Nina comes to life…

Nina pushing
Basta con questi sfondi bianchi! Sono noiosi!

The past couple of weeks have included a lot of my own “life,” which though fun and even important at times, meant I didn’t draw as much as I would have liked. I’ve been doing some experiments in traditional mixed media, but…nah. So on Saturday, just for fun I developed a quick digital sketch that I had started months ago with the same character from a previous post. This time I used the Gouache a Go Go brush.

In many ways, this drawing was a lesson in how not to work efficiently! I wanted to play around with puppet warp and adjustment layers, but I applied them too soon, so afterwards it was hard to make corrections without ruining the effect. Then the character looked too old, so I enlarged her head after the fact. All throughout I found myself coloring willy nilly over my black outline drawing. I thought I wanted outlines, but maybe not! And then, even though I think figure drawing is one of my stronger points, in this drawing everything came down to whether I could invent convincing anatomy on the spot, because I didn’t want to be too dependent on reference. I’m sure I’ll see all the mistakes tomorrow…

But I like that this drawing fits my character. I imagine this girl, whom I call Nina, as energetic and full of mischief but still empathetic, so while sometimes she might find herself in trouble out of sheer exuberance, she doesn’t mean to cause any harm. I got this pose from a stick figure, but I think that now that I’ve made it into a full drawing, it fits her.* She’s neither a doll-like little girl nor a super heroine, but a real child. She is based on many different little girls that I see in my neighborhood. Whether she’s about four like in the last drawing, or a bit older like in this one, remains to be seen.

I’m also pretty sure she has other clothes than an origami dress and day-glo green plastic rain boots, but that can wait. For now, I’m working on brushes and poses. But next I’d like to try an environment and a bit of back story. Wish me luck!

*I added a caption. Want to guess what it means? Or better yet, make up one of your own?


Taking a brush trial to finish

Brush trial oil

I’ve now taken one of the brush trials (Old Faithful Oil) to finish–or provisional finish, at least. I’m still figuring out what finish looks like for me. And I’m not excluding the idea of a rough, abstract finish at all, but this one came out pretty solidified.

I couldn’t resist a texture overlay on the dress, and I didn’t mind leaving the dress wispy, but there’s really nothing like a good set of rubber rain boots in an early 1970s color of green.

Brush trials

The simple original sketch

This week in illustration, I’ve been doing trials with digital brushes.

The main goal of pretty much all my art activity these days is to develop a working method/style that feels natural and can express whatever I most want to say. And since expression depends a lot on the kind of mark you make, I’m trying to get as familiar as I can with digital mark making. You might call this building a style from the ground up.

Inspired by one of Kyle Webster’s demo videos, I made a sheet of 16 copies of a character I draw a lot. (She has a name and a certain personality, but that’s a story for another day.) Duplicating is easy enough to do on Photoshop. I drew a sketch in digital pencil, copied and duplicated it, copied the two of them and duplicated, and so on until I had a full page. Then I created a mask for each figure in the same way, so I didn’t have to waste too much time cleaning up edges.

Then I got to work applying color. I wasn’t perfectionistic about either the sketch or the coloring. The whole point here was to discover the properties of a few of the hundreds (!) of digital brushes now available on Photoshop CC and figure out which ones were best suited to my working style. I wanted to concentrate particularly on dry media (charcoals, pastels) and opaque paint media (gouache, oil). And I was also interested in grainy effects. In the end, some of these brushes worked quite well for my purposes, and some obviously didn’t!

These trials that worked more or less like I expected, because they allow for a fair amount of control and also I am used to working in traditional oils.

Here are some of the things I was thinking about brushes while I worked:

  • How tilt sensitive is each brush?
  • Which brushes can handle the whole job and which will have to be supplemented with other brushes? (It turns out that some of the more porous ones really need to be used with another brush or a fill layer to render all the details legible.)
  • At what size does each brush make the nicest stroke?
  • With each brush, is it better to use different values of paint to put in highlights and shadows, or is it more effective to just vary the density and let the white of the “paper” show through?
  • Does this brush require extra layers just to keep the marks from getting muddy too fast? (The mixer brushes, such as oils, usually do require extra layers that can then be merged.)
  • The non-“mixer” brushes allow you to change the brush mode (upper left of the screen) to clear, which makes a sort of eraser with the same texture. Which brushes have the most workable “clear mode” erasers? (Remember to change the mode back to normal before continuing!)
  • How can I use the brush stroke and either a “hard” or “soft” eraser to control lost and found edges?
  • How do the brushes affect color intensity? (More than you’d think!)
  • How might changing my tablet/pen sensitivity affect the marks? (I suspect I have a light touch, but it varies with the brush.)

