Tinkering with Art When One Is Not An Artist

Diana, reading a newspaper affixed to an easel
Artists run in my family.  There is so much sheer talent among my family members, they could populate the Royal Academy or else serve as Staff for the Rhode Island School of Design.  I must have been busy elsewhere when the artistic ability was handed out because I most emphatically am not one of them.  My drawing ability is limited to stick figures and somewhat fantastical horses. 
No false modesty, no hiding my talent up my sleeve: I can’t draw or paint and that’s flat.  But I do enjoy designing book covers for my work.  Fiddling with images is not the same as drawing or painting, but it can be rewarding.  Sometimes.  Then there are times where you want to tear your hair out.  

Book 1: Tuileries
I have a series in the works, with the first book out.  It is set in 1830’s Paris.  The series is called The Orphan’s Tale.  The second is, I’d say, 80% finished.  The third is not too far behind.  Because Book #1 is published, it stands to reason that it has a cover: 
The lady, who is Elise, the heroine, is taken from a portrait of that era, and the structure in the background is the Tuileries palace in Paris.  It stood opposite the Louvre, but was destroyed around 1870.  This painting, executed some 20 years after the setting of my story, shows a party at the palace.  It works very well with the lady’s hair and fashion.

The second book is not out yet.  Projected release is year’s end.  I do have that cover designed.  The boy, Larouche, is taken from a Victorian genre painting.  I really wanted to use his whole form, but was forced to drop that idea when I realized that the full-length painting depicted a newsboy peddling the New York  Times, a publication that would have been difficult to find anywhere outside the United States.  The building is the Hotel de Cluny in an old quarter of Paris.  The painting, executed by a Californian in the 19th century, is titled ‘Christmas Morning’.  The book ends with Christmas Eve, and the painting works.

Ummm…  No.
The big problem arose with Book #3.  It originally had Larouche in place and, it taking place during one of the periodical riots that plague Paris, was appropriate.  Or so I thought.  Unfortunately, some of my nearest and dearest pointed out issues with the painting.  The fellow motioning to the rough-looking crowd is rather dopey-looking.  The face fungus appears out of period, the apparently dying boy (who somehow appears  strong enough to hold up a flag straining in the breeze) is not an asset, and the dopey young man is wearing striped trousers.  Enough said.  Besides, I needed a depiction of the main male character, Paul Malet.
That was difficult.  He is described as a tall man.  His hair is thick, dark, and graying, and his eyes, set under straight, dark brows, are a light brown, almost green.
When you are working in period, as opposed to simply trying to set a time-like feel to the story, you have to be careful about facial types.  The western Europeans of two hundred years ago do not look the same as they do now.  There has been a blending of peoples.  One forensic anthropologist, often called upon to identify bodies found on a certain battlefield, said that he could usually tell by looking at the skull.  In my case, I needed images to work with, either to be purchased, or in the public domain.  I started looking among portraits of the era.  Sir Thomas Lawrence was a portraitist active at that time.  I strolled through his paintings.  I wanted someone who was under 50 years old, moderately refined.  I only needed a head.
I found one.  This fellow, one Sir Codrington Edmund Carrington, was a distinguished and well thought-of aristocrat.  Perhaps a little too refined, not to say effeminate.  Paul Malet had been an artillerist in the armies, was a swordsman (they used edged weapons in the military – in Malet’s case, heavy, long swords).  As a high-ranking police officer, he would still carry a sword.  But he had dark eyes while this fellow had gray eyes and, unfortunately, a cast in the eye on the right.  That was fix-able, I thought, and I broke out my Photoshop and set to work.
I came up with this.  The coloring is appropriate, though he still looks delicate.  Still, I had been looking and LOOKING, and this was the best I had.  A little refined, but setting the head in a uniform coat seemed to help for the moment.  Now to look for some appropriate settings.
Well, there was Lawrence’s portrait of Admiral Pellew, who fought in Britain’s navy during the Napoleonic wars.    The body looked pretty good from the neck down.  From the hair, crew cuts were a Napoleonic invention, but I didn’t plan to use the head.  It only remained to paste the head I had designed atop the body.  I set to work and finished it fairly quickly.  The proposed image is below:
A Frenchman in the Royal Navy?  Uh… No.
The big problem with this, aside from the apparent olive color of the uniform coat, is that the hero, Paul Malet, would have been the last one to wear an English uniform, admiral or not.  I was aiming for historical accuracy.
I tried another uniform, just to see how it would look.  The hero, being a veteran and a police officer, would have worn a uniform.  This one was a little better, though the man who posed for that one was Russian and, for reasons unknown, had stopped in the middle of doffing his cloak.  
May I take your coat, sir?
The general effect is rather awkward.  And this ruddy smiling fellow, also painted by Lawrence, was Russian.  Hm…    I found I could not take the painting seriously.  When I added the head of my character, the result was especially laughable. 
It was worth a try, but the result could be summarized with the words…

Uh…  No.
The possible solution was to simply use an inset head on the cover with an image I wished to use.

