Little Wonders: In Conversation With Artist Rachel Spelling

Written on 1st January 2021

Rachel Spelling never planned to transform the Farrow & Ball colour card into 132 tiny works of art, but when the UK entered its first nationwide lockdown back in spring, that’s exactly what she found herself doing.

A mural artist by trade, Rachel found her usual large-scale projects suddenly off the table as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. “There was something about the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown which made everything seem to shrink,” she says. The solution? Shrinking her work to fit.

A Farrow & Ball colour card sitting on a table proved an unexpected source of inspiration, and one dreamy doodle later, Rachel was hooked, resolving to turn each colour chip on the card into its own miniature masterpiece.

Having since completed the full palette, Rachel chatted with us about her experience of the project, her Farrow & Ball favourites, and some surprising sources of inspiration.

1. How did your colour card project come about?

It all started during the first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020. I usually paint large-scale residential murals. When the pandemic hit, and all my projects were suddenly cancelled or put on hold, I found myself at home with a really strong desire to paint walls but no walls left to paint! I had a Farrow & Ball colour card in my house. I’ve always really loved colour cards. One day I realised that because the colour chips are actually painted, not printed, they were like a tiny version of a perfectly prepped wall. Just asking for a miniature mural!

I found a very small brush and I painted a little fish onto Stone Blue. It felt good. It was quiet, kitchen table work which couldn’t be cancelled due to COVID. So, I painted some more – an eye, a swan, a hat, a little landscape… Suddenly the colour card seemed to be coming alive before my eyes. It was as if it was illuminated. It was so exciting. I was getting hundreds of ideas for miniature objects and portraits and scenarios that I could paint onto that vast palette.

“Suddenly the colour card seemed to be coming alive before my eyes – it was as if it was illuminated”

And so I set myself a challenge to paint all 132 colours. It took a very long time, and I just got completely lost in the work. I got so obsessed that I worked right through the night a few times. I even had to start wearing glasses. I finally finished it in September. I wasn’t sure what I’d made, who it was for or where it was going, but I put it on my Instagram and then I put it away in a very safe place! Since then, it’s just had a life of its own, which has been wonderful to experience.

2. Which is your favourite painted chip? Is it the same as your favourite Farrow & Ball colour?

My favourite painted chip is London Clay. I painted a little pebble with a shadow. It’s a wonderful colour to paint on, and I’d never used it before. The painting came together really quickly - it suggested itself straight away – and then I just looked at it for ages! I like Mole’s Breath too. I painted a small section of a city skyline on that one. There’s hardly any painting on it but somehow it has got a really intriguing atmosphere – the grey becomes a melancholy night sky illuminated by city lights, and you just have a feeling something is about to happen. It’s very cinematic.

I think my favourite Farrow & Ball colour before this project was probably St Giles Blue. I love a good strong blue. It’s a really clear, bold colour which you just can’t argue with!

3. How does your approach to these tiny, delicate pieces differ from your usual large-scale work?

It’s actually a lot more fun. It’s a kind of paradise to have every single colour to choose from, and to be able to dart back and forth between colours while the layers dry. Also, something interesting happens with the economy of brush strokes. Because the paintings are so small, you have to do an awful lot with each tiny brush stroke. It makes you brave. If you photograph the colour chips and zoom right in, the painting is actually much rougher and looser than you’d expect, yet it still works. It automatically has the confidence of scenic painting, which is something I really admire when it’s done well.

So, I’m going to take that with me when I do more large-scale work. My instinct is always to paint detail, but when you paint big the main thing is confidence. It needs to look good from a distance, so you have to be bold. Painting so many miniatures has been really good training for this.

4. What was the most challenging part of the colour card project?

As I was nearing the end, I realised that it was turning into something precious and there was a danger I could mess it up! At the beginning I was really carefree about it and I had nothing to lose – I think that makes for better painting. It looks and feels effortless. The painting starts to stiffen up a bit when there’s more at stake. My neck and eyes were also feeling the strain towards the end, so I had to take a few breaks and train myself to get back to the mood I’d had at the beginning, which just came from finding inspiration in the colours and pleasure in the flow of ideas, and being grateful to have a place to put all my ideas and energy when there were so many restrictions in the outside world.

“I would urge anyone who’s struggling with all that’s happening in the world to make something with their hands”

This project was totally wrapped up in the pandemic for me, and all the challenges of the lockdown. It really brought home to me the positive power of making things, no matter how small. It just makes you feel so much better! I would urge anyone who’s struggling with all that’s happening in the world to make something with their hands, every day if possible, even if it’s very small. Especially if it’s very small! Gradually you build something up, and you mark the difficult time that’s passed with something positive and creative. Making things makes things better – it’s not just a hashtag, it’s completely true!

5. How did you decide on the images for each colour? Were there any that came to you immediately, or proved particularly tricky?

I had a sort of toolbox of different rules for myself. With some, I was led by the colours. They instantly suggested ideas, and I just went with them. Borrowed Light, for example, felt like a gentle sky, so I painted a little cloud on it. Churlish Green is a meadow, Calamine is a skin tone, and so on. With others, it was more about the effect I could create on the colour. Eating Room Red, for example, is a really dark, rich colour and I painted a candle on it with a tiny amount of white paint. It just glows brilliantly and illuminates the whole colour chip. I was really happy with that one!

And then I enjoyed just bringing in ideas out of nowhere, like a film suddenly cutting to a new scene. I was conscious of jumping from close-up to wide angle and introducing lots of mystery and suggestion with the portraits. I’m a big fan of René Magritte and I realised halfway through that the mismatch of the paint names to the images came straight out of surrealism, and Magritte in particular, so I included a few direct tributes to him (a pipe, an umbrella, an apple) and I think there’s a sort of Magritte atmosphere to the whole piece.

“I want it to be something you can look at for a really long time without getting bored.”

There’s a randomness to many of the images I chose, but the colours are arranged in a logical sequence, so I think your brain instinctively tries to make rational connections between the images. But it can’t – there are too many possibilities – and I hope that that’s when the piece becomes slightly bewildering and exciting! I want it to be something you can look at for a really long time without getting bored.

Some colours were tricky though. For some reason, Setting Plaster was really difficult, even though I do love that colour. I had an idea to paint a tiny black and white photo of a 1940s wartime nurse on it. I just had a hunch that it would look good. But it didn’t. The nurse was just too small and didn’t show up well on the background colour. I tried and tried and just couldn’t get it to work, so in the end I had to turn her into a slightly abstract metal pipe!

6. We recently asked you to paint a miniature for each of our 2021 trend colours based on their sources of inspiratioN. Which colour story surprised or intrigued you the most?

Of them all, I think it was the simplest story I was most interested in – Pitch Blue, which takes its name from pitch tar, as it contains a lot of black. It looks like a very beautiful, deep, soft blue – you don’t think of black when you look at it. I’m really interested in what happens when you add black to a colour. I used to avoid it but over time I’ve realised it’s magical. It gives a colour a really complex, interesting atmosphere.

Pitch tar is a fascinating material, too. It moves incredibly slowly and takes several years to form one drop. I decided to paint a pitch drop experiment, which is a long-term laboratory experiment to measure the flow of the liquid. I discovered that one experiment has been running since 1927 and only nine drops have fallen!

This seemed to match the tone of voice of the Pitch Blue colour, which has a kind of slow-release beauty. It’s heavy and quiet. So, it was the process of researching the colour story and painting the chip which really revealed the colour to me and made me completely fall in love with it, actually. I definitely need to find a wall for that one soon!

To see more inspiration from Rachel, visit her at www.studiospelling.com or @studiospelling on Instagram.

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