June 2012

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 …


… 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




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Do you do your drawings on the spot?” I was asked yesterday, about the illustrations for Le Road Trip. The question was put to me in a darling Australian accent because I was being interviewed by phone from Australia by columnist Blanche Clarke of the Herald Sun, which was quite a thrill for me — Le Road Trip is available in fine bookstores everywhere Down Under grace a Bloomsbury Sydney!

My answer was, “No, not a lot. I mostly draw from the reference photographs I take.” Which turns out to be not entirely true. There are actually quite a few on-the-spot sketches in Le Road Trip.


This is the first one that appears, on page 19. These ladies were sunburnt and drinking wine at 9 in the morning — my kind of people! — and I did this quick drawing of them.

When Top Cat decided to change his trousers in the middle of  the Quai d’Orsay (on page 21):

…I took photos of the act (he moved too fast to sketch and I wasn’t going to ask him to hold the pose, for chrissake), but I drew them later that day, into my personal top-secret notebook, by looking at the review screen (digital cameras: I Heart You) because I thought  I was going to erase the photos because Jeeze. I don’t want photographic evidence that my husband hangs out in Paris in his underpants.  But then I put the drawings into a book that is now out into the world anyway so go figure.

When I saw the cat sitting on top of the Renault in the Latin Quarter:

…I drew the cat and the car on the spot (this was the last car I tried to draw — I can’t draw cars and I don’t like drawing cars, which is why there is no traffic in my Paris illustrations) and I jotted down some passers-by, but I filled in the buildings (later, when I got home from France) from reference photos I took of the scene. I have a lot of pictures of this cat. And there’s no way I could have drawn all those windows and awnings in such detail while I was standing on a crowded sidewalk.

This is how my buildings look when I draw on the spot:

You can tell, of course, that I drew the people quickly by sneaking looks at them while I was blocking in the vague apartment buildings along the Place d’Alma. I wish I could have taken photographs of them but that seemed intrusive. So many people have are visibly moved when they pay their respects to Princess Diana — I hope I got a little of that with these stick figures.

Now this is a hybrid drawing, a mix of on-the-spotism and research:

I thought the lady reading her newspaper, oblivious to her job of selling newspapers, was funny, so I drew her before she could put the paper down. Then I did a quick sketch of the kiosk and the newspaper racks, which didn’t interest me much at the  time. But when I decided to put this sketch in the Le Road Trip I realized I should have paid more attention to this newsstand. Specifically, I hadn’t drawn the top of it.

Luckily, Top Cat’s sister was heading off to Paris that month so I asked her to bring me back a photo of a newsstand, especially the top of it. And that’s why the top of this newsstand is quite different, if you’ll notice, from the rest of the drawing.

Now, this picture, I’m sure you can tell, was done in situ:

Crappy background details is the give-away that I did this on-the-spot. There’s more such Paris sketches that I could show you (pages  36, 37, some of 38, 39, and two out of three of page 44) but what is this, come kind of Ph.D. exercise? I want to skip ahead and show you just two more illustrations that  you might find interesting.

This one from St-Malo, for instance:

(Page 108) This house fascinates me. I didn’t mention it in the book, but around the turn of the 20th century it was so chic for French people to drop in English phrases in their conversation that even Marcel Proust commented on it, saying that it was such a bore to be in the company of such pretentious people.

This house on the outskirts of St-Malo in Brittany is actually, truly called Villa Remember and seems to date from that period. It had such an interesting roof line that I wanted to draw it (as pictured). Top Cat had to wait while I sketched and he got bored so he took a photo of me at the gates of Villa Remember, because he had nothing else to do.

That’s how I was able to drop myself into my notebook sketch later, when I saw his photo (of me).

Mostly, however, I do draw from reference photos, such as this:

(page 121) After a hard day of travel, missed trains/detours/late arrivals/hoboing for 12 hours, Top Cat and I fetched up in a dumpy hotel room late at night in Bordeaux. This is our dinner, a chocoalte bar and half a bottle of warm Evian. I took the photograph because I wanted a memento of our Worst Day on the Road, never intending to make anyting of it.

But much later, when I came across this photo,  it was only then that I saw the poster that was  hanging above the bed. At the time, I did not see the thing at all — I have no memory of it, not the least little bit. But in the photo, I clearly saw the similarity between the look Top Cat shot me and the glowering raised-sword expression of the Bernard Buffet Gendarme. I love it!

So, to answer the original question, Do I sketch on the spot?

The answer would have to be: Yes, and No.


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