Asking Highland Park artist Carmen de la Mano to focus on just one artistic medium would be like asking her to tie one hand behind her back. It would be too limiting. Literally translated, de la Mano means “by the hand.” As if predestined by that, Spanish-born de la Mano has been dexterously painting both fine artworks, and astonishing decorative finishes for walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture, throughout her life. Venetian plaster, wall glazing, marbleizing, faux bois, gilding, chinoiserie … she does them all.
One week you may find her with trowel in hand creating Venetian plaster walls at a winery in Sonoma. The next, she’s in Paris, transforming a plain bathroom into a fairy woodland via hand-painted mural. She has perched on ladders to paint gilt stars in a Giotto-styled ceiling for a children’s nursery. She’s spent hours down on the floor perfecting faux-bois—the intricate art of imitating wood grain—in home libraries. She dreamed up a panoramic view of San Francisco as seen through the eyes of Peter Rabbit for a school there. And she is constantly collaborating with architecture and design clients on finishes for restaurants, hotels—even a luxury car garage.
Drawing on her experience as a printmaker, graphic designer, and painter with degrees from two art schools in Spain, and a masters in graphic design and computer art at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, de la Mano is constantly mixing and matching. She uses decorative finish techniques in her fine artworks, and fine-art techniques in her wall finishes.
“Say I need to create leaves for a tree, for a pattern that repeats,” she says. “Rather than make a stencil, it’s easier for me to just make a rubber cut—the same way I would have created a woodcut or linocut in printmaking.”
“It all relates, and I draw from all of it,” says de la Mano. “Everything I learned in art school and then later when I had studios in San Francisco and the opportunity to learn decorative painting techniques from the Gale Lawrence Studio. And I’m still learning. Put me in a class, and I’m happy as a clam!”
De la Mano brings down a beautiful landscape painting from her mantle, which seems to glow from within. Subtle grays, greens, and blues, stretch to a misty horizon. “You can touch it,” she says, “Go ahead.”
This painting, de la Mano explains, is actually a canvas she covered with Venetian plaster—a substance that includes marble dust in the emulsion,
giving the finish a gorgeous luster. De la Mano has drawn and scratched lines and shapes into the landscape, coating it with several layers of tinted wax, that are then buffed to a hard, smooth finish.
“You add pigment to the wax to add color to different areas of the work,” she explains. “Isn’t it amazing how much the finished piece looks like an etching?” she asks, referring to the printmaking technique.
While this painting is small, “You can—and I do—create a wall-sized artwork this way, and it will last forever. Do it in a hallway where it can catch the light, and it’s just exquisite.”
De la Mano grew up in Seville and started drawing and painting when she was very young. “During Catholic mass,” she laughs, “you would find me with my back to the altar and my head down over the pew drawing cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, over and over, until they were perfect.”
Visiting extended family every Christmas and summer in the family’s hometown, near Madrid, de la Mano especially recalls time with her aunt, an artist and art instructor. “She used to take me up to her studio in the attic and she would set me up with a blank canvas, all of the palettes and paints and a still life for me to paint.”
“I love that my attic studio now smells the same way my aunt’s studio did,” de la Mano smiles. “Woody, resinous, full of potential.”
Realizing new potential is what de la Mano is all about. Currently, she has been busy with multiple projects for the hospitality industry. Everything from painting and decorating a life-sized bull’s head and other props for Ocean Prime restaurants around the county, to doing an entire gilded wall and ceiling canopy for the Westin Hotel in Milwaukee, to painting a mural with enormous gardenias for the MH Kitchen restaurant in Lake Forest. Her most recent project was the mural installation—a community painting project—that de la Mano conceived and executed for David Adler Center’s park.
“That was a lot of fun!” she says. “But what I love most about my life’s work has been the people with whom I have had the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with over the years. So many have mentored me and widened my artistic horizons. It’s an ongoing privilege.”
For more information, visit carmendelamano.com.