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Artist Neal Palmer has been known to upset the neighbours. In diligent pursuit of his metier, he takes thousands of photographs of plants and flowers. Patrolling the streets of suburbia he's apt to blur the boundaries should he spot a likely specimen. "Once I got told off when trying to snap a kowhai, but I try to ask permission if I can," he explains.

British-born Neal, who studied fine arts at Nottingham's Trent University and worked for a spell as puppet co-ordinator on the satirical TV series Spitting Image, began his artistic affair with New Zealand natives when he lived for a year in Piha.

"I did a lot of walking through the bush and fell in love with the forms of flax, puka, punga and nikau. But, as I've become more of a Kiwi myself, I've gradually steered away from these icons."

Nowadays glorious fuchsia, magnolias and frothy rhododendrons are part of his palette, photographs of which litter the dining table.

Neal, his wife Angela and their three children Jarvis (11), Oona (9) and Milo (7) have lived in their Sandringham home since 2000. It's pure villa at the front, with the couple's modern punched-out update behind. "The house is somewhat schizophrenic but I like that it has such a history," says Neal.

Happily, he's still on speaking terms with his immediate neighbour, now nearly 90, who was born in the home.

"She told me that during the 1930s a fire destroyed the roof and the builders replaced it with a bungalow-style one." When the Palmers were dismantling a melange of rooms in favour of the simplicity of open-plan, they found burnt joists still intact.

They built a second-level master bedroom and downstairs designed a family-friendly kitchen and living zone. The resulting white-washed space allows Neal's art and the green of the garden to play a striking visual role.

"The garden was more cottage-cute before," says Neal, "but we added natives."

These include flax grown from cuttings taken at Angela's family bach near Tutukaka, and a pair of cabbage trees rescued by a friend from a gutter. "I find New Zealand gardens exciting; they're full of drama compared to what you get in London."

A studio out back gives him ample opportunity to admire this living sculpture and take inspiration while he transfers his love of foliage and petal to canvas. What he paints on is as important as the process. At times he uses aluminium sheet, at others ultra-thin board. "I like the floating fineness of it and the negative space it creates behind the painting when hung on a wall," he says.

Neal admits he is fortunate to work full time as an artist. With three children at school, there's a practical side to his at-home role but it's the ethereal he speaks about most passionately. Like his lifestyle, his art is a mix of pragmatism and imagination.

"My style strikes a balance between painterly ideas and realistic interpretation," he says. Consulting his, at times, hard-earned celluloid references, he at first works with drawing and line to imitate the natural structure and then brings "blurriness" to the flowers or foliage, painstakingly building up the paint to create depth. "I first work in black and white and then add colour in lots of layers so that light bounces back through."

In his studio a three-panel painting of flax leaves has, at the outset, a botanically accurate quality - "I get very involved in the detail" - but linger a little longer in front of it, and it seems to take on a sinister feel, as though something furtive lurks in the foliage. "I like the fact that people can take my art on different levels," says Neal.

Yet it's not just the technical aspects that lend resonance to the works. "The flower to me is a symbol," he explains. "During the Renaissance, artists put flowers, skulls and bugs into paintings to remind their rich patrons of the fragility of life."

This idea of "vanitas" - still life works that highlight the transience of vanity, is displayed beautifully in Neal's current collection due to be shown in his Say it With Flowers exhibition at Newton's SOCA gallery.

It is also set to feature a new technique where Neal traces the initial drawing line in silver or gold leaf over a brightly painted acrylic background that moves his art to a more abstract level.

Should he become too involved in conceptual minutiae, he has Angela and three inventive youngsters to keep him well-grounded. The native garden that surrounds his studio is punctured by a basketball hoop while a motley collection of rugby balls lays abandoned on the lawn. "The kids are really relaxed around painting but I don't think I'd encourage them to do it to make huge amounts of money," he says wryly.

Still, Neal's dexterity with a brush often comes in handy. Not only did he paint the weatherboard exterior of the house but he's not averse to using his artistic talent for frivolous decoration. The particle board floor in the open-plan living area sports a grid-like design based on the patterns in tapa cloth.

And, when Angela and Neal bought wooden-framed dining chairs, all similar in style, from different second-hand stores, Neil gave them a coat of white to tie their look together. They make an eclectic line up in the dining room.

Here, a resplendent magnolia canvas hangs on one side while a kowhai in gold leaf on a green background graces the other.

But Neal's art is not the only eye candy, as built-in shelving teems with things to delight the soul: a collection of tins, aboriginal plates, an unopened roll of Polly kitchen towel from the 70s that was once for sale in Neal's mum's shop.

And if wall space in the communal areas is now at a premium, the kids have come up with an ingenious solution: "They want me to paint murals in their bedrooms for Christmas."

No doubt the artist will base this particular commission not on today's fleeting super-heroes or cartoon characters, but rather on something organic, something gleaned from the garden at home - or over the fence.

Exhibition

Neal Palmer's exhibition opens at SOCA gallery at 6-8pm, 74 France Street, Newton from October 28 to November 11. View images of his work online at www.soca.co.nz