A Family Affair: Portrait of a marriage

Fionula Boyd, 54, and Les Evans, 53, met at St Albans art college. When neither could find work separately as painters they started working on joint pictures and, 25 years later, they still work as a team. Their paintings - always signed Boyd and Evans - have been exhibited worldwide and are shown regularly at the Angela Flowers' gallery in London. They have two children Jack, 29, a journalist and Ruby,27, in television production. They live in Milton Keynes
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Fionula

We started painting together as an experiment. We got married at the end of our second year at college but it was a difficult time after we finished art college. Suddenly nobody was interested in what we were doing and we had to try to make a living. We used to sit around drawing on the same bit of paper wondering what to do, and out of that grew the idea of trying to do the same pictures. For a year we both taught - living on one salary and saving the other.

A lot of the working together process is achieving a shared vision and we talk a lot before starting. It was not so easy at first, and there were times when I had to fight for an idea and Les couldn't seem to grasp it. That made for tensions, certainly, but the best pictures have come from a blending of our two ideas, and the great thing about spending so much time together is that we have a big bank of shared references. Even when we are working on the picture alone we know how the other person wants it to be.

One of the hardest things in the beginning was the fact we had different styles so we used spray painting for the first ten years because that creates a uniformity. We moved on to brushes because we had come much closer in style. So now I might paint one part of a canvas, standing next to Les, and he another bit and you wouldn't know we were different artists.

The worst bit about working together is having Les come up and stand behind me after I've been in the studio all day going "It's not right." On those occasions I'm ready to strangle Les. But the other side is something quite wonderful when I can't see what is wrong and Les can, then it's much quicker than worrying through the process yourself.

We don't feel strongly about who puts the first line or splotch of paint on to a canvas because we really do want to achieve a joint signature where people see a Boyd and Evans picture not our individual bits. If it's a big picture I might put one thing on the canvas, Les something else and then we might work side by side doing other parts at the same time. It all sounds terribly harmonious but we can't always reach agreement. One of us will think something is a terribly good idea, and the other just doesn't feel it and there are times when I think Les is being a complete pig. And if he is working on the other half of a painting with me and I want to let off steam he is very aware of it. Often we simply can't carry on and things get tense. We will end up disagreeing about everything - even what's on the radio or when to stop for a cup of tea.

When we were sharing the care of the children and each desperately wanting to paint it was awful. I think our biggest achievement was to survive that time. It was so hard not to be resentful that you couldn't have time in the studio. I'd look in the window of the studio and see Les reading the paper and think what the bloody hell is he doing? Or if he was looking after the kids and one got its head stuck in a cupboard and was screaming and Les could have heard it I'd be furious and think - I can't even go into the studio and leave the kids. But then we would come together to work out something to do with a painting and although I wouldn't call it therapy we had to resolve relationship problems because everything would have fallen apart otherwise.

Going to the rainforest in Brunei to paint was a watershed for us. We had to loosen up the way we were working and be more direct. We sat under the same big umbrella painting in oils like impressionists.

We are planning to go to America this year, doing work for an exhibition in Los Angeles next November. Sometimes we wonder whether we could still produce pictures without each other. Are we separate people or are we too scared to put ourselves on the line? Sometimes I want to try working alone, but not as much as I want to be with Les. He is such a great friend and, whatever has happened through the years, we have never been bored with each others' company.

Les

When we are working together on the same picture in the studio there are technical matters we have to agree on - simple things like how to touch it. A big picture would wobble if, say, Nula was doing something to the sky on the right with big strokes pushing hard to get paint into canvas, and I'm doing a figure in fine detail the other side. But we work things out. On a very big landscape Nula starts at one end, I start in the middle and we both move to the left.

There are times when I'll take over a picture and not be happy with what she has done but we've learned that the really important thing is to try to be reasonable and think about how the other one will feel. Of course it isn't always easy and one of the tough things about working side by side is if your partner gets frustrated. When that happens with Nula I always feel responsible and I resent it.

An absolutely key thing is discussing colours and getting them right. But we both have our own paint trolleys and they are sacred. I wouldn't touch Nula's because she might go mad, and she wouldn't come near mine because it is so messy.

We didn't stop to think what having children would mean to us as artists but certainly the hardest time was when they were little. We couldn't afford to have anyone look after the children so we tried to be very fair to each other about dividing the time. We tried one of us painting in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. When that didn't work we tried alternate days, and then we experimented with one week on, one week off. None of it really worked because we became like two separate artists. I would go into the studio and come out saying this is what I've been thinking about, and we would talk it through and I would think Nula understood, but somehow when she went off and worked alone her own the idea would turn into something completely different and I wouldn't know where it had come from. By the time I got back to the studio I would feel frantic.

The paintings we did at this time was useless because our whole way of working and thinking was turned upside down. There was no flow and everything seemed to take so long. And of course the tension over that bounced through the whole relationship and we got very good at picking on ridiculous things and turning them into a row. Yet the amazing thing was that we did manage to stay co-operative over the paintings. I think we both realised this was too important to destroy.

The rainforest was a very important time for us because we could stop, be very quiet and think. And it was just wonderful being up the river with no post, no phone, just working every day. We were very close there.

After the last show there were things we didn't like and we talked about the possibility of not working together. But once we realised that we didn't have to work together, things seemed easier. Now, with the children grown up and trips like the rainforest possible, Nula and I feel in many ways that we are only just beginning our work together.

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