At a Jocasta Innes paint course, Caroline Donald learns to strip away the excesses of the Eighties
Jocasta Innes is a generous soul; something of a Saint Delia of the decorating world. She has produced an astonishing amount of paints, advice and equipment to demystify her craft and help the amateur at least attempt the effects displayed in her books that would cost hundreds of pounds should Jocasta, or one of her staff at Paint Magic, apply them for you. As well as supplying the materials, she runs one-day workshops to show lesser beings how to use them. In the week before Christmas I rolled up to the basic paint techniques class with notebook and apron in hand.

Flu had struck, reducing the class size to three, plus a trainee instructor. I must confess I was the least artistic of the three: Vicky designs textiles and wallpaper, and wanted to add some new techniques to her repertoire, and Alicia had just bought a house that she wanted to decorate herself. The best I could offer in the way of artistic credentials was a rather over-enthusiastic Paint Magic colour-washing of my dining room walls: the resultant smudgy brown swirls were closer to a dirty protest, according to the less polite of my dinner guests, than a paint effect.

The very words "paint effect" are inclined to strike fear or loathing into the hearts of anyone who has dared to break the monotony of plain matt walls, and the proselytising Jocasta must take her fair share of the blame for every failed experiment. Remember the Eighties? Sponged and rag-rolled walls, busy as a Friday night Glasgow pavement, and stencilled honeysuckle running rampant above dressers so distressed as to need their own helpline - it was step-by-step books such as those published by Jocasta that made it look so easy.

Down in the basement of the Richmond branch of Paint Magic I was expecting to be instilled with the mantra "Thou shalt stipple every surface in sight" but had not reckoned on the bouncy good sense of our instructress, Clodagh Miskelly, who showed us how, in true Nineties style, less could be so much more. We were to learn the paint techniques so beloved of the Eighties, but to apply them as details rather than to every available surface.

First, a slide show charting the move towards simplicity and the bleached "Scandinavian" look that is currently popular, with a few homages to the paintly one thrown in: Jocasta's limewashed desk where she writes all her books; Jocasta's frescoed kitchen, decorated by friends after a jolly dinner party; and Jocasta's Tuscan farmhouse-effect drawing room. I blasphemously longed for a stray slide of Jocasta's B&Q magnolia downstairs loo.

Then it was on to the paints themselves. Oddly, the EC seems to be making life easier for those of its citizens who feel the urge to wield a paintbrush. Strict disposal regulations are forcing manufacturers away from traditional oil-based paints and into developing durable water-based products that are much easier to use. There is even an acrylic converter that will cover surfaces such as gloss or formica to make them accept water-based paints. So, farewell then, paint-stripper and blowtorch. Alicia, owner of a multitude of glossy skirting boards, looked delighted at this.

And so to colour-washing, described in the student programme as "the fresco effect for modern times". Why, then, had my dining room turned out so unappetising? Clodagh said I'd made the common mistake of using a matt paint as an undercoat instead of a non-porous surface such as vinyl film, or Paint Magic's own colour-wash base (fancy that), so the glaze had sunk into the paint in great patches, rather than sliding graciously over the base coat.

Easier said than done: but to remove any doubt we were presented with pre-painted boards on which to practise sponging and brushing on to the colour-wash - and it worked.

So, straight on to distressing a picture frame. The raw pine had already been primed, all we were required to do was to apply a base coat, let it dry, and rub wax into the bits that we wanted to show through the top coat. Then, after the top coat had dried, we took wire wool to the corners and along the grain where the paint would naturally rub away with time. Voila, instant ageing. It looked so good I started marking down pieces of furniture at home that I could age and pass off as heirlooms.

Why one should want to make a perfectly attractive terracotta pot look as if it was a weathered iron or copper one was slightly beyond me. You paint the pot black and then build up the rust colours with a nearly dry stencil brush before applying small amounts of gilt paint to the areas most likely to be worn by the elements.

We then learnt all the dreaded scumble glaze techniques of the past few years, practising in a particularly lurid shade of pink paint, perhaps as a warning. The effect depends on the materials used. We tried cotton rags, black bin liners, natural sponge, a long horsehair brush (for an effect called flogging) and a strange instrument called a "rubber rocker" which produced beautiful woodgraining when used with confidence. Otherwise it produced a sludgy skidmark effect more akin to someone walking up the walls in welly boots.

The last assignment was stencilling, with Clodagh advising us to start always in the centre of the wall to keep the lines straight. Silence descended as we created our masterpieces of colour and shade. Even my careless splodges turned out prettily when the stencil transfer was removed.

Despite the fact that she had a shop full of Paint Magic products upstairs to plug, some of Clodagh's recommended ingredients and methods sounded more like a Sainsbury's shopping list than one of artistic decorating tools: vinegar, sugar, washing-up liquid and flat beer for graining; hair conditioner for keeping the brushes soft; brown boot polish for ageing and a hairdryer for drying paint. In this down-to-earth context, spending an afternoon painting a flower pot suddenly seemed an eminently sensible way to pass the time.

One-day paint courses

The Paint Magic Studio runs courses in paint effects from five different centres, three of which are in London. Courses include Basic Paint Effects, All About Mosaic and Scandinavian Paint Effects. For general course details ring 0171-354 9696 or fax on 0171-226 7760. One-day courses start at pounds 69.

The London School of Decorative Paintwork is based at 2 Fulham Park Studios, Fulham Park Road, London SW6 4LW. For details ring 0171-371 5968 or fax on 0171-731 2334. A one-day standard course is pounds 95.

Revivals is based in Queensbury, near Halifax, West Yorkshire. One-day courses start at pounds 70. For further details ring Brian Carr on 01422- 246069.