With his award-winning book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon established himself as one of the most popular writers of our time.

Other adult books, such as his acclaimed A Spot of Bother, and his almost 20 children’s titles only reinforced his position at the heart of the British cultural landscape. But Mark, who studied at Merton and lives in Jericho (and, before that, a stone’s throw from The Oxford Times on Osney Island), has multiple strings to his bow, not least a sideline as an accomplished artist – which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his illustrated children’s books.

His work has now gone on show at the Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Summertown as part of its Christmas exhibition.

“I paint for the same reason I write,” he says. “In the hope that I might just be able to give someone the same experience I get from work which has moved and inspired me.”

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a stepping stone between children’s books and literary fiction. Moving from illustration to painting was harder.

“The freedom of abstraction and semi-abstraction helps, as does forcing myself to use non-traditional equipment: acrylic on mountboard, scalpels and syringes, rags corks, glue... If nothing else, I know that the pictures won’t look like pictures made by anyone else, including the person I used to be 10 years ago.”

His abstract work explores form and shape using mixed media and bold pattern and colour, with geometric forms colliding and contrasting.

Mark adds: “I had spent 20 years drawing illustrations in two very distinct styles; energetic pictures in coloured inks for magazines and children’s books, and more sober black and white pen-portraits for newspapers.

“That kind of work lays down some very persistent muscle memories and the way I paint is guided, in part, by an attempt to sidestep those memories and make pictures in a completely different way.”

Natural landscapes, albeit abstract, feature heavily.

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“As I get older I find myself less and less comfortable in cities and towns, and more and more comfortable in places where there are no people and few human objects,” he says. “I live in Oxford and I can’t get from one end of the week to the other without three or four visits to Wytham Woods, Port Meadow or Shotover.

“Give me a big hill, some water and a single farmhouse and I’m happy. I’m not a great traveller, but when I do travel, it is landscapes which stay with me: the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver Island; the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland; la Brèche de Roland in the Pyrenees; Skomer Island... One of the most astonishing things I have ever seen was a view of icebergs calving in the bays of Greenland from the window of a Boeing 747.”

He goes on: “I love landscapes so much that I find most landscape paintings disappointing (though one of my most beloved possessions is a picture of a stream in Norfolk by Tai-Shan Schierenberg). Why produce a poor copy of something when you can walk through it, or climb it, or swim in it?

“Consequently, I’ve only on the rarest of occasions sat down to paint a particular landscape. However, the idea of landscape hovers at the end of every picture I make.

“I aim to make alternative landscapes, landscapes in different worlds, not surfaces to look at, but environments you can lose yourself in.”

Colour also appears to be significant – with work composed of blocks of very intense colour.

He agrees. “Let me put it this way,” he says. “There is a Land Rover which is regularly parked on one of the roads near our house.

“Once upon a time it was obviously postbox red. Sunshine, rain, cold and grit, however, have worn away at the surface and it is now the most gorgeous shade of faded, rust-pocked pink.

“Every time I walk past, it lifts my spirit. Conversely, someone else who lives nearby owns a Fiat 500 in bubblegum pink. It is an abomination. Colours matter.”

It’s all very different to the work he was used to doing for his own books.

“I spent many years working as an illustrator, for newspapers, magazines and children’s books. After that long a time your hand gets into habits which you can no longer shake off,” he says. “So, I work with acrylic paint on mount board. I use scalpels and sponges and syringes and sandpaper and masking tape.

“It’s like learning a new language. After a while you starting thinking in a new way. You realise that you can say different things. And you can be a different person.”

“Nearly everything I do is an experiment,” he adds. “I paint it. I leave it on the floor for several weeks. I paint over it. I chop it up. I start to learn which shapes, which colours, which lines have resonance and remain interesting.

“I like capsule shapes because they always seem to be saying something slightly different. Now they’re cures, now they’re toxins, now they’re tiny vehicles, now they’re viruses, now they’re a family, now they’re a crowd of strangers.

“They’re pleasing, too, because they’re constructed from two identical circles just touching. It’s one of those symmetries which the unconscious mind notices and gets pleasure from without letting the conscious mind in on the secret.”

So does he have a particular routine in the studio?

“Dear God, I wish! had a routine,” is the succinct answer.

“As far as writing goes, I seem to spend most of my time not being able to do it. This can’t be entirely true because I look back and see that I’ve written quite a few books, but the subjective experience is that of a long, steady trudge up hill.

“I’ve recently finished a novel, The Porpoise, which will be published in May 2018. The downside is that I now have to think of a new idea, good enough to justify two or three years of work. The upside is that i get to spend whole days painting.”

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And does his writing feed into his painting – or vice versa?

“Let’s say they complement one another really well.

“One of the joys of painting is that it can be done with very few words,” he adds. “If I’m writing, I’m constantly talking to myself. When I’m painting, there is silence inside my head, which is a great relief. And yet... ultimately, the job of painting well and the job of writing well both boil down to the same puzzle: will a complete stranger be moved by this?”

“There really are no other rules. This is the only thing that matters. At every point you have to stand back from the picture – or read back what you’ve written – and pretend that you’re seeing it or reading it for the first time. Am I entertained? Am I excited? Do I want more?

“If the answer is, ‘no’ then it’s not working.”

  • Mark Haddon’s work is on show in the Christmas Exhibition at Sarah Wiseman Gallery, South Parade, Summertown, Oxford, until the end of the year.
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