Some trials that were somewhat pleasantly surprising even if I didn’t develop them as far as the others.

A side benefit of all this practice was that drawing my character over and over helped me think more about how she should look, even if I didn’t take her to full finish. Some things I was thinking about while I worked:

  • Which subtle variations of features, and which brushes, are best suited to the character?
  • How much modeling is even needed?
  • How spontaneous can I be?

In search of grainy effects. Some of them I was pleased enough with that I might use them again some time. Others definitely not, but at least I found out!

This is definitely (Photo)shop talk But it does have a more organic significance. About 99% of drawing, and probably any other art, is being so familiar with your own processes that you feel confident in what you’re doing and thus comfortable improvising. Muscle memory plays a big part, of course, and for that, you just have to draw a lot. But there are plenty of other skills you can develop, from creative imagination to visual awareness to intellectual knowledge and theory to simply knowing your tools. All of them (in some form) are important to anyone who wants to be good at what they do.

Also, it helps me to see my own drawings published on my blog, because I see things more objectively that way. It’s like giving myself a mini-critique.

Which versions do you like best, or not? And why? If you don’t know why, feel free to state your opinion anyway. Sometimes intuition has some pretty good reasons of its own!

Turbocharging Your Creativity

Since mid-January I have been taking an SVS Learn “live” course* called Turbocharging Your Creativity. It teaches new tools for generating creative illustrations. The course certainly has taught me some new ideation techniques, but it has also been useful in forcing me to drop my perfectionism and finish drawings relatively quickly. I am also spurred on by knowing that other artists will be evaluating what I post.

The Turbocharging course starts of with quick, limited assignments and then progressively builds on them, so by the end of the ten weeks, the final project makes use of many if not all of the steps learned previously. For that reason, each assignment is more difficult than the ones before.

Today I am finishing the last project for the class, but won’t post it here yet because I want to wait for feedback and make revisions first. I will, however, post two previous assignments below. Both are in black and white, because color is the last step to be added.

The first illustration is from a project in which we researched a celebrity and then created a portrait illustrating something we found out about him or her.  Being a glutton for punishment, I chose someone I didn’t know much about and for whom most of the information available was in Italian: Anna Magnani (Mahn-YAN-ee). I’ve found this star of Neo-realist Italian cinema to be fascinating ever since I saw her in Rome, Città Aperta, a post-war anti-fascist film. She is best known in the US for her Oscar-winning role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo.

What is so striking about Magnani is that she is the anti-starlet. She has an earthy personal presence that is immediately recognizable and consistent throughout her roles, as well as in her personal life. Magnani was a passionate lover, a heavy smoker and coffee drinker, and not surprisingly considering the preceding, she was also an insomniac. Later in life she took to wandering the streets of Rome at night, talking to prostitutes and feeding stray cats.  So my portrait combined and illustrated those traits:

This is a digital portrait, but since I am used to doing portraits in oils, I used a similar technique, using Kyle Oil mixer brushes (now part of Photoshop CC) in temp layers in order to work “wet into wet” without the whole painting turning to mush. (If you want to learn more about temp layers, you can have a look at Ctrl + Paint’s free video library, which is where I learned about them.) The result is much like one of my oil portraits in its early stages. (I wanted to leave it a bit rough to emphasize Magnani’s character.) But I found the same limitation with the digital oil technique that I had begun to find with my traditional oil portraits: It relies heavily on reference, and in this case I couldn’t find consistent, good quality reference, nor could I take my own.

