My Father Always Advised Me to Buy the Best Tools I Could Afford

It sometimes takes a very long time to identify the best instruments for one’s chosen craft. Unfortunately for me it has taken about fifty years to discover exactly everything I need to effortlessly enjoy making my artwork. But better late than never. For years I struggled with pens that bled, paper that was too textured, too thin or too absorbant and paint brushes that just weren’t up to the task. It is only this year that I have finally found the perfect instruments to accomplish what I want to do in my image-making. Μy father always told me that buying cheap tools was false economy. There is no question that quality supplies are worth the price; they make life so much easier.

I recently received a Namiki Pilot Falcon fountain pen as an early birthday present from Rick. It is an object of great beauty and one of the finest drawing pens available. The nib is made of 14 carat gold, plated with rhodium. The fine lines that one can achieve with it are very gratifying, and the nib glides over the paper like butter, never skipping. I have been using it every day since getting it and really enjoy the detail that it allows me. I always long to create brilliant loose and expressive work, but in the end I think my more natural inclination is to noodle.

With it came some de Atramentis document ink, also the best on the market. Using the higher quality ink was recommended for the pen because there are no harsh ingredients which could degrade the pen point, but I didn’t realize that the ink would also affect the drawing process itself. It dries almost instantly on the paper so that one doesn’t risk smudging a line that isn’t quite dry yet.

I have been using Schmincke watercolors for several years. I love my little wooden paint box with its porcelain palette. It cost a small fortune but I think I have gotten value for money. The colors are vibrant and the variety of colors, especially when mixed together, is almost infinite. I particularly have concentrated on mixing various greens in some of the illustrations I have been working on.

Paint brushes can be quite expensive but I have been collecting a few at a time over the months. Sable brushes are still considered the best and the reason is that they hold a great deal of paint so that you don’t need to keep dipping them into the color when you work. I find that if I throughly wet the brush first before putting it into the paint, I can color with it for most of a full minute before having to get more paint. All these little motion saving gestures add up and definitely increase the efficiency and pleasure of the task.

The last piece of the puzzle for me was finding the right paper. Arches 90lb hot press watercolor paper turns out to be so wonderful to work on for little detailed drawings like these that I can’t imagine ever buying any other kind. It is thick enough to absorb the watercolor without buckling and yet entirely smooth to take the pen lines effortlessly.

I am working very small, 12 X 16 cm, about the size of a postcard, since I am still creating these images for the monthly book project I tasked myself with when we first moved here in October. I have six months worth of little images of various kinds which add up to the story of each month we have been here. The process of making the drawings, even if they are not big, takes several days.

Five of the finished books, which I brought back to the Maison when we visited there in March.

Out and About in Dinard

Les Roches Brunes

We have enjoyed some glorious weather during the past week. One could have imagined that summer had arrived, but it hasn’t lasted of course. Still, during the few days when we had shirt-sleeve temperatures we took advantage and spent a lot of time out of doors.

Dinard is a town with several discrete neighborhoods. Over the winter we have mostly stayed in our own sector of Saint-Enogat for our walks and explorations. With the sun, however, we ventured further afield and spent an afternoon in the more emblematic part of Dinard, the main beach called Plage de l’Écluse, and its environs. Downtown shops and the marché are at sea level, but the extravagant villas that Dinard is famous for are perched on the rocky promontories on either side of the beach. The most famous of all is perhaps Les Roches Brunes at the tip of la Pointe Malouine. Built in 1896, it commands a panoramic view. In 2007 the house was donated by its last owner to the city of Dinard and it is now a cultural and artistic center.

On the opposite cliff on la Pointe Moulinet is the Villa Saint-Germain, built in 1888. It was in the same family for several generations but has just sold this year for a price rumored to be around 15 million euros. It is still a private residence.

Villa Saint-Germain

Another marvelous mansion in this neighborhood is the Château des Deux Rives built in 1878 by the wonderfully named Count Dahdah. This property has been divided into apartments.

I wrote about the mansions on our side of Dinard last fall. Saint-Enogat was discovered by artists and the intelligentsia and began to be settled in 1875. The central part of town, however, attracted the industrialists, so the homes here are grander and more celebrated. On a recent walk Rick met a fellow who has written a book about one of the grand old homes of Dinard. He explained that there are over 400 villas or châteaus in town. To have this label implies a kind of size and pedigree. A chalet is a bit smaller but still with historic roots. There are no ordinary or modern houses erected on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

Château des Deux Rives

On another afternoon we took a stroll along the sea wall. Our aim was to go from our beach all the way past the main Dinard beach to the Port of Dinard. The walkway, carved out of the cliff face, is pummeled at high tide by the waves but at low tide leads all around the coast line. It should have taken us about an hour to traverse from one side of town to the other.

