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Extreme Ceilings

Decorative painter Tania Seabock creates an intricate mosaic ceiling in McLean comprised of 55,000 faux tiles

Extreme Ceilings

Tania Seabock spent four and a half months painting the central-foyer ceiling in this McLean home. This is the central medallion.

Think of ceiling murals, and the image that comes to mind might be Michelangelo's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, or the tiled and painted interiors of Istanbul's Blue Mosque or Spain's Alhambra. The painstaking attention to detail, the craftsmanship and the skill associated with such undertakings may seem the purview of another century. But for Northern Virginia-based artist Tania Seabock, whose projects include the renovation of the ceilings of the U.S. Treasury Building and residences in Manhattan's Trump Tower, the challenges presented by vast soaring surfaces and the execution of colossally intricate decorative themes—what she refers to as "extreme ceilings"—are part inspiration and part daily routine. "I'm motivated by the work of Renaissance masters, by the work of the artisans of Eastern cultures," says Seabock, who specializes in ceiling murals, architectural gilding, wood grain, marble and trompe l'oeil ornamentation. "I look at these amazing ceilings and I think about how long it must have taken to complete them. Why were they created at one time and why has the ability to work in this way all but disappeared? These historic accomplishments challenge me to create increasingly intricate work."

Seabock, whose family includes a number of artists, showed an inherent talent for art at an early age, winning numerous competitions. Discouraged by her parents from pursuing art school, she turned to mathematics, her other passion. However, a move to San Francisco in her junior year of college led to total immersion in the arts. "I was finally free to follow my own path, and I became involved in performance art and worked as a sculptor and mold maker." Her love of interior design and interaction with people led her to faux finishing. She immersed herself in the chemistry of paint and color theory, studying under various masters in the field in the U.S. and in England, and by 2000 she decided to pursue faux painting as a career in the Washington, DC, area.

"I am mostly self-taught," says Seabock, "but after several years of practice, I decided I wanted to pursue studies that would take my work to the next level." In 2003, she took a leave of absence from a thriving career and moved with her husband and their two-year-old twin boys to southern France, where she studied with Michael Nadai at the Advanced School of Decorative Painting, located in a village with only 70 residents. "I wanted to focus on honing my skills with wood, marble, light and shadow, and I wanted the discipline of doing the work eight hours a day over and over, until I didn't need to look at any pictures and could simply paint from my head," said Seabock. She graduated with honors in 2004 and moved back to the DC area, where she began focusing her practice on ceilings.

Her most challenging ceiling to date is in the McLean home of Fuad and Mary Sahouri. It is part of an ongoing project that involves all the rooms on the main floor and will include a number of ceiling murals as well as glazed and Venetian-plastered walls, faux-painted marble columns, wood-grain faux-painted doors, gold-leafed niches and faux Oriental rugs executed in stain.

For four and a half months, Seabock worked on the 25-foot-high ceiling of the central foyer, a rectilinear space that opens into an octagon over the stairwell, creating an elaborate mural with a central rosette and 55,000 gold tiles. As is usual with her projects, Seabock's design is her own, but influenced by the patterns and colors of Moroccan interiors. Detail is the defining hallmark of her work. "I like art that is highly technical and involves discipline. Once I have mastered a technique and practiced it repeatedly, my feelings come into play in creating compositions and a dynamic design."

She begins a mural by painting a background in a gray beige mid-tone, a technique adopted from 16th-century Dutch painters. This technique allows her to move up or down in value on the gray scale, creating a sense of mood. "When I paint, I use many classic techniques. For example, I paint with beer and pigment, or I sometimes use vinegar as well. I usually over-glaze my work in oil, which gives it depth," she says.

Sheen is the biggest key to this mural's success. Seabock worked on a matte sheen and built up to a satin. The contrast between sheen and matte surfaces creates an increased illusion of depth. "I moved my hand in a different direction in rendering each of the tiles to simulate the movement found in the shimmer of gold, so each tile is individualized unto itself. I averaged 1,200 to 2,000 tiles a day." She estimates that she will have painted 150,000 tiles for this project by the time it's finished.

"I'm passionate about repeated patterns," says Seabock. "My love of math and art intersects in the repeated pattern, composition and geometry that inform my work. There is a lot of math in art and art in math." The artist, who has produced four how-to DVDs in gilding, wood grain, marble and painting (available online at www.fauxwarehouse.com) is now starting to teach her techniques in various schools throughout the country. "I will probably become increasingly involved in teaching and continue to create educational DVDs, but I don't think I could ever stop creating my own designs and doing my work for interiors. The love of interior décor and houses runs too deeply."

To see more of Seabock's work, visit www.ceilingdesigners.com.

Judith Turner-Yamamoto is an art historian and features and fiction writer based in Washington, DC. Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.

The 25-foot-high space consists of a rectilinear area as well.
Seabock is creating an intricate, Moroccan-style design on the family room ceiling.
In the formal living room, she painted trim with a painted scroll and Renaissance-style fish-scale and shell motif.

Seabock's trompe l'oeil with painted shadows that mimic grout.

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