Chalking up Success - up-cycling tips from Annie Sloan
Annie Sloan's love affair with colour inspired her famous chalk paint, she tells our reporter
Art student. Primary school teacher. Music critic. Artist. Wife. Mum. And, eh, cult band member. Such is the colourful life story of the woman before me whose calling card is, rather appropriately, colour. And just when it seems that nothing can dampen Annie Sloan's infectious spirit I inadvertently hit on a sore subject.
"What's your best-selling colour?" I ask the paint mogul innocently (knowing that no conversation with the queen of colour would be complete without such a formality). Loquacious, warm and witty throughout, Annie's upbeat timbre suddenly changes: "Sadly it's white," she admits with a sigh.
White has been 'the colour of the moment for so long', riding high in the interior design world, with grey as its harmonious side kick. The fact undoubtedly disappoints Annie, though her voice brightens as she predicts its imminent demise.
"Colour is the big trend again. People have gone through the white phase and appear a little more confident and optimistic than they were. After the economic downturn of the last decade we've all decided they are going to be optimistic again and colour is a way to signal that."
Funnily enough, that same economic crash is the reason that her eponymous paint brand was catapulted from niche into the mainstream.
She created her famous Chalk Paint almost by accident in 1990, though it wasn't until 2009 that her name become universally known. "Business was steady for 10 years, but fell away a bit around 2001. There was 9/11 and the start of the economic downturn and everyone seemed hit. From rich to poor to middle class people were worrying about where they were going to live or how they were going to keep their homes."
One survival route was renting out the spare room, which resulted in a boom in the home paint business. "People were scrabbling around with old bits of furniture, sprucing up junkshop buys and giving rooms a face lift. Instead of replacing kitchens they were painting the cabinets. Suddenly buying my paint was an economical imperative."
She never planned to become an entrepreneur, rather falling into the role following a chance encounter. "I was occasionally teaching art to adults and I went to Holland. A bloke there asked me what kind of paint I'd most want to use and I described something I'd imagined would make a great paint. He knew of a small factory and took me off to see it. Despite being an unknown entity they were very interested in working with me." And thus began Chalk Paint's story.
Annie didn't dream up her uniquely textured decorative paint overnight. It transpired from a love affair with colour and pigment that began in art school in the 1960s. She spent seven years studying art in England, graduating in 1971. Born in Australia to a Scottish father and Fijian mother, her family moved to England when she was 10. Her father was a 'left-of-centre, free thinking' journalist and she briefly dabbled in journalism after graduation, but not before a short-lived career as an art teacher.
"I found teaching quite difficult. I was at a secondary school in London's East End and it was particularly bad, with students who didn't want to do art at all. You were doing child-minding more than anything. It wasn't at all fulfilling."
Next she worked as a music and theatre critic for Time Out magazine. Her father may have had connections to the Fourth Estate, but Annie won the gig on her own merit, thanks to being a member of a cult band. "We were called The Moodies, which was short for Moody and the Menstruators. We didn't make records although Island records wanted to sign us." They appeared on the front cover of The Sunday Times colour supplement, were friends with people like Brian Eno and were lined up to tour with Pink Floyd. All art students, the group were busy doing their own things and weren't interested in committing to a recording contract. "In those days you had a record label tell you what to do and we weren't up for that!" she laughs.
After the journalism Annie questioned her direction and realised that she was most interested in painting. "Modern art was very conceptual at the time, and anybody who was anyone was doing it because that's where the avant-garde was. I figured I could go back and teach in art school and become some sort of artist but I didn't want to do that. It's quite a tough and rarefied life and what I was really interested in was paint and painting."
She decided to paint for others, creating murals in people's homes. "What I wanted to do was find out about the craft of painting." She began research into decorative painting and studied 19th-century painted furniture. "People didn't have much money back then and they couldn't go to the paint shop like they do now, so I got interested in how people made their paint."
Discovering that farmers made paint from eggs, from milk and from glue further fascinated her. "Then I wondered where they got their pigments from and that got me on a whole trajectory of painting and the designs people made."
In 1987 she wrote the influential book The Complete Book of Decorative Paint Techniques, which was received as an industry bible. Three years later she was producing her unique Chalk Paint. "It wasn't interior designers that helped make the brand mainstream, it was always ordinary people and books."
Starting with 12 colours, inspired by pigments and the artist's palette, the range quickly grew to 24, and now has 33 shades. "I thought about calling it decorative paint but that wasn't very interesting, so I decided to call it something about the way it looked itself. When you make the paint you don't add chalk to it, but you do have something like chalk. People have misunderstood that."
Despite becoming a generic term, there was never a generic paint called chalk before Annie patented it. "I invented it to do so many things, to crack and be thick and be chippy and to make washes and be fun." Much like its creator, the medium is wonderfully versatile. The colours can be mixed together, lightened or darkened, the paint thickened or thinned and used as a wash on most surfaces, from wood to leather to concrete. The brand also offers a capsule collection of wall paints.
Despite white being the best seller (she makes three shades) Annie's pleased that her blue tones, Duck Egg, Provence and Aubusson, are big sellers too. Before heading off for three days of photo shoots for her new book Annie reveals that Graphite is having a moment too. "It used to be the colour of teenage angst," she grins, "but people are discovering that you can have a black wall with cool bits of furniture against it and a little bit of colour and it will look really good."
* Annie Sloan will be speaking at House 2016, Ireland's first high-end interiors event, taking place at Dublin's RDS from May 20-22. Buy tickets at a special online price now at house-event.ie
Buy your tickets now at www.house-event.ie/tickets and avail of the reduced online price.
Annie's top tips for up-cycling beginners
A side table is a really nice beginner's project, though don't choose anything too small or too big. (Chairs can be a little dull.) Rather than paint something new, I would go to a charity shop where you can usually find some reasonably well-made furniture. You can get a real bargain and something that is a little bit different as well.
Don't worry about the texture of your strokes: if you want smooth you have to use special brushes or use the paint in a particular way, so just go with the flow.
Choose a colour you like, not the colour you think it should be. Have an idea where you might put it once it's completed. Don't go for a crazy colour and find that it doesn't suit anywhere. Don't paint it white either, because that's really obvious. One of the paler blues could be good or even a really strong colour.
Carvings or engraving might look challenging but they're easy peasy! It's so much fun as you dab and stab the paint into all the carvings and then wax it afterwards. Finally you should rub off the wax to bring out all the details. That's so pleasing!