Watercolor Tutorials

Which is harder: making bread…

or painting it?

I’ve never baked a loaf of bread, but I can tell you that painting it isn’t a piece of cake.

For me, it took a lot of trial and error.  For one thing, you don’t want your French breads looking as if they are defying gravity:

And neither do you want your French breads too bien cuit:

You have to learn to make your French breads with a light touch:

You also want to get that golden-brown crust just right:

And when it comes to your sign you want to use authentic French lettering, bien sur. Good thing that the words LE PAIN

…are incorporated in this classic Hector Guimard METRO sign (it looks like the St-Michel entrance to me, captured on the cover of this vintage album of the 1960s):

Bur when it comes to scribbling  your love of French breads and croissants…

…it helps to have a cheat sheet handy:

Next week I’ll be checking out the French bread of Nashville. Yes, that Nashville, the one in Tennesse. Mais oui — you can get great French bread in Nashville!

You can find a little corner of France here at Provence Breads and Cafe in historic Hillsboro Village in Nashville (1705 21st Ave. South).

And just around the corner you can join me in Nashville for a Bastille Day wine-and-book talk, Saturday July 14,  2-4pm at Parnassus Books at 3900 Hillsboro Pike.

And if the heat wave is still on, we’ll see if it’s true that it’s so hot in Nashville that you can bake bread on the sidewalk. And when I say “bake bread” I mean “drink lots of wine“, and when I say “on the sidewalk” I mean “in the cool comfort of AC and smart company at one of America’s classiest book stores“.

Are you in???

 

 

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Poutine, AKA Quebec French Fries with brown gravy and cheese curds — yum!

O, Quebec.

So far, my Canadian readers are polling 3 – to – 1 in favor of me not being such a connarde after all. Thank you, Commentors Michelle, Risa, and Monique, who wrote in about last week’s post about my landing on the wrong side of the Great Quebec Accent Issue.

The only place on Earth where the Fleur-de-lis looks manly.

For the record, it wasn’t me who compared the Quebec accent to the quacking of a duck (on page 96 of Le Road Trip). I was merely reporting what a cranky Malouin shopkeeper had said about the thousands of French Canadian tourists who flock to his beautiful walled city of Saint Malo on the Brittany coast. Oh sure, yes, I laughed at the whole “quacking like a duck” thing, but I also put myself on the record as finding the Quebec accent enjoyable (right there on page 96) which does not preclude it from being somewhat like the quacking of a duck — a freaking gorgeous Mandarin duck:

That’s DUCK, not PUCK. 

O, Canada, what would we Americans do without you to give us cover as we travel through this American-hating world?

One last Canada story:

I wrote (on page 90 of Le Road Trip) that my husband and I did not travel through France pretending to be Canadians, as was the fashion of Americans abroad in the fall of 2005…remember? 2005 was the thick of that kerfuffle in Iraq that Bush and Company started when they lied to the United Nations about those Weapons of Mass Destruction and all? Brought about a decade of death and disaster to innocent Iraqis and brave men and women in uniform? And Americans could barely show their faces in public without claiming to be Canadian (or crying for permission to emigrate to The Great North)?

No, Top Cat and I copped to being Americans and took the heat.

You’re welcome, Canada.

But the whole story is about this illustration on page 90 (for those of you who are reading along, that’s page 90 in Le Road Trip):

I have a deep dark secret about this little picture. It’s a fixer-upper.

This, below, is the original sketch I made of my husband, Top Cat, thumbing us a lift to Mont St-Michel in Brittany:

As you can see, there was a problem with that weird right hand there:

Yes, that hand looks completely non-human.

Luckily, I am left handed. Which means that I can fix this simply by re-drawing my own right hand (a really tiny drawing of my right hand) and then putting it on a copier to ensmallen (that’s the technical term) it even more:

 

And then I drew this teeny tiny version of the right right hand, along with the whole arm, on a piece of plain bond paper. I painted it, cut it out ever so carefully (it’s really, really s-m-a-l-l), and I glued it on top of the weird right hand and arm on Top Cat, like so:

Problem is, now he has two thumbs. I  have to get rid of the old thumb from the old weird old right hand. Watch how I do it:

If I hadn’t told you, you’d never know.

