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TRY DECORATIVE PAINTING FOR OFF-THE-WALL LOOK

A wall doesn't have to be ordinary. It can look like a marble masterpiece or feature something whimsical such as a couple of lizards clinging to its surface.

When it comes to off-the-wall ideas, look to decorative painting - a broad category that includes everything from stenciling and sponging to hand-painting realistic, three-dimensional images.Mari Lou Koning, who teaches decorative painting classes, says the art has been around for thousands of years, but there's been renewed interest recently in using it to liven up home decor.

"It adds personality and warmth," she says, adding the painting techniques work well on walls, ceilings, doors, furniture and floors.

Decorative painting is suitable for a variety of interiors, she says. "I don't know any decor that this wouldn't work with. You can go real elegant with it or go really country."

Faux finishes are among the most popular decorative painting techniques. They involve layering colors and using different methods to add paint or take it off. The result is a surface with depth and texture that can either warm a room or cool it down.

Faux finish techniques include:

- Sponging: A soft sponge is dipped into paint and sponged over the surface to create an informal, speckled effect.

- Ragging: Bunched-up material such as rags or burlap is used to imprint a pattern on wet glaze, creating a cloudy soft look. The material doesn't have to be cloth. "I saw a lady do a wall with black plastic garbage bags," says Koning. "You can do anything."

- Spattering: Paint is flicked from a paintbrush to produce a smattering of color.

- Color washing: A thin layer of glaze is painted over a base coat and then wiped off with a brush, sponge or cloth.

- Marbling: A glaze is put down over an eggshell base and then distressed while wet to create a marbled look.

Also falling under the decorative painting category, are stenciling and trompe l'oeil.

With stenciling, a template is created and filled in with paint to create a design.

"You have the security of not having to freehand the design," Koning says. The repeated patterns of stencils are most often used in borders.

Trompe l'oeil is a French phrase meaning "fool the eye." Realistic images are created by an artist with a knowledge of light and shadows.

"It can be used to manipulate space," Koning says, explaining that a small room can appear larger if a three-dimensional image of French doors or an open window is painted on a wall.

Trompe l'oeil is often whimsical - paintings of lizards on walls, loose coins on furniture, a mouse emerging from a mousehole near the floor or ivy growing out of skylights, says Koning. The idea is to create something so realistic that people look twice at the painted-on window or to reach for the coins that are only images.

"I painted cabinet doors in a kitchen where (the homeowner) wanted fine china that she couldn't afford," she says. "So we painted the fine china into the cabinet. You can have all the things in life you would like to have just by painting them."

Hand-painting without striving for a three-dimensional effect is another decorative painting method. A simple pattern can be taken from a bedspread or curtains and painted on walls as an accent or border.

Ann Malotky went for that approach in her daughter's room.

Koing painted a wall border and an old school desk using a flowers-and-bows pattern from the room's bedspread and pillows.

While hand-painting and trompe l'oeil require artistic skills, many decorative painting methods are nothing more than playing with colors and experimenting with techniques. And just about anyone can learn to do them.