Unfortunately we discovered that the path has been blocked going both east and west from St. Enogat due to the collapse of parts of the walkway. It’s unclear if this erosion happens every year or if this winter has been particularly destructive. Hopefully there will be some rebuilding, although it is a law of nature that cliff facings aren’t replaceable.

During the warm days there has been plenty of activity on the beach, sun bathers, ball games, wind surfers, joggers, tide pool explorers. In the evenings, when people go home, the sea birds comb the sands to find anything left behind.

This week also brought the full moon and with it the high coefficient which translates into high tides crashing on the garden wall.

Diversions

Linoleum print with a nautical theme, made this week.

The week in Dinard was mostly clear but windy and cold. We took some walks, did our usual errands, visiting the markets in the area, which we have really come to love. Still, there was a lot of time spent indoors as well, doing a few art projects and watching the world go past. Parts of France are on their fourth lock-down. Here the prognosis is good, but we live relatively quietly nonetheless. Until the weather gets much warmer, it is not difficult for me to remain inside.

We enjoyed watching a crew clean out the drain line on the sand right below our garden steps. They have been working here on and off for months. We were impressed when they left their truck overnight on the sand for a couple of nights. They seemed very well versed in the limits of the high tides. During the evenings the trucks remained on the beach, the tide did not come close, but on the evening of the day they finished their job, it was crashing on the wall and their truck, had it been there, would have been washing away.

It’s impossible to drive on the sand without a system. Theirs is to drag big heavy rubber mats one at a time to make a road for the truck‘s tires. You can imagine the time consuming and I would think exhausting nature of this process, as the truck can drive only a few feet before the mats have to be dragged again. The beach is long and there is no way off the sand at our end.

With the end of winter comes much more activity on the beach. Kite surfing is a favorite. You often see two or three at a time, but this week there were more like a dozen at once.

The same is true for the water walkers. Some hardy souls have faithfully done their ocean walk all winter long, but their numbers are increasing as spring arrives.

I am continuing to make a little collection of hand stamps that I cut out of inexpensive erasers. I’m building my marine imagery.

The shy egret flew away as I approached, but the Brant geese weren’t bothered.

Dinan

I have taken you to the riverside village of Dinan before on this blog. It is sometimes called “the prettiest town in Brittany,” so it certainly holds an allure for us. It takes about 20 minutes from our Dinard apartment to drive to Dinan, located on the Rance, where the river narrows. Earlier in the week we took the pilgrimage for the first time since moving here. Rick Steves recommends that if you have the chance to visit only one place in Brittany, choose Dinan. Here the tourist destination is not particular buildings, but the whole town itself. It is one of the most authentically preserved places anywhere.

The old town is filled with half timbered buildings, many dating from the thirteenth century. The cobbled streets add charm and atmosphere. Most of the original city walls are still standing and there is a fourteenth century castle open to the public. If it weren’t for the cars, one could certainly be transported back to the Middle Ages without having to exert much imagination. Many of the buildings have upper floors that substantially overhang the ground floor, adding a lot of interest. Apparently taxes for home owners in Medieval times were calculated from the square footage of the bottom floor only. I wonder how many clever solutions have been developed down through the ages to save on taxes?

Historically, Dinan was a strategic Channel port, connecting France with England and Holland. The Rance River at that time was open to the sea, of course, and existed before the port of San Malo. As ships got bigger, however, Dinan became impractical, St. Malo built up it’s port and became the primary landing spot, which it remains to this day. It wasn’t until the port of Dinan lost relevance for European trade, in the Middle Ages, that the walled city on the hill, now the main attraction, began to be settled. The town now overlooks the river, rather than being built on its shores, which is perhaps more typical.

The rue du Petit Fort, a 750 meter long street which leads from the town above to the port below, drops 75 meters (300 ft.) in that short distance. It is a very steep but agreeable stroll past charmingly preserved buildings along well maintained cobbles. Dinan is designated a city of art and history. Many craftsmen make Dinan their home and there are dozens of galleries and crafter’s shops along this road. Dinan began a concerted effort to preserve their town and historic buildings at the very beginning of the twentieth century, before most cities and citizens were thinking about such things. During WWII the town was spared. While St. Malo was turned into a rubble, Dinan was not touched. This good fortune, along with the inherent Breton pride of its inhabitants, has kept the town as a true authentic relic of the past. But at the same time, it is also a living, working town where 11,000 people make their home.