So for the next project, which involved picking a narrative moment from one of three given podcast episodes, I determined to try something new. After generating a lot of before, during and after ideas from my chosen podcast and narrowing down the choices with the help of my teachers Lee White and David Hohn, I came up with this toned sketch, using a digital technique similar to pastel:

I like to show the sketch to friends before I explain what it is about, but people usually get it right away: The story, from the Lore podcast, is about a 17th c. witch trial. Christian Shaw, an eleven-year-old Scottish laird’s daughter, accused several family servants and itinerants of having bewitched her. In the end, six people were hung. We don’t know exactly what her motive was or how real her symptoms were, but we do know that many years later visitors found a hole in the wall beside her bed, suggesting that someone was feeding her the nails, rocks and feathers she dry-vomited as the main “proof” that she was bewitched. It horrifies the modern mind to think about the people she accused finding themselves caught up in an a vortex of accusation and hysteria in which anything they said or did would be used against them. I have chosen to portray Christian after the executions, looking up at one of her victims and perhaps facing a moment of self-reckoning.

And then, just for dramatic effect, I created a version in which Christian is fully aware of her actions and unrepentant:

And now I’m off to finish my final project and proceed to Bologna, where I will attend my first Bologna Book Children’s Book Fair. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the largest children’s book fair in the world with plenty of opportunity for illustrators, but more about that later. First I have to experience it for myself!

Meanwhile, in case I don’t get to post again before next weekend, Happy Passover and Happy Easter!


*SVS Learn includes a free forum, a subscription video library, and individual, classes with feedback, sold separately. The individual classes are conducted through a private bulletin board and videos posted once a week, so people who live in different time zones can all upload their work and get feedback.

Quick illustration update

Now that the wedding is over, it’s fall, and I’ve got somewhat of a routine going, I thought I’d do a quick illustration update.

I have crammed down so much subject matter during the past, first year of self-instruction that it sometimes seems like I’ve got some serious artistic indigestion. Character design, Photoshop, studying favorite illustrators, marketing, perspective and environment, composition, textures and warp tools, endless experimentations with traditional and digital media, repeat. When I consider that this time last year I hardly knew what a Photoshop layer was, I can see progress. Still, it’s an effort not to count the years it’s likely to take to build a portfolio, compare them to the years I have left to develop a career, and suddenly feel quite sober about it. Then enthusiasm kicks back in and I get back to work.

The little painting above is sort of half-baked (that horizon line!), but I am posting it because it gives some idea where I am right now. I’m trying to keep the technique simple, and to that end I’m mostly just painting one character, in digital watercolor. The text was pure stream-of-consciousness because I wanted to consider how it should look on the page. And although I’ve got state-of-the-art digital watercolor brushes from Kyle Brush (as of this week free with a Photoshop CC subscription, but only available with a subscription), there is still an aspect of watercolor that really just begs for the serendipity of traditional media.

Where is all this going? I still don’t know. But at least it’s going.

Cintiq review

In my last post, I promised to update either my progress on the color comps for Princess Carla of Spaniel or the new Cintiq Pro 16 (a draw-on-screen monitor).

I’ll start with the Cintiq. It’s revolutionary for me, even with its steep learning curve.

First I must list the difficulties, which are fairly well known by now to the digital art community: It has issues with Mac Sierra, with connections and drivers, and with getting the promised 4K screen resolution. For a complete list of problems and fixes, see the Wacom Reddit  board, though Wacom has its own discussion board as well.

I don’t have the Sierra problem because I never upgraded to it, preferring to preserve as much RAM as possible. I will probably have to eventually, but hopefully by then the compatibility issues will be ironed out.

I am, however, having the resolution problem. I’m stuck at 1440 resolution. I have a MacBook Retina Display, which should support 4K.  But I don’t have a USB-C port, and that’s what the Cintiq Pros are set up to use. The Wacom link, an adapter which was included in the box because Wacom knew how new USB-C ports are, doesn’t support 4K. At least not officially. Some people have been able to make it work by ordering special MiniDisplay cables, but I have had no success with that route. Wacom Reddit has more information if you’re trying to troubleshoot this issue, and meanwhile, if I am able to make mine work, I’ll post an update.

And I must say that the sleek Cintiq monitor does look rather silly with three long, bulky cables sticking out of it and sprawling all over the table, just to make it work. It looks very jury-rigged.

Those caveats aside, however, having a pen display is absolutely an enormous boost to a digital art setup.

Even at just 16″, the workspace feels much bigger than my 13″ laptop, and besides I don’t have to keep juggling apps around a tiny screen to look at reference material or watch tutorials. Now I have one maximized screen just for my artwork!

