‘The truth painter’

We started out with twelve. Those little pans of pure sticky colour in a tiny travel box. They were a gift. I never got on with them; I liked my colours to be predictable, to stay where I put them. But Fred? Well, the way he painted had nothing to do with colour at all.

When he painted the sea at Boscastle, what he mixed up were not teals and aquamarines, but the untouchable truths of things. The possibility of the day before noon. The rabid energy of sea foam, clamouring for fishermen. The absence of water on the shingle, and the knowledge it would return. His paintings took shape in seconds, like an old-fashioned photograph submerged in developing solution.

I wondered how he did it. Then one day, I realised his secret. His subject that evening: the jaunty optimism of a sailor’s yellow raincoat, borne out by a glorious magenta sunset over the calmest of seas. Each time he changed colour, he dipped his brush into a tumbler of water, and the vibrant clouds of colour wound languidly into each other. Whenever the water became cloudy with pigment, he picked up the glass, poured its contents into the mud at his feet, and scooped a clean glassful from the water’s edge.

Until then, I’d always thought that a painting was a picture of something. Nature, through the eyes of an artist. But that night, I realised that Fred’s painting was not an interpretation of a seascape; it was the sea itself. The colour and the shapes held inside them a wistful, wondrous loneliness, the chill of mysterious solitary walks and edgeless holiday days. He didn’t just paint the sea; he let the sea paint itself.