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Portrait of an Artist: Annabel Armstrong

August 13, 2012 8 Comments by Regina

There are certain artists you correspond with that you immediately feel a connection to and one of those, for me, is Annabel Armstrong of Surface.  I enjoy the way she perceives the world and once I saw her artistry, I also knew I had to share it on Fauxology.  She has a beautiful touch with her projects – they are both soft and strong at the same time.  She has strengths in decorative painting for many surfaces, including glass. We travel to Boise, Idaho to meet Annabel and chat about her work.

Artist Annabel Armstrong

Sometimes, our careers choose us. “I didn’t come to the decorative painting profession until my early thirties, after spending more than a decade floating around between various universities and continents,” Annabel explains. “At that point, I made use of a great opportunity to train under a few well-known decorative painters in the San Francisco area for a few years before moving to Boise, Idaho, to start my own studio.”  Annabel Armstrong founded her decorative painting studio, Surface, in 1997.  Even so, collaboration brings her quite a bit of joy. “Even after all these years of running my studio and working for myself,  I find that I always appreciate the chance to work for other decorative painters. There is always something you can learn from another artist, and the collaboration benefits everybody. Hence, I’m looking forward to a mural project in India later this year where I will be working alongside several artists, including Kaveri and TJ Singh of Los Angeles.”

(above) A painted motif with acanthus and oak leaves was designed to emphasize the architectural shape of the groined vault. Annabel shares (below) that all of a room’s finishes, colors, and textures are taken into consideration when creating a decorative painting concept.

Annabel, what are your favorite design and/or finish styles?

For a long time, my passion has been working with paint and gold or silver leaf on the back side of glass, a technique popularly known as verre églomisé. Ever since I naively tried to pick up a fragile leaf of gold over 15 years ago—and watched it crumble and disintegrate into nothing in my fingers—I have been in love with this delicate medium. Getting a crazy-thin leaf of gold to adhere to the slick surface of glass is a magical process that surprises me every time.

Verre églomisé is so-named because an 18th-century Parisian art dealer named Jean-Baptiste Glomy was known for selling prints with gilded and painted decorative borders on the back sides of the glass under which the prints were mounted. The term is a bit of a misnomer because it implies that the process was invented by Glomy, when in fact the technique is much older than the monsieur and not even French.

(above) Square columns in a restaurant were clad with glass for a verre églomisé project. Antiqued silver leaf and mica powders were used to incorporate the restaurant’s logo.  This project was in collaboration with Cathy Conner of Studio C in Seattle.

Verre églomisé, sometimes just called reverse painting and gilding on glass, has precedents in Roman glass, but it wasn’t until the medieval ages that Europe began to see a lot of reverse painted and gilded glass. Italian artisans seem to have been the first to work with this art form (at least in Europe—reverse painting and gilding also has traditions in Turkey, Syria, Persia and India).  Nuremberg and Augsburg in Germany also became real centers for reverse painting and gilding. A lot of glass-work came out of the Murnau area, near where my mother was born and raised in the Bavarian Alps, so I like to think that it’s in my blood. There’s a wonderful little museum called Schlossmuseum Murnau, which has a substantial collection of works on the reverse of glass.

(above) 23-karat and 12-karat gold leaf, aluminum leaf, collage, oil and acrylic paints, polyester plate lithography on the reverse of nine glass panels. To see them individually, please click here.

What are your favorite websites, blogs, and/or message forums on Internet?

The Textile Blog is a great resource and inspiration for decorative painters. The blog provides insight into not only textile design but all forms of design, decoration, and craft. This on-line resource has a massive yet consummately organized library of images with everything from examples of 16th century lace to 1890s wallpaper design. The video library is equally broad-based: if you look under Tile and Mosaic Design, you can view a video about Portuguese azulejos one moment and in the next you’ll be learning about Escher’s mathematical approach to design. “Like” the Textile Blog on Facebook, and you’ll never run out of interesting links.

What I appreciate about the Textile Blog is its broad-based approach to design, something that’s needed by today’s decorative painters. Too many of us are caught up in capturing a painted effect or in perfectly imitating something such as leather, without asking ourselves why we are painting that in the first place. Decorative painting has to interact with a space, and importantly, it also has a profound effect on anyone interacting with that space. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Decorative painters should be actively studying design and thinking about it in broad terms, not just about our little niche. Our work needs to be an integral part of the design process.

