Let’s get ready to decorate PART 1

Let's get ready to decorate PART 1

Oh hi there.  I just burned my left index finger on a heat gun and thought it would make a great excuse for a spot of IRN BRU and blogging.  There’s this project I’ve been working on – you see, I got family coming over: my mum, bother and a Roger (who’s like family anyway), and only one bedroom to spare between them.  It’s not really a question of space, not really, as we got plenty of that here in chez nous… more so, the rooms we have available are sort of scary.  Picture this: forcing ma into the haunted attic while Roger takes the cellar of horrors.  Or have my bro sleep with the spiders in the abandoned toilet behind our kitchen.  As much as the idea of traumatising our houseguests for life attracts me, the time is ripe for some good old fashioned painting and decorating.

The chambre we chose to do up as the second spare room, is situated on the ground floor and has been largely disused due to an old leak in the ceiling.  Naturally, this was something we fixed straight away upon moving in, but the space remained somewhat of an afterthought until now.  Filled to the brim with tools, doggy stuff and disused furniture, it was not a part of the house I was particularly proud of.  In truth, my distain of this room runs much deeper than I would like to admit, largely because there is actually very little wrong with it.  Sure it’s hideous and dated, but everything is in such good nick!  The ceramic tiles, for example, as offensive as they are, have been laid by a skilled professional to be perfectly level and the revoltingly orange wood panelling is as good as the day it was installed.
A shoddy real estate picture versus how we left the place having removed some wallpaper and fixed a leaky roof.
And I hate that.  I detest the fact that there is nothing really wrong with this room and how that makes me feel like a wasteful idiot for wanting to change everything about it just because it is monstrously ugly.
But how do you deal with dated décor, in a way that utilises all available resources to their best potential?  Impossible dilemma.  This space was scrapped in the late seventies or early eighties, presumably to turn it into a granny flat for someone who was unable to get up the stairs.  As the renovations were done with care and good expense my guess would be it might have been commissioned by one of the past proprietors for themselves or for a relative of theirs.  Consequently, no part of the original floor remains, neither a trace of the old fireplace, but the built-in cupboard/wardrobe was left untouched as was the circa 1910 wooden framed window – the only one left in the whole house.  Even with the nauseating mix of retro finishes, I think this turd can be polished without ripping the place apart, hopefully, resulting in a beautifully layered mix of old and new.
 
