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How do we translate your vision into reality, using paint?

Shadia Derbyshire


I was in kindergarten and you know how you learn about different professions? I remember there were flash cards, and there was a nurse and there was a policeman… and there was an artist. I was like, “Why would you pick another thing if that could be the thing that you could pick?” It was just always the thing that I wanted to do. I took all the art classes in high school, I got my BFA, and after school… when you go to art school, at least when I went to art school, they don’t teach you how to make a job out of that. You learn how to paint, but you don’t learn how to have a profession afterward. I went to Eastern [Michigan] and it was really more fine art, not commercial art, there wasn’t any business training there. I left school being like, “Ok, time to get a job.” I went from office job to office job to office job and I ended up working at a firm in Southfield doing administrative and web design. That was closer to creative; I had taken some web classes after school. I was like, “Ok, this is creative-ish.” One of the consultants there said, “I heard you’re an artist, could you do a mural for me?” And I said, “Yeah, I probably could. Show me what you have in mind.” I started googling “what do you charge for a mural,” because I had done some for friends, some small things, and I had done some decorative painting at my own house. It was that time when everyone was watching those TLC and DIY shows, so everybody was rag rolling and sponging… I was not left out of that trend! So this consultant where I worked hired me to do a mural and I literally googled how do you price it, what materials do you use, blah blah blah. And then a partner said, “I heard you did such-and-such’s house, could you do mine?” Sure. Love to.

The first couple years that I was doing this, I had a full time job and I would just do things on the side on the weekends and nights for people in my social network. My sister’s neighbor in Chicago had hired me to do her kitchen. This was back in the everybody had the Tuscan and the grapevines, so I was working in their house and they came home and it must have been like 11:30. They were like, “Oh my god, you do not have to work this late!” I hadn’t even realized what time it was because I was just enjoying what I was doing. That was the night that it struck me that it was possible to have a job that you didn’t spend the entire time waiting to get off of work. It was possible to have a job that you actually enjoyed enough that your mind was focused on the job and engaged in it, not just like, “When do I leave?” It was right around that time I had gotten a promotion and a sizeable raise at work, and I quit two weeks after. The partner that I worked under approached me and was questioning me about it, was the raise not enough, was the position not good enough. I said to her very frankly, “No, it’s all good, I just don’t want to get used to making this kind of money when I know I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t want to rely on this and get sucked into it to where I can’t leave. It’s better for me to leave now.” And she offered me part time and offered me this and offered me that, and I said, “I just have to rip the band-aid off. I haven’t been painting, I haven’t been doing the thing that actually gives me joy. I don’t like my life right now.” It was difficult. I was married at the time and our household relied primarily on my income, so it was a challenge for us, for me to just rip the band-aid off. It was difficult at first, building a client base and learning skills and trying to figure out the business end of it all. Ultimately, it was the right choice because if I had floundered in that in-between, with one foot in and one foot out, I don’t think I would have ever been able to fully leave and start my own company and do what I do now. So that’s how it started; that was in 2003 that I left and started my own company.


A lot of things that I knew how to do in terms of murals were not a far stretch from what I had in my degree, to be able to paint. But the techniques of specific plasters, materials, different finishing products and product lines and their compatibilities and bond… all of the technical aspects of it, I wasn’t super familiar with. I took training at a couple places in Chicago that offered certifications in specific product lines. They had a message board forum at the time that had 24-hour tech support so you’d hop on there and you’d search whatever type of finish you were creating and get solutions to everything that you had a question about. Since then, that’s what I do full time. I do murals, faux finishing, decorative plasters, glazing, and fine art. My clients will sometimes have me create a decorative wall or faux finish accent wall in their space, and then a piece of fine art to accent that wall, to tie everything together.

I work with designers and builders, and that didn’t happen deliberately; I didn’t have the marketing savvy to say, “I need to connect with builders!” How it ended up happening was a client would find out about me or see my work somewhere and reach out to me and say, “I’m building a new house,” and then I’d meet the builder and the builder would take my card, or the house painter would take my card, and then they would say, “I have another client that’s doing a really big house over here, would you be able to do their house?” And the same kind of thing with the designers. But now I have a network of designers that do both residential and commercial. That’s what’s helped keep me in business because most of my work is word of mouth and, honestly, Instagram. When clients see a friend or a neighbor or a cousin that has had their home done by me, they reach out to me via Instagram. It’s been a blessing because I’m booked out, typically two months out. It’s a long cry from where I was when I first started where I would have a month in between projects; I would take out awkward advertising in home magazines trying to bring in leads and expand my network of people. Now, I don’t do any advertising at all for my faux finishing and murals. Everything is word of mouth and I honestly have to routinely turn down work that’s too big of scope for what I can fit in my schedule.

