in bed with… myself

Me, circa 9 years old

I love this photo of me! Man Ray, who was a friend of my parents, took it in 1966 and I remember very well sitting very still in that wide chair in his wild studio. I was terribly shy then but I think he did capture some of the boldness-to-be. Around that time, I also began needing to have my braces checked every fortnight. And, every time the dentist entered the waiting room, he would say: “Now, who’s next? Ah, Mona Lisa!” And I would then turn pink with embarrassment as everyone would lift their eyes from their books and newspapers! Maybe I did look a bit like her. Maybe it was the seriousness of me then…

Later, when my mother became an art restorer for the French museums and worked from the Louvre, I always used to wink at her on my way to Mum’s atelier under the roofs. Much later still, when my Dad died, I inherited a stack of silly postcards which he’d collected for some reason, all spoofs of La Gioconda. But, before naming this blog, it never really struck me how connected I felt to that painting. She feels like a friend from long long ago. She smiles to me like she knows me well…

So that settles I hope your curiosity for the title of this blog (as for the Madonna reference, I have to admit that I like mine more in Italian museums but could not resist the pun). For the rest, the why I’m doing this, the how come I think I’m the perfect person to do this, the where I’m coming from… it’s all as random as above reasons I have to admit. Yes, I come from a family of art lovers – my lovely Belgian grandfather was a collector and friend to many artists of his time, my mother who studied art, went to run an art gallery in Paris with my father, then moved on to becoming a wonderful art restorer in the French museums, my British (but very Mediterranean) father who had great appreciation for art too then became manager of an American Art Foundation in Paris- but my thing was books. Reading books. And so I became a bookseller, then a graphic designer (designing book covers) then a publisher – sharing with my husband these two crazy adventures. But when you love books, you usually also love paper. And ink. And pens. And when you design book covers you turn the pages of many many art books every day to seek inspiration and you also learn a lot about colours from photoengravers, scannerists, printers. And so…

When we moved to Australia and our first venture didn’t turn to be all that it promised at first, we had to look around and found a framing shop for sale, with a little art gallery and large format printing facilities. It took us nearly two years to master all these aspects of the business but slowly Still @ the centre, our little art space, turned into a true artistic hub. Then one day, I went to a framer in a nearby town as I needed something for my son and they had a small range of art supplies. It seemed to make so much sense to sell this next to the frames and canvases we were already making that I decided then and there to do the same.

Of course I had not a clue where to begin. From a very early age I must say going to art stores was always a delight. I have a particularly vivid memory of  waiting for my mother a whole afternoon in a beautiful store in Rome -Vertecchi- and looking at every single brush, pencil and tube on the shelves… Then there was Sennelier on the Quai Voltaire, just a bridge away from the Louvre, or Gattegno rue de la Grande Chaumiere, where we would sometimes dash into to grab a can of varnish or what not. I knew the brands I had grown up with all my life -usually French ones but also Italian and American- and could not see them anywhere in stores around my little town of Byron Bay. And so my quest began…

A few months later I was in France and I scouted the shops, chatted to helpful salesgirls, read a few books, talked to artist friends and restorers still in activity, all to become a bit more savvy. It took me more than 6 months to carefully choose and source what I wanted on my shelves and -although I could not get all at once for financial reasons- to know where I was going. Some of the lovely people whole selling these brands in Australia were really helpful too. David Coles at Langridge, Neil Wallace at Heidelberg Fine Arts, for example, really know their stuff and enjoyed -thank God- sharing their knowledge.

Now, we’re a few years later… and I still don’t know it all. But I really know much much more, and am clearer too about what I don’t know and maybe will never know in this lifetime (too little time…too many pigments!) On the business side, I discovered soon enough how hard it was to sell those lovely brands no one had heard about in the area, and I’m still just as excited as the first time when artists give great feedback on them… because, you see, artists’ materials have become my PASSION. Don’t ask me why, I can’t tell you. The switch turned to ON and the current has never failed or switched off. I have read books and books, spent hours on the computer, downloaded the craziest things and experimented in my little studio on weekends. Three years ago, we began art classes in our centre and teachers have since given me feedback and challenged me too, on more and more products. One of these teachers, Turiya Bruce, was chosen by Golden paints to be trained into their amazing range of acrylic delights. Together we’ve really had fun offering workshops and demo days where artists could open ALL the pots and try ALL the paints, gels, mediums, etc. (Of course I wanted to do that anyway… but couldn’t justify the expense even to myself!).

Being a bit the academic type, I began some time ago, putting together “technical sheets” to give away to clients in the shop as I realized that they too, often, were really lost in the rows of pretty colours, didn’t understand why paint came in series, didn’t know if you could varnish an oil painting in the same way as an acrylic one, etc. The idea was both to be informative on the how and the why (as in why go for more expensive paint or brushes) and to hopefully convince them to buy real value for money materials if they could afford them, promoting along the way the good brands and labels I was selling. Doing so, I really learned a lot. And perhaps, most importantly, I found out that not one existing art materials book truly suited me. None was really up to date and savvy about new developments in acrylics, but also in new types of pencils, water based oils, modern pigments, etc. Further more, the authors rarely committed themselves to giving away the name of the good (and not so good) brands. So, when most of us want to find out more and probably google this or that, we usually “land” on a commercial site. Some are great and if you want to learn about that company’s product you can find some useful info. But obviously you have to remember that they are biased AND sometimes incorrect.  (Sorry to be a bit cynical here but with companies ALL claiming to be highly pigmented, of buttery consistency, using the finest craftsmanship, taking the utmost care, yes with nearly all of them using the exact same marketing jargon -with the funny exception of the best ones that mostly don’t actually!- who are we believe?)

