Mixed media painting: 'Mutual Incomprehension of Mouse and Bat'. Mouse standing on a branch studies a bat hanging from  the same branch with a quizzical expression.
Mutual Incomprehension
of Mouse and Bat

Where do you get your picture ideas from?

I just sit and scribble. If I'm in the right frame of mind, I'll cover sheet after sheet of paper in tiny sketches. The ideas just pop up from some dark and shadowy part of my mind. They're as much a surprise to me as to anyone else.

You obviously choose your picture titles very carefully...

Well the titles often add an extra dimension to the work. But I wouldn't say I choose the titles any more than I choose the picture ideas. Once again it's my subconscious mind doing all the hard work.

So which comes first, the title or the image?

Usually they both turn up at the same time. Sometimes the title, like the picture, changes during the painting process. Titles usually get shorter and pictures get simpler. But I seldom work on a picture without a title in mind.

Does each of your pictures have a story behind it?

No - despite the fact that I called one of my shows Short Stories!

Each image is complete in itself. There's no 'before' or 'after'. That lack of context creates an ambiguity that I enjoy. So you won't get much of an answer if you ask me what any of my pictures mean. I'm in the business of creating mysteries, not solving them.

Do you deliberately choose certain themes to explore?

No, the themes choose me. It's often only after I've finished a series of paintings that someone points out to me that all of them are about loss, instability, deceit, death or whatever.

What role does humour play in your work?

It allows me to tackle disturbing subjects, like the ones I just mentioned, without upsetting people. Or myself.

Where there's humour, it's always dark humour. There's a certain bittersweet quality I find appealing. Most of my paintings are finely balanced between funny and sad, day and night, toast and marmalade.

Which artists have had the biggest influence on your work?

Looking back at the stuff I drew and painted as a kid - before I knew anything about the art world - I'm amazed how similar it is to what I do now. So I think I was always going to turn out the way I am.

That said, discovering the work of Paul Klee as a teenager was really liberating. I love the small scale of his work and his restless energy. And he was the first 'respectable' artist I came across who clearly felt it was possible to be funny and serious at the same time.

And what about influences outside of art?

Travel. Someone once wrote that "travelling is the ruin of all happiness". Ruined happiness is a great way to kick-start the creative process.

You have a PhD in Philosophy, which must be rare amongst professional artists. How do you think it has affected your work?

Well, my work is arguably quite thoughtful and reflective. But the reason I studied Philosophy was the same reason that I paint, which is that I find everything in life completely baffling. Philosophy didn't solve that for me. I don't expect painting will either.

Interlude

Mixed media painting: 'Chasm at Hometime'. Mountain landscape. Whitewashed cottage and car separated by deep ravine.
Chasm at Hometime

Would you call your work 'modern art'?

Does that term even mean anything nowadays? In some ways my work is unashamedly unmodern. Painting is unfashionable in some circles these days. But who wants to move in circles?

So you're not interested in working in, say, digital media?

Quite the opposite. A large part of my first solo show was about digital image manipulation. And I was one of the first artists to hold an interactive art event on the web. Currently I spend a lot of time tinkering with computer-generated sound. But whilst I'm happy to embrace new media, I see no reason to dump the old ones.

You have visited Japan several times, and you say your work is "fuelled by a wilfully perverse interpretation of Japanese aesthetics". Can you elaborate on that?

No.

How do you achieve those amazing enamel-like effects in your paintings?

With lots and lots of layers of translucent glaze, working on top of heavy, rough watercolour paper. It's a laborious, time-consuming process.

What kind of paints do you use?

Watercolours and acrylics mainly, but there are other media in there too, including touches of pencil, pastel, oil colour and inks. All sorts, really.

And what about painting tools?

I do some slightly nonstandard things, for example using hog bristle brushes - normally used for oils - with water-based media. And sable watercolour brushes with thick acrylic. I also work with anything that comes to hand, including scalpel blades, etching tools, sandpaper, cotton buds, fingers and thumbs.

How did you come up with these techniques?

By playing around. And having a few lucky accidents. It's a style I've developed and refined over the years. Like anything, you need to develop a feel for it to get good results, and that only comes with time.

How long does a single painting take to complete?

You wouldn't believe how often I am asked that question. And I still don't know the answer.

I work on several pictures simultaneously, otherwise I would never get anything done. There's a long sequence of processes involved, and paintings need to dry out thoroughly between them. So its hard to keep track.

Do you have a fixed work routine?

As regards what I do each day, no. I work in a cyclical way. I'll spend a week or two fiddling with drawings, then a few more weeks painting them up. But although I don't have a fixed daily regime I do have certain fixed requirements, including a hi-fi system and prodigious amounts of tea.

Do you find painting relaxing?

I never relax.

Do you have a favourite picture?

Usually it's the one I'm working on at the time. Mind you, I'm not keen on parting with any of them. And there are some pictures I absolutely refuse to let go of. I don't paint to sell, I sell so that I can afford to carry on painting.

Where do you see yourself and your work in ten years time?

I can't think ten days ahead, let alone ten years. And I don't plan where my work is going. It evolves according to its own mysterious laws.

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

Don't take advice. In fact, don't even ask for it.

Mixed media painting: 'Sharpened Carrot Murder'. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of 'The Death of Marat' ('La Mort de Marat', a Neoclassical painting by Jacques-Louis David). A toy rabbit slumps in a tin bath with the end of a carrot protruding from its back. On the floor is a rubber duck, upside down.
Sharpened Carrot Murder