How Did Van Gogh' Do It?

photo: box cutter knife

It may be ugly, but you can cut mats with it.

Paris Life - No 1O

by Laurel Avery

Paris:- Monday, 7. July:- 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, I had just come here from Santa Fe, where prices are always inflated, but there are still one or two reasonable art supply stores there, 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 can 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 large store here, Rougier & Plé, which is the largest I found, but with correspondingly large prices.

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

It was an illumination of his family crest, done with traditional materials, using sheepskin parchment, handmade gesso and 23 karat gold leaf. It was already Thursday and we were due tophoto: adam art supplies, montparnasse 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 than expected to get done, 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 where almost all the stores in Paris have prices of up to 50 percent off, so everyone 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 BHV. It was true that their selection was large, 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 - assuming I willphoto: other art tools 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. It was rather expensive - 88 euros! - 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, while the instructions were in English, they may as well have been in Swahili, since even after reading them for the tenth time they still made no sense.

An hour later, after looking at the picture on the box and setting it up like I thought it should be, I make my first cut with the thing. Since it's not anchored to anything and has no way of being able to be anchored to anything, it made a crooked line.

Grumbling more than a little, since I've 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 occured to me that this is probably how Van Gogh cut off his ear. He was most likely fiddlingphoto: art supplies, window l'artiste 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 off 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 where 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 were changed and I didn't get to give it to him this weekend after all. But at least I can now cut a decent mat - by hand - and I could handily do an ear too.

Laurel Avery © 2003
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