I tried it.  Truly I did.  It should have worked.  The background image was perfect, and I had my adjusted head.  Unfortunately, I learned to my dismay that while the head, somewhat over-refined, was not so bad from a close vantage point, when you put it at a distance it looked somewhat like a snipe.  Or,  perhaps, like Bob Hope.  In fact, it reminded me forcibly of a cartoon by Honore’ Daumier:
Blast!  It was back to the drawing board. 

Fortunately, I found the perfect image when I wasn’t looking for it.  In fact, I caught a glimpse and spent a good long time trying to find it again.   
General Maurice-Louis Gigost d’Elbee

This man was one of the royalist generals who fought in the counter-revolution during the Terror (French revolution). 
Freedom of Worship had been denied, the king was imprisoned, and the Terror was in full swing under Robespierre.  Led by a peasant, wearing the emblems of their faith, aristocrat and commoner, wealthy or poor, they fought with courage and firmness.  The ‘Republican’ government’s suppression of the revolt, is considered genocide.  It was a terrible time, but heroes and heroines arose, as happens during such times.  This man was one.  I am surprised that he is not better known, but then people tend to shy away from those who lose wars.  Napoleon, by the way, came to power while the strife continued, though weakened.  He made inquiries, realized that the people were fighting for freedom of worship, and stopped the war and the killings.  The portrait was commissioned posthumously by Louis XVIII after 1817.

Uh, no…
…And, on a less impressive note, I had an image I could use.  It was in the public domain, and I could not imagine that Maurice d’Elbee would object to my borrowing his portrait as a basis for a character that was also a hero.

I adjusted the image: the epaulettes were out of place, the hair out of fashion.  During the action of the third book, the hero is trying to make his way out of a riot.  He would not be in uniform and the uniform would not, at any rate, look like that.  He would, at least at first, be carrying that heavy cavalry sword (it’s a sword, for thrusting, and is straight: sabers, used by light cavalry for slashing, are curved) I tried the earlier cover: 
There is too much going on.  Too many bodies, too tangled.  And the expression, looking grimly to the left, does not work with the background.  He doesn’t appear to be paying attention.
I liked the flag, but …  No.  I needed something to show tumult.  I also needed to find something to go with the theme of the earlier covers, which incorporated monumental buildings. 
I had an idea, and I tried something else:

This is a little better, but rather boring, truth to tell.  It’s a good thing the Chief Inspector is placed where he is, because if his hips were not in that exact spot you would see the Duke of Orleans, who became King Louis-Philippe of France, riding his bright bay horse across the cobblestones with his doffed hat in his hand.
In fact, the cover was boring as all get-out.  And another thing: the white silk sash (used by the counter-revolution to show support for the Bourbon kings) was out of place.  I decided to remove it.
That took some work.  I had to reconstruct the man’s coat, which involved constructing the double-breasted placket down to his waist, creating cloth and blending it in.  I admit that it was fun:
While I was at it, I added what I thought were lively people on the left, complete with tricolor.
It being Christmas day, a friend asked me what on earth Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were doing there.

Almost there

They had a point.
What the heck to do?
I sat back and thought…

You can’t get much more monumental than the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on the Île de la Cité.  Placing the figure on the other side of the composition provided balance.  It worked.
Well…  Maybe.


I sat back with a frown. 
Aside from the fact that my hero appeared to have a light saber embedded in the heel of his right boot (on our left) with the blade beaming downward, it was OK but not really good.  So what to do…?

I eyed the design, reached for my mouse…

…now all I have to do is finish volumes II and III.

Piece of cake.
…and avoid watching my nearest and dearest as they draw and paint. 

Yes, M. Gustave (Courbet) I know the feeling!

