The Truth About How I Do It

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.