THIS had not been a good day for Bernard Cathelin. Eight hours spent at the Mourlot Presses in central Paris, and the only result was the discovery that the particular shade of yellow he wanted to use in his latest limited-edition lithograph, intended for this week's Art Asia in Hong Kong, was no longer available. 'You are completely at the mercy of two ink companies. If they stop making one colour, there's nothing you can do,' he groaned. Then this interview: he had forgotten about it and had arranged a meeting with clients. I was duly introduced to 'Monsieur Renoir', grandson of the artist, who had arrived to discuss some slightly cracked paint in an oil painting Cathelin completed 15 years ago. The artist promised to touch it up. Then suddenly he announced we were late, and, not showing his 76 years, raced into the streets with the large canvas. We jumped into a taxi and the driver, unwittingly, took over the interview. 'So what artist do you like best?' 'Of all, I think Pierre Bonnard,' mused Cathelin. 'No, no, I mean who do you prefer, Matisse or Picasso?' insisted the driver, who introduced himself as Armando. 'In that case, Matisse.' Armando preferred Picasso, or, at least, early Picasso. Then, expressing amazement at the price Van Goghs fetch today and at the fact that Van Gogh made only one sale in his lifetime, he asked Cathelin why artists have to be dead to sell paintings. Cathelin, who has sold many, just smiled. Later, after discussing a few French TV personalities ('I've driven him in my cab'), the driver asked Cathelin to define artists, suggesting they're people who dream. 'No, there are some who don't dream at all,' he said rather sadly. 'Do you have nude models?' 'Oh yes, there was one, Rachel, who I met in a cafe and asked to pose for me for an hour. She became my model for three years.' 'And. . .' Armando became intrigued. 'No, not that. I'm a married man. With Rachel it wasn't a story of coucher but of painting,' Cathelin laughed. The spacious two-storey apartment Cathelin shares with his wife, Regine, looks over the Seine, where the Isle de la Cite comes to a point beside Notre Dame. Turning from the window, the view is echoed by a large six-panel screen on the other side of the room, showing the same image in blues, whites and autumnal yellows, the strong colours and structures that are Cathelin's trademark. On the walls are several of his large works, an explosion of colour: red peppers on a red table, a bold still life of flowers, an intriguingly textured tapestry of one of his paintings that was woven for him by Peter Schonwald and Frederique Bachellerie from Atelier 3. They show not only his love of colour, but his love of life. Cathelin, who recently received the French Legion of Honour from President Mitterand, has been called France's leading modernist, with a body of more than 45 years of work behind him. He has also gained a strong following in Japan. 'They said they liked my paintings because they were very colourful and I match colours that are hard to match, which makes them think. I was in the clouds when they said that,' he laughed. He admits his work, with its uncluttered, life-affirming images, has been influenced by Japanese art and style. 'Two countries gave me something: Mexico gave the colours and the trepidation, Japan gave the quietness. 'I am known in Japan and they are nice to me,' he continued. 'Once I was asked what I would like as a gift, and I said I would like to see the portrait of Minamoto No Yoritomo.' The portrait was painted in the 12th century, with the white paint made from crushed oysters. It is such a national treasure that it is never placed on public display but stays in its cedar box in the National Museum, he said. 'The curator was very unhappy, but he unrolled it and for three quarters of an hour I looked at it. It was wonderful. Malreaux once called that piece the Mona Lisa of the Far East.' Chagall did his first lithograph in 1957. Since then he has produced around 300 lithographs, all printed at the Mourlot presses, which has printed work by Chagall, Picasso and many others. 'There used to be two doors, one for Miro and one for Dali. Dali was a republican [in the Spanish Civil War] and once said that Miro should be shot. So you see, they couldn't meet.' Lithographs are a good discipline: you can use only a maximum of 10 inks, which can involve up to six different shades of one colour, like red or yellow, he said. 'The first lesson in this job is to be simple. Also, you can't have a big head, that is merde. When you are in your studio you are alone: just you and your work. There is no one to be arrogant for.' Cathelin has known this century's top French artists, Georges Braques, Pablo Picasso, Henri Deschamps and Joan Miro. But his favourite story is how he met Matisse, an artist to whom he is deeply grateful, just months before his death. 'I was a very young man and was the head administrative officer of students at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts Decoratifs. They asked for ideas to celebrate the jubilee of my school's patron, the Marquise de Pompadour. 'I suggested parading a placard around Paris with an invitation from Madame de Pompadour to come to the Louvre on the day of celebration.' Matisse heard and was taken by the idea. 'I was teaching one day and in the middle of class I got a message to say Monsieur Matisse wanted to see me immediately. Of course, I left the class.' Cathelin was, by his own admission, very young and shy, and as he went up in the lift with Matisse's famed and fierce assistant, Lydia, he said how fond he was of the master's work. 'That's original,' Lydia replied. Cathelin laughed at the memory of his own awkwardness. Matisse's family was so afraid of Lydia they didn't allow her to follow the coffin at his funeral, he observed. 'But she was very respectful of Matisse. He left her 10 or 15 canvases, but she gave them all to museums and became a secretary for 1,500 francs a month. 'I think it was because she had such an extraordinary life with Matisse, such an ordinary one without him, that she didn't want to mix the two,' Cathelin said thoughtfully. Today, except for his own exhibitions, he keeps a low profile. 'I have a horror of painters' reunions and openings. It's show business. People go to be seen, not to look at art. Look at Cezanne,' he said, referring to the temporary exhibition in Paris where people waited for up to two weeks for tickets. 'Can there be a million people who love Cezanne's work? It's a media show, they've even made scarves of his paintings. It's Cezannomania, not culture. Believe me.' Bernard Cathelin's tapestries and lithographs will be shown by Buschlen Mowatt Gallery at Art Asia, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, from Friday to Sunday.