The titular cartoonist behind If Found…Please Return to Elise Gravel, a disarming, charming new book from Drawn & Quarterly, seems to do nothing but draw. And she wants everyone else to behave the same way. Gravel is best known for her children’s books, including The Great Antonio and The Cranky Ballerina; If Found… doesn’t exactly fit into that genus, but it’s perfectly suitable for kids. Instead, it offers a kind of evangelism for the joy of drawing, as expressed through tons of Gravel’s silly, colorful critters, whether a vampire baby, a cluster of mushrooms with cute faces or a grumpy fart. In some ways, it’s a sketchbook, and the packaging (including an elastic band often found on a simple black notebook) reinforces that impression, but there’s a bit of instruction mixed in, along with tons of encouragement. Make ugly drawings. Make stupid drawings. Make a lot of drawings, and make them for yourself. Gravel answered our questions about why she draws so much food and what her formative influences were as a child. Her answers are below.
Paste: Tell me about your training as an artist. Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Elise Gravel: I studied graphic design at a community college in Montreal.
Paste: Did you start off as a graphic designer? Or did you always want to move in the direction of illustration?
Gravel: I was a graphic designer for a couple months, but very soon I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator. I loved drawing.
Paste: Describe how you got from community college to where you are now.
Gravel: I got a job as a graphic designer as soon as I was out of school, but I didn’t like it that much. I quit, and then I applied for a government-funded program for people who want to start a business for the first time. I got in, and got help figuring out the illustration market, worked on my portfolio, learned how to find clients, etc. While I was working on my portfolio, since I didn’t have any “real” clients to show off, I invented products and made a fake illustrated ad for each of them. The products were fun and silly, like shaving cream for cacti, fur boxing gloves for sensitive boxers, a leash for goldfish, etc. When I had around 20 of these funny ads, I thought that maybe it would make a funny picture book for kids. So I sent it to publishers and, a few months later, I got a positive answer, and my first book was published. I was hooked. The book had good reviews, and I published another, and then another… and now I’ve published around 45 books, both in English and French!
Paste: Do you see yourself as more of a children’s book illustrator or a person who makes comics? What do you think the difference is between those? Sometimes it seems like an arbitrary distinction.
Gravel: I think it’s pretty arbitrary as well! I would describe myself as a children’s book author and illustrator but many people often describe my work as graphic novels. In French, graphic novel culture is more mainstream so my art is heavily influenced by it. I like to just say: “I make illustrated books” and let others describe or categorize my work.
Paste: Do you prefer drawing real things or making stuff up?
Gravel: I strongly prefer making stuff up. It allows for high levels of absurdity, which I really enjoyed as a kid (and still do). Plus, it’s easier to draw, since I don’t have to stick to reality!
Paste: How many real black notebooks have there been? How long does it take you to fill one up?
Gravel: I started working on many book ideas, some of which I never finished. Some are 3/4ths done. This book is actually a compilation of several half-developed concepts plus some random illustrations I drew wherever I felt like it.
Paste: When you’re drawing in your notebook, what kind of environment do you create for yourself? Does it need to be quiet? Is it at the end of the day? Do you watch TV while you draw?
Gravel: I drew most of this book sitting at the kitchen table at night after my kids went to bed. I was trying to vent after long days where I had to draw stuff for other clients. I needed to draw for myself a bit to keep the creative juices flowing. I don’t need peace and quiet. I can draw outside, on the porch, in front of the TV.
Paste: Have you made any books and/or comics for grown-ups?
Gravel: Some, in French. But I really prefer making books for kids. I feel connected to them. I’m probably just a big kid myself.
Paste: Did you grow up reading comics and, if so, which ones?
Gravel: Tons! As I was saying, in my [French] culture, there is a long history of high-quality comics and graphic novels (which we call “Bande Dessinée”) around since my dad was a kid himself. He had a big collection at home. I grew up reading Tintin, Gaston Lagaffe, Lucky Luke, The Smurfs and many, many more good books.
Paste: Do you think growing up in Quebec is similar to growing up in France?
Gravel: I think it’s very, very different. As different as growing up in the U.S. would be from growing up in the U.K. We mostly share a language, but even then our French is very different from France’s French.
Paste: The Smurfs comics are pretty good. My about-to-be-seven-year-old has just started reading them, and they’re way better than the TV show/movies, which are pretty terrible. Why do you think the comics are so much better?
Gravel: In my opinion, TV shows based on books are almost always lame compared to the books themselves. But after I reread The Smurfs as an adult, I find them pretty sexist. Try to find Gargamel’s recipe for a female Smurf (a Smurfette): it’s horrifying.
Paste: What do you think of Lynda Barry’s work? Her books on artistic process, which encourage people just to get drawing even if it’s nothing but scribbles, to loosen up the creative juices, kind of remind me of the approach you’re taking here.
Gravel: I love her work. You’re probably right, we’re talking about the same thing, the same process. It’s an honor for me to be compared to Lynda.
Paste: The other influence I see here is Ed Emberly, because of his bright colors and simple shapes and habit of turning different kinds of blobs into drawings. Also the way he wants to help kids learn how to draw. Did you read his books growing up?
Gravel: No, I only read French until I was about 16. But I’ll definitely look him up now!
Paste: What kind of media do you consume? For example, do you read a lot of children’s books? Do you watch really violent movies?
Gravel: I read a lot of children’s books myself. I still read a lot of Bande Dessinée and graphic novels (for all ages). My kids are nine and 12, so the house is always full of inspiring books for me to leaf through. I try to read what they like to read to learn about what today’s kids are into. But I almost don’t watch TV and especially avoid really violent movies!
Paste: Do you spend time drawing with your kids?
Gravel: Yes! Especially when they were younger. But these days they’re pretty independent artistically and they want to do their own thing.
Paste: What books have you read recently that you really liked?
Gravel: I recently read Les Culottées, a French comic book by Penelope Bagieu that tells the stories of women and girls in history who did what they wanted and changed the world. It was very inspiring, especially for my daughter, who wanted to become Mae Jemison after reading it.
Paste: You seem to use a lot of different kinds of materials. What are your favorites to work with?
Gravel: For my everyday work, I mostly use my computer. This notebook was an exploration process for me so I tried many different media. My preferences change from day to day. Sometimes I want something quick and easy like markers, sometimes I want to work with texture and I use watercolor or acrylic paint. It depends on my mood.
Paste: When you use your computer to draw, do you use a Wacom tablet or something of the sort?
Gravel: I use a Wacom Cintiq and Photoshop.
Paste: Do you ever have a hard time figuring out what to draw (artist’s block)? What do you do to overcome that?
Gravel: No, never! Most of the time, I have the opposite problem: I have too many ideas and not enough time to do them all. It’s a fun problem!
Paste: You seem to draw a lot of food. Why do you think that is?
Gravel: I love food! I’m not a good cook, but I can draw it (and eat it) pretty well!
Paste: Do you ever teach classes (on comics or drawing or whatever)?
Gravel: I used to give workshops in schools but I don’t anymore. I have too many books in progress and I don’t have the time.
Paste: When you taught those workshops, what kinds of advice did you give your students?
Gravel: Pretty much the same thing I tell the readers of If Found…: draw for fun, not for other people; draw as often as possible if you want to become good at it; and you can draw anything in any style, you decide because you’re the artist.