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Imagine this: you’re in a sketcher’s paradise, surrounded by strong shapes and clear, intense colours. Every person who passes, with or without a dear little dog, cries out to be captured in your sketchbook. The weather is sunny, without being scorching – perfect sketching conditions. You have all your kit with you. You’re a kid in a candy shop…but you cannot indulge.
That was my sketching experience in Nice, on the Cote d’Azur, over the October mid-term break. A classic first-world problem: I was with my family on a much-needed break, and so I experienced the conflict of wanting to draw everything I saw, while simultaneously wanting to kick back with the family all the time, too. So I did what I could: I hoped there would be “cracks” in the day when I’d get a chance to sneak a sketch in, and so it turned out…for the most part. Once I started drawing everyone on the beach. No sooner had I drawn the first line than Marcel, my husband, shouted at everyone to flee, in the way that he does when he sees a wasp. I was extremely cross at having wasted both page and opportunity, and expressed my feelings with abandon; I suppose the kids felt sheepish, as they all took up their positions again (apart from my eldest, who remained oblivious throughout). I was sorry that Marcel wasn’t to be in the sketch, and I’m pretty sure he was sorry too, in the way you can tell when you’ve known someone for a long time – in spite of no indication to that effect whatsoever.
Marcel and I stayed in a charming apartment tucked into the eaves of a building on Rue Dijon, near the market at Libération. It was very modern, and absolutely everything was white, including the steel beams which bisected each room and sloped down to the floor under the eaves. I tried sitting on one of them to draw the view from the window but that was too uncomfortable, so I balanced everything precariously on the windowsill of the other room and stood on a footstool. I was determined: the early morning sunshine was too glorious to miss. I did this sketch over two mornings as the city, and my husband, snoozed.
I was nervous about the orange of the roof nearest me, but I remembered Felix Scheinberger’s wonderfully abandoned use of colour in his book Urban Watercolor Sketching, and threw caution to the wind – the place it belongs when you’re sketching. So I just mixed the brightest orange I could come up with on my slovenly-kept palette and lashed it down.
Over the week, I made more false starts and abandoned more half-begun sketches than I have ever done, and my specially-reserved France sketchbook is (for the most part) a crashing disappointment. But that was the least of my worries. Far more discomfiting was the reluctance of two of our three children to be going to France at all: they were disappointed to be missing Hallowe’en in Ireland. Truth was, I hadn’t even considered their feelings about this morbid festival when I booked the holiday some months earlier. It was simply a good opportunity to take a break over the week they were off school. Anyway, here we were, and Hallowe’en was fast approaching, so I had a look through my phone to see how the French celebrate it. It was illuminating. Apparently it was never really a thing in France until recently, when foreign restaurants started to bedeck their salons in orange and black decorations, which led to questions from the locals…and little by little the festival established a small presence in France. There’s even a pumpkin farm outside Paris now. I saw lots of photos of pumpkins with Eiffel towers carved into them. However, some French people are unhappy about the festival, I learned, seeing it as yet another incursion of American culture into France (hello? it’s an Irish tradition). Then I saw this image, which was my favourite by far:
“DOWN with morbidity! UP with positive values!” I couldn’t agree more, but I still found it hysterical. Luckily, the children soon forgot about all the morbidity they were missing, and the charms of warm sunshine, fresh croissants, clear turquoise water, and not least of their indulgent grandparents, soon won them over.
One morning a flare-up in a minor knee problem provided the perfect excuse to stay at home for an extra hour…but instead of going back to the apartment I stopped by the fish market at Libération on the way back, and cast about for something that would inspire a sketch. Then I saw these –
and I knew I had found my subject. Luckily, there was a café just opposite it, and I sat down with a coffee. It was bliss: as soon as I sat down and started to draw, I felt that familiar blanket begin to envelope me, when the locals start to edge closer and engage; I’m like a cameraman in a wildlife documentary, when the meerkats start to get curious. The beautiful thing about being fluent in the local tongue as a sketcher is that the experience becomes infinitely richer. I began with those beautiful fish heads on the left. The younger fishmonger saw me drawing them and apologised when a customer bought one, but said he’d only take them from the back. I drew the older fishmonger, a quiet man, and when I finished the younger fellow, who was called Bruno, said “Now for the young man!” and took up a Charles Atlas-type pose, all biceps and profiles.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, “but I won’t draw you like that.”