As jobs come, this one is right up my alley; being a painter by trade, I know how to spruce things up with a shade or two.  Here’s the plan – not only will I be treating the ceiling and walls, scraping, sanding and painting all the woodwork including the orangey tongue & groove panelling, but painting the tiled floor as well.  I already bought the paints, (more about those later) but before the fun begins every surface needs to be prepared.  My dearest James, who’s commuting back and forth between his job in the UK and Mazamet, was here to help me kick start it all.  He wielded the wallpaper kettle like a champion and managed to get rid of all wallpaper and their respected liners.  The more recent of the two layers from was already gone when we started – shoddily installed 90’s orange, but a thick layer of 80’s Miami Cool took for ever to steam off.  I took my trusted Mac Allister to the wood panelling and sanded away as much of the surface lacquer as I could. It was the first of many sanding jobs to come and, as I later discovered to my utter dismay, the easiest one by a streak.
Faded but still there – hand stencilled diamond pattern and remnants of florals
Underneath all that mouldy wallpaper, we discovered some interesting fragments from the past: a faded but clearly visible art deco paint job including a painted frame for a mirror or a picture (presumably of religious nature) and remnants of an older floral motif, both stencilled straight onto the walls.  All too far gone to be kept, sadly, but a lovely thing to uncover.  A weekend’s worth of serenity later, I continued the gig by patching up a few holes with plaster and skimming over anything uneven, followed by another run with the sander, this time leaving me, the dog and everything else in walking distance from us covered in plaster dust.
To continue with the theme of creating a huge mess, I started to prepare the tongue and groove ceiling for a lick of paint.  Beyond where the old leak had damaged the paint job, it was in decent nick and looked like an easy scrape and sand job.  No such thing.  It was, in fact, soul destroying and seemed to go on for days.  My dad would be proud to hear I was wearing my protective mask all the way through.  No goggles though, and listen up boys and girls, this is why you should always wear them: little sharps of paint can be really f*cking painful when they lodge themselves into your eyes.
But goggles steam up – it’s irritating.
It would make an interesting philosophical point to debate whether one gets more irritated with slashed eyes or blurred vision while sanding, but for everyone’s sanity, I won’t bother.  Do as I say, kiddos, not as I do.
Two sides of a door frame, one with layers upon layers of floss and the other stripped bare.  In the middle you see just a few of these lovely layers of paint.
And all this brings us back to the heat gun – the last instrument on my list of sorrows before the painting begins.  Well, I do actually love this part.  It is time consuming for sure, but isn’t it great to see the different layers of paint melting away before your eyes, revealing near-virginal woodwork?  Revealing traces of old paints, layer upon layer, decade after decade, makes me feel like Indiana Jones.  So you know, before everything got slathered with salmon pink, the woodwork in this room was cream white, yellow, light turquoise, teal, sage green, concrete grey and finally, deep chocolate brown, all brilliantly reflecting the changing fashions of different decades.
For those not too familiar with painting and decorating basics, removing layers of old paint does have benefits beyond getting to admire the tastes of previous decorators and burning various parts of your body while operating a heat gun.  Oil gloss in particular is thick stuff and a century’s worth of it can clog up the profile of your woodwork, making it less refined and less pretty. Tons of the stuff can also prevent doors and windows from opening and closing properly.  Likewise, there is a school of thought that believes in reducing the paint build-up of radiators for more efficient distribution of heat.  You can use a chemical paint stripper just as well, but I don’t want to risk our dog messing around with that stuff… and I love to watch the world burn.
Having gone back to bare wood there’s always the option of not re-painting it, but giving it a light sand and a protective coat of varnish, wax or oil of your liking.  But manage your expectations as not all wood you will uncover will look stunning straight off the bat.  In old as well as modern homes, inferior wood or knotty wood such as pine is often used on baseboards and trims instead of more expensive hard woods.  Most of our timber in this house, with the exception of our stunning oak staircase, is pine from the Montagne Noire.  Some like the look of it, some not and I will just have to take each case as it comes and see what bits might look great au naturel.  Like me, you might find evidence of old repairs and depending on the quality of the wood used, they can be treated to match the original woodwork.
Making everything ready for paint has taken me just about a week with the aid of a wallpaper kettle, electric sander and a heat gun – oh, and James.  His contribution was massive as it would have taken me twice as long to steam those walls on a ladder!  And material wise, I’ve used half a bag of patching plaster, so around a kilo of the stuff, as well as a bit of polyfilla that I found from the back of the cupboard.  The paint colours are picked, bought and ready to go as well as my rollers and a mystery stencil for the floor.
Yes, he is helping…


So, this is where I am at with my mission of eradicating forbidding spare rooms in our house: fingers full of burns, blisters and what have you, but very happy about the progress made.
AND, during my sabbatical in the UK, while I was neglecting this blog, I made chez nous an Instagram account!  Check us out and give me a shout out @cheznous21 – I’d love to hear what you guys think.
Next blog will be all about ‘dat paint, ‘dat paint.. no dribbles.



BLUSH – a two tone paint job


When the nights are drawing in and the trees turn golden, so does the painting season come to a halt.  In this damp old house anyway.  But before I got to pack up those rollers for the winter and curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of earl grey, from where I greet you, Dear Reader, there was one goliath job to finish: sorting out the walls of my artist studio. 