Visualizing a Scene: It’s Good if You Can Do It…

‘Artist Sketching’ by Constable 

I tend to be visually oriented.  Something, whether a graphic or an item, can serve to express and summarize my thoughts about a scene, a character, a setting.  Sometimes things fall beautifully into place.  And sometimes they…just…don’t.  But ah, they do come close at times.  I have a scene in my Work In Progress in which one of the characters, Larouche, a 7 year old street urchin, encounters ‘Monseigneur’, his name for a high-ranking police officer that he met in the first book of the series, initially hated, and grew to like and admire in the course of the story.  The growth of their liking is a theme throughout the series, and this scene, the second time they have actually come face to face, is pivotal.  The child, who has found a position at a small bistro as a hired boy, is sweeping the yard: 

**   **   **

         Larouche watched as Jean-Claude led the big gray horse from the stable.  Nice-looking fellow, he thought. Tall, strong: maybe some Percheron in him? His dark coat dappled down to white with a white mane and tail. Elegant and strong, Larouche thought, and remembered the horses ridden by the helmeted officers during reviews.  This one could easily be one of those mounts.

The horse had been gazing toward the door of the taproom.  He raised his head and nickered as Monseigneur emerged into the early afternoon light.

Larouche drew back against the wall, suddenly breathless.  The row of bushes was beside him, offering shelter and concealment.  He lifted his chin, stayed where he was, and watched.

Monseigneur was in uniform, the sun flashing from the gold-washed bronze buttons of his coat, the dark blue cloth rich in the sunlight.  A brief conversation with Jean-Claude… Nods all around, and Monseigneur came farther into the stable yard.  He was bareheaded, the cocked hat tucked under his left arm. Larouche could see the sunlight glinting on strands of silver in his dark hair. Monseigneur getting old? The thought sat oddly, as though it expressed something Larouche did not want to be true.

The gray was tossing his head. He settled as Monseigneur approached, took out a small snuffbox and shook some candies into his palm.

The gray’s ears flicked back and forth. He lowered his lead to lip at the treats.

“He’s ready for a good trot,” Monseigneur said. Larouche caught the accent again. “I will be obliging him shortly.” He took the reins from Jean-Claude, smiled as the man cupped his hands for a leg up, and sprang into the saddle.

Larouche watched Monseigneur slide his feet into the stirrups and gather the reins. The hazel eyes settled on his, caught and held. Larouche thought it was like the time Monseigneur had seized him by the ear. No escape possible. But did he want to escape?

He raised his eyes and smiled as the moment deepened, lengthened. Larouche realized that Monseigneur was as caught as he was, unable to break the connection, unable to speak.

…and then Larouche found that he could draw breath and take a step forward, and he saw that Monseigneur was also leaning toward him, smiling and stretching out his hand—

“Sir!”  The voice, strident and anxious, cut the connection between them.

Monseigneur’s hand fell to his thigh as he turned, frowning. “What is it, Trinchard?”

“A mob assembled! They are threatening headquarters!”

What? When was this?” 

“Twenty minutes ago—a half hour! We have been seeking you all this time!”

Monseigneur’s frown deepened. “You have found me,” he said. “Lead me there.”

Larouche watched Monseigneur gather his reins, and then, almost as though he were drawn, turn back toward Larouche.

Their eyes met, held for a long moment.

Monseigneur’s lips parted as though he meant to speak. Larouche waited. But then he turned his horse and was in the street.

Well, that was that. Larouche took up the broom he had laid aside and started sweeping the leaves away.

          The clack of iron on cobblestone made him look up..

The gray was snuffling at the remains of the ivy on the post while Monseigneur watched Larouche with a warm smile. Larouche could see a group of mounted officers in the street beyond.

Monseigneur leaned down, his hands braced on the pommel of his saddle. “I must go,” he said. “I will be back. I don’t know how soon that will be, but I will be back. I give you my word..”  His smile deepened.  “I want to speak with you.  Will you wait for me?”

Larouche nodded. “I’ll be here,” he said through an answering smile. “I promise.”

Monseigneur bowed, touched his heel to his mount’s side, just behind the girth. The horse turned on his haunches and they left at a gallop.

