For years, the fireplaces blended in too well at Heidi Noun's Seattle home. One was hidden behind a wall; another was plain white and drab.

At the suggestion of an interior designer, Dannae Howe came in and transformed the fireplaces. Now, they're centers of attention.

"It's clearly the thing that when people come over they are drawn to right away," Noun says.

Howe, a muralist and faux finisher, elevated Noun's fireplaces to art. Both were painted with the trompe-l'oeil technique, which uses realistic imagery to trick the eye. In this case, the trick was to make the brick fireplaces look as if they were tiled in styles that worked with each room's decor.

"It's a really cost-effective way of making a big impact," says Howe, who typically charges $800 to $1,200 for a fireplace, depending on its complexity and size.

She did the dining room first, reproducing the look of valuable Batchelder tile on the fireplace that until recently was stuck behind a wall. She also painted tile on the cement hearth. A genuine Batchelder fireplace is worth thousands, Howe says.

"People just walk in and can't believe it's not tile," Noun adds.

In the second room, Howe started with a white-painted fireplace that now pops visually in an art-deco style that took about a week to finish. She picked a brighter style for the more casual room, which will be used mostly by Noun's two teenagers. The artist emphasized vertical lines through bronze accents that resemble metallic inserts common to the period. The fireplace's painted tiles appear in a neutral shade with a green stenciled border.

Howe starts by priming the brick, then uses chalk, which is easy to wipe away, to outline details. For the den, she created a stenciled design for the green tile and added color variation to make the tile realistic.

Fireplaces pose textural painting challenges, Howe says. Brick is rarely even or symmetrical, and her brush gets caught on the rough spots.

But like walls, fireplaces can accommodate faux finishes as long as they are prepared properly, says Karen Di'Angelo, who recently redid 40 fireplaces at a condo complex.

Faux finishing adds character and depth, with choices as versatile as plasters that create texture and colorful glazes that add depth.

Faux finishes are as durable as paint and will last years with the same care you'd give to a high-quality paint job, Di'Angelo says. And almost any fireplace can be made to look considerably better.

"The painting of it just sort of added practical art to our home and made it a real centerpiece of the dining room," Noun says. "It just gives it a little personality."