Having had that experience of working in an office and having a strict, monotonous routine… I don’t function that way. I don’t mind having structure to my day, but I don’t function having to do the same thing over and over and over again. I just can’t do it. Having a really wide breadth of work that I can do – because even in the context of just murals for example, I can do a commercial mural that’s larger scale, an abstract mural, a children’s room, a trompe l’oeil mural. Every day is new, every day is different, every project is different and my mind and my creative spirit are always engaged. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to do this for 20 years: it’s random all the time. I’m always learning new skills and techniques, and that’s what I need. The longest job I’ve ever had prior to this was the position that I had right before here and it was almost three years. That was the longest job I ever held. Because I would get bored after a year. Go on that requisite vacation and realize that I never wanted to go back. I have never regretted switching.

It’s not been easy. We had that whole housing crisis in 2008 when the market crashed and nobody was moving houses. It was so tough because nobody wanted to invest in a house they wanted to leave but nobody was moving to the new house. There were so many times that I thought, “What have I done?” And on top of it, I was going through a divorce at the time, and I was like, “Man, I’ve really screwed my life up. What was I thinking?” Obviously, what I do is a luxury item, it’s not a necessity and that was part of the issue when the housing market went down; I took on jobs painting rooms because I was like, “I need to make some money.” It was a tough few years, but I was able to recover from that. Instagram was great for that because it was earlier, when it was first starting, and so the network of people seemed tighter, it was more relational – it was friends of friends and friends of clients. I just all of a sudden would have people sending me deposits for work, sight unseen. I’m like, “That’s really weird that you’ve never met me and you’re willing to give a deposit and get on the calendar.” That was one thing that really helped me out recovering from that downward spiral of the market crashing, is just kind of building a broader network, word of mouth. From then on, I’ve had no issues and I’ve been booked consistently, I pick and choose my projects, I get to meet crazy cool people, people with fun ideas, and the designers I work with are just amazing. It’s so cool to work with designers and that’s one of the reasons I focus on that more than I do builders, because they’re working with this whole cohesive vision and you get to bounce ideas off of them and refine the wall or the finish to fit that space perfectly; it’s really fun seeing it all come together.


It’s very rare that I get to just do whatever I want. It takes a special kind of client to give you free rein. I have had a few. A lot of times if I have done a number of projects in their home, they’ll be like, “You can do whatever you want in this powder room, whatever you think will look best.” But you’re working with a really broad spectrum of clients. You have clients that have no idea what they want, they just want something to look better. And then you have clients that know exactly what they want, they have a whole Pinterest board, they’ve got a color palate. Part of navigating that over the past 20 years is being able to read that from the client and do your best to articulate what they’re telling you, visually. If it’s the person that doesn’t know what they want, that means me coming to them with color samples, sample boards that show the variety of textures and finishes that I’m able to provide, and getting their feel from it. “Which of these, color aside, just the texture and movement, which do you like? Which do you hate?” And refining from there, for the size of the space or the use of the space – some finishes are not appropriate for certain spaces from a stability or technical standpoint. I make a sample board to make sure that what I’m explaining is what they’re seeing in their head. I might have a really good sense of what it’s going to look like, but some people aren’t visual like that. I make sure to have a sample board for them to see and touch and put up and make sure it’s what they have in mind.

With the murals, I typically do a mockup in Photoshop. I’ll take a photo of their space and design the mural in the room for them for them to be able to see it in situ, so they don’t have to speculate on the scale or the color or how big is that tree going to be. I try to lay it out for them exactly the way that it’s going to be, so that I’m delivering the thing that they’re expecting. Because it’s very easy, I think, as an artist to picture how something is going to look. We have a very broad visual vocabulary and we can see something before it’s done in a lot of cases. You kind of just know what will work or what will fit best, compositionally. Not everybody has that, so to say, “Oh, the horizon here, and we’ll put this here, and it’ll look great.” They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” And they really don’t know what that means. I’ve found over the years that’s a really good way to help people to come to a decision whether it’s a good fit for them, to show it to them the best way that I can so they can see what I’m seeing and so we’re on the same page. But I always do say, “I need a little license so that if I’m on the wall and this doesn’t look right, I have to finesse it.” Because I’ll know in the mockup that this tree is a foot to the right but it needs to get moved. It’s usually not an issue but I like to be able to finesse it in the moment and not have it super rigid.

