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WRITING WET-IN-WET


Throughout the 1970s and 80s I was in love with light and colour and longed to become an artist. In the summer of 1974, working and living-in at a holiday hotel on the South African coast midway between Cape Town and Durban, I filled free afternoons by walking along the dusty road that led to town and ended at the public library. Along with novels - by Flaubert, Zola, Balzac and Dumas (for I was drawn to all things French, then), I would stagger back carrying an armful of the framed prints of famous paintings which the library loaned out for two weeks at a time. Somehow I kept van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, with its yellow light spilling onto the pavement and its orbs of starlight in a Prussian blue sky, on continuous renewal. It hung at the end of my narrow bed, and whenever I think of those distant afternoons sleepily engrossed in Madame Bovary, or The Three Musketeers, it is against a backdrop of blue and yellow, of van Gogh's whirling stars.

Over the years I gathered art books, sable brushes and tubes of colour. I studied with many different teachers, and eventually the South Australian artist, Ruth Tuck, taught me the watercolour technique called wet-in-wet. It is a method of allowing pure colours to meet and merge on soaking wet paper; grains of pigment pool and sink in the shallow dimples of the paper, where, mixed by the human eye, they form more complex and beautiful hues than can ever be mixed on a palette. A certain amount of control is possible, but mostly it's a question of choosing colours and then working with the flow, of knowing when to use a paintbrush and when to step away, lest one's breath become a current as the paint and water to do their work.

Wet-in-wet became my preferred painting method; it produced softly luminous pictures which, when dry, looked as if they had spontaneously blossomed on the paper. I have always loved walking past lighted windows at night, and the subjects that excited me back then are the ones I now love to draw with words: the interiors of houses where complex domestic dramas are played out, rooms busy with clutter, simple still life arrangements which speak of entire worlds, some of which are sunny, some dark. Pierre Bonnard said he wanted to paint 'all that one sees upon entering a room' and that was what I wanted to paint, too; it's what I still aim for when writing.

I love to write at least one moment of silence in a novel, a few seconds of emptiness or arrested motion, an Edward Hopper-like stillness in which every object vibrates with the intensity of a lawn full of crickets, though soundlessly. Towards the end of Nights in the Asylum, a young woman stands outside a truck stop cafe and looks through the window into the gaudy interior where she works, as if for the first time; she notices the humming refrigerators, smeary surfaces, cheap cutlery and paper napkin dispensers; she sees her own future stretching monotonously away into bleak old age. The truck stop waitress is a minor character, and yet, like a stroke of Rose Madder Genuine on wet paper, she has the power to contain the movements of others.

Writing a novel which incorporates many different story strands is not unlike the wet-in-wet process of watercolour painting. Characters are set down and allowed to mingle; chemical reactions take place. It is one method of writing, a painterly method in which accidents can occur that turn everything to mud. But on a good day you can end up with a scene that seems somehow to have written itself, one in which a certain amount of white space is left for the reader to mix the colours. Write enough of these scenes and you have a novel which has grown organically, pages filled with complex and intriguing juxtapositions that couldn't have been arrived at in any other way.

Ruth Tuck
22.7.1914 - 10.10.2008

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