Spare Time: Paint your own monogram

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Ever thought you could do better at designing a dinner service than many of the professionals? Sally Staples checked out a china-painting class - and found it was fun

My image of china-painting stemmed from a visit, long ago, to an arts and crafts exhibition where stern-looking, grey-haired ladies demonstrated how to cover a teacup with delicate flowers in a series of deft brush-strokes. The spectacle was riveting, because each stroke formed a perfect petal or leaf. Their hands never wobbled, the colour never smudged, and the observer might have concluded that these women had either been practising their art for decades, or had been born with an extraordinary talent for steady precision.

With this in mind, I wondered what kind of people would have the courage to enrol on a course in china-painting. Would even the beginners display an innate artistry? Would the first week's handiwork look good enough to sell?

The atmosphere turned out to be far from intimidating. The students were all women, and most of the class were chatty housewives with varying degrees of artistic ability. They were there to have some fun, and not even the tutor, Hazel Faithful, wanted to paint petals on teacups with that robotic rapidity I had remembered.

"We try to aim for a more modern approach to china-painting," she said. "A lot of people come on this course because they want to do something practical without getting too messy. Some of them have a background in painting, which can help - but it isn't necessary.

"Quite often the students want to paint a set of dinner plates with a design or motif. They want to get a result quite quickly, and take something home. I try to stop them going ahead too fast, so that they acquire some basic skills first."

Each week, Hazel gives a demonstration on some aspect of china-painting, then the students work on their own projects while she goes round the class giving advice and guidance.

On my visit she was teaching them the importance of mixing paint. This comes in powder form, in small sachets weighing about 10 grams each. It is used sparingly and mixed with turps and differing amounts of clove and lavender oil, depending on the texture of paint required.

The paints have a cadmium or selenium content and some colours such as pink, red and purple contain a gold element, which puts the price up to around pounds 11.50 per sachet. On that basis, it is clearly cheaper to start experimenting with blues and greens.

Hazel explained that the rules of mixing these paints are different from those governing watercolours. For instance, mixing blue and yellow will invariably produce a muddy brown, rather than green. The colours used on china may also need to be fired in a kiln at different temperatures; it is important, when using a combination of colours, to know what the firing requirements are.

One of the most skilled in the class was Marsha Arrad, who was working on a set of dinner plates. She spent the morning painting a green stem with leaves on to two plates, which were then left to be fired in the kiln. In the next class she would add different-coloured flowers to the stems.

Mireille Robertson had a set of cups and saucers that she was painting cobalt blue, using a sponge instead of a brush to achieve a marbled effect. Untroubled by any intricate design, she worked speedily, and covered four cups and saucers in no time.

Peggy Powell-Brett, who is in her second year of china-painting, said she still gets neurotic about everything she does. In fact, her work is impressively accurate. That day she was tracing the outline of a kingfisher on to a plain white plate, and had begun to mix colours to paint the bird's breast and back.

"I started off painting ashtrays and jugs, bowls and mugs, and giving them as presents," she said. "For Christmas I gave my daughter a set of dinner plates. It is a satisfying way of producing presents."

Muriel Lasry was working on a clown design, which she planned to paint on to a plate for her three-year-old daughter. "Coming to these classes makes a break from the household chores, and a chance to spend two hours doing something for myself," she said. "Mostly I make things for my children; when they are older they will have a collection of mugs and plates they can keep."

The basic materials for china-painting are minimal: a bottle of turps, some surgical gloves, natural sponges, brushes, palette knives, a quill pen and a wipe-out pen for the inevitable mistakes. Hazel has a good stock of paint and china available for students to buy. A 10-inch white dinner plate costs pounds 2.85, but she says that bargains can also be picked up in many stores.

What most of these women enjoyed about china-painting was having an end product, and not needing to be an artistic genius to produce it. As one student said, while labouring away with the sponge technique: "When this plate is finished I shall use it for little cakes and tarts - whatever it looks like. With luck the next one may be better."

Hazel Faithful's 10-week courses at Kensington and Chelsea College, London (0171-573 5333) cost between pounds 50 and pounds 60. She also offers private courses in London (0171-253 5733).