Speaking of Canadians who don’t hate me, take a look at Canadian (Newfoundler) Bobbi French’s Friday blog  at www.findingmeinfrance.com. Yeah, that’s me, standing in Times Square traffic for the sake of Canadian literature. Again: You’re welcome, Canada.

And I’m sure there are more than a few Canadians who are reading Carol Gillott’s wonderful blog Paris Breakfasts today (it’s about me!)

So, Quebec. Are we good now?

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Anybody who puts a book out in the world loves to hear that, against all odds, that book has found a reader who:

A. Doesn’t write to tell you how much she hates it.

B. Does write in to ask an interesting question that I can turn into a blog post!

I got this question from a new reader in the Nutmeg State (50 points for anyone who can right now name The Nutmeg State):

I have a question for you, that will definitely expose my complete lack of knowledge about watercolors. Do you paint with watercolors from a tin, or are you using those special pencils that you sketch a bit first, and then blend with water? I also noticed that you often have some well-defined outlines in your work. Are these made with a fine ink pen first, followed by adding color?

Thank you for asking, dear reader from the Nutmeg State.

Until recently (see last week’s post) I was using hobby-grade Grumbacher paints that come in pans — 24 pans for about $20:

I have nothing bad to say about my Grumbacher paints. They have served me well through two books.

I’m using two sets of Grumbacher 24 — because I use a lot of black (to mix into other colors) and I keep some of the pan colors pure and use others of the same color as mixing bowls. I also use the paint tray itself as my main mixing area, which is why they look so cruddy.

Lately I’ve been gifted with new paints in tubes to help me get a brighter look for the gardens I’ve started to illustrate and I was so excited about the purity and intensity of the colors that I went out and bought some pans of paints — a Windsor Newton “field kit” (I still can’t give up on the ease of using pan paints).

This is my brand spanking new paints and mixing thingy. And, dear new reader from the Nutmeg State, I always use a tea bag to reference scale (those Windsor Newton paints are so cute!!). See how clean and spiffy they look before I get cracking:

This is my set-up: new paints, cup of tea, helper cat in the background (meet Coco, new Reader from the Nutmeg State), and my brushes in their souvenir Maya-head tequila shot glass from Acapulco (makes me feel like life’s one big Tiki Bar!).

Which brings me to the second part of your question, new reader from the Nutmeg State: What do I use to make outlines?

I draw with a .018-point Rapid-o-Graph pen, a steel-tipped drafting tool from Germany that is a pain in the ass to use but is the only way I can get a very fine, sharp, dark black line.

When I don’t want a sharp, dark black line but I still need a line,  I use a very fine paintbrush to make the outline. I do not use those pens or colored pencils that you can blend with water because I don’t know what they are. And because I like to do things the hard way.

To get a paintbrush with a fine-enough point on it I have to engineer it myself. I start with a .O or a .OO size brush (the smallest that you can find):

And then I very carefully cut off half the bristles:

Now let’s look at some outlines in Le Road Trip. The buildings in this illustration of Bayeux (on page 68) are outlined with my German drafting tool:

In this illustration of Mont St-Michel (page 92) I used my itty bitty brush to outline the young couple having a picnic on the towering wall surrounding the fortress/abbey (and the blades of grass on the hillside):

In this illustration of a door in Bordeaux (page 143) I used both my German drafting tool (on the door, obviously) and my itty bitty brush to outline the mer-people and to do the railing:

Since my illustrations in Le Road Trip …

P1000453

… are reproduced in their original size, I use my itty bitty brush quite often just to be able to get a landscape down to miniature proportions, like this picture of Bayeux cathedral on a canvas that is approx. one half tea beg high and two tea bags long:

Thank you, Reader from the great Nutmeg State of Connecticut, for this blog post.

And to the reader in Quebec who sent me that nice piece of hate mail last week: You got me. You’re totally right: my whole book is just an elaborate cover, a sinister ploy to broadcast my cruel and evil anti-Quebec prejudices throughout the world as evidenced by that joke I reported about the  Quebec accent on page 96, and everything else you said in that 1,000-word lecture on what a dumbass I am not to acknowledge the truth of the beauty and bravery of the French spoken by its conservators up North, yadda yada yadda.

