism in the field of decorative finishing.