Originally published in STIR®
A lavishly painted ceiling brings regal presence to a suburban study.

When interior designer Eileen Devine visited Radhika and Dimitri Gunasekera's home in Glen Mills, Pa., the first thing she noticed was that the central foyer offered a great view of the blank white ceiling in the adjoining study. So when the Gunasekeras asked Devine to decorate the study, the centerpiece of her design plan was a paint treatment for the ceiling.

As designer Cynthia Fisher, who assisted Devine on the project, says, "So many times a ceiling goes unnoticed. This was an opportunity to play it up."

Devine, owner of the interior design studio Devine Designs in Wayne, Pa., often looks to history for inspiration. She and Fisher envisioned a symmetrical design featuring a rich palette of colors that would imbue the room with classical formality. But she also wanted to incorporate elements that echoed the Gunasekeras' Sri Lankan ancestry.

Luckily, painter William Gordon, who has worked with Devine for years, had traveled to India and photographed the interior of the Taj Mahal. He pulled the photos from his file, and together, he and Devine created the design: a central blue medallion – or oculus – meant to evoke the sky, surrounded by smaller medallions and corner pieces painted in rose, which contain vines and flowers. Part of what's striking about the mural is that it appears to date from the same historical period as the study's antique furnishings. Gordon "aged" the colors by painting the base coat with Sherwin-Williams Cashmere® flat enamel, which offers a flat finish with a slight sheen, then covering it with Sherwin-Williams Illusions® Glaze tinted various shades.

These days, the view of the study's ceiling from the Gunasekeras' foyer isn't a blank white canvas, but a rich classical painting."A painted ceiling is high impact," Devine says. "In a room that lacks interesting architectural details, it's a way of adding interest."

Ceiling Savvy

Sheri Thompson, director of Sherwin-Williams' Color Marketing and Design Group, says that homeowners are willing to do more decoratively with ceilings because they see them as the fifth wall to a room. With tray ceilings and other variations becoming more common in new homes, the ceiling is a canvas waiting to be transformed by decorative painting. But ceilings do pose unique challenges:

Design. Ceiling design is a technical process and requires understanding of layout, composition, perspective and graphic arts, Eileen Devine says. "It's twice as hard to paint a ceiling as a wall," painter William Gordon says. Keep that in mind when creating the design – detail equals dollars.

Color. Devine always buys small quantities of paint and experiments on the ceiling, then evaluates it based on the light. "It's difficult to tell anything without doing that because it's a horizontal plane and you're looking up at it," Devine says. "Once you've completed the design and composition, you need to figure out which elements need to stand out. Those receive a higher color value."

Lighting. "In a dark room, you'll need a light fixture that provides enough uplight to illuminate the ceiling mural," Devine says. Forget recessed lighting!

Furniture placement. "If your ceiling design is symmetrical, with a central medallion, the furniture has to be placed accordingly," Devine says. In the study, the oval desk was placed directly under the medallion.

Ceiling height. "In a two-story space, you might use more-intense, richer colors to make it feel more cozy," Devine says. "For a room with a lower ceiling, intense colors could make you feel closed in."