And even at 1440 resolution, I’m able to work quite well enough for a beginner.

The new pen works very well and even has an eraser on the other end. I have yet to figure out its relation to the eraser function in Photoshop, but I will discover it eventually. I have set my pen controls to display toggle (to switch quickly from the display to my computer monitor and back) and radial menu (a pop up on screen menu in which you can store your favorite shortcuts). Both of these have made the tablet much easier to use.

The first few days I was a bit disoriented because things kept popping up on the wrong monitor and I didn’t know how to toggle, but slowly I’m getting the hang of it.

And today I figured out how to make the font on the Cintiq big enough to read. The fix is not in Photoshop, but in the Mac display scaling preferences. I had been afraid to touch those because I thought it would decrease my display resolution even more, but apparently it doesn’t.

But the absolute best thing, and the reason I got this device to begin with, is that now I can draw, lasso, and use all the other precise tools included with Photoshop with the same precision I would a pencil and paper. If you’ve ever used an Intuos, the small black drawing tablet with no screen, you know what I’m talking about. It feels like you’re drawing with your non-dominant hand, or worse. I got better at drawing with it over the year that I used it, but there’s no comparison between an Intuos and a Cintiq if your drawing style is about manual dexterity.

So, now I’ve got the Cintiq setup and I’m back to working on color comps for Princess Carla of Spaniel. I’ll post an update when I’m a bit further along.

The new Cintiq Pro 16 with my first color comp for Princess Carla of Spaniel in progress. 



Spaniel drawing update

Princess Carla of Spaniel with torso

Here’s a short update on the fancy animal assignment from the last post: I’ve been working on it whenever I get a chance, and have now finished the tonal study. To do this, I scanned and combined my favorite two drawings and then worked out the values in Photoshop.

The awkward black lines in the study are drawing corrections done on an Intuos pro tablet. The point at this stage was never to have an elegant, finished drawing, but these lines are particularly rudimentary and I leave them in to emphasize that it’s really hard to draw accurately on a small tablet. But I’ve finally sprung for a Cintiq draw-on-screen monitor and it should arrive tomorrow. Yay!

Anyway, the tonal study showed me that I needed to further “flesh out” the dog’s paws, so to speak. That has been today’s work. When I used to paint oil portraits, back in the pre-digital era, I’d take a couple hundred photos and make sketches to think out various aspects of the painting. Illustration is by nature imaginary, but I still like my drawings to look correct and believable. That requires a ton of photo reference and detailed studies. Sometimes I wish I had an in home menagerie!

Another part of today’s work has been to start thinking about mother-of-the-bride’s dresses for July, but after trying on everything I own that might work, I must confess I much prefer drawing Velasquez dresses to shopping for one for myself.

Once I get the Cintiq up and running, or get to the color comps for this assignment (whichever comes first), I’ll post an update. And there are more steps to go after that. But I like the way this assignment is making me stretch.


Princess Carla of Spaniel

It has been a while since I’ve posted. I’m working a lot on illustration and am now much more comfortable with Photoshop, but have little original work to show for all this study, so I recently joined a group that gives assignments. Here is the first:  Find an atmospheric portrait and combine it with an animal.

I immediately thought of Velasquez, and as I looked at his portraits, I thought, What do they remind me of? Why, King Charles Spaniels, obviously! (Perhaps that’s not so surprising considering that Velasquez painted at least one King Charles Spaniel into a royal family portrait. People do tend to look like their dogs.)

I started out this assignment thinking I’d use Las Meninas, but when I did a Google search I immediately found that someone had already done a few spoofs of that extremely famous image with a dog’s head, and besides the light is coming from a less conventional direction in that painting. So I decided on another image of the same princess, here:

Velasquez, The Infanta Margherita, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

I’m not sure I can post the main spaniel reference photo I used since it’s probably someone else’s intellectual property, but needless to say I had a ton of spaniel photos.

After various attempts, I finally settled on one main head pose and expression:

Princess Carla of Spaniel, by me

This is an interesting assignment because it forces you to think of such unconventional questions as, how much puppy belly is appropriate to show in a corseted dress? How do you make shoulders that look human enough to retain the main lines of the dress while looking doggy enough not to suggest a straight cut and paste? How do you put earrings on a dog? How much of the full length portrait should be incorporated into the assignment and what to do with that other paw? (Not to mention that I cut off the near one, which was part of the drawing, in the photo.) And how do you adapt the reference material in a way that maintains form over mere photographic realism? I must say I was quite pleased with the ready transitions from necklace to dog collar and spaniel ears to 17th c. Spanish hair, though.