Jeeze. I always thought Canadians were so polite but hoo boy, do not get them riled up about the way they pronounce “jardin” as “jardaiyyyyynnnnn”, I’m warning you all.

 

 

 

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A professional artist has taken pity on me.

Carol Gillot, the artist behind the wonderful blog Paris Breakfasts.com, has sent me a selection of professional-grade water color paints in tubes to help me give my gardens the pizazz (that is, the saturation and the transparency) that I need. The reason I use hobby (child) quality paints in pans is because they are so easy to use — no fiddling with those itty bitty damn screw-top lids and stuff. And because I’m a Capricorn and we Capricorns are nothing if not creatures of habit. Once I find something I like, I stick with it. Capricorns are famous for being able to have the same thing for lunch every single day of their lives and for being excellent prison guards. We like routine and we like being bossy. We don’t like change.

 

But Carol also sent me some of her scratch pads and the colors she gets from the Windsor Newton paints she sent me are amazing.

You probably can’t see it in these lo-res scans, but the color is rich, subtle, and sparkling.

The greens! O, the greens! The greens are alive! So even though it goes against my basic nature, I will be diving into these new paints this weekend. That ominous rumble you hear, like a low thunder across the horizon, will be me cursing my ham-handed incompetence while I find my way with these new toys.

Luckily, the garden that I’ve been slaving over this past week is a Winter garden in the opaque city of Edinburgh:

In this case, I think the chalk-heavy pigments of my pan paints suits the dense, cloudy atmosphere of a rain-soaked Scotland:

Yes, these is something fitting about the overcast colors I can get from my simple kiddie paints as I paint these small walled garden rooms from various aspects (for the record, I’ve done two views of each parterre, facing East and facing West, behind tenements on the Royal Mile). Note, please the small (3-ich x 5-inch) picture on the right here:

It wasn’t until I’d finished this sketch that I saw what a blunder I’d made in being too literal as I looked at my referenced photos. Although this is the way it actually looked from the viewfinder of my camera, you can’t have trees growing out of the tops of laurel bushes like this:

So how do you correct it? One way would be to re-paint the whole thing.

Another way would be to just cut out the problem area:

…and paste a newly-painted corrected background in place:

I really didn’t think I’d get away with it, but I think it’s quite successful. If I hadn’t told you that this was a pieced-together illustration, you’d never have known, right?

One last thing: I am doing ONE book event this Summer. It’s a Bastille Day event in Nashville, Tennessee — on Saturday July 14, of course. I’ll be at  Parnassus Books in Nashville at 2 o’clock, and I’ll be giving out my tips and my advice on life, art, and travel writing. If you are in the Nashville area, please come! There will be wine!

Parnassus Books

4505 Harding Pike

Nashville, TN

www.parnassusbooks.com

 

 

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I’m still at it. Still flummoxed by gardens. My paintings of them still look like crap. If you remember, when we last left off I was trying to do justice to a small walled garden off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh called Dunbar’s Close:

In the past two weeks I’ve actually tried TWICE to re-paint this, but the results were even worse so instead I went back and made certain necessary corrections to make this illustration a tad bit less crappy:

 

Having failed so miserably, I decided to take a break and go back to my comfort zone, garden-wise. I did a miniature painting of the secret doorway to Dunbar’s Close on the Royal Mile (miniature being my preferred canvas):

This secret entrance is almost totally camouflaged as just another alley between nondescript buildings on the Royal Mile:

There are 83 “closes” on the Royal Mile such as this one that leads to Dunbar’s Close. BTW, I know some of you, dear readers, like to see Where I Get My Ideas From. For this illustration, I plagiarized this reference photos:

Another wonderful garden that I love is in Key West. And when it comes to Key West, I’ve always been very fond of this picture I took in 2005 when Top Cat and I spent a long February weekend there (this is our guest room at the Conch House Heritage Inn, built in 1885):

I love the monochromatic effect of this picture, the long afternoon shadows, and how the orange cat is the only spot of color. So let’s PAINT IT!