I particularly like the port, which is relatively quiet. There isn’t room for many boats, so the scene is down to earth, not flashy or show-offy. We took a nice long stroll along the water’s edge and watched as the local sailors worked on their boats. We met a dog who was lying on deck and greeting people as they strolled past. The restaurants were all closed due to COVID, but one can imagine the happy tourists as they lounge on the riverside once the weather and situation permit. We actually talked to the harbor master in his office, which was open when we walked by. We were trying to discover if it would be possible to launch our kayaks from the port. He assured us we could. It’s pleasant to imagine a paddle either down or up the river.

Dinan has a completely different ambiance than Dinard, just a few miles downstream. Ocean and river towns. I like them both. I’m “saying my gratefuls” as my grandchildren sometimes do, to live, at least temporarily, in such a rich environment. It’s so nice to be near water.

She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore

Winter seems to have passed rather quickly here in Dinard. During our week of snow, ice and frigid temperatures, it was hard to stay warm in the apartment which was built for summer fun, not winter residency. Unlike Rick, who is like a blazing furnace generating heat at all times, my basal temperature is more than a full degree lower than typical humans, which means that the cold is not something I cope with easily. But like a minor miracle, practically over night, we went from -3 to 18º Celsius (in Fahrenheit something like 26 to 65º). This week the sun has been particularly bright and inviting, luring me out of doors and back onto the beach.

I have noticed that the shoreline goes through various rearrangements and tidiness, depending, I suppose, on tidal strength and wind direction. The seaweed can more or less litter our sands, sometimes collecting in front of our house, sometimes piling up further down the beach, sometimes disappearing altogether. Often too I find that there are many shells on the shore, and at other times very few.

Yesterday when we took our afternoon beach stroll, the sands were particularly rich with the empty and broken shells of little sea creatures. Tide pools here are not like ones I’m used to in California, which are full of sea life–brightly colored anemones, hermit crabs, snails, sea stars and small fish. Here you will find mussels clinging to the rock, but not much other visible life. This may have something to do with the number of sea birds that make this shore their home. They are probably ravenous and very efficient. Human scavengers follow right along afterwards, and tend to take what’s left. Rarely, even in the cruelest weather, have we noticed a low tide without people with their buckets and shovels.

We see enormous ferries going back and forth between Ireland or the UK and San Malo, passing a couple of times a week. Each one holds 1500 passengers. I can’t quite understand, under the present circumstances, how so many people would be making this voyage. We have wondered if the ferry boats have been deployed as freighters, hauling equipment. Another curiosity in the world of large vessels is that often at night I see large ships with their bright lights anchored on the horizon, always in the exact same spot. I suppose that they are awaiting clearance to sail into harbor in the morning.

You’ve heard of tangerine skies. Last week we experienced tangerine waters. Our view is due north, so we don’t get the sun setting over the ocean, but with the lengthening of the days we do get some reflected color in the evening. It’s hard to tell in the photograph above where the sand ends and the water begins.

We had a lovely time with our grandchildren over their break. Our daughter spent a few days with us as well, but now they have gone home and we are alone again. It feels like spring, the way spring arrives back home at this time of year, gentle and sweet. There are daffodils everywhere and pink clouds of blossoms on trees. But this is Brittany, northern France. I can’t say that this kind of weather will last. Conventional wisdom states that Jack Frost does not sleep before mid-May, and that is still a long time off.

Winter Vacation

Here in France, February is ski month. This is so important that all the schools close for two weeks so that families can hit the slopes. The schedule for school holidays throughout the country is on a rotating basis so that the chair lift lines won’t be quite so long as they otherwise would be. This year, however, with covid, ski resorts in the country are shut down, therefore where to go instead for the winter vacation? The beach of course! For the first time since Christmas, we are seeing our grandchildren, who are staying with us in St. Enogat for a few more days.

We took a drive to the eastern side of Dinard on Monday. The beach there is very nice and the view of St. Malo is directly across the water. There is a pleasant little park right above the beach and while Quinn and Zinnie played on the sand, we strolled around the little garden. We stopped to read a plaque which revealed that T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, had lived in that section of Dinard for a few years as a child. His father, who was an Irish aristocrat, had three children with his wife in Ireland, but ran off with the nanny to Dinard and the result of their affair was the little T.E. It also turns out that during his adolescence Lawrence moved back to Dinard, this time to a house in St. Enogat, not at all far from where we live. This information made us all very enthusiastic, and caused us to want to watch Lawrence of Arabia. So that’s exactly what we did. I was about Quinn’s age the first time I saw it.

