Old tricks for the newest walls

DISTEMPER AND LIMEWASH For impact, nothing beats traditional wall- colouring techniques - so nostalgically Greek-islandish, so incredibly fashionable. With ground chalk, pigments, rabbit-skin glue and expert advice, Dinah Hall gets stuck in
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The Independent Culture
LIMEWASH, says Jocasta Innes, is a very "knotty" subject. It's also a very fashionable one. That's partly why I'm here, to learn all about limewash and distemper - that other ever-so-desirable wall-colouring technique. To be a thoroughly Nineties kind of person, you really do have to know about them - just as in the Eighties you had to be conversant with terms like "scumbling" and "marbling". Limewash and distemper are "green" - not literally, of course, but they are modishly natural materials.

Jocasta Innes is almost entirely to blame for the fashion status of paint. When she published Paint Magic in 1980, reviving specialist techniques such as woodgraining that had lain dormant for years, walls suddenly became a battleground of taste.

Hemlines may tally more minutely with the ups and downs of the economy, but as a broad indicator walls give a pretty good idea of how people are feeling. The early Eighties was a time of decorative aggrandisement: skirting boards, architraves and walls were exuberantly marble-ised to create an air of opulence that often sat ill at ease in the modest rooms thus treated. By the end of the decade, style leaders were disassociating themselves from what had come to be regarded as a nouveau riche disease.

"Distressed" became the fashionable thing to be - which referred not to your state of mind when you realised Osborne & Little sold by the roll what it had taken you years of dabbling with a sponge to accomplish, but to the aged and weathered effect now necessary to avoid associations with yuppiness. The "distressed" look exuded intimations of a genteel slide towards poverty (though of course it cost a fortune to get it done really well), but it wasn't long before Osborne & Little were on top of that too.

In the early Nineties "historical" colours took off - this really sorted out the sheep from the goats. The goats started painting their walls in colours that 10 years ago might have been called "institutional" - flat creams, pale grey-greens and paprika reds. They were referred to so widely as "National Trust colours" that that venerable body decided to start cashing in, and brought out an authorised range of colours of its own.

This all coincided rather happily with a period when people started getting paranoid about "healthy" homes and worrying that their emulsion walls were giving out poisonous fumes. Paints made to an old formula seemed reassuringly untainted. They looked honest and down-to-earth: just as we were supposed to be feeling at that time. Then the Big Boys - the paint companies the sheep used - began to get in on the act, producing their own "historical" colours. To avoid the horrible possibility that anyone might think one had simply gone into John Lewis and pointed a finger at a chart instead of going into John Oliver with an ancient Labrador dog and asking them to match his undercoat, it was necessary to take a new goatish leap .

And so we arrive back at distemper and limewash - so wonderfully peasant, so nostalgically Greek-islandish, so incredibly fashionable. But what are they exactly, and what is the point of using them? I took two lessons with Jocasta Innes to find out.


Historically, distemper was the most traditionally used interior paint: the availability of ingredients, cheapness and ease of use made it a popular choice for cottage-dwellers all over Europe until plastic paints took over.

The classic colours are stone, cream and pastels. "It is powdery looking, pretty, and has a wonderful suede-like texture," says Jocasta. But it isn't as durable as emulsion, and is really only suitable for bedrooms and some living rooms. From a health point of view, you and your walls can breathe easier: distemper is made from totally natural ingredients.

Distemper - made from whiting (ground chalk), animal glue size, pigment and water - is, says Jocasta, very "good-tempered". It will go over anything: emulsion paint, wallpaper. The only problem is, you can't wash it. "But when walls got a bit shabby," she adds, people would repaint; it wasn't such a big deal." People took against distemper because it rubbed off on their clothes. That, says Jocasta, is probably because they were using a cheap glue to bind it.


