Graham Knuttel was finally enjoying the quiet life. Once synonymous with the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, the wild child of the Irish art world had just discovered a love of gardening. It was the Indian summer of 2018 when something began to niggle.
"At first I thought it was hay fever. I felt congested and tired. I felt f**ked, you know?" says Knuttel, dispensing with niceties as he recounts what became a personal nightmare.
He went to a doctor who ran blood tests and gave it to him straight: "He said, 'You're going to die unless you get a new liver'. He was quite brutal about it actually," Knuttel recalls, able to laugh about the experience now.
Feeling "like jelly", he went home and did the only thing he felt like doing - he picked up a brush and began to paint.
Famed for his bold colours and devilish portrayals of the human condition, his canvasses have won him admirers around the world, including Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Bertie Ahern and Joanna Lumley as well as the Swiss Bank Corporation, Goldman Sachs International and Saatchi & Saatchi.
But under the weight of illness, he struggled badly. "I slowed right down," says Knuttel. "I stopped being creative. I just painted to paint. I had no vision of where I was going. I was so low. Time stood still."
His colour palette "went dark". Slowly, time spent in the art studio at his home dwindled and the only thought in his mind was: "God, I hope I can make it to the end of this painting."
Despite his efforts to escape in work, reality soon came knocking: "My studio is down a flight of stairs and the day came when I couldn't make it up the steps any more. I hadn't the strength in my legs. It was a horrible, empty, watery feeling that day and I knew that was the end. I had to call Ruth [his wife] to help me up."
After being rushed to St Vincent's hospital, he was told his kidneys had failed, too. It was New Year's Eve 2018 and Knuttel wondered if it would be his last.
The experience he has had is difficult to talk about, but he maintains a wicked sense of humour throughout. Still, when he recalls the rock-bottom moment, his voice begins to shake: "I was in intensive care and I'd had enough. I was waiting for a liver and my kidneys had gone. I didn't want to go on. I asked them to turn off the machines."
Confronted with a man who was asking for help to die, the doctor "told me to sleep on it. By the next day I had changed my mind. You have to be positive if you want to survive. But yeah, that was definitely the lowest".
Swollen "like I was nine months' pregnant" and having to endure the pain of getting the fluid drained from his stomach each week, Knuttel also developed a condition called intensive care psychosis - a disorder in which patients in an intensive care unit can experience anxiety, become paranoid, hear voices and see things that are not there.
"I was in a psychotic state a lot of the time. I was hallucinating, I had delusions - I was lucid when I asked them to turn off the life support but most of the time I hadn't a clue where or who I was."
Refusing to eat the 'H block' hospital food, watching "mashed spinach pass" in a tube, his psychosis was perhaps a blessing in disguise.
"Every night, I would hallucinate that I was on a tour of restaurants. I went to Coman's pub in Rathgar and enjoyed a carvery, and a Chinese on Pembroke Street." In this dream-like state, his pet cat also paid him nightly visits.
Then fate took a turn.Knuttel says he had only days left to live when a doctor came in and sat at the end of his bed, smiling gently. "What if I told you we had a suitable liver?" he said. Incredulous, he managed a quip: "Just bang it in then!"
Nearer to surgery his gung-ho attitude gave way to a childlike vulnerability: "I kept asking the nurse - is it really going to happen? Is it really going to happen?"
The operation was a success, but he wasn't through the worst. A week later, a twisted bowel and another emergency operation meant an additional five months in hospital.
Once home, Knuttel was under the care of his wife, who he jokes has him "imprisoned" while he recovers to full health. He had to wait until the day she left the house on errands to go back to the dreaded staircase. Using a cane he descended slowly, not helped by the black-and-white cat who had turned up every night in his hospital dreams. "She went ahead on every step. She roared and shouted all the way down."
Finally in front of a canvas again, he picked up his tools and began to paint. And the piece that signalled his return to the art world was a painting of a cat.
Now, despite developing a condition called neuropathy, which leaves him severe pain in the soles of his feet, Knuttel is back working four days a week. (He says he'd do seven if it wasn't for the dialysis three days a week as he waits for a kidney donor.) On the day we speak - his first interview in six years - he has been at the canvas since 5am.
He thinks about his liver donor every day and wants to pay tribute to him in a mammoth work: "When I get my kidney I am planning to do an absolutely huge painting of all the doctors and nurses, the drills and saws, and whatever else they use, to tell the whole story."
We discuss Ireland's approach to organ donation and mistaken belief in some quarters that doctors won't fight as hard to save the lives of organ donors who need emergency surgery.
Knuttel wants Ireland to follow Spain's lead and introduce an 'opt-out' system, which means that a patient is presumed to consent to organ donation unless they have stated otherwise.
Following his ordeal he has signed his own organ donation card and ticked every box - "not that anyone can use my liver or kidneys now". He could donate his hands, he says: "Everything can be used again, though they are nearly worn out."
He talks about the "incredible" doctors and nurses who cared for him, but it is clear that the person he feels most grateful to is the woman who has supported him through the most difficult days, Ruth. "My wife saved my life. She's still saving it. She stood by me. She came to the hospital every single day. She brought me food. She was my man on earth when I didn't know what was going on. She talked to the doctors every day."
Previously known for a sometimes tumultuous love life - including a relationship with Sean Dunne's former wife, Gayle Killilea - Knuttel finally married at 57. Asked what he has learned about love, he laughs: "You've got to go to the northside."
On the future, he remains hopeful. When he eventually gets the call that they've found a kidney for him, there's only one place he hopes to return to - a small Spanish hotel, hidden among subtropical trees in Cadiz. "It's the place I got my inspiration to paint all those hombres and desperadoes you see in my paintings. All those years ago, it was the light in Cadiz that gave me the colours, too."