Having done this as long as I’ve done it, I’m lucky to have a very good sense of color. I’m really good at mixing custom colors to precisely match something, I’m really good at making colors work. So that’s always been easy for me, but over the years I think I’ve gotten much better at composition as well, to know the movement of something and how it’s going to work in the space as you’re coming into it. Seeing something flat in Photoshop and then I see it in the room, it doesn’t read quite right so I do have to move things and manipulate things so that it feels right. One of the things similar to that with faux finishing is there’s some element of randomness to it – you might have a pattern, but you don’t want to see a pattern. You don’t want to see, “I did this section, and then I did this section, and then I did this section.” So I work like a crazy squirrel. I work on it a little bit here and a little bit there and a little bit there when I’m creating a faux finish sometimes … it’s just so random, so that your eye doesn’t grab onto a weird pattern. Any time that I have assistants that work with me that are regular painters, they can’t handle it. “What on earth are you doing?” It’s funny. I’ve had assistants over the years, some of them are painters and some of them are artists, and you need to be both. You need to have the ability to climb ladders all day and tape a straight line, but also the ability to know, “No, that doesn’t work, this isn’t quite right.” The painters are like, “You’re absolutely nuts,” and they’re just along for the ride, and the artists are like, “This is really hard work.”


My typical day is I usually get all my material and my project work plan done the day before or the week before depending on how big the project is, and I lay out what steps I need to do Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 of the job. I have material lists for each of those days so that when I’m on site I’m not neglecting any element of it, having to run out to the store, having to run back to my studio to pick up pieces. I’m very organized that way. I’m so meticulous with my calendar and my schedule and my work plans and so that’s one thing that my clients have always been really appreciative of. When I say I’m going to be there on Tuesday to do that part, I’ll be there on Tuesday to do that part. That’s one thing that’s been very helpful for me. I think a lot of times artists aren’t very organized, and that’s an asset in a way because it keeps our minds open and creative, but it’s a dysfunction, too. Ultimately, I’m a paid contractor and I’m working alongside other trades or waiting for other trades to finish installing a countertop or get the base paint done or they’ve got to spray out the trim before I can start my job. Honestly, I’d like to teach a few of them because I’m sitting here waiting on a granite countertop for two months now to finish up a powder room for my client. This happens all the time. I’m so particular about my schedule; every single week it seems like I have someone changing the schedule, not because they’re not ready, it’s because their contractor never showed. It’s like playing Tetris with my calendar every day trying to fix it.

So that’s my day-to-day; I load up my stuff, depending on what type of finish I’m doing, I’m on ladders or scaffolding most days. It’s very rare to be on a job where you don’t need to be on a ladder. To be fair though, as a result I have a terrible issue with my shoulder. Terrible rotator cuff and tendonitis everywhere, so that’s been a real struggle. But 20 years of troweling overhead, it’s bound to happen, I guess. No job is without its hazards.


There are a lot of different ways to translate a mural. One is to grid it out. What you would do is you would create a drawing to the scale of the wall, scaled down, so the scale might be where one foot on the wall equals one inch, and you would grid that line out onto the drawing and then you would grid it out onto the wall. One foot down and one foot in, this is what’s happening in this box. And you would sketch it out that way so that it’s relational. Another way that you can do it technically is with a projector but I’ve never found that to be efficient because you always have to get the room super dark to be able to project it. It’s just not feasible in most places. And then there’s an app that you can use that can help you transcribe an image onto a larger surface, it’s called Mural Maker. You just need to have two iOS devices. One of them has the image loaded into it and then one is functioning as the camera. So if you’re using your iPhone to record it, put that up on a tripod and face the wall, and then on the iPad you’d have the drawing superimposed onto the video image of you working. On the iPad, you’d see a video of yourself projected on the wall, and the drawing or the image that you loaded onto it, not fully opaque. So you’ll watch yourself drawing it. I don’t use it for anything super precise, but it is helpful for laying out a landscape, for example. The cool part about it is that it also records it in a time lapse if you choose to, so then you can use that for marketing. My go-to is gridding because it’s not that hard but the Mural Maker is fun if you’re trying to do a time-lapse. Again, though, I don’t love it for anything super precise because you can’t get that image clarity and sometimes I have trouble realigning the image if somehow you move or you stop the recording or you mess up the screen at all, it’s kind of hard to realign. Those are my two main go-tos: gridding and Mural Maker. I bet other artists have different techniques; everybody has their own approach. And there are certain things that you can do freehand, like if it’s something botanical or organic or a beach scene or a tropical floral scene. A lot of kids’ rooms I’ll just do freehand.

