Courses: Just give me a paintbrush and a plant pot, and I'll give you verdigris

You don't have to be an artist, or an expert, to create your own paint finishes, writes Catherine Stebbings. And it's fun

Decorating tends to be a passion. You may have tried the minimalist look, played with vibrant acrylic limes and lemons, dabbled in deep greens and regal reds, and ended up slapping on any old thing. You may, on the other hand, always have felt dubious about special effects. The fabulous interiors shown in glossy magazines can be a far cry from all that effort of messing around with paints and polishes, only to find it looks wrong when it's all dried and varnished. To see whether I could rag and drag with the best of them, I took a day course with Paint Magic, just off Portobello Road in north London.

Paint Magic courses are devised by a team of experts led by Jocasta Innes, the maestra of paint effects and author of the phenomenally successful Paint Magic. There are many courses to choose from; the company suggested "Basic Paint Effects", an introduction to decorative techniques for walls, woodwork and furniture.

The course was slickly presented by the shop's in-house teacher, Jacqueline Pederson. The day began with a cup of coffee and a slide presentation showing the various effects we would be discussing and practising later in the day.

Gradually Jacqueline introduced us to all the different media, from oil- based products to the more versatile water-based primers, paints and varnishes. Within an hour I was painting a picture frame with its first coat, and dreaming of where my masterpiece would hang.

Then it was time to try our hand at paint effects: washing, ragging, sponging and dragging. As I pondered over my board of lettuce green, gently stroking the brush across its surface as if it were a precious stone, I realised why paint effects are so appealing. This is not about slapping on paint to covering old blemishes and scars; this is about lovingly tending to your walls, putting your energy and care into creating something original and highly personal. As Jacqueline remarked, "Paint effects need to be subtle, to create a feeling or a mood rather than a clever look."

Throughout the day we were guided from one project to another, following a demonstration, then attempting it ourselves. There was no arduous washing out of brushes and collecting of paints. The mess was conveniently dispersed in a sink behind the screen, and fresh brushes and materials would be laid out for the next project. As a result we achieved a great deal.

My primary trophy was a distressed picture frame - a rather impressive effect created by smothering the undercoat with candle wax, painting over it in top coat and rubbing the dry frame down with wire wool. While the others put the finishing touches to their frames, stencilling on fleurs- de-lis and delicate marine life, I waxed and polished mine for a more rugged look.

While we learnt about both oil- and water-based paint, we used only the latter, because they dry quickly. As Jacqueline explained, "water-based products are much easier to use, mistakes can be washed off or painted over and drying times are quick - creating special effects is much easier than it used to be."

Courses generally take between six and 10 people, to give time for individual tuition. People's reasons for joining vary from wanting to decorate their own homes, to professional decorators, both men and women, wanting to learn new techniques. Rachel, a researcher in the City, saw it as a pleasant way to spend a Saturday: "It's very therapeutic to do something creative that doesn't require a lot of artistic ability or intellectual input."

Our final artistic venture was a small terracotta pot painted in verdigris, stippled in two shades of green and finished with a fine line of copper- coloured wax. The result looked remarkably like ageing copper. That's one I will definitely do again, to transform all those plastic pots at home.

Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of the course was its objectivity. Naturally, we used the in-house products during the day, but Jacqueline gave us a good overview of what is on the market in both specialist and DIY stores. It was also not assumed that we all had dreamy houses; the course was geared towards giving you confidence to go home and do what you wanted.

Can I now earn a fortune decorating the homes of the rich and famous? Probably not, but I am now confident enough to give my home the sort of face-lift I thought I could never afford.

Paint Magic Courses run throughout the year in shops around the country. They run for one to five days; prices start at pounds 60 for a full day's tuition, 10am-4.30pm, plus materials.

For details, contact Paint Magic, 79 Shepperton Road, London N1 3DF. Courses around the country: London (0171-792 8012), Richmond (0181-940 9799), Islington (0171-359 4441), Bath (01225 423040), Arundel (01903 883653), Guildford (01483 306072), Marlow (01628 477707), N Ireland (01232 421881).

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