Find your marbles

Making it: Catherine Stebbings tries her hand at marbling and other faux finishes
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The Independent Online
Siena marble, vert de mer, tortoiseshell, malachite, lapis lazuli: these paint effects may sound well beyond the average home decorator. But they're not - provided you have some good training - as I discovered on a one-day course at Relics, a delightful home decoration and restoration emporium in the market town of Witney, in Oxfordshire.

The shop itself is a treat. Here you can buy pretty much everything you may need for home decorating, including the softest badger-hair brushes, oak corbels, and a fine range of paints, varnishes, waxes and tints.

Ten of us settled into a charming little room at the back of the shop, where we met our tutor for the day, an interior designer, Carol Spode. She is a rising media star who has made appearances on TV shows such as Our House and Good Morning with Anne and Nick, offering little gems of advice and displaying her flamboyant skills in specialist paint effects. By comparison, taking on a bunch of amateurs was probably child's play. She seemed to fill the room with her enthusiasm, and we were soon painting small jewellery boxes in tortoiseshell effect.

For all that the results look complicated, this turned out to be a surprisingly easy exercise. You start by painting the top of the box gold, using shellac mixed with gold pigment powder, and paint the base in matt black emulsion. From then on you use artist's oil paints mixed with a little scumble (thinning medium) and white spirit, first painting over the gold with a mix of burnt umber and burnt sienna and then painting random "s" shapes over the top in burnt umber. After putting yellow ochre splodges in the curves of the "s" shapes, you outline the shapes roughly with a little black, and soften these gently with a brush. Finally you make "v" shapes with burnt sienna at either end of the fuzzy shapes that remain, and soften the whole thing until you like the look of it.

The first attempts to follow these instructions are unlikely to be perfect. This is where the course comes in. Once you have been shown the various materials, how they work together, how to apply them, how to soften the effect and which colour co-ordinations work, a certain confidence sets in. Carol allowed us to see each error as a step in the learning process, which left us all feeling pleased with our results, and confident about dabbling with tortoiseshell again.

The participants were an eclectic mixture of amateurs and professional designers looking for extra skills. But the course suited us all. As Carol says, "Anyone could do this course; you don't even have to be artistic. It is a little more unusual than most courses but generally we are using familiar techniques in a more flamboyant way. I just make it accessible."

It was this slightly unorthodox approach that made the course so appealing and enlightening. Allie Ridley, a local artist, described Relics as her lifeline.

"I have done lots of courses here," she said. "I really enjoy learning fun techniques such as using feathers to stroke on paint, scraping it away with the back of a pen or splatting paint with meths. All this can be translated into my artwork, for a different effect."

Marbling was perhaps the one effect where real skill helped. The method itself is not complicated, but the placing of veins, the softening of colours and the depth of work are demanding. Malcolm Lax, a retired sign- writer, produced a spectacular illusion of Siena marble which showed all the detail, colour differentiations and unique qualities of the real thing. He admitted to having practised for a few weeks; his work looked like that of an expert.

For me the most spectacular effect was the vert de mer. Here green and blue were softened into a black background and then a shock of white was sent through it by sawing a well-loaded feather across the surface. Equally impressive was the finely lined malachite which, thanks to the use of a small piece of corrugated cardboard dragged through the paint in circular motions, looked remarkably like the real thing.

We finished with the lapis lazuli effect, which seemed sufficiently straightforward to practise at home with the children. On to a light blue, water-based, eggshell base colour, you lay a runny mix of scumble and ultramarine. Then you randomly splodge dots of black scumble mixture on to it. The next step is frottage (the one technical term we used, basically meaning "splodge with newspaper").

Having done that, you draw a river in the thick paint and sprinkle a dusting of gold pigment powder into it. Frottage again, and sprinkle a little more gold powder across the surface. The result has a depth of blue remarkably like the real thing, and will be great for covering little boxes for presents.

The day at Relics was not only helpful, but also fun and entertaining. And there were welcome extras: a good sandwich lunch was provided, and we were supplied with endless cups of tea by the saintly Laura, who also spent the day washing our brushes.

Relics, 35 Bridge Street, Witney, Oxon OX8 6DA (01993 704611), offers a wide range of courses including decorative furniture painting, cane- smithing, broken colour work and stencilling. Carol Spode is running another `spectacular effects: marbling and faux finishes' course on Friday 15 May. The cost is pounds 75 and booking is essential. All courses include a sandwich lunch. The shop provides an extensive mail-order service with almost everything you may need to achieve decorative effects and the restoration of furniture; including paints from Annie Sloan, Farrow and Ball, Old Village and Colourman.