Things Today Were Bad, Until They Got Good, But Then They Got Bad Again.

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’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 SUCKS.

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.

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…

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?


And even after all this, I might not use it at all.  Because  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.


20 Comments, RSS

  1. Margaret April 2, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    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!

  2. Pinky April 2, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    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?

  3. candice April 2, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    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.

  4. completelycollaged April 2, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    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.

  5. Deborah April 2, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    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.

  6. Liza April 2, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    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.

  7. Rachel April 2, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    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

  8. Nancy April 2, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    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.

  9. Diane April 2, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    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.

  10. Kim April 2, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    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 ~

  11. Janet April 2, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    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.

  12. Carol April 2, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    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

  13. emily m April 2, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    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.

  14. Mary April 2, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    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.

  15. Sandy April 5, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    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.
    I keep an illustrated journal ala Danny Gregory and Dan Price

  16. Barbara Lemme April 5, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    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.

  17. Mindy April 5, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    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?

  18. Sally April 6, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    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!

  19. maryann April 6, 2010 @ 9:01 pm


    And I really like the first cropped version!

  20. julie April 7, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    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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