Poor adhesive won't be a problem in my masterclass with Jocasta, because we are using - animal rights activists please read no further - rabbit- skin glue. There it is in a bowl in front of us: it looks like thick honey and it smells like... nothing I've ever smelt before, not being in the habit of boiling up rabbit skins - animal rights activists please note. It comes in the form of granules, not in the least rabbitty looking, which you soak over-night then melt in a double boiler. When it is cooled you mix it into the whiting, which you have also soaked overnight. Jocasta flings things in with creative abandon, while I stand around being uptight and trying to get her to tell me exactly how much of each ingredient to use. "You're supposed to wear a mask but no one ever does," she says, as I make a mental note to dig out scuba mask and breathing apparatus from our cellar.

After a few minutes beating with a wooden spoon, the mixture begins to look like a thin porridge - with lumps. "You're meant to beat the lumps out but I think they're rather... charming," says Jocasta, wholly convincingly, in a manner I resolve to imitate next time I screw up the sauce bearnaise.

Distemper dries about 10 shades lighter than you mix it. To prove this, Jocasta adds a large measure of diluted red oxide pigment which turns the porridge to a dark terracotta, which she paints on to a test card. After a few minutes drying with a hairdryer it has turned to a barely detectable pink.

To get a good strong colour you would need to add so much pigment as to make it financially unviable - distemper is, after all, supposed to be cheap as well as natural. The way to get round this is to use a technique called colour-washing, credited to John Fowler. Now the name of John Fowler, interior decorator of the Thirties and Forties, is such in the decorating world that being told you are going to be privy to one of his techniques is a bit like hearing that you are going to learn how to walk on water. In the event, there is nothing miraculous about it; on top of a coat of plain distemper you add a coat of extremely dilute distemper (thinned to milk consistency) to which you have added your chosen pigments. You apply it with a large brush, using rough cross-hatching strokes; the whole point of limewash and distemper is not to be smooth and solid like emulsion: the soft brushiness of them is - like the lumps - part of their overall charm.


"Conservationists adore limewash," says Jocasta. "It's the oldest of paints, a breathing, eco-friendly material." Whereas the "historic" paints go back mostly to Georgian times, lime has much more ancient origins. "No one did it as well as the Romans," says Jocasta. They apparently used lime mortar as a precursor to cement: "It builds its strength incredibly slowly; some Roman mortars are stronger now than they were then. Basically, it reverts to limestone - but we don't know what they did to get it to harden so dramatically. Think of Hadrian's wall, with lime in such wet and chilly conditions." Lime, she explains, has always been a vernacular craft that was never written down - Christopher Wren was the first to give a formula for lime mortar, using burnt sea shells.

The reason this wonderful stuff fell by the wayside was that Portland cement was invented at the end of the last century, and as it was much more reliable than the rather temperamental lime it became the favoured building material. However, small pockets of recusants continued to make lime products and had their steadfastness rewarded when conservationists began to realise the damage done to old buildings made of traditional materials like cob, wattle and daub when modern cement was used. The new wisdom now is, wherever possible, to chip off the cement render and go back to using lime through which the building can "breathe".


Limewash is a milky fluid made by adding water to lime putty. It makes a wonderful medium for natural pigments which is why, Jocasta explains, Greek houses are so very white and Scandinavian houses that "gorgeous orangey yellow". This is because you can add layer after layer without actually seeming to build up the surface - "It's like painting with milk," enthuses Jocasta, "none of that awful labour you get with paint." Every coat you add improves what is already there, so that white grows more brilliant, colours more intense. It actually dries quite quickly but the chemical reaction that occurs on contact with air - carbonation - continues indefinitely, reactivating and strengthening the underlying lime system, whether that be previous limewash coats, lime render or mortar. The strangeness of this to people accustomed to modern solutions, where redecoration means stripping off the old before you can put on something new, needs no underlining. Lime-based processes come across as seductively natural, appropriate and sound.

The best base for limewash is lime render or plaster, the more recently applied the better, but failing that it will take to some modern materials: breeze block is particularly successful and it will also bond with bare bricks, but they have to be well wetted first and you need to build up a number of layers. The key to success is that the surface must be porous - a rather unscientific way of assessing this, says Jocasta, is to wet your finger and press against the wall: if it's porous it will leave a dark mark.