To be brutally honest, my atelier, the old crèmerieon our ground floor, has been giving me grief ever since we moved in; from the grimy cement tiles neglected to the brink of disrepair to the brittle plasterwork covered in chipped gloss and a layer of mouldy wallpaper in the most depressing shade of sunshine yellow, the space was an all-round disgrace.  The wall-tiles that used to frame the space were long gone, but the original double doors and two of the cupboards remained.  A third cabinet used to stand by the wall.  It was put together in the early noughties by the previous owner to secure the electricity- and gas-meters, but needed to be taken down to make way for a modern fuse board.  All and all, the atelier needed sorting out:  After half-arsed wallpaper removal and dismantling and rebuilding the old locking mechanism that kept the double doors permanently shut, cleaning and restoring the floor was the first big issue we tackled.  That turned out to be, frankly, utter hell, but throughout the course of the spring I muddled through.  The cement tiles still show the wear and tear of a century, but that is why I love them so.  Having been cleaned and resealed, they should be good for another hundred years or so.
 
Just a few snaps of how the atelier looked like when we first moved in:  The walls were covered tip to toe in mouldy yellow wallpaper and what was underneath turned out to be even worse…

With the tiles looking fab and out of mind, I was finally able to set up a working space for myself.  A tobacco-coloured ceiling got painted somewhere between the watercolours and I started scraping paint from the doors.  …And just like that, it was summer.


And what a summer it was!

As the mercury climbed from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties the newly exposed plaster started to dry.  It dried slowly at first, feeling cool and damp to the touch – a strange contrast really when the weather was as scalding as it was.  Then, as if overnight, it was completely dry… and flaky.  Small cracks appeared next to the old ones, the old ones growing into canyons, sending little feathers of paint and whole chunks of plaster freefalling onto my freshly painted canvases.  Not cool, I thought.  Upon closer examination of my walls, it became evident that some clever dicky had done a bit of patching up, using straight up lime plaster, rather poorly and straight on top of existing gloss paint.  No wonder nothing was sticking up where it was supposed to! 

At this point I had two options – to find a way to make these walls stay at least roughly wall-shaped or completely re-surface them from scratch.  I like to do things properly or not at all, but hey-ho, there’s a first time for everything.  I made an exception.  James and I had just agreed to spend some time away from Mazamet in the winter and starting the plasterworks during the summer at hand was looking unlikely.  I feared that if left untouched the plaster would go from bad to worse during the long damp winter and so a decision was made to bind them up with the toughest primer one could cook up, followed by a lick of paint and return to the problem in a few years’ time.
It may have not been a tremendous plan, but any plan is better than no plan…

…right?!
 
From a cracked up mess to… Barbie Dream House!
From the beginning I wanted to go for a two tone look as a nudge towards the rooms half-tiled past and the colours I chose were a subtle blush pink with plain old brilliant white.  Not exactly an epitome of timelessness, sure, but knowing this was to be a temporary fix I wanted to play around a bit.  I am not the first or the last to jump on the hipster pink-bandwagon, and that is fine by me.  Perhaps subconsciously all millennials such as myself are wishing to recreate the Barbie Dream House our Gen-X parents refused to buy us?  Perhaps it is because the Barbie Dream House is all most of us can afford?  For all I know, this house has gone through so many colour palettes and so many tastes – what’s one more in the grand scheme of things?  Besides, I thought it would look achingly cool.  Isn’t that all that matters? 

Now, boys and girls, try this out at your own risk – if you are not sure what products to use on plastered or any walls, drop by at your local paint dealership and ask around, there are qualified people being paid to help you not to cock things up!  I know a bit about paints and was willing to take a few risks with this primer job because the walls were already awful beyond the point of return.  After all, you can’t ruin something that’s already ruined.  This is not painting and decorating as I know it, it is damage management.  Now, with these words of caution, the primer I mixed was a combination of standard stain blocker, white emulsion paint (mr. Brico value range) and standard PVA glue.  Oversimplifying a little, most primers have adhesive qualities to allow them to stick firmly to the surface being painted and to offer a support for a top coat.  A good one has plenty of pigment for a complete coverage as you would want a neutral base (most commonly white) for the top colour of your choice.  I was willing to compromise on coverage in favour of ultra-stickiness to stop the surface of my poor walls from crumbling any further.  Adding PVA to the mix would also allow me to use a non-oil based solution to cover up the existing blue gloss paint.
 
