My maternal grandfather was a painter, as was one of my aunts, and my mother was a sculptor. The houses I grew up in were full of the work of these artists. Stored in a cupboard were life drawings my mother had done at art school in the 1920s and boxes of sketchbooks that had belonged to my grandfather. His palette was still marked by the paint he'd been using when he last touched it. I would visit this cupboard often, open the paintbox and pick up the palette, and find a strange pleasure in feeling close to painting. Oddly, it never occurred to me that one day I might use oil paint myself.
But I drew and painted in watercolours all the time. At art school in the 1950s I did begin to use oil paint and I worked away in the life class, but what talent I had was completely unfocused. I didn't know what to do, or which of the innumerable influences that came hurtling at me I should follow. I was surrounded by extremely gifted fellow students who knew exactly what they were doing and carried off all the prizes. I left art school and stopped painting for ten years.
Then one day I started again. I set up a still life of two little cardboard boxes and an orange on a table. I was no longer thinking about Manet or Rembrandt, and there were no art students looking over my shoulder. I tried to represent the still life as accurately as I could. A week later, when I could go no further, I set up another one and tried again. I thought of it as doing my scales.
I was not trying to make art. I was trying to learn how to handle oil paint, and how to make it do that marvelous and strange thing when paint appears to have become the object it represents. I tried to get the drawing and tone and colour to a particular point of harmony at which you can look at a painting rather in the way you can look at the famous vase that is also a pair of profiles: You can see pigment with brushmarks and scratches on a flat surface, or you can see depth and space and objects. This does not require painstaking trompe l'oeil, but it does require close observation and careful drawing. You also need confidence in the application of the paint. Tentative work always looks awful.
The mistake I had been making at art school was that I was trying to make art. When I took painting up again in my thirties I had a different goal, and I knew how and why I wanted to paint.