First had to draw it:

I had to leave out that second rocking chair — waaaay too complicated for my skill level and I didn’t want to make myself any crazier than I had to.  Of course, there is only one way to paint this drawing: illuminated on my light box:

I really shouldn’t paint without supervision. Thank you, Coco cat.

By putting my 90-lb Canson watercolor paper over this drawing and firing up the light box, the outlines of this sketch show through to guide me as I “color in” the shadows that I see in the photograph. It took me about two hours to paint this:

Yeah, I had to ditch the French door and the window entirely — there was no way I had the manual dexterity to pull that off. It was the rocking chair and the cat that I most wanted to paint any way and if you had not seen the original concept you would think that this was a pretty completely realized composition, eh?

Thank you, one and all, for all your garden book recommendations last week. I’m still searching for the garden artist that I can steal from…I have a specific viewing experience in mind when it comes to garden art, and hoo boy some of the garden books I’ve come across miss it by miles.

Last Sunday I journeyed to the wilds of Westchester County to visit a billionaire’s garden because I wanted to see what a man with an undogly amount of money puts in his garden. Stayed tuned: I’ll  show you, right here, next week.

 

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Two of these leaves are real, and two on them are my paintings of leaves.

I can’t tell you how the real leaves are made, because I am not a tree.

But I can show you how I made my facsimiles.

Leaf No. 1:

The first thing you have to do when you look at a leaf with a painter’s eyes is to suss out your strategy. You do not paint a leaf all at once, you paint it in sections, sections (I call them “cells“) that are evident in its structure. And in this leaf, I see four cells:

This is how I’m going to paint this leaf; cell by cell.  Step 1:

Step 1: You can’t quite see it in this picture, but I’ve outlined the leaf (I laid the leaf on my paper and dragged a pencil around it so that I have an exact-sized silhouette).

Now I’m ready to begin with the first cell:

While my first wash of the main color (in this case, it’s an ocher-yellow)  is still wet, I will bleed in several other colors — in this leaf, it has green edges and brown rot spots inside the cells. And next, still while the paint is wet, I’m going to get out a straight pin and do this:

This is why I picked this leaf: it has great veins. And I’ve found that by using a straight pin to dig lines into the wet paper, I can make the best veins.

This is not hard to do. Just use the straight pin like an itty bitty pencil, and “draw” the veins into the wet watercolor. (Sorry that you can’t see it well in this pic — but remember, I’m snapping photos with my right hand while I’m painting with my left and we should be grateful that I’m able to get even these crappy shots).

OK. Veins done, we skip to another cell while the first one dries.

Cell 2:

Cell  3:

Note (above): This is a good shot of what the straight pin does to wet watercolor paper — see the veins? Not bad, huh?

The most boring part of painting a leaf is waiting for the watercolor to dry. So, to keep busy, I’ll do the stem:

Cell 4:

Done.

 

 

Yes, Grumbacher watercolor lightens when it dries: you might want to keep that in mind as you’re painting. Use lots of color! Use lots of red! Like this:

I chose this leaf because I want to show you a trick of the trade, namely Masking Fluid.

Masking Fluid comes in a little bottle (75ml for about $14.00) and it’s liquid stuff that you apply onto the parts of your picture where you want the paper to resist paint. I use a toothpick to “brush” it into small places — use whatever is easiest for you, but don’t use a paint brush. When this liquid dries it becomes waterproof, like rubber, and that is murder to get out of the bristles of your paint brush (I speak from experience).

But since it’s waterproof, you can paint right over it and when your painting is done, you just peel off the mask and voila!

The reason I’m using mask here is because this leaf has some tiny holes in it:

I’ll be putting  Masking Fluid on those little  holes,because I paid $14.00 for the stuff and I want to get some use out of it.

Now we can begin to paint:

Remember, the key to getting your Fall leaves to look real is to paint wet-into-wet, to create bleeds, like this (up-close):

And so on:

And, finally, we peel off the Art Masking Fluid:

I can’t tell you how peaceful it is, to paint these miniatures. I enjoy the concentration and smallness of painting one leaf at a time — it’s like meditation.

Just take your time, look closely at the leaf, get your strategy worked out before you start, let each cell dry before you paint the next one,and get lost in the details.