The idea is to do a finished digital image in color. I should have a Cintiq (tablet that allows the user to draw directly on screen) soon, but as of now I still don’t have one, so doing this assignment on a tiny Intuos tablet is going to be a challenge. I’m going to try it nonetheless.

And obviously I’m posting here to hold myself accountable. If you like this sort of thing, stay tuned…

Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.


My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!

Thrifting and memory

Some of the items Nancy and I remembered. A couple, like the coat (which my grandmother would have worn) and the little stove, were not exact matches, but they were so close that they stirred memory nonetheless. The roaster (middle), however, I just threw in for fun! 

For the whole past month I’ve been visiting family in the US, but during the last week of our trip my mom and I visited a cousin and her family in Louisiana, which is an entirely new state for me.

My cousin Nancy used to live across the street from me and for a while we went to the same school. So she and her friends were the first teenagers I knew. I admired them to the extent that, as we were looking at her old high school cheerleading photos, my mom said, “Who is this on the end?” and I answered immediately with the girl’s first and last name.  My mom, rightly startled because I can’t remember people she told me about five minutes ago, said, “How do you know that?!”

“I memorized the yearbook in first grade,” I replied

Nancy now has a grandson, whom we all love to dote on, but when he left to go back home with Nancy’s daughter, she and I decided to go on some adventures.

First we went to a catfish and crawdad shop in a converted gas station. The only thing converted about it, though, was that the gas pumps didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t gentrified. Deer corn was piled up in the corner next to the camouflage hats. The bubble gum machine sold gun and brass knuckle-shaped plastic trinkets. Workmen were lined up in their blue coveralls to order lunch. I was wearing a sleeveless housedress and pearls. I had thought we were going to a tearoom! I decided to ignore myself and hope everyone else would too.

After our lunch, Nancy and I drove to a nearby town to look at antique shops we had read about in a tourist article. After walking up and down the only downtown street, we decided that the chamber of commerce had written the article in an attempt to create a destination by psyching out local residents, but just as we were leaving, we walked into a shop with a vintage 50s Westinghouse roaster out front. This is where the fun began.

The downtown being half vacant, the antique/junk shop occupied the entire building: three floors worth of small back offices. The displays ranged from the bizarre (gaudily re-decorated objects and paintings) to the delightful (which is what this post is about).

Nancy and I had just started walking through the rooms when we started recognizing things. “Who does this hat remind you of?” Nancy asked, as she tried on a pillbox hat with a short net veil.

“Grandmother!” My grandmother sewed, so we were always dressed well.

Then came the treadle sewing machine, the 60s dress patterns, the Tupperware cake caddy and grocery store dish sets, the wooden purses decoupaged with mushrooms, the maxi dress with blous-y sleeves–the memories went on and on.  “Who had this, your mom or mine?” and one of us or the other would remember. Most startling were the items which I had utterly forgotten until I saw them lying on a table, for example a set of plastic thermal bowls I used to eat Cream of Wheat out of at my grandmother’s house before I was old enough to go to preschool. I may have been as young as two. Sometimes Grandmother would put ice cream in the Cream of Wheat to cool it down.

Nothing that we looked at in the store was valuable. Most of it probably came from other people’s grandmothers’ houses. But running across totally forgotten items which formed a part of one’s earliest childhood memories was disconcertingly intimate. Each time one of us confirmed the other’s hunch, it was as if we had opened a hidden door in the attic of memory, with its stories attached. This game held the same kind of intrigue as the first mystery novel I ever read, in second grade. Which, by the way, I inherited from Nancy.

Once Nancy was almost like the older sister I never had. Until our children grew up, we still saw one another at least every Christmas, but now that we have spread out into the next generation it’s very hard to visit. I only wish my younger sister had been there was well. Nancy was very kind to drive me all over her city and show me where she and her family live their lives, for context. I got to see my 89-year-old aunt, Nancy’s mom. For a little while, past and present felt as if they were finally together in the same room.