He obliged and went back to serving customers. After a bit he came for a look.
“Em…” I said, “would you mind…”
“Go back to work, is what you’re saying,” he said. Luckily a lady customer came along and I caught him just as he held out the paper to take her order.
The owner of the bar where I was sitting came over to me.
“That’s all very well,” she said, “but you haven’t drawn Lolotte.” She bent down to kiss a black labrador-sheepdog cross with a gentle expression.
“She hasn’t drawn you, has she, my darling, but she’ll draw you now, won’t she? Such a beautiful little Lolo, my beautiful Lolotte,” she told the dog, amid many kisses on the dog’s muzzle.
The fishmongers tried to get Lolotte to sit for me. But the pavement was wet, having been sluiced down by the fishmongers, and poor Lolotte sat there under duress so I did her as quickly as possible.
I apologised for not doing Lolotte justice but the café owner was very happy.
“That’s her, alright,” she said. “That’s my beautiful Lolotte.”
One day, everyone hopped on a train – kids, grandparents, the whole shebang – and tootled off down the coast to Italy. We were enchanted by the locals in the little town where we got off; a tall, large-bellied policeman with a silver goatee, resplendent in navy uniform, dashing white cap and mirrored sunglasses, gave us directions in a thoroughly laid-back “nothing’s a problem” manner, finished with that adorable “Prego,” that sounds so calm. My parents had eaten in a place they loved a couple of years before, and insisted on traipsing for miles along the promenade – almost deserted in late October – to find it. Tempers were getting frayed, it was really late and I was pretty sure everything was going to be a disaster. Then we found it. I think it was called Chica Loca, and it’s in Bordighera. Go there. It’s heaven. The husband sat with his arm out of the window, with a sun beating down on us that would have been unbearable a month earlier, but was divine in late autumn. Waves crashed against the pebble beach just a few feet below us. I ate the most incredible homemade fusilli: afterwards I tried to say to the waiter in my extremely rudimentary Italian that I would try to make it myself when I got home, but I must have asked him for the recipe, as he said he couldn’t give it to me because the chefs would slit his throat (which he illustrated with a gesture). This of course enhanced my experience of Italians, and of Italy. Afterwards the kids went for a swim and I sketched…
…the sun began to go down and I watched our waiter sweep up after us. That’s him at the window where we were sitting.
Back in Nice, Marcel and I had our morning coffee and croissants next to the market at Libération. The entire street is lined with vegetable sellers, all selling something more or less unique to them – that way they weren’t really competing with each other, I guess. My favourite vegetables were the tiny pumpkins called Jack be Little (as in Jack be Quick, Jack jump over the Candlestick…!) and the fantastic slices of giant organic pumpkin that I bought; we loved the light greenish-yellow piles of curly lettuce leaves, nicely plucked from the stalks, so that you could buy as little or as much as you liked; the creamy peach-coloured giant butternut squash, each the length of a leg, standing in rows like a vegetable mugshot. We bought strawberries grown nearby, the vendor terribly excited that the unseasonably sunny weather meant they were still ripening in the fields. I took the opportunity to make a sketch one morning.
Towards the end of our stay Marcel decided to make a bouillabaisse as a sort of grand finale to our time in Nice. For those of you who don’t know, it’s an elaborate Provençal fish stew with origins in Marseille, full of delicious fishy offerings from the Mediterranean Sea, and flavoured with all kinds of vegetables, pastis and saffron. It’s a big undertaking, and my parents’ kitchen, where it was to be prepared, is large enough for one – literally. Invite a second person into it and you’re rendered more or less immobile (but I find it a great kitchen to work in). Off we went to the fish markets of Libération, with me thinking I was really cool, saluting my new friend Bruno at the stall that I had drawn. The display was incredible: mullet, sea robin (grondin), squid, red rascasse, monkfish…the sea robin looked for all the world like sweet little dogs waiting for a pat, their fins, lying flat against their backs, looking exactly like a well-behaved dog’s ears when it puts them back nicely, their huge yellow eyes bearing a curiously guileless expression. Marcel eventually left the fish stall with his arms weighed down with bags stuffed (to the gills) with fish. Next it was to the vegetable stall, which we eventually left, light in pocket and heavy in produce. We bought fennel, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, leeks, celery and onions and made our way back to my parents’ place some twenty minutes’ walk away. Marcel insisted on carrying most of the fish and vegetables, perhaps a little unwisely, given the marathon cooking session which lay ahead. He spent the next four hours – yes, four – chopping, filleting, stirring and simmering the contents of the bags. The meal was a tour de force and everything was cooked to perfection, but he’s decided not to make bouillabaisse again. Meanwhile, our own apartment was very near the markets, so we had occasion to pass them over the course of the next day. “NON aux poissons!” said Marcel as we passed the fish stall. “NON aux légumes!” as we passed the poor, innocent vegetable sellers.
There remained one or two things that I really wanted to draw. The façade of my parents’ place in the Russian Quarter is a truly impressive feat of Art Déco architecture. I love that all the buildings are signed by the architects. But I encountered a problem – this time I couldn’t blame it on uncooperative sitters, lack of time, or the cold…the problem was me. I found I simply wasn’t up to the task of drawing all those details.
“I’m sketching in a genuinely urban environment for the first time in ages,” I said to the husband, “and I fail miserably.” I was deeply disappointed in my sketching skills when it came to the crunch: I obviously need to draw many more fabulous Art Déco buildings to get a better handle on them.
As we waited in the airport the day after I made this sketch, I noticed a very stylish lady with close-cropped blonde hair, big beaten-silver earrings and a very fancy pair of glasses. The frames were light brown and very funky but the arms were even better, patterned with a fake wood effect. I thought they were terrific, and kept trying to stare at her, as I’m in the market for a new pair of frames. But every time I tried to have a surreptitious stare she would find something else to look at, and then we all piled onto the little shuttle bus, so I missed my chance. To my delight, she ended up sitting beside me, and I figured I’d get a chance sometime to read the brand name of the specs. No such luck: I quickly guessed she was the type who’d rumble you if you tried to cop a sneaky stare. Most unfriendly. So I took out my pen to while away the time, copying the cover of a special magazine edition of Le Figaro dedicated to Hokusai, one of the Japanese Ukiyo-e painters that I’ve long admired. You’ll notice that one of the pretty ladies has a black blob on her face: this is what your pen does when you get to a certain height above the earth. It’s part of drawing in ink on a plane, and isn’t usually a problem, so long as you can grab a stewardess for a paper napkin, which I couldn’t, and I imagined disapproval from my neighbour.
I enhanced the colours of the dresses of the ladies, just to make it a bit more enjoyable. The flight was going well: I was drawing, the flight attendant turned up with a cup of tea and a paper napkin, and I had bought a last, exquisite mille feuille from a “mâitre boulanger” at the bus stop on the way to airport. Then the attendant collected our rubbish, and as I passed her the pretty little cardboard box the pastry came in, now stuffed with an inky napkin, the whole lot split and fell onto my neighbour…. she was understandably most unhappy, and glared at me quite openly. In spite of my profuse apologies, I knew my chances of a chit-chat about glasses had faded to zero.
One day, one day far into the future, everything will suddenly fall into place, my kids will have learned how to make sandwiches and so won’t starve to death, Marcel will suddenly find a special beauty in (as he sees it) the much-concreted South of France, and I’ll get to spend a whole year in Provence.
Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend
My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-
or in the UK and EU :-
I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-
or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-
There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-
The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-
or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-
The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-
I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-
I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-