And here’s another big Merci from moi: if you’d like to have the  4-inch x 6-inch framed and signed original painting of this little red leaf, please leave a Comment below, requesting this prize. This blog is getting close — very, very close — to its 1,050th Comment and if you leave a note here, and you’re the lucky 1,050th Commenter, you’ll win this leaf painting!

See you Friday in the Winner’s Circle.

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After reading my last post (last Friday), you might be wondering: So what else can you, Great and Wondrous Vivo, do with that rolled up piece of paper towel (see below)?

And what else, Vivo the Magnificent, do with those bleeding water colors (see below)?

Well, I was dabbling this past week, trying not to notice that I’m a month behind schedule in meeting the dire deadline of December 1 for when I h ave to turn in 208 pages of text and all 300 illustrations for That Damn France Book, and I rolled me some clouds (see below)…

…and I bled me some earth-colored watercolors (see below)…

…and I came up with a vineyard in Bordeaux:

See? Even I sometimes listen to me, and use my own painting tips! (I know — I’m as surprised as you).

I have 57 days to get my Dan dance Book book done on time. That’s 912 waking hours. Minus the week I’ll be traveling in October (if you’re in the Baltimore area, come see me on Oct. 25!) and the weekend that I’ll be in D.C. at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity (Oct. 30!) and that leaves 768 waking hours. Minus 700 hours in which I just sit and watch my cats do cute stuff and that leaves me well and truly *#@??ked up.

I really have to go now.

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This (above) is the September sun set that I want to paint for you today. I chose it because it’s got two of my favorite things (to paint) in it: clouds, and diagonals. It’s got diagonal clouds: a two-fer!

I’m going to use two techniques for this painting. Ha ha. I said “Techniques”.

There are two gimmicks that I’ll use for this painting, my two favorite gimmmicks: First, I like to use a bleed. That’s when I put two very wet colors next to each other and let them flow into one another, like this:

The other thing that I like to do when I paint clouds is to do a nice dark wash of sky color (in this case, blue) and then use a rolled-up piece of paper towel to sponge up some paint, as much as I can, off the surface of the watercolor paper.  Like this:

The trick is to dab the rolled up piece of paper towel onto the wet watercolor paint as soon as possible — like a nano-second after you’ve swabbed the paint all over.

For the September sun set that I’ll be painting today, I’m going to divide the picture into three zones:

So, let us begin.

1. Zone 1, with rolled-up paper towel clouds:

Let dry.

For Zones 2 and 3, I’ll do bleeds. I’ll brush the lower part of the painting with water, and then start layering in the sun set hues very quickly, letting them bleed into one another delicately. . .

I only got a photo of the first layer, a yellow wash. I had to paint this part very quickly, while the paper was still nice and wet, so I didn’t have time to get photos of the whole process. But here’s what I did:

From the bottom up, I brushed on a layer of light yellow and yellow ochre mixed together, then a little light orange, then some light red, and then magenta. (I’m using the names of the paints in my beloved  Grumbacher paint set — the “light red” looks dark orange to me, and the “magenta” looks like pink when it’s diluted with a lot of water.)

The I dabbed in dark blue zig-zaggy layer on the middle part (to make the underside of the clouds) and I made it pretty wet, too, to let the water take an effect. Then I sat back and let gravity and Grumbacher paints do their magic:

 

Now it’s time to do Zone 4, the make-believe tree line:

I like to paint my tree-line black. There’s something about a black tree-line that is a tiny bit melancholy, and a beautiful September sun set  is a bit melancholy, so my September sun set will have a black tree-line, like this:

So.

Now that it’s done, I can assess what I’ve got here

Well, I like the diagonal sweep of the cloudy sky. I LOVE  that part of the cloud that is just Canson watercolor paper showing through a very thin layer of wash.

But I don’t like that weird pointy bit of blue on the right hand side…see it? It’s a an upside-down triangle shape ? But all is not lost!  I know how to disguise it!

Hell — my whole raison d’etre as a painter is to fudge my shortcomings as an artist. Disguise is my middle name!

So here is the finished picture:

Do you see any strange-looking blue triangles anywhere? NO?

I dare say that I got away with it.

