Montreal artist and author Elise Gravel has created over 30 books, many of them focused on simply and charmingly drawn monsters and animals that all seem to emanate a cuddly charisma and all-around cuteness…no small feat considering that many of those books are part of her “Disgusting Critters” series (Head Lice, The Fly, The Worm, etc). Like many prolific artists, Gravel likes to draw. A lot. Not just for work, but for fun. In fact, she draws every night.
In her new book If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel, she describes her nightly drawing ritual:
At night, when my daughters are asleep, I draw in my black notebook. I draw complete nonsense. Whatever comes to my mind…
I never critique the drawings in my black notebook. I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself. In my notebook, I do what I want.
In the morning, my daughters come peer at the new drawings and laugh. They give me new ideas.
If you’re curious what exactly Gravel’s black notebook might look like, well, that’s essentially what If Found is for. The book itself appears to be a black notebook, complete with little blue barely-there lines forming grids on the pages. And those pages are filled with Gravel’s colorful drawings, which are mostly extremely high quality doodling from a master doodler (Near the end of the book, she confesses that she cheated a little, and chose the best pages from her notebook to put in the collection, and she provides a page of ugly drawings to prove that she also does ugly drawings sometimes too).
Between the beautiful end pages–fawns investigating flora in the front page, what appear to be happy shrimp in the back–she creates a variety of themed pages and spreads. So, for example, there will be a page of grumpy things (Grumpy Peanut, Grump Toothbrush, Grumpy Slice of Bread, etc), or imaginary friends, or mushrooms, or microbes, or cats or dogs. Often they are labeled and named, and sometimes they are speaking little phrases of dialogue as well. Repeatedly Gravel introduces fanciful creatures, giving these a full-page illustration and a little biography about, say, The Big-Nosed Mimpus, or The Perfume-Footed Wompus, or Anatole The Crazy Creature Who Lives In Nicole’s School.
While Gravel’s art and sense of whimsy is something that can be enjoyed by a reader of any age, the book itself seems somewhat addressed to young people, and young people who would like to grow up to be artists themselves most especially. The drawings are occasionally broken up with rather direct, almost confidential or conspiratorial addresses to the reader, and straightforward advice on illustrating (as on the page labeled “Advice”).
The book ends with a declaration from a typical weird, doodled monster/creature/thing that “It’s Your Turn!”, some inspiring words and two pages of prompts for things to draw in your notebook. It’s not exactly a manifesto, nor is it a how-to, but there are elements of both that can be discerned. Rather, If Found reads like a profound act of sharing from a successful artist and young would-be artists, revealing some secrets of the trade, which aren’t actually all that secret. What, exactly, does it take to be a great artist? Drawing. Lots and lots (and lots!) of drawing. And while that might seem like a lot of work, as Gravel gracefully demonstrates, it actually can (and should be!) a lot of fun.