How do I even write about this—
From my first moment here all I could see was the colors. The heavy, personified orange in the air of the night sky. The gold and blue in the light when the sun set on my first day. You know that even the air smelled pink, and it still does sometimes when it doesn't smell like cigarettes and gray?
Last week I went to Montmartre. Partially because I had to, you can't go to Paris and not see Sacre Coeur. Partially because ever since I saw those terra cotta portraits in my bishop's house in Colorado Springs, I knew I wanted to go to Montmartre and sit on those steps and get drawn.
We left at 9:45 in the morning. We were supposed to leave at 9:30, but I was late because I am always late, and because I was looking up online information about Montmartre portraits.
They said that there are some artists that have an assigned place on the square. There’s a waiting list a mile long. They’re the good ones, that charge $75 to $200 for a portrait. Choose a style you like. Watch them drawing someone to see how good they really are, because you don't know how long they spent on their displayed examples. If you want, you can play portrait roulette with the unauthorized artists who walk around and accost you for a portrait, because some of them will be good and some of them will be awful. Talk down the price if you want, if you can.
We took the 6 (turquoise), and the 4 (magenta), and the 12 (green), and we came out of the metro by a carrousel.
We walked up the streets and went to Sacre Coeur, we said we all wanted to live here, this was one of our favorite neighborhoods in Paris. That was what this blog post was supposed to be about, until I started to write about colors. Sometimes the streets looked like San Francisco. This is the only place I've seen with hills.
I thought that portrait artists would be there to draw you on the steps, or perhaps at the bottom of the hill, but they were no where to be found.
Luckily, we had Caitlin's phone that can still connect to the 3G network, so we wandered up the hill, found a funky lamp store, ate some macarons, and ended up at the square at last.
It was smaller than I thought, more closed in, and with fewer artists. And it was packed with people.
I decided to walk around first, see who the artists were and what their style was like. I wanted something lighter, sketchy, a croquis, not something I could easily do on my own. Why would I pay for something that I didn’t need to be done for me?
I saw lots of tight charcoal portrait artists. Most had someone sitting for them, most of the subjects were women. The drawings were all good, none quite a perfect likeness...but I guess we can't expect them to be.
Some of the people near the front of the row had a bit of a looser style...I liked that...I kept that in mind and kept walking.
Then I saw a guy sitting at his little stand all alone, white shirt and gray hair, with a bright and colorful portrait standing on his easel, lines and colors, bright, abstracted. And I thought...oh, that might be the one.
So I walked past the rest of the artists, past the café and the painters selling their works on the other side, lost my friends in the sea of people, got called out by some other artists, I want to draw you, but I circled back to the only man in the square who used color.
He was still alone, wasn't drawing anybody. Lucky me.
I walked up to him. "Bonjour Monsieur, est-ce que vous avez d'autres exemples de vos portraits?" I said. ("Hello, sir, do you have any other examples of your portraits?")
Without a word, he pulled some out, on a little card behind his easel, four portraits in blue. All of them were a three-quarter view, facing the same direction, of course he used a formula. It’s true that on some of them the angles of the head didn’t look right, the proportions. But he was the only one painting with color, and I liked the possibility.
I tapped my chin, probably. "J'aime bien votre style," I said. ("I really like your style.")
"Mais vous ne m'aimez pas," he said, look up, solid, steady, straight. ("But you don't like me.")
"C'est parce que je vous connais pas," I said, but even in English joking makes me uncomfortable. ("That's because I don't know you.")
"Ça va," he said, "j'ai déjà une femme." ("It's okay. I already have a wife.")
I laughed for a moment, because that was the right thing to do. “Alors, je vais regarder les autres artistes—“ I started, lifting my arms, but he cut me off— ("All right, I'm going to go look at the other artists—")
“Je suis minimaliste,” he said. “J'essai de representer avec le plus peu de lignes que possible." ("I'm a minimalist. I try to work with the fewest amount of lines possible.")
I could see that, and certainly respect that.
“Vous avez des jolies cheveux,” he said, gesturing curls by his head. “On peut faire quelque chose avec." ("You have beautiful hair. We could do something with it.")
Des jolies cheveux. I smiled, for real this time.
“Mais je vous dessine sans lunettes,” he continued. ("But I will draw you without glasses.")
“Ah bon?” I said. “Pourquoi?” You know that my glasses are a part of me. ("Oh yeah? Why?.")
“Dans un an, deux ans, vous allez changer vos lunettes,” he said. “Alors je vous dessine sans." ("In a year, two years, you are going to change your glasses. So I'll draw you without.")
“Ahhh, vous avez raison,” I said. Of course he had to think about this type of thing, drawing people all day. I did not mention that in a month I am going to cut off all my “jolies cheveux” too. ("Ahhh, you're right.")
“Ça coute combien?” I asked, expecting something high, because I had brought €120 and I was willing to drop almost anything. ("How much does it cost?")
