Lamenting that the underlying stone probably looked much nicer, I inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) cursed the previous occupants for painting it. (I want to scream: "No amount of shiny bright red paint will make stone look like brick, dumbo!") As my husband and I were discussing how to update the fireplace without spending a lot of money, it dawned on me that I could probably create a natural stone look again. I spent some time browsing home improvement blogs and DIY forums, and finally decided to give faux painting techniques a try. I figured I could fall back on a simple monochromatic look if my art project turned into a misadventure.
My husband removed the glass doors and found that the surrounding metal cover was full of old insulation (probably asbestos) . We decided to throw away the doors and install some other kind of cover later. In the meantime, I had to do something about the unpainted bits of stone that had been hidden beneath the old cover. I used coarse-grit sandpaper and a scraper to smooth out the edges and remove drips, then applied white primer over the entire fireplace. I like Zinsser primer the best. It is a good multipurpose primer that is compatible with masonry. (Without primer, porous stone or brick will soak up a huge amount of paint.)
Following the primer, I painted a light base color on the whole fireplace. This base coat serves two purposes: it creates realistic-looking mortar between the stones, and a consistent base color for the "glaze" colors applied over the top with a sponge. I bought a gallon of Behr "classic taupe" in flat finish -- the kind without primer mixed in. (For the record, the Behr "ultra" with primer mixed in is not worth the extra money. It's thick and hard to use, and still doesn't cover as well as separate primer + regular paint.) One coat and a few local touch ups of the taupe were all I needed for full coverage. (Note: other light colors like grey could be used as the base color. Pick a color that compliments the rest of the color scheme you choose, and also one that is convincing as mortar.)
Looking at real stones and many fireplace pictures helped me select colors for the glaze coats, which are painted on top of the base color. I wanted a natural, subtly earthy look. I also wanted to compliment the oak floor and warm-tone cream walls. With this in mind, I avoided cold-tone blues and greys. I settled on five glaze colors: earthy brown, burnt orange, fossil green, coral pink, and light sandstone. Sample-sized paints were sufficient for this part of the project. I got two colors from the discount "oops" paint section at Home Depot for $0.50 each, and the other three samples for $3 each. I also picked up a multi-textured art sponge and some cheesecloth for about $5.
I channeled my inner 3 year old for this next part of the project. I smeared paint on the stones with the sponge and my fingers, and blended haphazardly with the cheesecloth. I wanted to create the natural color variations, veins, and imperfections that characterize real stone. I applied the darker colors first, careful to use a similar balance of colors on the left and right sides of the fireplace. The goal was to create a general feeling of balance without perfect symmetry. Real stones are never totally identical. When the darker colors were dry, I lightly dabbed the sandstone color over the top of all stones with a sponge to create a calcified, weathered look, using the cheesecloth to remove excess paint.
Later, I used Q-tips to touch up the mortar, and a paint brush to touch up areas of the (freshly painted) wall that I nailed with the sponge. I only used one strip of tape on each side, but that was not enough. It is very hard to control a big puffy sponge that is covered in paint. In retrospect, I recommend generous use of blue painter's tape and/or butcher paper on the nearby walls.
I painted all the stones and the mantle piece before tackling the big lower ledge. That ledge was the most difficult part of the whole project because of its size. After trying a few different techniques, I realized that I needed large "features" on this stone to make it look real: long veins, large blots of color, and sizable imperfections. A real stone of that size would not look symmetric and perfect.
Elegant in a slightly rustic way, this folding screen from Overstock.com added a touch of Old World sophistication to our living room, and was a much better fit for our style than the old contemporary black doors:
Project costs totaled $150: $20 for primer, $30 for base paint, $10 for glaze paints, $5 for a sponge and cheesecloth, and $85 for the screen. (A roll of painter's tape, drop cloth, paint tray, and a couple brushes would add about $50 of expense if you don't already have those items.) The work took about 3 weekend days to complete. I couldn't be happier with the results. The restyled fireplace looks classic and natural with a touch of Old World charm. It is deeply gratifying that a piece of my art is the centerpiece in our shared family space. As fall approaches, I am looking forward to wood fires in our newly updated fireplace.