Before the pandemic, Rachel Spelling painted large-scale residential murals. During lockdown, she began to create miniatures on paint charts, discovering a rich new visual language.
A chance reading of a magazine article opened up a different method of working for Rachel Spelling. It not only introduced her to new artistic influences but to a new way of working.
As Spelling describes it, "I had a turning point in 2018 when I read an article in the World of Interiors about Alasdair Peebles, a decorative artist."
Peebles had been commissioned to recreate an early 19th-century Chinese wallpaper from scratch in Sir John Soane's house in Ealing, Pitzhanger Manor.
Spelling wrote to Peebles, asking him if he needed an assistant. "I randomly emailed him, and he said yes. I had a three-hour painting session in his studio. The work took more than six months, and it just blew my mind and helped me understand this world of decorative painting and had a rich history and tradition that changed everything for me."
The decorative scheme on the Chinese wallpaper was intricate, and incredibly, there was no repeat in the pattern. This meant that thousands upon thousands of leaves needed to be painted, and each square metre to many hours as it was built up in careful stages.
The finished effect is incredibly beautiful and had a far-reaching influence on Spelling's work. "It helped me understand this world of decorative painting, which has a rich history and tradition. It changed everything for me. From then on, I felt I went up a gear and started developing my own vision for how an interior could work."
The career trajectory of an artist is rarely an easy one. As a child, Spelling was always creating, whether drawing or painting. Upon leaving school, she went straight into an art foundation course at Central St Martin's in London and then studied sculpture at the college.
Keen to develop as an artist, Spelling spent four years in Berlin in 1998. "I went there with about £50 in the back pocket of my jeans," she remembers. It was a tough time, but there were plenty of empty studio spaces, and she also had a chance to get to know the art community in Berlin.
Coming back to London was a make-or-break time. "After finishing my MA at Goldsmith's, it's that tricky moment when you leave art school, and it's really difficult to make your way as an artist."
The way forward was creating large-scale murals, and Spelling saw there was a market in this format. "I could see there was a business here, and it was something I enjoyed doing."
And then, the world changed in 2020 with the Covid pandemic. As with many creatives, work dried up. "It seemed very bleak at first. Everything was cancelled, but I found comfort and pleasure in making things."
The work of the artist can be very solitary, so for many working in this field, the thought of spending hours in quiet, contemplative silence can be very appealing to get work done. However, as a mother of a young child, Spelling didn't get that much solitude.
She began playing around with an idea that had been bubbling up for some time. Spelling thought she would use paint charts to work on. "I had them all laid out on my bed and thought I would paint one to see what it would look like."
Upon starting, Spelling found she couldn't stop. "I had a lot of Farrow & Ball paint charts and thought I would try one out to see how the paint would sit on it – which it did beautifully – it is a perfect surface to paint on. I couldn't resist painting one after the other. I certainly didn't understand it would change my life."
What began as a strange experimentation – a project to undertake during the pandemic – had metamorphosed into something else and was taking on a trajectory of its own. As the world returned to normal and Spelling got back to her studio, she realised, "This is what I really want to do. I stayed up late, and the artworks came alive, like a new visual language I could infinitely develop."
Spelling had been using Farrow & Ball colour charts, and very quickly, the company got in touch. Joa Studholme, the colour curator at Farrow & Ball, contacted her, as did the company's creative director, Charlotte Crosby. "They were excited by my work and commissioned me to paint some specifically for their 2021 trend colours. The reach of these projects gave me lots of exposure, and I received a phenomenal number of messages."
Almost by accident, Spelling had stumbled upon an unexplored niche in the world of miniatures. The direction of her art changed dramatically from working on large-scale murals to "scaling things down."
The art of miniatures is centuries old and probably best exemplified in the work of Nicholas Hilliard (c 1547 – January 1619). He is famous for the portrait miniatures of Elizabeth 1 and James 1.
Spelling says the way she paints is very different from this early master of the technique. She doesn't use water colour but acrylic paint, which is best for the surface of the paint chart. "Your brush has to be quite robust, so there is a limit to how small I can go."
In contrast, Hilliard is believed to have used a very fine pointed squirrel hair brush for his miniatures.
There is also a difference of emphasis in Spelling's work as she is interested in creating work that doesn't need to be looked at with the aid of a magnifying glass.
"It's not only theatrical but also has an element of channel hopping or Google image search that we are well acquainted with – multiple channels of information."
This is where Instagram enters the picture. Spelling had never been a huge fan of social media and did it, as many creatives do, just to have a presence out there. She started posting these new works to her Instagram account, and to her amazement, it went viral.
"I love using Instagram now. I understand how much fun it can be. I've made so many great connections. When Instagram works, it really can make a huge difference. For artists and designers, it can level the playing field. Without a marketing budget, it can be difficult just to get a foothold in the marketplace and reach an audience.
Going from just a couple of hundred followers, Spelling now has nearly 12,000, which is invaluable in launching products. "They will sell straight away because of Instagram."
Social media also makes it possible to engage with other people, not only artists but also art enthusiasts. The majority of Spelling's followers are from the UK, as well as the US, France, Italy, Germany and Japan.
The interesting thing here is the response from people who get in touch with Spelling about their readings of her work. "They see things that seem really obvious that I didn't think about. The viewer can take the narrative wherever they want."
It's a response and a two-way conversation with an audience that many artists would envy.