I first thought I’d write THE book that seemed to be missing. But who was I? Not a chemist, not a paint maker, not a seasoned artist or art restorer… Of course, I love art and I’ve always lived around artists and all manners of creative people but that makes no scientist, museum curator or art historian of me.  And so, in short and at best, I could aim to be like a journalist getting her facts correctly and praying that her sources were good ones and that she wouldn’t make a total fool of herself. (Believe me you can in this vast domain… you should have seen me in my shop in the first months: rushing to a piece of paper to frantically jot down what I thought I had understood the client wanted, completely confusing a product with another, ordering stuff I haven’t sold once yet because one person mentioned it… and other dramatic moments I would rather forget!!).

And then came this idea… a blog! Hey, that sounded like something I could chew in little bites, something I could get round to after cleaning my house on my one day off, something I might truly enjoy doing. More than anything it could forever be up to date and corrected if I had made a mistake (… liked that bit!). I enjoyed doing the first posts about visits to lovely professionals (have I told you I love writing?)… But THE passion has grown, and like any serious minded monster it is threatening to take over my life… Because, in truth, even if I’m none of the above I think that I am at least qualified for one thing……. and that is……… recognizing genuine quality and craftsmanship when I see it. I have a passion for people who have a passion!

Sooooooooooooooooo…….. my latest idea is a grand tour (of the world no less) of all the art materials makers. Going to Japan to meet its brushes, inks and papers makers, to Belgium to see the linen makers, to Italy to meet the people who make the best easels, to America to meet the Golden people, the R&F team etc. etc. The idea behind it? To tell you about if of course but mainly to “honor excellence”… perhaps a radical ideal in this day and age??!! I pray to meet some people who can only make sense of their lives if it’s devoted to a labor of love. I want to try and meet them before it’s too late and the shareholders have decided to move the company to Mauritius in order to increase profits. I want to meet them before it’s too late, not to stuff them in a museum but in the  hope that perhaps… whatever I say, helps them to stay on. Because it is my utmost belief that wherever men and women of excellence and passion are still using intelligently their hands, their minds, their lives at doing what they do well (and that this passion comes before profits and bottom lines in their companies), maybe there is a chance for us all on this funny little blue ball. And so, a quest and a battle-horse all at once perhaps?

Voila, that’s all from me, about me, for now!

Me, circa 2011, with the amazing man who gives me wings so I can fly to the next adventure!

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Wonderful too find out a bit of what drives you to write such a terrific informative blog. I am an artist, yes, but do not in fact know all the “stuff” that your blog has been teaching me. So I want to thank you. THis site is simply unbiassed enough to BE biassed and tell the truth about what is good and what is bad in terms of materials. I cant wait to hear/read your own opinion of pencils…I have mine, but will be interested to see if they jibe with my own. Thanks for the third time so far.

    1. HI Pamela
      sorry for coming back to you so late… I’ve never even checked my comments as I expected none! Until recently I had so little time to give to my blog that I was a bit ashamed of how abandoned it look and felt (to me at least). But hearing such positive comments has made my heart sing and my fingers fly on the keyboard again! Have you seen the delightful Julie and Julia… do if you haven’t. Anyway she’s blogging away quite happily but there is that scene where after months she goes: Is there anybody out there?
      And of course I’ve kind of crossed a moment like hers when I’ve wondered why on earth I started such a huge project, who might even be interested and times I’m just happily learning more about all the stuff I AM interested in (and it DOES give me a good excuse to buy at least one of each to try them!) and just plodding on. But reading your comments really made my day… so thanks for sharing!

  2. you do look like mona lisa in this photo!

  3. Libby valentine says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog and have had such a lovely time reading through some of your ‘stories’..as i do every week when i have the privilege of sitting amongst it all in classes…Your shop is my favourite and I become excited like a little child every time i enter…So thank you for sharing your inspirations, knowledge, history and love of art…this in turn inspires me to put this iPad down, and get back to my little space, to create…

    1. thanks Libby… you do sometimes think you are writing these things and that they just then float, lost, in cyber space so it’s really lovely to get a real human being bouncing back appreciation!

  4. C-Marie says:

    Well, here we are just after Christmas Day, 2014, and I have discovered your site, and I love it and your life-giving ways!! Thank you so very much!!! God bless you and yours!

    1. and a great year to you… sorry it took me so long to answer!

  5. Turiya says:

    So adore your frank and personable writing style Sabine. It makes me smile as i do in my conversations with you! Missing you and looking forward to your charming return to our shire! Xxxx Turiya

  6. I love your blog/s, a great resource to an artist an art supplies addict like me.

    1. Oh thank you! Quite my passion / addiction too as you can tell…

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