** ** ** 
I had the scene in my mind, I’d been to Paris and scouted the location of the tavern and the lay of the streets.  I knew what the hero looked like, and I knew what the little boy looked like.  In thumbing through images, I came across one that was…almost…perfect.
So close, and yet so far…

Almost.  It has some issues.  For starters:

1.  They meet in the courtyard of a small tavern, not the esplanade before the Tuileries palace, which was across from the Louvre. 
2.  Larouche, though better dressed than previously, and with a job, is still almost penniless.  He does not own a suit like this boy is wearing.
3.  While Malet (the hero) is in uniform in the scene, the police uniform of this era, while dark blue with a red front panel, gold buttons, and a high collar like this one, it also had a cravat.  The uniform coat would have covered his abdomen. The chicken guts (‘aiguilettes’ – can you tell I’m a military brat?) would not be worn by him.  The bearskin shako would have been worn by Malet in the artillery during his service between 1810 – 1814.  The Police of this era also wore the bearskins.  That stopped after the fall of Napoleon. Breeches and waistcoat would have been a lighter buff for police.
4.  The rider appears to be sporting a queue.  Malet never approved of them.  They are a good way to be disabled and killed (just grab that ponytail and hold on) and they were no longer worn in the military after about 1806.
5.  The horse is black.  Malet’s preferred mount in the book is what they call a ‘white dapple’ with white mane and tail and a dark coat that dapples down to white.
I did bring the horseman and the child ‘forward’ by making the other rider and the crowd in the background paler (adjusting opacity; you can see it if you look).  I am toying with fiddling with the image, removing the shako, adjusting the uniform…  Just for my own amusement, you understand…
Maybe I’ll update this post if I succeed.  (For those who are curious, the series is The Orphan’s Tale, and I am working on the second installment.)

Parisian Encounters – of Cops and Angels

Sometimes reality and mystery intersect in strange ways.  Things that seem unlikely or impossible become probable and likely.  We touch mystery and the sublime as we walk through our lives, and sometimes – but only sometimes – we stop to take a closer look. 

I had an encounter once that on the surface was certainly of this day and age.  I was nearly mugged, at the very least, on a back street in nighttime Paris.  But the echoes it stirred some weeks later spoke of something a little different.  My imagination?  Probably.  I have one, after all. 

I am writing the second book of a trilogy set in 1830’s Paris.  The idea came to me suddenly after listening to music.  Ideas come in odd ways, and when you unravel them, you often find your way to a story, as in this case.

Paris is a hard city to research.  It has charmed people for centuries, but those who seek to know of its physical properties prior to 1860, let us say, are going to run into trouble.  The wide, spacious boulevards that we stroll along, that we see photographed and painted, were sent lancing through the heart of the old city by Napoleon III in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Prior to that, it was a medieval city with crowded, colorful, twisting streets. 

I did not know this when I started writing The Orphan’s Tale.  I solved the problem by making it Alternate History (from a geographical standpoint). 

In those early days I pored over maps, purchased books with illustrations of the different arrondissements, with photos from above, all giving me an idea of the area.  I became very familiar with the streets of the city, which was not necessarily a good thing. 

I arrived in Paris in the late evening of a Monday in May.  The manager at my hotel, after giving me a far nicer room than I had reserved and paid for, told me where I could go to find a nice sandwich for dinner. (“Un crocque Monsieur, Mademoiselle? Bien sûr! You will love it!). It was along the Rue de l’Opera.  My Hotel was near the rue St. Honoré, which parallels it. 

Avenue de l’Opera, Evening

Since I was arrogant enough then to think I knew the area very well from reviewing maps, I knew that I could cut out a dog-leg by following  a street that connected those two major thoroughfares. 

The detour looked fine on the map, but I quickly realized that it was little more than a dark alleyway. My instincts told me to turn around and go back, and I don’t generally ignore them.  As I was about to obey them, three people stepped in behind me, sending my sense of alarm soaring. I now had a very bad feeling. 
What to do?  Turn and face them?  To what good?  It was a high-sided, dark alley.  I was one person and there were three.  I chose to increase my pace.  I was wearing shoes called ‘City Walker’, made for walking in urban areas and styled like high-heeled pumps.  After some years of ballet, I was comfortable in heels.  I walked faster. 

Their pace increased. 

I sped up, myself.  I can walk very quickly, and at this point, with the adrenaline pumping through me and all my senses alert, I was going at a fast jog while not breaking out of my step. 

They increased their pace.  And now the alarms were sounding in my head.  

Half a breath and I was ready to break into an all-out run.  I could see the Rue de l’Opera ahead, not close, but within reach, and if I was ready to scream— 

I drew abreast of a small alleyway and out stepped a tall, strong-looking police officer. Not a Gen d’Arme with the little, beaked, flat-topped hat and the cape, but a municipal cop with a very stern look to him.   He stepped right into the alleyway, hands clasped behind him, and fronted my pursuers, who scrambled to a halt, turned and ran. 

I said “Bonsoir!” rather shakily, my heart thundering in my ears. He smiled faintly and bowed. 