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That’s my motto for September: Every day, there’s a light or two less. In September it’s the sunsets that matter to me — as if by watching each one I can make the day last a moment or two longer even if I can’t stop the earth from turning away from the sun.

Well, that moment needs an illustration in my Damn France Book. Because that’s the kind of travel book I write: low on the literal, high on the weirdly subjective.

So I started with a photograph I’d taken in aLoire Valley town (see above). Nice, right? (That’s why I took it.)  I studied it, and found that it would do just fine as my reference photo (see below, with  markings so I can tell where the horizon is):

I’m showing you this so you can see what I think: I mentally drew lines to show where I thought the tree line, the horizon, and the darkest reflection in the water would be . The scene needed a distinguishing feature, something that gave it that unmistakable romantic Loire Valley feeling.  So I gave it one (see “castle” cut-out overlaid on photograph below):

That’s the actual chateau in Azay-le-Rideau, with slight perspective improvements on my part, to accentuate the turrets and the spires and all that castle-y stuff.

OK. Now I’m in business. I’m ready to paint me a picture of my Loire Valley September sunset moment.

(There’s a light pencil sketch of the landscape and the chateau, with a dab of watercolor resist fluid to mark where the setting sun is.) Then I did a wash of my setting sun colors:

Whew. Got the yellow, pink, and violet paint to stay put and not blend into a puke taupe mess. Now, all I have to do is not screw up the river and I’m half-way there to a not-putrid illustration:

Not bad. Paintings always look kind of shitty at this stage, so I’m not worried that it’s a lost cause. Yet. Now for the brooding, gothic, romantic landscape features:

Ooooo. I like this (above).

Sure hope I don’t mess it up when I paint the chateau:

Hmmmmm. I’m beginning to have my doubts.

Oh well, too late: I’m committed to seeing this to the bitter end.  (I think it’s mildly entertaining to catch a work-in-progress at the moment when it all went wrong.)

Let’s just cut to the chase:

Oh, Jeeze. This is not what I had in mind. Nope. No way.

I could tell this illustration was a stinker long before I finished it, but I made myself paint the whole thing so I could study the failure in all its completeness. And now I know how not to paint this picture!

And when I do, you’ll see it here.

Now, speaking of A Light Or Two Less, I have some cat news to tell  you.

You’ve met the Lights of my Life, my Hobos, the feral cats who came to me as kittens, and who live in my backyard (until Winter, when they have their own cat entrance into the basement of our house.

They were so little here, two years ago, they could all fit on the same patio chair. That’s baby Taffy, in the shadows, that’s baby Lickity in the black and white ensemble, and that’s baby Butter, sitting upright, catching the rays of sun on his beautiful ginger coat.

Butter was the first of those fierce, wild, feral babies who let me touch him. This is a photo of the first time he let me scratch his little head:

Notice the little drop of milk on his chin. Butter loved his dairy products.

In the Comments of my last post, Carol (with her cat-senses alerted) asked Where’s Butter?

And I meant to tell you all, but I was waiting for the right time, and there really is no right time.

Here’s the deal I make with my feral cats: I will watch over you best I can, and you will be the cat you were born to be, even though I know there’s a high chance that you will break my heart.  I don’t know how else to love these maddening, delightful, wayward, untamed creatures.

We tried to keep Butter in the fenced yard with his more homebody-brothers, but he was the one who had to see what was across the street.

I know that Butter would have been miserable if I’d taken his adventures away from him, made him into a house-bound cat. So I let him live “wild”, as he wanted, even if it did in the end cost him his life. Butter died on September 2, 2010, while crossing the road in front of our house.

This is not the first time a cat has broken my heart; it won’t be the last. But this is the one and only Butter heartbreak, and we will miss the leader of our pack  forever.

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This is how we do it:

DONE.

CROPPED.

Thank you!

You’ve been such a great audience!

Ooops. I think I woke up Coco and Belle — the cats who live in my workroom (because they are too ornery to let out with the other house cats).

I’m going all art journalistic on you because I’m stalling. I can’t choose my new tea! I want every tea you suggested — I even like the puns! I love Oolong Island — ha ha. I love all those Wanderers brews! I love them all! I know it was my idea, but I wish I didn’t have to choose!

 

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