“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 (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) and 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. You’ll notice that I didn’t even bother to draw the white-haired lady’s chair, or her lower body. I still don’t know why it was important for me to draw the empty chair. But it’s a nice distraction from the bottom-less white-haired lady, non?
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 notebook, by looking at the review screen (digital cameras: I Heart You) because I thought Jeeze. I don’t want photographic evidence that my husband hangs out in Paris in his underpants but then I put the drawings 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.
This drawing is another hybrid:
The man selling the salad to Top Cat is from one fruit and veg stand, and everything left of the grapes is from another. In fact, it was the fruit and veg stand right next to his, so it was the same market — I’m trying to lessen my false witness, here. I kind of feel bad that I fudged this one a bit.
Now, this picture, I’m sure you can tell, is all true:
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. It’s like when English speakers drop in the occasional n’est-ce pas or s’il vous plait. Ew, right? This house on the outskirts of St-Malo in Brittany is called Villa Remember and seems to date from that period (architecturally and spiritually, but not in a bad way) and 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 (as pictured). Once I’d got the roof line that I wanted, I took a reference photo of the house — I knew I was going to paint it once I got home from France (those stones! those quirky windows! that name!) and I did (as pictured).
Usually when people ask me whether I sketch as I go I say “No way”, so I’m surprised that there are so many of these crude little jottings in Le Road Trip. 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 when I knew that I had to include this little story in Le Road Trip, I dug up this photo and 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 Gendarme. I love it!
By the way, the artist who did the poster is Bernard Buffet, whose work screams Mid Century chic – does it not?
So, to answer the original question, Do I sketch on the spot? the answer would have to be: Yes and No.