“A paint chart is ostensibly about planning colours for your home, but if you break it down, there are so many aspects to that: dreams, frustrations, happiness, sadness, loss, family, hope, despair, fashion, identity… When you look at my work, you see a lot of ideas all at once,” says Rachel Spelling. Prior to 2020, the London-based artist focused on home interiors and painting elaborate murals, including a six-month project to recreate the original Chinese wallpaper pattern of Pitzhanger Manor, the former country house of English architect Sir John Soane, which is now open to the public. Vivid flora and fauna stretch from corner to corner, carefully responding to the surface area—an approach that also happens to work well on a minuscule scale.
Fascinated by the possibilities of painting and drawing since childhood, Spelling has a knack for expressing vibrant detail at on a variety of surface sizes. During the pandemic when everything came to a stand-still, she was eager for a new project, sharing that “one long lockdown day, I was at home with a really strong desire to paint some walls but no walls left to paint. There was a Farrow and Ball paint chart on my kitchen table, and I suddenly realised that each paint chip was like a tiny, perfectly prepped wall, just waiting to be painted.” Commercial swatches designed to help homeowners and decorators choose colors transformed into a canvas ripe for interpretation.
“Stone Blue” was the name of the tile Spelling tested first, meticulously rendering a tiny fish onto the rectangle. “It looked really strange and interesting, and the paint sat really well on the surface, so I painted another one and then another,” she says. By the end of lockdown, she had rendered tiny works in all 132 squares in the chart, and she was intrigued by the relationship between the bewildering blast of hues and subject matter balanced by the orderly grid layout. “I really enjoy the clash of the mundane, everyday stuff alongside the big ideas, because that’s such a key feature of lived experience and one that I found hard to put my finger on until I found this way of working.”
Spelling works on a combination of new swatch booklets and old ones, searching for vintage charts at car boot sales, charity shops, and other places where she might find examples that remain in tact and have surfaces that are matte enough to paint on. There aren’t too many out there, since it’s the sort of item that people throw away when they’re no longer needed. Finding an older one is always a thrill, and so is the experience of working on the delicate, one-of-a-kind surface. “There is much jeopardy when I’m painting directly onto a fragile vintage chart. It’s nerve-wracking, but I think the drama of that keeps me on my toes,” she says. “There’s a fine line between damaging something old and creating something new, and I enjoy trying to figure out where that line lies!”
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