In terms of material, for the background colors and for the bigger areas, I use indoor acrylic paint but for any of the details in the foreground, I use fine art acrylic. When I was younger, I would use craft paints or household paints because they’re more economical, but they don’t have the color vibrancy and color saturation and quality that I want. So I’ve moved into using fine art acrylics even for large-scale murals. I mean large-scale interiors, I wouldn’t do the side of a building that way. I feel like it gives it a better quality and a better finish to it. I also, if I need to unify the sheen I’ll put a topcoat on it. Some I don’t need to put a clearcoat on, but if I’ve used a lot of glaze or if I’ve used a lot of different sheens of paint and there are areas that read too glossy, I’ll unify it with a topcoat so the whole painting has a unified sheen and you’re not seeing sheen changes in the light. That helps it look even more polished.

Sometimes I see other artists’ work and it’s so obvious that they’ve used craft paint or indoor housepaint. The colors don’t blend with the same saturation because they’re filled with different binders and the pigments aren’t the same. The colors get a little flat and a little muddy and a little blah and I just don’t like that look. When I started out, that was the more economical way to do it, and the other advantage of course is that if you’re mixing a funky color, you have an entire four ounces of that exact color. But I think that’s part of why I’ve gotten so good at mixing colors because I do everything by hand. I don’t use premixed colors for a lot things. I’m using standard artist acrylics to mix things, but then that way I can mix that color time and time again because I’ve learned how instead of relying on a prefab product.


Coupling my experience with fine art to be a muralist with the technical skill of faux finishing has really broadened my ability to be in business. The two skills build on one another. There are techniques that I’ve learned from faux finishing that I’ve been able to bring into my mural work to make things more efficient to work in volume. And my color sense and my compositional sense from the mural side has informed what I do as a faux finisher, to be able to custom mix colors on command but also to make sure the movement of the finish itself flows. I think those two skills really tie in. A lot of people in my field only focus on one element or the other. They’re strictly decorative finishers or they’re strictly muralists. I think that’s one of the things that’s really helped my business, is to be able to do both because my skill set’s broader, so I can help more people. I can also do more elaborate work for the same client by building off of a mural to do a Tuscan wall adjacent to a trompe l’oeil mural, for example. Not so much anymore, that was more 15 years ago. It’s not really in vogue now, it’s all glitter and metal now.

There was all this talk with the faux finishers when everything went from the damask and the brocades and the gold and the gilding and the glazing – when everything went from that old world style to everybody’s going gray, and everyone’s like, “What are we going to do?” But you just have to adapt, right? The finishes that I do primarily now are metallic or they’re more linear versus organic. Whereas I would do a textured stone finish a lot back then or a glazed antiqued kind of finish 15 years ago, now I’m doing a lot of striés and a lot of metallics – linear finishes, finishes that have more of a distinct pattern to them. It’s interesting because the color palates and the kinds of finishes that people wanted – it almost felt like it changed overnight. Everything was gold, and then everything’s silver, and now everything’s champagne. We just run through the metals and all the colors that go with it. Online in the Facebook groups and community chats that we had, some people were just kind of done, because they were more focused on traditional faux marble, or faux bois or woodgraining, or really really traditional particular techniques that just weren’t in favor anymore stylistically with most people. You always have a clientele for that, a niche for that, but the volume of that type of work… Whereas it was a lot of marble columns, now it’s a lot of limestone. And that’s more of a product technique than a paint technique. You don’t have to make the graceful lines of the veining or the mottled finish in the background, you’re really just troweling on the product. So it’s just a very different skill set. I think a lot of people were just like, “I’m done.” They didn’t want to learn all these funky new materials. But for me, I don’t like to be bored. I don’t want to do 47,000 square feet of the same finish. I want to do something new everywhere, so it worked out for me because we get to use glitter now? Yes! I’ll dump all the glitter in my finishes, let’s do it. The color palates change, the techniques change, but ultimately, what you’re trying to do is create something beautiful, whether it’s on a canvas, whether it’s on a wall, whether it’s on a vanity. I just like to make things pretty.

The way that our job is, the techniques might live but the products won’t. Especially the way everything transitioned after COVID, certain pigments weren’t available, they straight up stopped manufacturing a number of materials, a lot of products don’t come in a quart anymore and you’re only able to get them in a gallon, some specialty products where they’re capable of being made but the demand isn’t there so they just don’t make them. You have to constantly pivot, like, what’s the closest thing I can get to this? What can I finesse here to make that finish that is still really popular but I don’t have the base materials for anymore? It’s relentless.