(above, below) Grottesca ceiling project completed on canvas with Nicola Vigini of Vigini Paint & Design. He let me do quite a bit of the design, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to work with a brighter palette than the one I gravitate towards on my own projects.

What are the most inspiring spaces you’ve seen that had decorative painting?

This spring in Germany I visited the Würzburg Residenz palace, famous for the Tiepolo frescoes but also for its Spiegelkabinett. A Spiegelkabinett is essentially a room of mirrors, usually consisting of panels with inset mirrors and carved stucco or wood ornamentation, and can be found in numerous German baroque and rococo palaces. The Würzburg Spiegelkabinett’s floor-to-ceiling mirrors on all four walls incorporate reverse painting and gilding in a Chinoiserie style. The room was built and decorated in the 1740s but was destroyed—along with most of the palace—during an air raid in 1945. Based on a late 19th century watercolor of the room, numerous photographs of the original interior, and just one surviving mirror fragment, the Spiegelkabinett was meticulously restored in the 1980s. The restoration of the gilded stucco ornamentation alone required 2.5 kilos (more than 5 pounds!) of gold leaf!

(above) Handpainted papers created by Annabel Armstrong and (below) is a detail of a powder room mural with the client’s favorite bird, the red-breasted nuthatch, in a tree, followed by a gorgeous crackled plaster finish in ochre.

If you could write a book about any subject, what would it be?

It would be about bacteria, if only for the chance to create the illustrations. Bacteria are such weird little things that come in wacky shapes. And bacteria fascinate me because they represent a vastness that—although literally right under our noses, covering both the insides and outsides of our bodies—goes by mostly unnoticed.

I’ve read that there are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a milliliter of fresh water; in all, there are approximately five nonillion (what does that even mean? is nonillion a real word? you can’t even wrap your head around this stuff) bacteria on Earth. I love the fact that they form much of the world’s biomass and can be found just about anywhere, including deep underneath the Earth’s crust.  They’ve evolved along with our digestive and immune systems for millions of years, and shaped their environment to create a better bacteria nirvana. That means: not only have bacteria evolved in order to adapt, but we have actually evolved to provide a better home for them. It makes you wonder who’s in charge here.

The mural in the image above was inspired by the frescoes in the Villa Livia in ancient Rome.  It’s the first work I saw of Annabel’s and it still thrills me.  I hope you have enjoyed today’s profile — please be sure to visit her website, Annabel Armstrong Surface, to see more of her artistry.  I thank Annabel so much for her time and for sharing her projects.  I hope they were a beautiful way to start your week!

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8 Comments

  1. Jeff
    766 days ago

    Great stuff! Thanks for sharing her with us!!!

  2. Theresa Cheek
    765 days ago

    Strong and soft….yes, that is Annabel…..(but that whole bacteria thing lets you know how her mind really works!!) LOL! Love this article Regina.

  3. Regina
    765 days ago

    Jeff – she’s amazing, no? Glad you enjoyed her work! Theresa – Thank you! I do have to say that I looooved her thoughts on bacteria as well. Thinking about bacteria in such a manner is just an inspired and thoughtful mind truly *seeing* the whole of everything. She lives it as she feels it and it comes through her work, definitely. :)

  4. Kaveri Singh
    765 days ago

    Annabel is the best thoughtful beautiful in many ways not only as an artist….Her work on glass is magnificent and important in the decorative arts. It allows an old and treasured art to remain vital and alive.Bravo

  5. Lynne Rutter
    765 days ago

    How fabulous to see more of Annabel’s beautiful work!

  6. steve Shriver
    764 days ago

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful artist’s work Regina! Annabel rocks!

  7. Barb Sato
    758 days ago

    Beautiful work! I especially love Annabel’s murals, so serenely elegant. I can’t wait to see what she does in India!

  8. mbwife
    748 days ago

    I am all about Grottesca these days having seen it in the Uffizi in Firenze and then meeting a great artist who has been specializing in it there. I just love Nicola’/Annabel’s ceiling so much and admire the generosity of spirit in this artisan community that celebrates collaboration.

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