Let the good times roll;Give it a go;Summer School

14th August 1998 at 01:00
Decorating might be the new rock 'n' roll, but it's one craze that Jill Craven is usually happy to sit out. A visit to a Yorkshire farmhouse changed her mind

I loathe decorating. In fact I loathe anything to do with interior design. White walls and board floors do me fine. So why spend a day learning about stencil and painting techniques? Possibly because the best way to conquer an aversion to something is to stick at it; at least that's what they say about flying.

I'm not the only reluctant recruit at Helen Lucy's decorative painting workshop near Castle Howard, North Yorkshire. Kate, a Manchester lawyer, says she's there for the lunch (it's provided). She's been "up the ladder" at her friend Andrea's house, but that's about the extent of her interior design experience. She does not want to be inspired - "that would be a dangerous thing". Andrea, a teacher who is with her, actually likes decorating and is currently doing up her living and dining rooms.

Irene and Graeme, from north London, are thinking of working together. He's a builder who wants to learn special effects; she's an officer manager keen for a change.

Until three years ago Helen Lucy was marketing manager of a Manchester catalogue company. Two years ago she moved to Malton and set up The Rag and Roll Co. She holds her classes at the weekend and works on commissions during the week; she is about to start transforming a Bolton health spa.

She's an encouraging teacher, with plenty of time for her pupils. We start with stencilling, which Helen says is an age-old way of getting something decorative quickly. Always remember that straight lines are easier to cut, she advises. My jutting bottom lip goes back in. This is not going to be too difficult.

We choose patterns. Irene is inspired by African and Aboriginal images, Graeme likes the classic Greek look, Andrea chooses flowers, and Kate admits she hankers after a sea horse. I want to have a go at kowhaiwhai, a traditional Maori pattern. It's an ambitious project, as there are many curving lines. But Helen is confident it can be done.

The first task is to get your design on to tracing paper. It's a little like plotting a graph. I'm following a kowhaiwhai I found on the guide to the Maori exhibition at the British Museum. It's about 1cm high, and my trace is 10 times that size. Things arty are not my strongest point, and my pencil stutters over the paper.

Helen rescues me, and the drawing is done. Next step is to put the lead side of the tracing on to oiled manila paper (about pound;2.30 a sheet) and, using a soft pencil, draw over the lines. Then out come the scalpels to cut the stencil, which is hard work. Not a lot keeps me quiet. This does.

In the afternoon we move into Helen's barn to learn how to sponge, rag-roll and colour-wash. I don't like the look of sponging, and Helen admits it's her least favourite technique too. But it's relatively easy. Buy a natural sponge from your chemist, saturate it with water-based paint mixed with water, squeeze it out thoroughly and away you go. We all try, and each person's splodges are very different - which is why you have to do a whole room yourself. You'll see the join if two of you have a go. My impressions look like something the cat brought up; Andrea's look like pink scrambled eggs.

We move on to rag-rolling. Tool of the trade? A pair of knickers - basic and non-fancy, Mamp;S job lots are perfect. Forget the Calvin Kleins - too much elastic, says Helen. "Screw your knickers into a ball - and don't let them get away from you," is her advice. One dunk into a glaze of paint and white spirit should cover a square metre.

Knickers are dunked and squeezed out. Now we roll them down the wall making diagonal stripes and never, ever, going over the same area twice. This also is a one-person job; no two people rag-roll the same either. And another word of warning: don't start at the room's focal point. Begin behind the settee or door to build up your confidence, then rag-roll away.

Colour-washing turns out to be my favourite. It's simple. All you do is wash the wall with an oil-based paint glaze. Helen mixes a glaze of aubergine and pink which Kate is convinced will be "dysentery-coloured". Instead it's a striking salmon shade.

We spend the last hour on our stencils. We use Spray Mount on the back, leave it for a couple of minutes and then slap it on the wall. With an emulsion paint mix and cheap brushes (not specialist stencil brushes), we stipple the colour on through the cut-out sections. It's a little like hammering with a brush - but not bashing, which is what I do. Too much paint and it will bleed under the stencil. However hard (or soft) I try, I do not get it right.

So what did I learn? That there's no real mystery to these things and that it doesn't take long to achieve different effects. What does take the time is practice, which is something you have to do until you get it right - first time, every time.

Most of all, I had a brilliant day. I managed to create my own stencil (Helen kept the tracing for herself; it felt as if I'd been awarded a gold star) and I no longer think bubblegum pink should be banned from the bathroom. Will I ever tackle a room myself? Probably not.

Helen Lucy's 'basics' course of decorative painting for walls costs pound;49, including lunch and equipment. She also runs a furniture painting workshop for pound;65. This includes decoupage, verdigris, antiquing, dragging and wood graining. All materials provided. Class sizes are limited to six, and there's a 10 per cent discount for a party of five or more booking together. Helen will appear later this year in BBC2's 'Change That'. Contact: Home Farm, Malton, North Yorkshire Y017 OQT. Tel: 01653 690672

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