When Christina Arnall signed up for Ben Ashby’s advanced countertop class in Las Vegas about four years ago, she had no idea it would lead to an epiphany. It began when Ashby introduced the group to his ½-inch admix being used to create a shower panel and they decided to color it blue.
“In that moment, my head exploded, and I got the idea that if you could make concrete blue and that thin then I could make it look like anything,” says the co-owner of D.C. Custom Construction Inc. in Quincy, Washington. Arnall told the instructor she could recreate Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night with the mixture. Ashby scoffed at the concept, she remembers, which made her determined to succeed.
Nearly four years later, she’s pretty much perfected a technique that allows her to “paint” with a modified version of Ashby 1/4-1/2-inch Admix, custom color blends from Solomon Colors and Direct Colors and paint pigments from Sherwin-Williams. Besides Starry Night, she’s replicated other masterpieces, including Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract titled “Panel #1” which, she says, “just set me on fire.” Her largest piece to date — a three-piece, 21-foot-by-44-inch mural — graces the Mission Ridge Ski Resort in Wenatchee, Washington.
Arnall begins with a melamine mold sealed with silicone, “the same as you would use for a countertop,” she says. She outlines her artwork with black silicone caulk and strategically places colored concrete in predetermined places, noting the design needs to be “flipped and poured backwards from front to back.”
She then adds enough admix to fill the mold and vibrates the entire thing. After many tests and trials, she’s landed on a technique that gets the layers to stick together while keeping the colors separate and intact. She’s also figured out how to create and control voids to use for her benefit.
After 30 hours, Arnall demolds the piece and lets it dry for another 12. Next, she seals the concrete to bring out the colors and prepares it for grouting. Six hours later, the grouting begins with anywhere from two to 15 colors — a process that really makes the design pop and the details dance. The finishing touch involves applying a penetrating sealer, followed by several coats of countertop-grade sealers to lock in the color and texture.
The whole process takes seven to 10 days.
Arnall — who has spent the last 20-30 years as a painter, tiler and general contractor in addition to a concrete artisan who has done everything from carving and countertops to overlays and floors — credits her artistic success to her wide range of experience and ability to put together all that she’s learned from the various trades. These days the self-labeled “concrete junkie” devotes most of her time to her framed concrete “paintings” and custom shower panels that she ships all over the country.
“It’s a totally different way to look at concrete,” Arnall says, adding she gets calls from artists who want to know her method. “I guess I cracked the code.”