To coach somebody to be able to do it and teach them the way to build a project work plan and teach them the way to prep a room… I think those would be valuable skills to pass on. If you’re creative-minded and organized with that, those are invaluable to problem solve. I think creativity is a skill that we kind of attribute as being a fun skill to have, a cool skill to have, but it’s really a necessary skill, especially when you’re constantly having to change the way that something is done. Whether you’re in a creative field or not, the solution is rarely A to B. So being able to problem solve how to get something done… I’ll give you an example. A lot of times, my designers will come to me with a wallpaper that they want to replicate. Either the space isn’t suitable for paper or it’s discontinued, or it’s exactly right except for this and they want something changed about it. So you’re looking at that paper that’s produced by a machine and maybe a woven material like a burlap or whatever, and you’re like, “How am I going to make this with paint?” It’s solving that problem of step A, step B and testing and trying it, “Ooh, what if we did this?” – that is my favorite part of the job. It’s problem solving and creative thinking. It’s not just in the execution and the actual painting that your creativity comes through, it’s not just in the mixing of the colors. It’s how do we translate your vision into reality, using paint? That’s my favorite part. It’s like a puzzle. Some of my designers are like, “I know you can figure this out, I know you can.” Your creativity and your adaptability in those scenarios are what make you successful. If you’re going to do something new everyday, you need to be able to pivot on command and problem solve, make it work.

I think my goal, truthfully, is always to spend more time on my studio work. It’s been my goal since I was five years old to be an artist. I recognize that a decorative artist is still an artist and I’m glad to have my hands in paint every day. But I think especially as I grow older and the difficulties that I’ve had: I’ve had hip surgery, my shoulder’s not doing well… I kind of realize that there may be an end to this that’s sooner than retirement age. But at the same time, not to sound arrogant, but I feel like I have a really big skill set and I’d hate for that to just go away. I’d love to be able to teach somebody the things that I know and help them foster a new business or pass the baton. Not that I would feel that it was a waste, because I was able to do a lot of good in my career, I just wish I could give it to somebody else. It’s a vast library of knowledge and skill. I’d flat out say I’m an expert at what I do now, I’ve done it so much.


While I was working in the office at various office jobs, I wasn’t creating very much. For one, your soul is just kind of sucked out of you by the end of the day; you’re so defeated by the monotony of the day-to-day, it’s not like you’re really rearing to go. I could force myself to get into the studio if I had the discipline to do it, but I wasn’t loving what I was expressing in that space. I was just kind of dismal and so when I left the corporate world and into my entrepreneurial space, it gave me that flexibility and that time. That’s not to say that I was in my studio 24-7, I still wasn’t, but it allowed me to view that as a priority more than I had before. Even though it was my degree and it was my desire, it wasn’t my career, so it always felt like a luxury of time to spend in the studio, whereas now I felt like it was my job. I began showing at galleries, I started teaching art classes. I had a solo show and I sold paintings for the first time and I was super excited. I’ve been doing shows since my mid-20s and I’ve shown at galleries all around the state: Mackinac, Traverse, Elk Rapids, Detroit, Ann Arbor.

About 10 years ago, I started working more in collage. I had taken a workshop with an artist named Elizabeth St. Hilaire, she focuses on paper painting collage – creating collages where you’re using the texture and the movement of the paper to create a painterly style. I’ve been working with that kind of material for over ten years, so most of my work now has that element to it. I’m doing a solo show in September and I plan to do a lot of seascapes. I’ve been really enjoying layering collaged papers behind poured mediums to create these very glass-like surfaces that shimmer; I’ve been doing a lot of embedded gold leaf and silver leaf or metallic or holographic foils to add that shimmer in the water or that glitter in the sky. I’m really into more nonrepresentational and the seascapes provide that for me because in some way they function as an abstract color field but they’re also identifiable as a horizon line and there’s something serene about that and peaceful. It allows me to play with all the different colors and technical elements that I like to play with but also not deal with the precision. Right now I don’t want to deal with precision, I want to deal with serenity and movement and fluidity. I want them to be giant, I want them to be huge. I just want to get lost in them. There’s nothing more peaceful than water, really, and that’s what I’m trying to evoke with them.

My end game is to be a studio artist. But I think I’ll always do a little bit of mural work. I might be off the scaffold in the next 10 years or so, but I’ll still be doing it. Because I do love it. I love transforming, I love the before and after. To think that I took it from that plain boring wall to this magnificent… it’s fun. It’s a small mark to leave on the world, to make things pretty, but that’s what I’ve done. For 20 years now, I’ve made things look better than they did before.

Check out Shadia’s work at:



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