 
Here you can see the various stages of priming and painting.  Last set of three images is illustrating the whole process from the beginning:  First picture is taken right after the wallpaper was removed and the walls were cleaned with sugar soap.  The ceiling has already been painted.  Second image is showing the same wall with just a primer and the last one features the complete paint job with the white top coat and Rusty the Good Boy lounging by the door.
Completely clogging up a wall with PVA is not exactly kosher: usually you would like your plaster walls to breathe a little.  Stopping a wall from breathing can eventually lead to moisture problems when condensation gets trapped under a layer of unsuitable paint and that, as you must know by now Dear Reader, is like pissing in your own cereals, i.e. not recommended.  In my case, however, sealing the plaster in a thick layer of unyielding primer was a necessary evil as I could not have these walls deteriorating much further.  Once the plaster is re-done – and when I say re-done I mean completely removing the old and re-plastering from scratch, I will be choosing my products with more care.  To mention a few UK based manufacturers, Farrow and Ball, Fired Earth, even the trusted old Dulux all have products suitable for priming, sealing and painting various types of plaster surfaces. 
But to continue on this priming journey – I chose to make my rather thinly pigmented primer bubble gum pink by adding a few droplets of fuchsia and ochre pigments and mixing thoroughly.  As a visual artist I got this stuff lying around, but if you wish to create your own custom tint, I warmly recommend hoarding paint samples and mixing them as needed.  By tinting my primer to the desired shade of blush I would need to use “real” paint only on the would-be-white top halves of the walls.  To completely cover up every last speck of that blue gloss paint, I chose to use a highly pigmented matte white emulsion.  The would-be-blush bottom halves did not have an existing coat of paint as they used to be tiled and thus required only a few layers of primer/sealant to achieve an even coverage. 
 
 
Before starting the long process of priming and painting I tore off what was left of the old rotten baseboards as well as the supports for the obsolete electricity cabinet, washed the walls with diluted sugar soap and covered my precious tiles with sheets of old wallpaper.  Remember boys and girls – reuse and recycle!  As one would expect, a lot of the loose lime plaster trickled off with a mere stroke, and plenty more came down when I was washing the walls.  In one or two places I deliberately chipped off some half-arsed repairs that were never properly bonded to the surface below.  If plaster has nothing to bond with, let’s say, when applied on top of smooth and unyielding gloss paint, nothing will keep it in place, not even a turbo-charged primer.  In these circumstances I would rather have lumpy walls with a few visual cracks than whole chunks of bad plaster falling down with the slightest touch.  

Crude, I know, but I am happy to say my butchery worked.  After a couple of coats of my special primer-brew the walls were set and crumbled no more. 
 
Working out the divide between blush and white areas was easy as the line between the old tiling and blue paint was still mostly visible despite of the odd splodge of lime here and there.  Painting a neat line between two different shades of paint isn’t always easy, but where I was able to follow the old tile-divide the job was done freehand with an angle brush.  Where I needed to work out a line, a used a roller and some of masking tape.  After the first layer of white paint had dried, I used the same soft brush to loosely go over the bottom line all around the room.  Some like their divides extra sharp, but I preferred a more organic look.  On balance, a bullet straight line in the middle of a lumpy wall would look a bit silly, don’t you think?
 
 

 

 

 

 
As far as I can trace it, the blue gloss that was covered up with that ghastly deep yellow wallpaper sometime in the late 90’s to early 00’, was only the latest of many coats of paint in that room:  Before the baby blue, the room had a tint very similar to Pantone’s colour of the year Greenery and before that, perhaps in the days of the crèmerie, it was clad in sophisticated warm grey.  It took me three coats of primer and tree coats of matte white to cover up these secrets, at least for a few more years.  More slivers of history can be read from the woodwork that remains to be restored.  Surprisingly it seems, the wood has always been painted – first in the same shade of grey as the walls of the crèmerie, then treated with a woodgrain effect (lovely reminder how commissioning a professional to create a look like that by hand used to be cheaper than just simply using actual wood), and finally painted white, rather poorly may I add, at the time the room was wallpapered.  It will remain to be seen how I will restore these details, but for the time being I am most intrigued by attempting to recreate the wood grain affect.