“€40 pour les jolies filles, €60 pour les moins belles." ("€40 the pretty girls, €60 for the less pretty.")
“Et je suis dans quelle catégorie?" ("And which category am I in?")
“Jolie, bien sûr." ("Pretty, of course..")
I smiled. Of course he had to be a charmer, but €40 and two compliments, I smiled, I was sold.
“Un instant, je suis ici avec deux amies. Je vais les trouver. Je reviendrai." ("One minute, I'm here with two friends. I'm going to go find them. I'll come back.")
I pulled out my phone and pulled back into the crowd of people, looking over their heads for Caitlin and Elizabeth, trying to call them, when they appeared out of the crowd and I told them that this was the one.
And so I went over to the chair, took off my glasses, gave them and my bag to Elizabeth. He sat me down, pulled out his paints. Told me where to sit, in that little leather chair. “Regardez là-bas,” I turned my head to the side, I looked up, I looked at the sky. ("Look over there.")
Another artist set up his stand and umbrella next to me and I tried to unfocus my eyes and stay still. I could see in my peripheral that a crowd gathered around him working and I wondered if this would be a masterpiece. I looked up to the sky, everything fuzzy because I had taken off my glasses, I wondered if I had moved my head too much, I wondered if he would paint the sense of wonder in my eyes, the glint of sunlight in my hair.
I sat there for what felt like a long time but not too astronomically long. It actually surprised me when he pulled the painting off the stand, fuzzy for me because I couldn’t see, and held it up—and at first I didn’t like it, from my myopic point of view it looked like my nose was painted huge and grotesque, and to be honest it didn’t really look like me, so I stalled for a minute, saying I couldn’t see, and I called and called for Elizabeth until she finally heard and got me my glasses, so I could see that he hadn’t painted my nose like that after all, that it was a trick from the negative space, and to be fair it didn’t quite look like me, but—he painted the colors in my hair.
And to be honest, the more I looked at it, the more I liked. The confidence of his pencil strokes beneath the paint. The delicate way he painted my eyes, and at least he got them blue, even though I wasn’t looking up into the sky—more of his formula than my eyes in actuality. The swath of rose on my cheek, the roundness of my chin, that benign neck lump of mine immortalized into eternity. He even did a piece representing my shoulder, the black of my shirt, the roses.
And the colors, the colors in my hair, brown and black and red and purple.
And it wasn’t perfect, of course it wasn’t, more of his language of symbols than a perfect likeness, but isn’t that what I came here for, isn’t that his project, isn’t that what I wanted? He painted the essence, not necessarily what was really there.
“Merci, monsieur,” I said, and I slipped him €50 instead of forty, because why not, I liked it, I’m an artist, it’s my precious gem. If he saw it, he didn’t say a thing, but I imagine he did.
An Asian lady hopped into the chair to be painted after me, she interrupted him while he was working on my portrait to ask if she could be next. “En fait, je suis artiste aussi, parfois je dessine des portraits,” I said, holding my fingers in the places of my sketches in my notebook. “Est-ce que je peux vous montrer?" ("In fact, I'm an artist too, sometimes I draw portraits. Can I show them to you?")
“J’ai du travail,” he said, gesturing at the Asian lady, but if I could just show him real quick... ("I've got work.")
“Ça sera vite,” I said, and I flipped through and showed him, he nodded, he said affirming things. ("I'll be quick.")
“Merci, monsieur,” I said again, and I sat at the curb and stared at my portrait for a while. My lips don’t curve like that, the head is too long for the width, but what does it matter? I liked it more and more the closer I got, the blue in my eyes, the purple above my eyelid. When he looks at these people, what does he see?
Paris is made of colors for me, Paris has always been made of colors.
Didn’t I smell the pink in the air on the first day? The pale stone of the Haussmanization, the Seine is a deep green grayish blue, it looks like all those photos that are so 2015. The light was so pale in the Pantheon, on my first night the sky was orange, and every night ever since.
Today I went to the gardens of Versailles and saw for the tenth or fifteenth time the translation of the clouds and the trees into those flat and delicate forms painted by Watteau and the landscape artists, could see where they found those types of trees that never felt real to me. I would paint them as larger swatches of color, personally, but I’ve also lived to see Cezanne and impressionism.
My clothes have repeatedly matched the museum walls, everything seems to be the dark earthy tone of the Pantone 2015 Color of the Year, I can’t stop buying creamy light cotton shirts.
Paris is made of color because everything is made of color. Annie Dillard talked about the cataract patients who could see for the first time in their lives, how everything was made up of colors and patches of light and shadow, when I took of my glasses in the Promenade Plantée to read Baudelaire, I looked up at the swatches of dark and light that made up the trees and asked myself if this was what Monet could see.
Paris is made of colors because everything is made of colors. Remind me to tell you about the colors on the salt flats some time.