Top Cat answered the phone this afternoon and came upstairs to hand it to me: “It’s Betsy,” he said. Betsy’s my agent. She only calls when she has really good or really bad news. And we’ve been waiting for three weeks to hear from Bloomsbury about their final decision about my Damn France Book…
And the verdict is: a huge, happy, double-the-advance -on-my-first-book YES.
I must thank my agent for giving me three very good alpha readings of the manuscript and for letting me know that versions one and two stunk (had weak points in the structure that made the text muddled) until I finally got it right with version three. My agent, Betsy Lerner, is not only a great agent but she is also a fabulous editor — you can get all her tips for your own self in her best selling guide to writers called The Forest For the Trees (I know it’s in your local library) and on her addictive daily blog at www.betsylerner.com.
Imagine that: that a girl from Missoula, Montana (that’s moi, by the way) can grow up and write a book about France…life is strange; and good. And that a hick such as she (again, that’s moi) can entwine her road trip journal of the Belle Pays with advise about love and the art of travel…well, life is strange. Just strange.
I’m very giddy with excitement and as soon as I meet with my editor and hammer out things like deadlines and publishing dates I will let you all know.
But today I want to show you what I was working on when I got the fateful call: it was an illustration for The Damn France Book and I was having a hell of a time getting it to come out right.
This is the sketch I made of Top Cat and me strolling down a street in a town called St. Malo in Brittany. As with all my sketches, I have three options when it comes to turning them into an illustration:
1. I can leave it as a black and white drawing.
2. I can do a quick color wash of it on bond paper (it’s crap paper for watercolor, but it gives a nice “impromptu” feeling to an illustration).
3. I can copy the sketch onto good watercolor paper and try to make a “real” painting of it (with shading and light effects and other painterly stuff that I am not in the least qualified to do).
Well, for this sketch I didn’t think I could leave it as a black and white line drawing because there are too many lines here — all those buildings and perspective and all make it look a bit too busy. So I tried it out as a quick color wash on crappy bond paper:
Yeesh. This doesn’t look good at all.
So, reluctantly, I copied it onto good watercolor paper and had a go at making a “real” painting of it. I did this reluctantly because I knew there were things in this painting that I had never tried before: light from the shop windows reflecting onto the stone pavements, for example; and shading the buildings to convey the haunting, moody atmosphere of this medieval street. I know my limits as an artist and if I stay within those limits I am one happy and self-satisfied egomaniac. But when I wander out into real painterly territory and realize again how much I suck at trying to do stuff that real painters can do, well, it ruins my day.
But I had no choice with this picture. It didn’t work as a black and white drawing and it looked horrible as a color wash.
So I began stabbing at it with my paint brush:
Whew. I made it past the buildings on the right hand side of the street without screwing it up.
But it’s the buildings on the left side of the street that are the heart and soul of this picture. OMG OMG OMG I hope I don’t gunk this up…
This seems like a good time to tell you all about something beautiful that I heard on the radio the other day. I was listening to the local NPR station a few days ago, a talk show called The Lenny Lopate Show; when Lenny interviews a writer he always asks about that writer’s process. And now I forget who the writer was, but I remember something beautiful that the writer said about artists’ processes in general. He said that artists are the people who are willing to sacrifice the perfection of the ideas in their heads in order to put them down on paper.
So that’s what I did: I sacrificed the perfection of the image I had in my mind to blob it down on paper.
I look at the finished painting and I think to myself, “I should have left it half-done.” (Is it too late to un-paint it?)
Now the only thing I have to decide is how to crop it. Like this?
Or like this?
And even after all this, I might not use it at all. Because now that I see it all HUGE on this computer screen, I really hate it. Why, oh why did I ever quit my job as the Bioterrorism Administrator of the Tea Association of the USA in order to illustrate a Damn France Book??
So that’s what I did today: try, and try, and try again.
And that’s A Day In The Life of A Crappy Illustrator.
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