Artist studios have always been painted in light colours to reflect the maximum amount of natural light. I have visited only a few that would be anything but dominantly white or a specific shade of light grey.  The Art School Grey, as this colour is sometimes called, did cross my mind, but I wanted something more playful to adorn the walls of my atelier.  In the end, my own artworks have a certain frivolous aesthetic to them, something I actively try to explore though my usage of colour.  Perhaps, I also wanted to make a clear distinction this space is mine alone.  Not James, nor anyone else’s.  When it comes to the rest of the home we try to combine our tastes as well as possible, sure, but why risk a compromise of aesthetic in a space as important as my workspace?*  When the time comes to re-plaster and re-tile it all, I need to be more careful about my choices as they will be more permanent, but until then, I can afford to mock around a little bit.  Perhaps I will try out a new colour or a new material.  A cork pin board would be an interesting way to organise my notes, or I could give chalkboard paint a go.  Only the price of paint is the limit!
 
*Obviously, at a time when James wants to decorate his study he may choose the H-Block Beige for all I care.
 

 

From this angle, owning a house is great.  If a detail keeps bothering you – go and change it.  No storage – no problem, built some!  Change the lights or buy a new showerhead and go nuts.  The list of relatively inexpensive improvements is endless when there is no landlord to breath down your neck.  You can make a space your own with a pot of paint and a bit of elbow grease in a matter of days.  It is truly amazing.  Yet on the flip side, when the roof leaks or the boiler decides to go out of commission, you are at the mercy of your home insurance provider.  Succeeding to sculpt out a functional and beautiful atelier for myself is just one of those little things that I need to keep in mind when something unexpected happens or I get cold feet.   How boring would life be if everything was predetermined!  James and I are pretty level headed when it comes to taking on a project like this; doing the place up in small chunks, one day at a time, trusting our abilities and most importantly, knowing when to wheel in the cavalry of professionals.  

Speaking of, if somebody wants to come and help this strong and independent renovator get a few sacs of plaster dust and heaps of rotted baseboards to the déchèterie, I’ll buy you a beer.

Anyone?


Stairway to Heaven

Yeah, I know.  I had to.  I am a simple girl: our stairway was in a dire need of tender love and care and I had just the title!  Cheese or no cheese, I hope you will appreciate my next project that stands before you as a living-non-breathing-proof of the transformative power of paint:
It was dark.  It was dreary.  It was mahogany-tinted pine. 
 
I am of course talking about the tongue and groove panelling on the first flight of stairs leading from the entryway to our main living space floor above.  This particular section was poorly lit in the begin with, but the imposing hue of the pine was making the situation much worse by masking out the contour of our beautiful oak staircase as well as dating the space significantly.  Sure, we will be adding proper lighting to the landing area later, with the help of our trusted electricians, but in the meantime, replacing the whole panelling that was perfectly functional, just a bit depressing, felt like an overkill, hence James and I decided to give it a lick of fresh paint instead. 
 
The pine panelling was stained with a heavy hand and waxed to protect this lovely shade of drab.  It made the first flight of our stairs feel unwelcoming and dark and did no favours for the lovely oak stairs that blend straight into the dark background.
Having looked at a few colour charts we went with our usual: a tin of brilliant white.  With my pesky Nordic heritage and a taste for everything minimalist, it just felt like the right choice for this dark and narrow space.  As the panelling had been treated with both, stain and wax, I chose to use a Nuance Mono Créme multi-surface emulsion in matte finish.  Nuance is a French dupe for Dulux and this particular concoction is self-undercoating, thus sticks like shit to a blanket, fast drying and silly easy to use. 
 
As with any good paintjob, I started mine by sanding the panels.  One could use the good old sandpaper in medium grain, but I chose to fasten things up a little by cranking up my beloved electric sander.  To get rid of most of the old wax treatment, I needed to go over the area a few times before I was down to regular wood.  There was no need to bother getting rid of all the stain* as it sits much deeper than wax and my paint would cover it up easily with a few thorough coats.  Having cleaned the surface of all dust, I applied the paint with a brush.  A roller is certainly a more forgiving tool, especially for the beginner, but I do not like the way using one inevitably wastes paint.  The grooves of these panels and the fact I had to work with my hands behind the spindles of the staircase also made the brush a good pick for this job.   
 