Pure pigments are necessary - traditionally people would have added local earth or mineral colours, even pigs' blood, but urban peasants have the easier, if more expensive option of going to specialist suppliers.


H J Chard & Sons, Albert Road, Totterdown Bridge, Bristol, BS2 OXS (01179 777681): lime, available by mail order; Liz and Bruce Induni, 11 Park Road, Swanage, Dorset BH19 2AA (01929 423776): limewash, distemper and pigments; Hirst Conser-vation Materials, Laughton, near Sleaford, Lincs NG34 OHE (01529 497517): lime and traditional building materials, mail order available; Masons Mortar, 61-67 Trafalgar Lane, Edinburgh, EH6 4DQ (0131 555 0503): lime and conservation materials, available by mail order; Paint Magic, 79 Shepperton Road, London N1 3DF (Head Office: 0171-354 9696 - ring for branches): lime putty, pigments, distemper to colour yourself or ready-tinted; Nutshell Natural Paints, Newtake, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PE (01803 867770): earth and mineral pigments, mail order only; Jane Schofield, Lewdon Farm, Black Dog, Crediton, Devon EX17 4QQ (01884 861181): conservation materials by mail order.


Trade Secrets by Jocasta Innes (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, pounds 19.99)

Traditional Paints and Finishes by Annie Sloan and Kate Gwynn (Collins & Brown)


Trade Secrets by Jocasta Innes is offered to readers of the Independent on Sunday at a specially reduced price. Copies cost pounds 17.50 (including post and packaging), a saving of pounds 2.50. To order, ring credit card orders on 01903 732596 during office hours, or send a cheque made out to Littlehampton Book Services to PO Box 53, Littlehampton, West Sussex, BN17 7HE. The publishers aim to dispatch copies by return; but all orders will be filled within 14 days. DISTEMPER Despite its name, this is a good-natured material that's easy to make. It used to rub off on clothes, but a good ad-hesive puts paid to that. TO BEGIN, you will need: whiting (ground chalk), rabbit-skin glue granules, pigments, a double boiler, heatproof bowls, and a whisk - hand or electric. POUR THE WHITING (1) into a large bowl half-filled with water, stopping when the powder 'peaks' above the surface. Leave to soak overnight. At the same time, pour water over the glue granules (2); leave to fatten all night. NEXT DAY, heat the glue granules (which will have swelled greatly) over a low heat in a double boiler (3). STIR GLUE occasionally with a wooden spoon until the granules have dissolved. This size will look like thick honey (4). Pour mixture through a coarse sieve to remove any lumps. POUR ANY unabsorbed water off the top of whiting and stir thoroughly (5). After the size has cooled for 20 minutes or so, combine it with the whiting (6). MAKE SURE THE SIZE is cool or it may gel again in the whiting. Now, soak the dry pigment in water and thoroughly blend it with a whisk before adding it to the distemper mixture (7) WITH A LARGE brush, apply distemper (8). Wet distemper is nearly twice as dark as dry. The finished walls have a lovely velvety texture (opposite page). THE SOFT RICH LIMEWASHED wall opposite is simple to achieve if you go slowly, testing the colour first on paper dried over heat. Limewash always dries paler. To begin, you will need: powder pigments and jars for mixing them in, spoon, whisk, bucket for m ixing, and paper for testing. Wearing protective gloves and goggles, beat mature limewash putty to disperse lumps. Add enough water to make a mixture with a milky consistency (above), and stir well. DISSOLVE the pigments in water (for this room yellow ochre was blended with a litle raw sienna and marigold). Add gradually to a test sample of limewash and test on paper. Dry and check. When you have the colour you want, blend a larger quantity of the p igment into the limewash (above). Add the pigment gradually, slowly building up colour. Remember it will be darker than the dry finish. WHISK the limewash thoroughly (above). The tinted wash can be stored indefinitely, though some blues may change colour. Once on a wall, colours are stable. Dampen all the walls before you begin to paint. Use a large fibre brush and slap thin coats on the damp walls, in all directions. If the colour varies from coat to coat, it adds to the charm.