Elena created this stunning champagne metallic finish with glaze work and highlights on a groin ceiling. Her clientele, which tend to be at the highest end of the market, have homes that often feature striking architectural details, allowing Elena to try her hand at creative finishes.

Experimental Faux

By Tammy Adamson-McMullen

From the earliest days of her career, decorative artist Elena Geil has never shied away from trying something new. She has always embraced experimentation—trying her hand at a new look, a new finish or a new technique.

“I love learning new things,” says Elena, who owns Urban Interior Finish in San Antonio, Texas. “I’ll see something, look at it for a minute and then go home and start doing a sample board to emulate that.”

Consequently, Elena’s work never looks run-of-the-mill, which is something clients have come to appreciate. Many of Elena’s clients are at the very top of the market. They call on Elena to create one-of-a-kind looks—maybe a metallic glaze in a doomed ceiling; crumbling stucco walls in an entryway; a custom mural in a Tuscan-inspired dining room; or layered Venetian plaster in a bathroom. These are just some of the projects in Elena’s vast portfolio.

“I’m fortunate that I work in a high-end industry,” Elena says. “These people want unique things and are willing to pay for it.”

Elena embedded vintage labels in several plasters and then applied
glaze. This was part of an extensive project, requiring many artistic
finishes and techniques, to create a Tuscan-inspired space.

Sure, Why Not?
Elena says that she has always gravitated toward art. She did well in art in school, went on to study graphic arts in college and then had a successful graphic arts career.

Elena’s introduction to faux finishing happened almost by chance. Elena had taken a break from her graphic arts to raise her children. She was living in an historic neighborhood at the time and had refinished a piece of old furniture. A real estate agent saw the piece and asked if Elena would consider doing similar work for area clients.

“The piece was unique-looking,” Elena recalls, noting that she had done engraving on tin as part of the finished product. “So I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”

From that encounter, the orders snowballed. But then a furniture client asked Elena to provide glaze finishes in her powder room and master bathroom. “I had never done anything like that before,” says Elena, who stressed this point to the client, too. But the client was insistent. “So I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ’”

Elena practiced creating the glazes before attempting them on the walls. In the end, the finishes were successful—and in more ways than one. From the experience, Elena realized that she enjoyed faux finishing and had a gift for it. She began reading books on faux, taking faux classes and experimenting on sample boards. And once again, the work started snowballing.

Additionally, Elena studied under internationally renowned artist Nicola Vigini of Vigini Studios in San Antonio. Nicola’s workshops covered a wide range of decorative techniques, from grottescas and trompe l’oeil to frescoes and marble. According to Elena, the experience was invaluable and taught her skills that she uses to this day.

Urban Interior Finish today includes Elena Geil (left) and Jessica Vanlandingham, Elena's daughter.

A Large Menu of Services
In the early years of her faux-finishing career, Elena worked alongside another faux finisher. Elena’s partner eventually left the business, and Elena launched out on her own, forming Urban Interior Finish in 1997.

Elena recalls that the most popular finishes at that time were Old World Finishes, which she provided in abundance, often combined with stenciling. But as the trends changed, so did the demand for new finishes. Whatever new finish came along, Elena studied it and mastered it. As a result, she developed an excellent reputation, not only for her artistry but also for her hard work.

Elena from Day One has concentrated her work in the residential market. Elena says she prefers interacting with clients one-on-one in their homes. She notes that commercial projects are often large and complex, involving large work crews and many collaborators. The process doesn’t appeal to her, nor does it fit with the niche she has created.

“Clients want to work with me, not with a lot of different painters,” Elena says. “I’m good at guiding other people and showing them what to do; but at some point, I basically just want my hand in the project.”

Today, Elena is joined in the business by her daughter, Jessica Vanlandingham. Together, they offer: glazing, plasters, gilding, murals, custom cabinetry finishes, furniture refinishing, stenciling and more. Elena notes that projects rarely involve only one of these finishes. Most involve a combination of finishes, such as glazes with Venetian plasters, bas reliefs with gilding, or stenciling with hand ornamentation.

Ceiling medallions are one of Urban Interior Finish's specialties.
The project  shown here features a hand-painted ornamental
design with glaze work.

Elena notes that a lot of ceiling projects involve metallic glazes or layered metallic coatings. Barrel and dome ceilings are particularly well-suited to this application; however, clients also are asking for metallic finishes on walls, furnishings, trim and other architectural elements.

“Metallics are so much fun to work with. You can make something appear more modern, dress it up to be more formal, or create something soft and subtle,” Elena enthuses. “Metallics are just ‘hot!’ ”

Many projects also involve gilding, which is one of Elena’s favorite finishes to apply. “I love gilding because there is such a finesse involved in it,” she says, “and it allows me to take something to a whole new level.”

Elena’s other favorite medium is plaster, and her product of choice, Fauxtex, which allows her to create the effect of broken stone walls or exposed brick. “It’s one of my favorite things to work with because you can manipulate it,” Elena says. “And if you happen to mess up, that mess-up can turn into something really beautiful.”

In providing these finishes to clients, Elena often works with local interior designers and builders who specialize in multi-million-dollar homes. These professionals provide a steady stream of work and referrals for Urban Interior Finish. As a result, “I never advertise. I’ve never needed to,” Elena says.

This silver polished Venetian plaster graces a client's master bathroom.

Clients, too, provide Elena with new referrals. Clients have come to trust Elena’s work—and not just the artistry of the finishes but also the fact that the finishes “work” with the rest of their décor.

To make sure she achieves this last goal, Elena initially interviews clients to learn what they want to accomplish and then looks carefully around their home to understand their style and design preferences. She also creates sample boards to make sure that she is on the right track with the client’s wishes. This process allows Elena to deliver the perfect finish.

Elena also relies heavily on her clients’ input to ensure that she’s delivering what they envisioned. She tells them upfront, “Please tell me if you don’t like something. If I’m not doing what you’re seeing in your head, please tell me. I won’t be offended. You’re living with this, and you need to be happy.”

And, of course, Elena will experiment over and over again until she gets the finish “just right.”

As an example, clients recently asked Elena to use metallic glazes to create a wood-grain finish on their front door. The challenge wasn’t easy, but Elena began experimenting until she found the desired look. The end result resembled wood but, upon close inspection, had a slight metallic sheen.

“That’s what the clients wanted, and that’s the kind of work I love to do,” Elena reports. “I love to be creative and to look at a project in a whole new way.”

To see more of Elena's work, view her portfolio here.

Elena created this lovely headboard from white doors, using hand-painting and decoupage.