*Stain is a generic term for (usually) water-based colouring that penetrates the wood highlighting the natural variation of wood-grain.  The more you apply, the darker or more vibrant your final colour will be.  It’s recommended you seal the wood after staining by waxing it or applying a coat of lacquer, oil, etc. to protect the finished surface and make it repel dust and dirt.
 
The tools of the trade: my beloved sander and wood, PVC and aluminum compatible paint – if these can’t beat the shit out of that faux mahogany, nothing will!
 I let my wall to dry overnight after the first coat, not because it would have needed it, but as it was getting a bit late.  Without my beauty sleep though, I could have been finished with the whole job in about three hours, including an extensive search for an extension lead my lovely husband had tidied away exactly where it belonged.  

Bastard. 

And here’s the results: Not bad I say!

 Having seen some photos of the new colour, he couldn’t believe how airy and open the corridor suddenly felt.  The fresh white paint is the best substitute for natural light in a space like this in my view and having erased the oddly red-ish mahogany tint, you can actually distinguish where our lovely staircase begins and the partition ends.  How clean it all looks certainly gives me hope when thinking about rehabilitating rest of our stairwell that is currently painted in varying shades of natural white with decades of dirty handprints and nicotine stains.  Yummy!

 

I’m not a great believer in art hung in narrow spaces, as normally I am too clumsy to risk it, but this little “home” sign felt appropriate here.  It was a housewarming present upon moving to France nearly three years ago now and will hopefully hang in our home, in this old house, for decades to come.

 
That’s it folks!  I think I can concur this was a small but transformative job – one that we would have tackled ages ago if only we had known how easy it was…  

Inspiration, Now – painting and drawing Chez Nous

Welcome back to Chez Nous.


Good news – as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting.  And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration.  Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.
 
Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months.  On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014!  To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:
 
Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010
Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter.  Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me.  It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealismto brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things.  Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful.  The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor…  I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.
 
Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces
But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home,and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago.  This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff:  The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols.  And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again. 
 
Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris.  The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends.  It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire – if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military.  But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed:  The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular.  Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain. 
 
 
Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts – a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.
With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind.  These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay.  Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now.  The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats.  I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here.  Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too.  Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.
 
Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving.  People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much.  We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old.  From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate.  Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change? 
 
Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles
By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art.  What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.
Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy
Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty. 
 
Painting is my way to engage with the world around me.  It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience.  My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters.  By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog.  These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home.  The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre. 
 
My front door.
Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local.  During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings.  And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here.  Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch. 

Little Bathroom of Horrors

Little bog,
Little bog o’horrors.
Little bog,
Little bog o’terror.
Call a cop.
Little bog o’horrors.
No, oh, oh, no-oh!

Yeah.  This is where we were just a few short months ago – stuck with a gross loo and a bath that could make a grown man gag.  Luckily, after a deep clean, what had felt like a sick joke was revealed to be a pretty decent little bathroom with relatively new fixtures.  We then set out to make it, not just liveable but pretty, on a minimal budget and armed only with my painting expertise and James’ endless trust in the power of DIY. 

This photo was taken on the day we first viewed this old house.  Something needed to be done.  Fast.

 

From the long list of complaints, the mouldy wallpaper was first to go.  I can only ask what sort of a sick bastard would choose floor-to-ceiling wallpaper for a wet space in the beginning with – Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, it was even IN THE SHOWER!  The only thing keeping the plaster work dry was a layer of ancient gloss paint, in better-than-expected condition, but stained with god-only-knows-what.  We were lucky to find out the tiles, on the walls and the floor, were mostly intact and usable as was the bath, although all of the grout lines had been painted with the strangest shade of acid green.

I know.  And don’t even get me started on the Asterix-stickers…  for shits shake.

