When the nights are drawing in and the trees turn golden, so does the painting season come to a halt. In this damp old house anyway. But before I got to pack up those rollers for the winter and curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of earl grey, from where I greet you, Dear Reader, there was one goliath job to finish: sorting out the walls of my artist studio.
To be brutally honest, my atelier, the old crèmerie on our ground floor, has been giving me grief ever since we moved in; from the grimy cement tiles neglected to the brink of disrepair to the brittle plasterwork covered in chipped gloss and a layer of mouldy wallpaper in the most depressing shade of sunshine yellow, the space was an all-round disgrace. The wall-tiles that used to frame the space were long gone, but the original double doors and two of the cupboards remained. A third cabinet used to stand by the wall. It was put together in the early noughties by the previous owner to secure the electricity- and gas-meters, but needed to be taken down to make way for a modern fuse board. All and all, the atelier needed sorting out: After half-arsed wallpaper removal and dismantling and rebuilding the old locking mechanism that kept the double doors permanently shut, cleaning and restoring the floor was the first big issue we tackled. That turned out to be, frankly, utter hell, but throughout the course of the spring I muddled through. The cement tiles still show the wear and tear of a century, but that is why I love them so. Having been cleaned and resealed, they should be good for another hundred years or so.
Just a few snaps of how the atelier looked like when we first moved in: The walls were covered tip to toe in mouldy yellow wallpaper and what was underneath turned out to be even worse...
With the tiles looking fab and out of mind, I was finally able to set up a working space for myself. A tobacco-coloured ceiling got painted somewhere between the watercolours and I started scraping paint from the doors. …And just like that, it was summer.
And what a summer it was!
As the mercury climbed from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties the newly exposed plaster started to dry. It dried slowly at first, feeling cool and damp to the touch – a strange contrast really when the weather was as scalding as it was. Then, as if overnight, it was completely dry… and flaky. Small cracks appeared next to the old ones, the old ones growing into canyons, sending little feathers of paint and whole chunks of plaster freefalling onto my freshly painted canvases. Not cool, I thought. Upon closer examination of my walls, it became evident that some clever dicky had done a bit of patching up, using straight up lime plaster, rather poorly and straight on top of existing gloss paint. No wonder nothing was sticking up where it was supposed to!
At this point I had two options – to find a way to make these walls stay at least roughly wall-shaped or completely re-surface them from scratch. I like to do things properly or not at all, but hey-ho, there’s a first time for everything. I made an exception. James and I had just agreed to spend some time away from Mazamet in the winter and starting the plasterworks during the summer at hand was looking unlikely. I feared that if left untouched the plaster would go from bad to worse during the long damp winter and so a decision was made to bind them up with the toughest primer one could cook up, followed by a lick of paint and return to the problem in a few years’ time.
It may have not been a tremendous plan, but any plan is better than no plan…
From a cracked up mess to... Barbie Dream House!
From the beginning I wanted to go for a two tone look as a nudge towards the rooms half-tiled past and the colours I chose were a subtle blush pink with plain old brilliant white. Not exactly an epitome of timelessness, sure, but knowing this was to be a temporary fix I wanted to play around a bit. I am not the first or the last to jump on the hipster pink-bandwagon, and that is fine by me. Perhaps subconsciously all millennials such as myself are wishing to recreate the Barbie Dream House our Gen-X parents refused to buy us? Perhaps it is because the Barbie Dream House is all most of us can afford? For all I know, this house has gone through so many colour palettes and so many tastes - what’s one more in the grand scheme of things? Besides, I thought it would look achingly cool. Isn’t that all that matters?
Now, boys and girls, try this out at your own risk – if you are not sure what products to use on plastered or any walls, drop by at your local paint dealership and ask around, there are qualified people being paid to help you not to cock things up! I know a bit about paints and was willing to take a few risks with this primer job because the walls were already awful beyond the point of return. After all, you can’t ruin something that’s already ruined. This is not painting and decorating as I know it, it is damage management. Now, with these words of caution, the primer I mixed was a combination of standard stain blocker, white emulsion paint (mr. Brico value range) and standard PVA glue. Oversimplifying a little, most primers have adhesive qualities to allow them to stick firmly to the surface being painted and to offer a support for a top coat. A good one has plenty of pigment for a complete coverage as you would want a neutral base (most commonly white) for the top colour of your choice. I was willing to compromise on coverage in favour of ultra-stickiness to stop the surface of my poor walls from crumbling any further. Adding PVA to the mix would also allow me to use a non-oil based solution to cover up the existing blue gloss paint.
Completely clogging up a wall with PVA is not exactly kosher: usually you would like your plaster walls to breathe a little. Stopping a wall from breathing can eventually lead to moisture problems when condensation gets trapped under a layer of unsuitable paint and that, as you must know by now Dear Reader, is like pissing in your own cereals, i.e. not recommended. In my case, however, sealing the plaster in a thick layer of unyielding primer was a necessary evil as I could not have these walls deteriorating much further. Once the plaster is re-done – and when I say re-done I mean completely removing the old and re-plastering from scratch, I will be choosing my products with more care. To mention a few UK based manufacturers, Farrow and Ball, Fired Earth, even the trusted old Dulux all have products suitable for priming, sealing and painting various types of plaster surfaces.
