Embellishing Interior Spaces with Decorative Painting with Michelle Kesselman
We sat with Michelle Kesselman (@meeshgoes), a decorative painter on the rise in Brooklyn, New York, trained in fine art, decorative painting, and installation. In March 2016, she graduated as a medalist from The Van der Kelen Institute for Decorative Painting in Brussels, Belgium. Michelle is regularly hired by designers to collaborate on commercial and residential projects to embellish walls and other surfaces. Michelle shares with us what she’s learned on her journey pursuing her craft in Belgium, the paints she likes to use, and how she typically works with interior designers.
Michelle – how did you get where you are today?
It’s been quite the journey! I’m originally from New Jersey, but I’m currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A few years ago, I left an office job to follow my dreams of painting. Although I had only produced custom fine art, I decided to take a decorative painting workshop to expand my painting horizons. I really enjoyed it and wanted to continue to learn the craft. A lot of research brought me to find a school called the Van Der Kelen Institute, except it was in Brussels, Belgium, and a little out of my price range. I really did not want to give up, so after being accepted, I deferred for a year and packed a backpack to work on farms in California to save up. With the money I made on the farms, plus some help from my family, I was able to attend the the Van Der Kelen Institute the following year.
What is decorative painting exactly?
Decorative painting has been done for centuries. It’s a technique-oriented art form where the artist is essentially embellishing surfaces with paint and other mediums. Whether it’s creating finishes to look like wood or marble to cool and unique wall designs or murals, the aesthetics are limitless (which is why I love it!).
How did your professional training in Belgium influence your current process?
My training in Belgium laid a crucial foundation for me to carry on in New York. I like to put a new twist to the finishes while still honoring these ancient techniques. This has also been a way for me to express myself. This intensive school taught me the importance of attention to detail and dedication to the craft. The experience allowed me to develop a true appreciation for decorative painting, as well as major gratitude for being part of such a niche community.
You are based in Brooklyn – how does the scene in Brooklyn impact your creative vision?
Brooklyn is alive with creativity, art, and style. I find inspiration just by walking down the street. Being able to work in New York City has opened many doors. There are so many different ways to use decorative painting, whether it is painting residential and commercial interiors, set design to window display. It’s also allowed me to work in installation as well as incorporate it into fine art. It’s been fun to experiment.
Can you walk us through your creative process, from inspiration to finish?
After discussing the vision with the client and/or the designer, I bring them a sample to match the idea. Whether matching fabric, bringing new walls to life, or painting furniture, it’s really feeling out each surface to see where things will work compositionally. You must always take a step back to see the whole picture. I thrive on collaboration and love to join designers and clients in their creative process. There are occasions where the designers will defer to my expertise, while keeping their vision in mind.
Which paints do you like to use and why?
It really depends on the surface I am working on. Acrylics are used mostly nowadays. Golden (formerly Proceed) and Polyvine have wonderful products made especially for decorative painting. Every so often, I use oil on surfaces because it allows for more open time.
What are some modern ways to paint marbling and faux bois?
Marbling and faux bois can be done anywhere; foyers, flooring, fireplaces and accent walls. I have experienced clients redecorating their older homes. Whether you are gutting and decorating modern, to fixing old areas with a need for faux to match exactly. This is the fun part because working with designers really gets the creativity flowing! I have also painted anything from lamp shades, picture frames, to canvas pieces!
Who are some other decorative painters you admire?
My teachers at the Van der Kelen Institute and my friend/mentor Jon Smith. Denise Van der Kelen is a magician with a paint brush and it was truly an honor to learn from her and observe her. Jon is quite talented and has been in the business for many years and is always there for advice or to exchange ideas.
What project have you worked on recently that you are particularly proud of?
I just finished a whole 2nd floor in Alpine, New Jersey. The client wanted the second floor to match the first floor that they just had redone. Instead of gutting the second floor, they had it sanded and I painted it to match the first floor exactly. It was a smoked white oak which included the floor, two stairways and the bannisters. The turnout is beautiful and the project was fun for me, as oak is my favorite type of wood to paint.
How do you typically work with interior designers?
Many times the designer has seen my previous work and would like me to reproduce that in a space, altering colors or pattern. Other times, the designer will show me their vision, whether it be a photo, fabrics, matching furniture, etc., and together we will determine what can work best to bring the idea to fruition.
Can you offer interior designers some tips on how to help their clients get comfortable with the idea of decorative painting in a space?
Interior designers should meet with the client with samples from the decorative painter, as well as photographs for inspiration. If the client likes what they see, they should then meet with the decorative painter so they can explain the process and allow the client to become more familiar with how the space will transform.
Photography by Brandon C. Tobin
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