This is the only useable bathroom in the house so our only option was to focus on small changes to make this space more practical.  We patched all the holes, gave the walls a new lick of paint and replaced a few small details such as the mirror, the shower head and the toilet seat.  The layout could be more functional for a narrow space and eventually I want to do something to cover up the very invasive waste pipe coming down from the upstairs loo, but for the time being I am pretty happy with what we got here.
As if the frosty minty wallpaper was not ugly enough, all metalwork in this bathroom was painted in the strangest shade of acid green.  On the right you see a comparison of the wallpaper and what we found underneath; banged up and stained sage green gloss paint.
Our aim was to create a fresh, modern space that would reflect the character of this old house as well as our taste, so we chose a moody shade of sage green, a bit darker from the original colour of the room, and paired it with a dominant, crisp white with hints of blush pink.  Sage is something we have going on a lot in this house and it felt like a good contrast for white that was used to bring light to this small and enclosed space.  Together with the grey of the exposed plumbing and the deep blue of the floor mosaic, I had a complete colour palette to work with.  James took a bit of convincing on the blush, but I think the finished article works rather well.
Choosing a über-trendy colour such as blush pink can be a bit risky, but if you truly love a shade, trendy or not, why hesitate?  Life is too short to fret about decor anyway.  On the flip side, it might be a good idea, before putting your money down, to think how easy a trendy detail is to change if and when the fab turns naff and how much it would cost you to do so.  As we were not ordering a custom kitchen or spending hundreds on paint, I felt comfortable experimenting a bit.  If we ever get bored with our little bathroom, repainting it would not bust our balls or our budget.

 

  This was my check list for the project:
– re-attach a few cracked tiles below the bathroom mirror
– patch holes in the plaster and a few on the floor 
– Replace the mirror – it was damaged as well as ugly
– fix or replace a broken shower head
– attach a rail for a shower curtain
– patch holes on the door and adjust the fit (the door did not close properly)
– Sort out all grout lines that have been painted over with that gross green gloss
– replace the toilet seat with something more comfortable
– create storage for toiletries, towels etc. 
– paint the walls, plumbing, tub surround and all trims
– Patch up the paint in the ceiling above the bath/shower
– attach a new towel rail closer to the bath/shower
– remove old towel hooks that were too far from the bath/shower
– decorate like a boss  

We did not have a set budget, but incredibly I ended up spending less than 300 euros on this update, bulk of if being the cost of paint.  As there was no plumbing or electrical work for the time being, I was able to do all of it myself, thus avoiding to pay for labour entirely.  Because we had to complete the painting while using the bathroom and wait to get the paint delivered, the whole process took a couple of months.  It could have been a week’s project for somebody with the materials at hand and another shower to use but taking it easy gave us time to think what we really wanted from this mini-renovation; what was necessary and what was not.

The paint I used had to be oil based in able to adhere to the old gloss base, so I picked self-undercoating Dulux Trade Eggshell in Brilliant White for the long walls, and Dulux Valentine Laque in Sage 4 and Framboise 2 for the accents.  We were in luck to have a friend pick us up some British paint as it can be silly expensive here in France.  Some say it’s not the same stuff either – and they are right; most Dulux paints sold in France are adjusted to the French taste in both colour and composition.  They are also largely made in France, therefore different from the ones sold in your average building supply store in the UK.  Not available beyond the French-speaking market, the Valentine gloss with a satin finish was pleasant to use and dried pretty quickly.

 
So the painting begins…
I did not need to use a primer when painting the sage accent walls as the transition between the old and new shades was minimal, but I did use a cheap white gloss I had left over from a previous project to go under the blush pink to stop the 90’s acid green from showing through.  Applying a proper primer takes time, but I would always recommend using one when you are painting a new wall or transitioning between two very different shades, especially when going from dark to light.  Primer helps the paint to adhere to the surface you are transforming and stops stains or the previous colour from showing through over time.  Also, a layer of primer will save you time and money on the top coats by stopping the wall from absorbing the paint too quickly – you get better and more even results while using less paint.
Another thing to keep in mind when using any oil/solvent based products is good ventilation – this stuff can get your head spinning.  It is best to wear a mask when painting and take care handling any thinners or the paint itself as they are toxic enough to harm your skin.  Not to mention flammable.  You must clean your tools with white spirit or turpentine and dispose all left over liquids and paint by taking them to a collection point.  Public déchèteries accept paint scraps in France, but check the advice of your local council if unsure what to do where you are based.
 