At that moment I had the strangest feeling as though Saint Michael had stepped in to take a hand.  

The rest of my stay in Paris was notable for its beauty and my enjoyment, aside from the moment I realized that I was clicking photos in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in the middle of mass.  (It is a huge structure, and I was not paying attention to the French words).  I realized my gaffe, capped my camera, sat down, and enjoyed the service. 

The Fontaine St-Michel, Paris

I mentioned my near-mishap to a friend, who said “You do know that Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of Police, don’t you?”  

That made me blink.  No, I hadn’t. 

I’m not one of those wifty types (no more than any other writer) and I know what happened: he probably heard the sound of footsteps, realized what was going down, and stepped out to intervene. I think I would have been mugged at best if not for him. 

It is strange how trains of thought will alter your conclusions.  I do know that at some point, some time in the future, I will face that man and say (in French, bien-sûr) “Thank you.  You saved my health, at least, then.”  And it may just be that he will sheathe his sword and say, “It was my pleasure, Mademoiselle.  I trust you enjoyed Paris…”


Portrait of a Hero…

It’s always hard to express a character, whether hero, heroine or villain.  A writer has a picture in her own mind, but readers have their own ideas.  Whose is valid?  Whoever is expressing the picture, of course.

My hero???

I wrote some quasi-heroic fantasy years ago that involved a group of people who looked rather like Thor in the Marvel Comics.  Tall, blond, bright blue eyes…  I had a hero that some folks (not me) considered a heart throb.  So, out of idle curiosity, I asked who he looked like.

‘Bjorn Borg!’ sighed one friend.

Oh…kay…  I said.  Others had other notions, leaning toward the tall and stringy.

And so it goes.

I’ve been working on the covers for The Orphan’s Tale, a trilogy set in 1830’s Paris.  Book I is out.  Book II will be out, God willing, around Christmas.  Book III will be next year.  They have developed simultaneously.

The covers have the same theme: a scene of Paris with a portrait of a main character inset in the upper left. The Heroine, Elise, graces Book I.  The heroic young boy, Larouche, is on Book III.  So…  Who is on Book II?

Therein lay the problem.  Obviously, the hero, Paul Malet, who has an interesting past and is a very enjoyable character to write about.  But what on earth does he look like?  Tall, yes.  Dark-haired and hazel-eyed.  Graying around the edges (he is in his forties).  Military – he fought in Napoleon’s armies as a colonel of artillery.  That much was described.  The rest?  Well, it’s in my head,

…but I needed a cover, and soon.

So I went through the portraits of the era, sifted through the works that are in the public domain.  Two seemed to work, partially.  I combined them, adjusted the coloring and the uniform, and now am happy to present, for the cover of the book, Paul V. Malet, the hero.  I was not able to capture the sardonic lift of the eyebrows when he encounters stupidity, but the tolerant smile is there.  It’ll do.

…and now I have the three covers:

Here’s the page on my website:  http://www.dianawilderauthor.com/the-orphans-tale.html

Celebrations – January 17, 2014

It is Friday again, and a time to stop and take stock of the small things we celebrate, often unknowingly.  Thanks to VikLit, who had the idea for this wonderful bl0g hop, we can remind ourselves of the beautiful things in life that make our days just that much more lovely.  You’re welcome to join – head on over to her blog!

Details are at the end of this post.

I have been what the French call hors de combat (out of action) for a while with a bad case of bronchitis and pneumonia. It’s clearing up, the solstice has passed (if you can survive to December 22, you can start seeing the days lengthening).

This morning I awoke to a view of a full moon hoving over the hilltop through a smoky lace veil of bare branches. I actually stepped outside (barefoot – don’t tell my mother!) to look at it.

I could feel that I was on the mend, and I’d had an idea for a twist in Book II of The Orphan’s Tale, which I am working on at the moment. A touching idea, introducing (incognito) a man who would be a major contributor to mid 1800’s Europe. To have the prison-raised hero encounter this fellow as a young man (the fellow, not the hero, who is in his mid-forties) and recognize in him a sort of wistful admirer, has me smiling.

There’s another character who appears in the trilogy (it’s shaping up to be that) and he’s always such a joy to write about:

Larouche The Great

He’s a street-child with a sad background, a lot of commonsense and some very good luck.  He is the hero’s more-than-match.  In fact, the conflict in the last volume might have been ably handled if Larouche had been given free rein.

I love writing about him.

The flow of creative juices is always a cause for celebration.

(And I am remembering that today is a Friday!  I hope you all have wonderful weekends.)