I began painting my own home as soon as I had one. I’ve not yet put up wallpaper, although my mum often did when we were kids and I watched with fascination. I remember the heatwave of 1976 when she wallpapered in her underwear. She was meticulous about decorating (as well as most things) and I may have picked that up from watching her, even if I wasn’t allowed to help! I’ve become increasingly confident and adventurous in my home-decorating. When our stair carpet looked worn and grubby a few years ago, I decided to strip off the carpet, wood-varnish the steps, and decorate the risers using my illustration. This, along with painting the bannister and a panel along the wall took many months, but before completing the top step other activities took over. This month I finished the last step and made changes to a few others.
Our staircase is one of the things that attracted me to this house. I find staircases in general very appealing and they have many symbolic connotations which weren’t lost on me growing up. Grand staircases appeared frequently in the films I grew up on, with characters often dancing up and down them or arriving dramatically via them. The staircase scenes in the 1940 version of Hitchcock’s thriller Rebecca left a deep impression, but most memorable was A Matter of Life and Death (1946) a British fantasy-romance film set in England during the Second World War. It featured a huge escalating stairway linking this world with ‘the other’. Staircases have been used for the approach to temples and altars since ancient times to symbolise the ascent to the afterlife or to a sacred space. For me, staircases also represent the link between childhood and adulthood, with children generally not being allowed downstairs after bedtime. Staircases are compelling and I wanted to make the most of ours. I’ve used my illustration to give it a sense of symbolism and narrative, while tying-in colours and elements from around our house and garden.
While preparing to paint the stairs, which included sanding the bannister and removing all the nails and staples that had held the carpet down, I worked on a design for the risers. I planned this in a Microsoft Word document by first measuring the steps (some are wider as the stairs turn) and creating a stack of rectangles to scale. I drew quick pictures for the various elements using felt-tip and coloured pencil, scanned these in, removed the background in Word and positioned them on my design. The design has been updated as I’ve worked on the stairs. Here is the final one printed out – it’s quite a nice thing in itself.
I painted the risers with a combination of System 3 acrylics (which I use for illustration) and a collection of Farrow & Ball tester pots left over from decorating the house. These have great names including Dorset Cream, Dayroom Yellow, Dutch Orange, Charlotte’s Locks, Yeabridge Green, Arsenic, Vardo, Blue Ground, and Hague Blue. By using these paints in the design, I was able to tie in the decoration of the stairs with the decoration and artwork in the rest of the house. I started using Farrow & Ball paints about five years ago when I repainted our living room and wanted a colour that wouldn’t be taken off the market quickly as paint trends changed. F&B paints are available for a long time and then archived. As it turned out, I absolutely loved the texture of the paint and found it a real pleasure to apply so I have tended to stick with it. The colours are subtle, rich in pigment, react to changing light and have a nice finish. They seem to have a certain amount of black in them, which also gives them a vintage feel.
Colours certainly have an effect on my emotions, as I believe they do with all of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Colour has always been used for aesthetic appeal but has also had powerful symbolism across cultures throughout history. The Native Americans used colours symbolically to visually tell stories. The colours represented a wide range of things from elements in the world to personal characteristics. The ancient Egyptians believed that colours were not only symbolic but that power could be contained within an object if it was made or painted in a particular colour. Blue – one of their most popular colours – symbolised fertility, rebirth, life and also protection. Hopefully our blue bannister will protect us from falling down the stairs in more ways than one now that I’ve removed the carpet!
These days symbolism is much less obvious in our surroundings and people often make colour choices for their homes that are very safe, with grey and beige being most popular choices. These colours can be calming but ultimately make me feel bored and suppressed. I’m drawn to more vibrant colours with a warm undertone such as greenish blue, yellowish-green, warm yellow and orange, etc. I don’t find choosing colours easy though; a colour that I like can have a negative effect on me in different tones, if I see too much of it or depending on my mood. For example, I usually love yellow but if I’m feeling low, I can find it sickly. There are colours I’m attracted to yet wary of, such as red, and colour combinations I couldn’t bear to live with. I believe most people have personal responses to colours even if they’re not consciously aware of it. Committing to colours in a home is not easy and perhaps that’s why people often choose colours that are not… colourful. Over time, I’ve developed a personal palette of colours that lift my spirit and I know the extent to which I can use them before I get sick of them.
The flora and fauna I’ve illustrated on the staircase are of personal significance to me, such as those I see a lot of in the garden, feel naturally drawn to, or have depicted in my art. They also had to work scale-wise in the design and have positive symbolism. I love the seaside and often depict fish in my art, so fish were my first choice. Fish have had a wide variety of positive symbolism across cultures and religions throughout history. I used a few motifs that are in other parts of the house as well. Here are some examples; a painting I did for my MA show , some cushions and a tree mural I painted on our kitchen/diner wall as a background to family photos.
Painting while sitting at odd angles on the stairs was uncomfortable at the best of times. But the bottom step was so low I couldn’t get into any position where I could paint. I opted instead for a row of daisies using a shop-bought stencil. You can buy water-resistant stencil card if you want to cut your own stencils, and I used this to make stencils for the waves, the basic fish shape and a number of other elements on the stairs where I wanted a repeat of the same motif. But I wouldn’t have wanted to cut a daisy stencil any differently in style, so I just bought one. I’ve decorated with stencilling lots of times before and those chunky bristle brushes you can buy for kids work well for the paint. As a background to the plants and animals I used strong graphic elements such as the waves and straight lines to give structure and a sense of symbolism to the whole design, rather like an area of hieroglyphics.
The grey squirrels, jays, butterflies and rabbits are my latest inclusion. I had used shop-bought mosaic tile stencils for a couple of the risers but when I came to complete the stairs my daughter encouraged me to illustrate all of them myself. The butterflies are Gatekeepers – I liked the name and they fitted my colour scheme. Jays are one of my favourite birds. They eat acorns and so fitted in with the oak tree theme in other parts of the house. We have oak trees behind our house attracting grey squirrels to our garden. They’re a bit destructive but are such skilled climbers, cheeky, inquisitive and entertaining. I also illustrate them a lot so they had to be included. This was a very low step again, so I used collage, cutting squirrel shapes out of heavyweight paper, painting them and gluing them on using PVA glue. After a couple of days, I applied an acrylic satin UV varnish, which I have used to protect all the artwork on the stairs.
I completed the last step on Easter Sunday and Monday when there were lots of rabbit images going around so having considered all sorts of themes, at the last minute I decided to paint rabbits. I see them often as I drive past or walk through our local park. They run away into the bushes as I approach, with their little white tails flashing.
Our illustrated staircase was a very time-consuming and often difficult project but I love seeing it whenever I go through the hall – it’s unique, quirky and adds even more warmth and creative interest to our home. I sometimes wonder about what I’ll do with it if we decide to sell the house. I could leave it as a feature (my first home sold to a fine artist) or carpet it to be revealed years later by a very surprised home-owner…
Books I referred to when decorating the stairs and writing this blog:
Campbell, James, Staircases: History, Repair and Conservation. Routledge, 2013
Haller, Karen, The Little Book of Colour: How to Use the Psychology of Colour to transform Your Life. Penguin life, 2019
Hammond, Nicholas, The Wildlife Trust Handbook of Garden Wildlife. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 2002