As a general rule, you can use gloss over emulsion but never the other way around.  The emulsion or any standard water based product* will not adhere to a base painted in non-water-soluble paint – it will just crack and flake off.  Most household paints today are water-based and whole walls painted in gloss, such as those in our bathroom, are highly unusual.  Historic homes have their quirks, but as an average decorator, you are more likely to stumble on an oil based product on trims, window sills and baseboards.  Replacing gloss with gloss is easy, but by stripping the surface bare, followed by a primer, you can use any type of paint.  Modern emulsion paints are hard wearing and come in all sorts of finishes so you can achieve the look of old-style gloss without using a messy oil based product.  
 
* There are a lot of contemporary innovations that allow all sorts of witchcraft, but I am not an expert on those. 
The Dulux Trade Eggshell, like most professional products, is limited in shades, but it is excellent value for the performance you get.  I enjoyed using it and being a qualified painter of one sort, did not find it difficult to manage cleaning wise.  The scent of the product is stronger than of those aimed for regular DIY use and you need to clean all the equipment used with white spirit or another suitable brush cleaner.  You can buy the stuff without a trade license, but I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners as there are plenty of products that get you the same results but are a lot more user friendly.
The clean and neat AFTER shots.  I am very pleased how it all turned out.
The manufacturer recommends two coats and I found this to be sufficient – even on a larger than normal surface such as my bathroom walls, where you really do not want brush marks or other imperfections.  I used a wide synthetic brush to save paint and enable me to reach behind awkward pipework, the radiator etc. and a smaller one for the wooden trims.  You could use a roller just as well, but for the most even results, choose one that is designed for oil based paints and prepare for a cleaning session from hell.
Thankfully, my James with his formidable 6’6 frame took over the roller in order to paint the ceiling.  This was a simple emulsion job and we chose to use Dulux Bathroom + that repels mould and is guaranteed to last a minimum of five years.
This unit used to be in our kitchen, now it hold all of our toiletries and a formidable stack of towels.  Not a shabby space for a spa day.
Having finished painting the room we needed to decide on storage.  Not being a fan of open shelving in a wet space myself, we decided on a vintage unit bought originally for our kitchen in Bretagne.  The chest is just about narrow enough for this bathroom and has plenty of draws and shelves for our toiletries and towels.  The existing marble shelf above the sink was cleaned and kept for our toothbrushes and it looks pretty nice with the new mirror thrifted from a local depot vente.  The dark wood of the storage unit, a fancy new toilet seat (mahogany, baby!) and the mirror frame really tie the different elements in this bathroom together.
The mirror is not currently fixed on the wall, but rests on a shallow marble self above the sink.
The towel hooks that were inconveniently far away from the bath were taken down and replaced with chrome-finished towel rings.  Our old textiles such as the bathmat and the shower curtain were still in a perfect working order so we did not feel the need to replace any of them.  The accessories, too, were from our old hoard of stuff, merely repurposed to suit this bog.
 
Finlayson towels – this pattern is called Elefantti and it was designed in 1969 by Laila Koskela.
I think it is justified to claim this Little Bathroom of Horrors has been completely rehabilitated.  As it stands, it is a clean, welcoming and sweet-smelling space – no mouldy wallpaper in sight.  No longer do I have to recite Hail Mary’s whilst seated on my porcelain.. ahem.. mahogany throne nor feel dirty after taking a shower!  And I cannot underestimate the importance of this update – after a functioning kitchen, bathroom is the most important room in the house for me; it is an oasis to escape to after a hard day of living on a building site.
Or removing Asterix-stickers from other surfaces around the house.  Bastards.
But going back to the bathrooms… my bubble bath is waiting! *Crabs the ice cold flute of Blanquet and turns up Steve Wright.