'Oooo that’s really not bad, not bad at all.’ Peter leaned backwards slightly, titled his head to the side and re-scrutinized the canvas on my easel. I squinted at the brown and yellow smears, then turned and narrowed my eyes at him. ‘Really?’ ‘Absolutely!’ He reminded me a little of Neil Buchanan presenting Art Attack, when he’d needed to encourage one of the more artistically challenged children. ‘You know,’ he continued without a hint of sarcasm, ‘you can tell you come from a creative family, you have a natural aptitude for this, it must be in the genes.’ I too leaned back from the painting and tilted my head, hoping that this would offer a more favorable angle. ‘Well, I’ve never really done this before, not life drawing and not with oils. I guess it’s not bad. For a first go…’ I looked at Ingrid’s curvy form stretched out on the chaise longue, ‘…Kind of abstract.’
I had been working frantically, brushing paint to canvas, for three hours. The oils had worked their way up my forearms to my elbows and had been smeared across my cheek and brow. It reminded me of a photo in the Museum of Modern Art of the French-American artist Nikki de Saint Phalle: her sleeves rolled up, her hands covered in paint, her face spattered and her hair sticking up on end. I love that photograph. I love Nikki de Saint Phalle. It was, in part, my infatuation with her that made me want to move to Nice in the first place. I looked at the composition again. I was a mere novice, my opinion hardly counted for much. Peter was the expert. And Peter swore it was good. Maybe, I thought, he’s hit on something here; maybe this is my destiny. Suddenly it occurred to me that there was little point toiling away as a cash-strapped scribe if my natural talents were more inclined towards the visual arts. Artists made tons of money. Look at Damian Hirst. He earned millions for chopping up livestock.
As the week at the retreat progressed I found myself increasingly absorbed by my newly acquired passion for painting. Instead of writing, I used my time off from modeling to go down to the studio in the basement and in my oversized man’s shirt and apron I’d splash the paint on my canvas with wild abandon. ‘Your father says you can’t possibly have painted anything that good in a few hours,’ my mother said on the phone one evening, trying to quell the artistic fire burning in my belly. ‘How long did your grandfather take to finish an oil portrait? Months, that’s how long.’ ‘Honestly Mum, Peter says that I’m a natural. As you’ve just pointed out, it’s probably in my blood.’ ‘Darling,’ she sighed, ‘do we honestly think that this is enough on which to base a new career as a professional artist?’ Admittedly, I had spent the past six months touting myself as the next Jackie Collins and now I was threatening to ditch the romantic novel thing so that I could experiment with installation art, probably it was a lot to digest. So I didn’t argue and instead made a mental to note to say ‘I told you so’ when my first solo exhibition opened at the White Cube.
On the final evening, when I refused a glass of champagne because I didn’t want to stop painting, I understood what a profound impact week erotica had had on me. ‘You are really clever,’ one of the lady students tottered over to my easel with her bubbly, ‘clever to be painting.’ Her Scandinavian lilt was almost musical. ‘If only my mother was around to hear you say that,’ I sighed, ‘maybe then she’d accept that this is my true path.’ She shook her head and sang, ‘In Norway we say “You only borrow your children” and that is what I would tell to your mother if she were here. Really.’ Cryptic and wise, I had no idea what she was talking about but it sounded good so I nodded enthusiastically. As the rest of the group made their way upstairs for the last supper, Peter tried to pull the pallet from my resistant fingers. ‘I’m not ready,’ I moaned as we tugged it back and forth. ‘Do I have to leave tomorrow? Can’t I stay here, at the commune, forever’ He shook his head at me, ‘No, you can’t. And we’re an international art school if you don’t mind.’
Next day, staring at the grim façade of my apartment block from his van window, I looked like a caged cat on its way to the vet. I thought of the domestic drudgery, the plates of beans on toast and the neighbour’s hip hop beats banging through the wall. ‘Please Peter,’ I wailed, ‘don’t make me go back out there. I’m not sure that I can.’ He laughed and went to fetch my suitcase from the boot before opening my car door. He thought I was joking? Before abandoning me on the street curb, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now don’t forget, keep at the painting. It’ll be good for you. It'll feed the writing.’ Yes, I thought, I suppose there is always my painting. I wondered where all the trendy artists in Nice hung out. If I found them I could have Yves Klein parties and maybe set up a commune of my own. 'Yes, I'll paint every day,' I said out loud to myself as I rummaged through a storage box for an unused water colour set. I put the paints down next to my computer and promised to pick them up the following morning. And then I started to type.