Vive la France!

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.

 And please, to all you Commenter Friends who have blogs: please leave your blog address in the body of your Comment — I know there are readers here who would love to check in with you (see Comments) and I am happy to act as facilitator.

20 comments to Vive la France!

  • For what it is worth, I like the second crop best – it looks more intimate and draws me into the scene. But hey, what do I know?

    Congratulations on the book deal – I am so pleased for you!

  • You really ARE a rare and gentle artist. ( I read that in the comments 2 days ago.) Written by a real artist.
    CONGRATULATIONS. Are you going to hand-write every word , as in WWCTR?

    I know they plan these things w a a y out there,so I guess 2012?

  • candice

    Congrats! Go have a drink at the LIE Chinese place! And I like all versions of that sweet illustration. Let one of the cats choose.

  • Im so excited for you my favorite author + blogger. Can we pre -order the yet to be finished damn book? :) As a novice artist it is comforting to feel your pain + know Im not the only one who has to fish stuff out of the trash cause “maybe its not that bad”. This is year 2 of reading “When Wanderers..
    and your art + writing have helped me as a pen my adventures for my grown kids.
    Celebrate + have a purrfect day.

  • Deborah

    YAY! What a happy way to start the weekend, with happy news about the Damn France Book (you have to include that working title in the text somewhere).

    I love seeing the evolution of your illustrations. I did find myself thinking that your solution was the half-painted version & thought it was a very creative solution. But I also like the finished version, and the wider crop–because the light from the bookstore window balances out the light from the store on the right. Happy options.

    And I love the quote about sacrificing perfection. I think it’s that desire for perfection that paralyzes or frustrates so many of us. But, but…is this an April Fool’s thing? Did you, uh, actually imply you’re an artist?! Yay! To that, too.

  • Liza

    Wonderful news (for both you and your intrigued readers), congratulations. When Wanderers Cease to Roam inspired me in a way that few books/memoirs/journals have ever done and it remains my go-to gift for people I love. Looking forward to the new publication.
    http://pillowbook-liza.blogspot.com/

  • Rachel

    We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves of pages from The Damn France Book when it finally leaves your desk and reaches us in person. Meanwhile, what glorious news. And thank you so much for sharing Betsy with us. Insert long exhale here. Hugs, Rachel

  • Nancy

    Congratulations! I’m so glad for you… and I now have something to look forward to
    Personally, I like the uncropped version best; the buildings on the left seem to loom more. It may just be that they look darker in that version.
    Anyhow, happy Easter and have a wonderful weekend.

  • Hey!! CONGRATS!!!! Way to go, but pleeeeeze, pleeeeeze don’t call it the DAMN France book – it’s a possibly nasty invocation.
    With regards the illustration,I think it’s so brave of you to share this process with us and I have a theory: It’s because of all the rain you’ve been getting that ways (hope you and kitties in the basement are keeping dry? – LOL just read this again and NO! I know you don’t live in the basement, but I know you know what I mean :-)) – sort of washed the colors out, so I’d cheat if it were me. I’d zap it into a graphic manipulating program like the GIMP (free open source software and really powerful)and I’d tweak the saturation levels making the colors richer, then I’d throw in some contrast to make it look livelier then assault the color balance pushing up the red levels to capture the love feeling and the blues to deepen the shadows.I’ll email it to you so’s you can see.

  • Kim

    What a joy to read your posting today (well, every day, for that matter!)! So happy to hear of your upcoming publication of the/my (your)/damn/ France book … Can’t wait!

    Have a wonderful Easter weekend ~

  • Janet

    What wonderful news for you — and us. I am needing a trip to France about now, so I especially love seeing your illustrations. You put me there.

  • Carol

    Congratulations on getting the book to pass publishing snuff.
    You mention being just a Missoula,MT girl, will the town of Missoula be graced with a book signing rejoicing in your publishing success?
    Patiently sitting here in Missoula,MT waiting for that news!

    Oh, I prefer the first painting to the second cropped version. The first one is warmer and more inviting. IMHO

  • emily m

    Congrats on publishing news.

    I love the last illustration and the cropping just does the trick. I bet if you look at it in a few days you will see how lovely it is.

  • yes. What has happened at the LIE exit?

    We are soooo proud of you, Vivian. the work involved in getting a book approved is long and arduous. You nailed it !!

    You are a rare and gentle artist. ARTIST . Plus writer. Rare combination there. We benefit three times a week from your insights.
    Thank YOU.

  • Sandy

    Big congrats!!! Fabulous, and I can’t wait to get it!! and FYI I like the first crop, that touch of glow behind the strollers keeps it warm but medevil IMHO.
    and I can relate on the artistic limitations, although you are way ahead of me in talent.
    Sandy
    http://myfiddlestix.blogspot.com/
    I keep an illustrated journal ala Danny Gregory and Dan Price

  • Barbara Lemme

    It’s so exciting to know the France Book will actually happen. I can’t wait!! Thanks so much for your illustrations; I’ve missed that France blog. Which do I like best? I love light so I guess I’d go for the second crop.

  • Mindy

    I noticed that the sketches in all of the above examples are the same. Do you duplicate or scan in you sketches after you draw them?

  • Sally

    Congratulations, Vivian! I’m slow off the mark but no less hearty in celebrating for you, and for your readers who will be awaiting their copies, quivering in anticipation. Best wishes for the hard work that still lies ahead.

    As for your cropped vs. un-cropped painting, I like to vote at least twice for the cropped one. The lighted window on the right is well balanced by the lovebird couple itself, and the couple is thus not overwhelmed by the glare of the second window. Windows on each side are just too symmetrical. In any good painting there’s a part that makes my heart sing, and you’ve done it by depicting well the turn of the street, with the building set on an angle, and the promise of additional trés charmant vistas beyond. Also, I hope you don’t intensify your colors. The slightly muted palette is YOU.

    Everyone likes having her opinion asked for–clever of you to do so!

  • maryann

    Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!

    And I really like the first cropped version!

  • Voting for the first crop. Without the light from the windows, the left side of the street seems ominous to me, and a bit heavy.I love seeing the various versions. I am looking forward to getting the book. Congratulations for the good news from the publisher! The odds of getting a book published these days are especially tough, so it is an even greater compliment to your talents.

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