The work of bespoke paint mixing requires patience. Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, a historic paint specialist and lacquer expert, undertook two years of meetings with Gilbert & George before they commissioned him to repaint their 18th-century Spitalfields home. Even then, they wouldn’t allow him to employ his usual method for dating paints – taking a sample and analysing it under a microscope – as in this instance they were more interested in shade and colour than historical accuracy. The result was walls painted in handsome Prussian Blue and Naples Yellow.
The process for bespoke paint mixing starts with a consultation, at which da Costa Felgueiras will delve into the history of the client’s building. He will usually come up with three or four samples, remixing until the client is happy. Starting at £1,000, da Costa Felgueiras’ services can cost up to £100,000 for a large house, but with this price tag comes all the skill and time one might require. The chosen paints are applied in three layers and will not be fully dry for a year (although furniture can be moved in the next day). To make his paint he mixes pigment with linseed oil, then uses a pestle and mortar to meld it. Many colours are still made using the old method of layering glazes over each other so that, say, yellow on top of a blue becomes green.
Much of da Costa Felgueiras’s time is spent restoring old buildings (he oversaw the repainting of Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham and is now working on the dragons and roof of the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens, which are a copper verdigris), but he also works on smaller objects, reviving old lacquering techniques such as japanning and urushi for clients including Burberry and the late Isabella Blow. He has collaborated on furniture with other craftspeople, such as artist Marianna Kennedy, for whom he lacquered gueridon tables with platinum and gold leaf, and he has also created a series of gold and gemstone-coloured cork vessels (from £770, available from The New Craftsmen) that combine historic paint and lacquering techniques.
A recent commission by British label Connolly for its shop in Mayfair demanded a bright yellow (the colour du jour), which would normally require the use of arsenic, once a common ingredient in paints. Health and safety prevailed and da Costa Felgueiras used non-hazardous pigments to create his jaunty shade. But a visit to his Hackney studio reveals the element nestled on the shelf between such poetically named pigments as Dragon’s Blood (a resin from Asia) and Blue Verditer. In fact, he has only ever used it once; it is solely permitted on scheduled monuments.
The hardest colours to get right, historically, are greens, he says; and blacks are interesting to him. “You ask people what black they want – brown black, blue black… they look at me as though I’m mad. But to get blue black, for example, the best route is to create a ‘lamp black’ by burning oil, putting a glass over it and collecting the soot.”
Resolute in his pursuit of slow perfection, da Costa Felgueiras says his technique is only for those who understand the philosophy behind it. “My paints will last forever, but they will change – they start to get patchy. Then you need to oil the surface, not repaint. But people forget that – we live now in a world where everywhere has to be so perfect and accountable. When I am doing historical buildings I often have to ask, why are you using modern plastic-based paints? Builders who are renovating houses I painted a while back will call me up and ask for the colour codes,” he says, with an eye roll.
As for popular hues, he is receiving requests for yellow and more yellow right now. “In moments of crisis people go for bright colours,” he jokes. But there is one shade he refuses to contemplate. “I am happy to do any colour, just as long as it’s not lime green.”