By Nicole Tsong

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE - For years, fireplaces blended in too well at Heidi Noun's Seattle home. One fireplace was hidden behind a wall, and another was plain white and drab.

At the suggestion of an interior designer, Dannae Howe came in and transformed the fireplaces into the centers of attention.

"It's clearly the thing when people come over that they are drawn to right away," Noun said.

Howe, a muralist and faux finisher, elevated Noun's fireplaces to art with paint. Both fireplaces were painted with the trompe l'oeil technique, which uses realistic imagery to trick the eye. Howe made the brick fireplaces look like they were tiled in styles that worked with each room's decor.

"It's a really cost-effective way of making a big impact," said Howe, who typically charges $800 to $1,200 for a fireplace, depending on its complexity and size.

Howe, 46, did the dining-room first, reproducing the look of valuable Batchelder tile on a fireplace that until recently was stuck behind a wall. She also painted tile on the cement hearth. A genuine Batchelder tile fireplace is worth thousands, Howe said.

"People just walk in and can't believe it's not tile," Noun said.

In the second room, Howe started with a bland, white-painted fireplace that now pops visually in an Art-Deco style that took about a week to finish. She picked a brighter style for the more-casual room that will be used mostly by Noun's two teenagers. The artist emphasized vertical lines through bronze accents that resemble metallic inserts common to the period. The fireplace's painted tiles appear in a neutral shade with a green, stenciled border.

Howe starts by priming the brick, then uses chalk, which is easy to wipe away, to outline details. For the den, she created a stenciled design for the green tile and added color variation to make the tile realistic.

Fireplaces pose textural painting challenges, Howe said. Brick is rarely even or symmetrical, and her brush gets caught on the rough spots.

But like walls, fireplaces can accommodate faux finishes as long as they are prepared properly, said Karen Di'Angelo, another Seattle faux finisher who recently redid 40 fireplaces at a condo complex.

Faux finishing adds character and depth, with choices as versatile as plasters that create texture and colorful glazes that add depth, including color washes and combing. Faux finishes are as durable as paint and will last years with the same care you'd give to a high-quality paint, Di'Angelo said.

"There's typically something you can do for almost any fireplace to make it look considerably better without replacing the whole fireplace," she said.

Visitors are drawn to Noun's dining room fireplace as an artistic piece.

"The painting of it just sort of added practical art to our home and made it a real centerpiece of the dining room," Noun said. "It just gives it a little personality."

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