Meanwhile, Jos was teaching in Paris and Emily was in Quimper directing the filming of La Petite Messe Solennelle, an Opera by Rossini that they have been working on for a couple of years. It was broadcast on television on Thursday evening, as all their scheduled performances have had to be cancelled. Speaking completely without prejudice, it is a truly marvelous production with fabulous voices, awesome staging, hilarious bits and a modicum of irreverence. If you would like to watch some of it, you can find it here, under “Le Replay” section. It may not be available for long, so check it out sooner rather than later.

The weather, as always, played a major role in the scheduling of our activities. I noticed that on Thursday it was predicted to rain in the morning but clear up in the afternoon. We planned to take a picnic lunch and go to Cap Fréhel, which we had never visited before, even though it is one of the must-see sites in the area. It is a long peninsula that stretches out into the gulf St. Malo and offers stunning ocean views and pleasant walks. Although close as the crow flies, it is almost an hour by car, as, not being a bird, you must follow a serpentine route along the coast to get there. When we arrived it was gray and foreboding. We took our picnic basket out and tried to find a table. None were in evidence, besides which the temperature was frigid and large drops of rain were falling on our heads. We felt discouraged but also quite hungry. We sat in the car, turned on Bob Marley’s Legend and ate our sandwiches and chips. By the time we got to One Love, we were done eating and every dark cloud had blown away. The sky was a magnificent blue and the sun warmed us up as we jumped out of our vehicle and took a very pleasant stroll along the cliffs. We could look back towards Dinard and make out some of our familiar islands in the distance.

Quinn made a friend at an overlook point. There was some inter-species communication going on there, but I can’t say exactly what was exchanged. I was not privy.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Love can attain that which the intellect can not fathom.

— Meher Baba

Warm Valentine Day wishes from the snowy coast of Brittany, where this week the temperatures plunged and Dinard saw a once in a decade snow storm,

The snow begins to cover up the sandy beach and backyard.
View out the back window.
The tides washed away the snow on the shore, but the islands are covered.

Moods

The last two weeks have flown past, as I have been concentrating on a demanding art project. In many ways it is pleasant to be completely absorbed by something, but it can also be a bit disorienting. I have almost forgotten the world around me. But as it turns out, life goes on, as the Beatles said, within me and without me.

One thing I haven’t been able to ignore completely is the various moods that the sea has displayed as days go by. One morning we awoke to fog so thick we could not see beyond the shoreline. As the day progressed, we had clear gray weather, some light rain, some pouring rain, bright blue and sunny skies and finally a dramatic hail storm that left balls of ice all over the beach and our garden. Brittany is one of the most changeable weather landscapes I have ever lived in.

Rick pointed out to me the difference between an off-shore wind and an on-shore one. Generally the wind blows from the ocean towards the land and of course makes choppy waves with familiar whitecaps. But when the wind blows from the land towards the sea, the surface becomes like velvet. We have had several days like that.

The changing color of the ocean is endlessly entertaining. The sky, of course, sets the tone for the shade of blue or green of the water. We have had a surprising number of moments of glorious sunshine this month. Brittany has a reputation for being very rainy. Some of our friends from inland have written teasingly about how we must be constantly under the weather in our temporary abode. But the truth is the weather has mostly been very pleasant. I think Brittany is often the coolest place in France during the summer, but it is also one of the warmest in the winter.

Our marine adventure is exactly halfway over today. Tempus fugit!

The Sea Around Us

I began the new year by promising myself to learn more about the environment I am living in. I know very little about what hides beneath the surface of the vast ocean we see from our windows. Of course I am not alone in this deficit. It has often been noted that outer space has been more throughly explored than the ocean floor of our own planet.

I started by buying Rachel Carson’s 1951 book, The Sea Around Us. I had just lately been born when it was first published, yet it remains to this day one of the most influential and popular books ever written on the subject. It poetically describes the scientific knowledge available at the time. Of course more is known now, and some of her statements have been proven wrong. For instance she writes that the configuration of the continents hasn’t changed since the formation of the planet, which is now clearly understood to be false and is pretty obvious to any third grader who looks at a world map. Even so, the book offers a mostly accurate picture of our watery environment, and it is a great read.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal–each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

From The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

Apparently we come to our attraction to the ocean naturally.

It’s easy for me to get lost in mundane routines and forget to save time to imagine these big truths. Carson makes it easy with her prose to incorporate some of that impersonal joy I promised myself to pursue. The sweep of history, the magnitude of the universe can certainly be embodied in the mysterious sea that surrounds us. It seems reasonable to spare a few moments of awe for that.

And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.

From The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson