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Cows and New Starts

I won’t go into the detail in this post, but let’s just say I made a bunch of criminals week last week by giving them to opportunity to steal my bag. There was a lot of stuff in there, but most importantly for this post, when I lost the bag, I lost my current sketchbook and drawing tools.

My single greatest fear is to be stuck somewhere — a train, a bus stations, a cafe — with time on my hands, and no activities. That why, whether I use it is or not, I almost always carry my sketchbook with me. And whilst it’s got free pages, the current sketchbook is always very much MY sketchbook, a constant companion. Anyway, my companion has gone walk about, so I needed to find another.

I woke up Thursday knowing that I needed to go on an art supply pilgrimage and know that Sennelier was where I wanted to go. I went in mid morning and… lost my nerve. The store was full of busy and purposeful looking Parisians who knew just what to ask and how to ask for it. I knew that I needed a sketchbook and to look at the pens upstairs. But the sketchbooks baffled me and upstairs seemed closed.

Intimidated, I decided to go further down the road to Charvin, “la Maison de Haute Couleur”. It was lovely, tiny and exquisite and I spent a while looking through their wares and chatting with the assistant about the need to guard one’s property in Paris (she’d had her purse stolen in Montmartre). But, as the store seemed to cater mostly to painters, I knew I was going to have to look elsewhere.

I rapidly lost faith. My quest for a transcendent artistic foraging experience was twice now thwarted. Disheartened, I decided that my last resort was Bazaar d’Hotel de Ville or BHV. It’s a monster of a department store and, having been there once before, I knew that it had an entire section for art supplies. It may be Paris, but on a Thursday shortly after the New Year, it felt like a Walmart on Black Friday selling plasma tis for 90% off. It was not pleasant. I went so far as to have everything in my hand that I needed and start to look for a till. But then I realised that reluctantly handing money over to people who could care less was not the way I wanted to start my relationship with my next sketchbook (this is serious commitment we’re talking about here; the first date’s gotta be right).

So I gave Sennelier another chance. It’s on the Rive Gauche on the quay Voltaire, just across the Pont du Carrousel, and it is a wonderful little art store. It feels like the art supply equivalent of Ollivander’s Wand shoppe. All woods fixtures, jars of raw pigment on ancient shelves going up the high walls, assistants in white lab coats whisking back and forth across the shop, advising on paper quality, pastel density, media for oil painting.

My destination was still the pen room upstairs and this time it was open. A little intimidated at first, I began speaking to the man behind the desk and he was lovely. As I’d had all my microns stolen, I figured it was time to try something else out. He commiserated, gave the universal gallic exhalation of breath that says both “C’est la vie” and “Better you than me” but in a collegial kind of way — cheeks puffing and eyes rolling. But then he went on to recommend several exquisite pens, but not before quizzing my on the style and breadth of my work. After all, how could he possibly recommend anything without getting to know me first. I walked away with a new pot of ink, 4 empty reservoir brush pens, 2 “plume” pens with “pumps” to refill. The best part was when I began to ask him about paper in the sketchbooks I had under my arm; he shook his head and held his hands out defensively. “I’m not the best man to answer that. My metier is pens, not paper” or something to that effect.

I went downstairs and the woman behind the counter, much to my surprise talked me away from the €21 sketchbook and even the €15 one and instead recommended the €7 one I felt guilty about even asking for. It was nice not being uphold. And when she heard my little tale of woe, she put a small box of three Sennelier oil pastels in my bag, “Un petit cadeau” she whispered.

And now I’m home and have started this next book, this next relationship with my ever important activities. And though it started off rocky at first, I will continue to delight in a world that has these little stores, these little throw backs where it’s possible to have someone whose specialty is only pens and where people where the clinician coat of their profession with pride.

Jesus Christ, I sound like someone’s grandpa. Sounds like it’s time for Super Jesus!

And why a cow for the first drawing? Because my new stuff is “vachement bien” of course!

One Response to Cows and New Starts

  1. Ralph C says:

    I have just finished reading the Sennelier book, and have a great respect for the family and their store. Tonight I have been googling for people’s experience with them and there are a number of wonderful stories including yours. Recently I ordered watercolor and acrylic paints from Blicks and I am looking forward to playing with those. Their products sound like they are well made with fabulous colour. I am in Canada and it is interesting to read about this store from afar as I will probably not visit it but glad others have for 125 years.