It's a sad irony that after I visit my father each day at a local hospice, where I can do nothing but comfort him as cancer wreaks its last, dreadful effects in his frail body, I return to my studio and immerse myself in a miasma of carcinogenic chemicals with no more protection than a filtered face mask and a pair of rubber gloves. The effects of this daily exposure are luridly apparent everywhere on my upper body. My hair is dry and brittle and my scalp flakey. My skin is mottled with angry rashes and acne-like blisters. The outline of the face mask is not only impressed into my nose and cheek-bones but reinforced by a raw tinge of inflammation. My nose bleeds a couple of times a day and my mouth is always dry.Friends (and correspondents to this blog) offer advice about how I should reduce – or, even better, avoid – the effects of the enamel paint that is elemental to my larger art-works. But after 12 years of working with the medium there is little with which I haven't experimented. For a brief time, I even took to wearing an all-enclosing 'hazmat' suit but it hampered my ability to paint with precision and delicacy so I abandoned it. Now I rely on the face mask, regular showers and the intake of several litres of water, little else.For a couple of years, I was hyper-sensitive to enamel. One whiff was enough to make me so nauseous that I'd throw up several times a day. I relied on assistants to apply the large areas of colour under my direction before I steeled myself to paint the fine details and outlines alone. Eventually, I became so ill, I stopped painting in enamel completely for several months and took to watercolours and ink. Still, I have a toxic love affair with the medium. Like a good drug, I can't leave it alone. I savor its luxuriant, glistening ooze as it coats the brush and its seamless, shimmering glaze as it dries on a canvas. In the second half of this year, I resolved to overcome my allergic reaction to it and produce a large number of large enamel paintings over the next 18 months. Then, I figured, I'd be ready to find another medium through which to express myself. I might be reckless but I'm not stupid: if I persist in working with this stuff it will kill me.
Oddly, it appears that my nausea might have been psychosomatic. I have been in the studio painting only with enamel or acrylic every day for eight weeks now and I was sick only a day or two during the first week. Now I hardly notice the acrid, sinus-frying odor, although the burning and itching patches on my skin are only just tolerable. Eventually, I will find a bigger, better ventilated and drier studio – I am planning on tackling a large three metre wide work under an open-sided outdoor structure, once the monsoonal rains stop – but until then, I will steel myself to the risks and discomforts and focus on the work.For better or worse, it's only ever the work that matters to me.