But to continue on this priming journey - I chose to make my rather thinly pigmented primer bubble gum pink by adding a few droplets of fuchsia and ochre pigments and mixing thoroughly. As a visual artist I got this stuff lying around, but if you wish to create your own custom tint, I warmly recommend hoarding paint samples and mixing them as needed. By tinting my primer to the desired shade of blush I would need to use “real” paint only on the would-be-white top halves of the walls. To completely cover up every last speck of that blue gloss paint, I chose to use a highly pigmented matte white emulsion. The would-be-blush bottom halves did not have an existing coat of paint as they used to be tiled and thus required only a few layers of primer/sealant to achieve an even coverage.
Before starting the long process of priming and painting I tore off what was left of the old rotten baseboards as well as the supports for the obsolete electricity cabinet, washed the walls with diluted sugar soap and covered my precious tiles with sheets of old wallpaper. Remember boys and girls - reuse and recycle! As one would expect, a lot of the loose lime plaster trickled off with a mere stroke, and plenty more came down when I was washing the walls. In one or two places I deliberately chipped off some half-arsed repairs that were never properly bonded to the surface below. If plaster has nothing to bond with, let’s say, when applied on top of smooth and unyielding gloss paint, nothing will keep it in place, not even a turbo-charged primer. In these circumstances I would rather have lumpy walls with a few visual cracks than whole chunks of bad plaster falling down with the slightest touch.
Crude, I know, but I am happy to say my butchery worked. After a couple of coats of my special primer-brew the walls were set and crumbled no more.
Working out the divide between blush and white areas was easy as the line between the old tiling and blue paint was still mostly visible despite of the odd splodge of lime here and there. Painting a neat line between two different shades of paint isn’t always easy, but where I was able to follow the old tile-divide the job was done freehand with an angle brush. Where I needed to work out a line, a used a roller and some of masking tape. After the first layer of white paint had dried, I used the same soft brush to loosely go over the bottom line all around the room. Some like their divides extra sharp, but I preferred a more organic look. On balance, a bullet straight line in the middle of a lumpy wall would look a bit silly, don’t you think?
As far as I can trace it, the blue gloss that was covered up with that ghastly deep yellow wallpaper sometime in the late 90’s to early 00’, was only the latest of many coats of paint in that room: Before the baby blue, the room had a tint very similar to Pantone’s colour of the year Greenery and before that, perhaps in the days of the crèmerie, it was clad in sophisticated warm grey. It took me three coats of primer and tree coats of matte white to cover up these secrets, at least for a few more years. More slivers of history can be read from the woodwork that remains to be restored. Surprisingly it seems, the wood has always been painted – first in the same shade of grey as the walls of the crèmerie, then treated with a woodgrain effect (lovely reminder how commissioning a professional to create a look like that by hand used to be cheaper than just simply using actual wood), and finally painted white, rather poorly may I add, at the time the room was wallpapered. It will remain to be seen how I will restore these details, but for the time being I am most intrigued by attempting to recreate the wood grain affect.
Artist studios have always been painted in light colours to reflect the maximum amount of natural light. I have visited only a few that would be anything but dominantly white or a specific shade of light grey. The Art School Grey, as this colour is sometimes called, did cross my mind, but I wanted something more playful to adorn the walls of my atelier. In the end, my own artworks have a certain frivolous aesthetic to them, something I actively try to explore though my usage of colour. Perhaps, I also wanted to make a clear distinction this space is mine alone. Not James, nor anyone else’s. When it comes to the rest of the home we try to combine our tastes as well as possible, sure, but why risk a compromise of aesthetic in a space as important as my workspace?* When the time comes to re-plaster and re-tile it all, I need to be more careful about my choices as they will be more permanent, but until then, I can afford to mock around a little bit. Perhaps I will try out a new colour or a new material. A cork pin board would be an interesting way to organise my notes, or I could give chalkboard paint a go. Only the price of paint is the limit!
*Obviously, at a time when James wants to decorate his study he may choose the H-Block Beige for all I care.
From this angle, owning a house is great. If a detail keeps bothering you – go and change it. No storage - no problem, built some! Change the lights or buy a new showerhead and go nuts. The list of relatively inexpensive improvements is endless when there is no landlord to breath down your neck. You can make a space your own with a pot of paint and a bit of elbow grease in a matter of days. It is truly amazing. Yet on the flip side, when the roof leaks or the boiler decides to go out of commission, you are at the mercy of your home insurance provider. Succeeding to sculpt out a functional and beautiful atelier for myself is just one of those little things that I need to keep in mind when something unexpected happens or I get cold feet. How boring would life be if everything was predetermined! James and I are pretty level headed when it comes to taking on a project like this; doing the place up in small chunks, one day at a time, trusting our abilities and most importantly, knowing when to wheel in the cavalry of professionals.
Speaking of, if somebody wants to come and help this strong and independent renovator get a few sacs of plaster dust and heaps of rotted baseboards to the déchèterie, I’ll buy you a beer.