Paris Journal #7: How Did Van Gogh Do It?


Finding art supplies in Paris can, oddly enough, be a challenge. One would think that in a city known for its art, you could find an abundant supply of relatively affordable art materials. After all, everyone knows that most artists in Paris are penniless, living in an unheated garret, scraping together what few sous they have for a precious tube of cadmium red or ultramarine blue.

I had just come here from Santa Fe, where prices are always inflated; yet there are still one or two stores there with reasonably priced art supplies, even in the high­-rent district. Not so here.

The few places I found, which were recommended to me by friends, were quite small in comparison to say, Pearl Paint in New York, which has something like five floors of every kind of art material you could possibly think of, at prices so low that people stock up on all sorts of materials they don’t even need, just because they’re so cheap. There is one store here that stocks most things an artist would need, Rougier & Plé. It is the largest I found, but with correspondingly large prices.

I had just completed my first piece of art work, which I had intended to give to my friend Bénigne’s father as a gift, in appreciation for his kind invitations to the family’s château on weekends.

It was an illumination of his family crest, made with traditional materials used in medieval illuminations, including sheepskin parchment, handmade gesso, and 23-karat gold leaf. It was already Thursday and we were due to head to the château on Friday evening, so it
seemed like an ideal time to present my gift — assuming I could get it matted and framed in time.
 Now, knowing that everything in Paris takes longer to get done than expected, and being a native New Yorker who likes everything done yesterday, I decided to try to mat and frame it myself. Bad Idea.

First of all, it was the second day of the “Soldes d’Eté,” the annual summer sales event in which almost all the stores in France have marked down their merchandise up to 50 percent off, so all of Paris jams into the stores looking for bargains.

In my infinite wisdom, I decided the easiest place to find a large selection of frames was at the
 huge Parisian department store, the BHV. It was true that they had a large selection of items from which to choose, but I had to fight my way through crowds of people
and got elbowed more than once by some sweet­-looking little old ladies who, when a bargain was in sight, suddenly turned into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Unfortunately, none of the ready-­made frames came with an appropriate mat, so I figured I had to bite the bullet and cut one myself. Thinking that I may need to mat more of my art work in future — assuming I will become a prolific artist — I decided to just buy a professional mat cutter.

The only mat cutter they had was a brand I had never heard of — “Maped” — made in France of course. At €88, it was more than a little expensive, but since it advertised itself as being “easy, fast, and efficient” (in France?!?), I figured it would be worth it if I was to use it often.

So I pulled all the pieces out of the box, along with the instructions, one version of which was actually in English. I figured this was a good thing, since it’s important to understand phrases like “ATTENTION! Ne mettez pas des pieces de corps importants sur cette machine!” Translation: ­“WARNING! Do not insert any important body parts into this machine!”

Now, although the instructions were in English, they may as well have been in Swahili, because even after reading them for the tenth time they still made no sense whatever.

An hour later, after looking at the picture on the box and setting it up to match the picture as best I could, and hoping for the best, I made my first cut with the thing. Since it was not anchored to anything, however, and had no way of being able to be anchored to anything, it slid around on the tabletop and made a crooked line.

Grumbling more than a little, and since I had ruined the mat for anything else anyway, I decided to try a few more test cuts. No matter how many times I tried to make a clean cut it came out looking like something only Freddy Kruger might be proud of.

At this point it occurred to me that this is probably how Van Gogh cut off his ear. He was most likely fiddling around with the Maped mat cutter — motto: “easy, fast, efficient!” — and in a state of complete frustration, put his head a little too close to
the blade and before he knew it …zip… off it came.

So back everything went into the box, to be returned to the BHV (do they even take returns in France?) I then went out to my local art store, which is the size of a shoe box, but which always seems to have every art material I am in need of, and purchased a utility knife and metal ruler. With these simple items, I proceeded to cut a perfectly decent mat and frame my little masterpiece in time to present it to Bénigne’s father.

Of course, at the last minute, plans ended up being changed and I didn’t get to present it this weekend after all. But at least I know I can now cut a decent mat — by hand — and I could handily do an ear, too.

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