Inside the Whimsical World of Decorative Painter Anna Sadler
Decorative painter Anna Sadler turns ordinary surfaces into masterpieces.
By Lauren Tyda | Portrait Photography by Steve Craft
“Nothing is impossible.”
Anna Sadler says this so frequently, it is almost a mantra—or, rather, a prayer. As a decorative painter who works with Valley interior designers and homeowners, she is no stranger to receiving grandiose requests. Whether it’s a bedazzled wall, hand-painted fabric, a fancifully festooned ceiling, a graphic fireplace or draperies flecked with hand-applied gold-leaf brushstrokes, Sadler can transform ordinary surfaces into crown jewels that rival the beauty of any art on canvas.
But it’s not all glitter and sparkles for this modern Michelangelo. Sadler and her husband, Scott, can spend hours on a 6-foot-high scaffold, arms overhead, painting ceilings, or on a ladder carefully placing individual glass or crystal beads with the meticulous precision of watchmakers assembling a delicate timepiece. “People often imagine that what we do is akin to rolling paint,” she says. “They don’t realize that the complexity and depth of our hand-applied finishes is the result of multiple layers and dry times in between.” She jokes: “Let’s just say our necks are no longer functional.”
At times, it can be death-defying. Scott once set off fire alarms with his body heat while working on an 18-foot-high entry tower. “We had to protect the walls with painter’s plastic to ensure that nothing dropped as we applied the mixture overhead,” Sadler says. “The heat was off the charts, but we couldn’t stop the application process. All I can say is my hubby is so hot, he sets off smoke detectors.”
The daughter of professional dancers, Sadler understands the rigor of physically demanding art. “My parents traveled all over the world and always encouraged me to explore my creative side,” recalls the Montreal-born artist. “They bought me a watercolor set and easel at the age of 2, and I have been painting and drawing all my life.”
After briefly studying fashion design and illustration, Sadler traveled the globe, from South America to the South of France, where she owned and operated two art galleries and became friendly with the likes of Ringo Starr and Prince Albert of Monaco. “I had the pleasure and the honor of doing the royal family’s gift wrapping,” she says. “The prince bought many of his gifts at my gallery and used our gift-wrapping service to wrap all of his presents. We had the most exquisite papers and ribbons from around the world, and I was constantly painting branches, leaves and flowers from our gardens to embellish the packaging.” As for Starr, he and his wife so enjoyed meeting Sadler during a summer art class in Monte Carlo that she once hosted them at her home. “I didn’t burn the dinner,” she laughs, “but I did end up making a meal they were allergic to. I am sure they went home hungry, but they were ever so gracious, regardless.”
Surface Refinements, the Sadlers’ decorative painting business, began in Canada as a small company almost three decades ago. “I went through a divorce and had to immediately find a way to support myself,” she explains. “I had been doing friends’ and family’s homes for practice and not much monetary reward, but all that experience gave me the courage to pursue this as an obvious career choice.”
When she met Scott, a retired police officer, he had never picked up a paintbrush in his life—but what he lacked in artistic ability, he made up for in logistics. “He is the behind-the-scenes guy,” Sadler explains. “He does everything possible to facilitate the artistic process by doing the prep work and working on the walls alongside me as we apply the finishes. He also provides a perspective that I may not see through my artistic lens.”
Together, the dynamic duo has tackled hundreds of residential projects, from great rooms and nurseries to kitchens and foyers—they have recently even dabbled in creating highly detailed antiqued mirrors. “I like to compare the process of our work to a theatrical performance,” she explains, tracing the path from the “audition” with the homeowners to the final act, the big reveal. “Either way, we’re going for that Tony Award and, if we’re lucky, an encore.”
Sadler recalls a time a “supporting actor” became the star: “We were once asked by a homeowner to create a focal wall in their dining room for one of their most prized paintings. We designed an ultra-contemporary black woven plaster texture. When it was finished, the client told us the wall was so beautiful, they couldn’t bear to cover up a single inch. They ended up hanging that painting on a different wall.”
Interior designer Elizabeth Rosensteel says this penchant for perfection and perpetual bar-raising is what makes Sadler an ideal collaborator. “I am always throwing a challenge out to her. There’s always something that I have in the back of my head that I would like to see as a unique finish, a twist on the common, that has its own degree of difficulty. Anna always has a smile on her face and a can-do attitude. She may be sweating bullets but always has a calm demeanor.”
Echoes interior designer Amy Klosterman: “Rather than applying wallcovering or art canvases, she makes the entire wall into a handmade piece of artwork, whether it’s a subtle texture or a bold, over-scaled pattern.”
Though the couple hopes to trade in the scaffolding one day to focus exclusively on art on canvas, they will never stop experimenting with new materials and techniques. “My dream would be to restore some fabulous old castle or large estate in France, Italy or Spain,” she remarks wistfully.
It could happen—as the artist would say, nothing’s impossible. “I have said it hundreds of times,” she reflects. “If compliments could pay the bills, I would take that over a paycheck every time.”
DECORATIVE PAINTING’S RENAISSANCE
Ornamental painting has grown up since the days of sponged, stippled walls and faux French farmhouses. Here are trends Surface Refinements’ Anna Sadler has observed.
• Organic, softer and more matte. In lieu of the waxed Venetian plasters in deep golds and dark colors found in many ’90s homes, Sadler says homeowners and designers are requesting “subtle, sophisticated movement and organic eco-friendly mineral-based plaster.”
• Fabrics and focal walls. “We are seeing contemporary textural linen- and grasscloth-type finishes. There is also a high demand for focal walls, versus entire rooms. Less is more, and it makes a huge impact.”
• Off the wall. Among the Sadlers’ requests are artistic abstract art walls, geometric patterns, concrete plasters, textural plasters, overscale florals, large geode-type finishes and finishes inspired by high-end wallcoverings.
• Gilded surfaces. “I am receiving more requests for gold leafing,” the designer notes. “When done properly, it is so timeless and elegant.”
• Eco-friendly. “We abandoned working with anything harsh or toxic years ago. Today, we have so many green products in our numerous plasters. Everything we use is water- and mineral-based instead of oil-based.”
Anna and Scott Sadler, Surface Refinements, Scottsdale, (480) 313-3191.
Interior designer: Elizabeth Hamill Interiors, Scottsdale, elizabethhamillinteriors.com.
Interior designer: Amy Klosterman, Allied ASID, AB Design Elements, Scottsdale, abdesignelements.com. Bathtub: vandabaths.com.
Interior designer: Elizabeth Rosensteel, Rosensteel Design, Scottsdale, rosensteeldesign.com.
Interior designer: abdesignelements.com.