How tactile it is. Oils and acrylics are viscous enough to hold the trace of the action of the brush. The swish of a stroke holds the gesture — the flick of a wrist, the sway of a whole arm, the splash of everything in the paint can, flung with both hands. Or, in the case of miniatures, sometimes it’s the smallest movement — a slight bending of the finger and thumb holding a brush whose tip might be as fine as a well-sharpened pencil.
- The materials. Melting wax and pigment together in an electric frying pan for encaustic painting, that childhood scent of crayons melting on the radiators. The material itself seems luminous. It’s good for painting things that seem to absorb light: icebergs, crow feathers, water. Sable or camel hair brushes, how grandly esoteric and Masonic sounding. Or a syringe, or a big, wall paintbrush, even a roller. Spray cans. Smearing colour with my hands. Rag paper. Plywood. Canvas. Varnish. Pigments with iridescence: gold, bronze, silver.
- Losing control of the image. Wetting rag paper and touching a loaded watercolour brush to the soaked surface and watching the image bleed. The transparency of watercolour paints, the restraint required to allow a delicate image.
- Being in the landscape for three or four hours and seeing the light change, so I have to put a dark-blue shadow under a lime-green bush.
- Exulting in colour. Almost tasting it. Seeing how shape is formed with light and shadow.
- Talking to people around me. I can’t talk to people when I am writing. But both activities absorb me equally. The same amount of concentrated attention, but each of a different quality.
- The moment when I see how a subject really looks. When I notice. It might be something that I’ve been looking at all my life. How scarlet that geranium is. It really is that scarlet. The leaves have a kind of serrated edge, and there is a purplish marking, a kind of stain, on the green leaves. The teensy red buds with tiny claw-like leaves pressing them closed, not red like drops of blood from a nosebleed, more fluorescent red, the instant-orange blood of a scraped knee.
- Working on an acrylic painting for days, and allowing it to change dramatically, so that it becomes a succession of dozens of paintings, and to keep going and not even care if it goes muddy and is ruined. (This doesn’t happen with watercolour, and I love the immediacy of that medium. Images in seconds. The trick with watercolour is to know when to stop.)
- I don’t think about what the images mean.
- They don’t have to mean anything. Everything means something. I think about it later. Over the last twenty-one years I have done three ink portraits of the same man while he slept.