Cartoonist Delves into Her Creativity with IF FOUND, PLEASE RETURN TO ELISE GRAVEL

"If Found, Please Return to Elise Gravel" preview
Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)
Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)

Elise Gravel has established herself as a prolific creator of all-ages books with such volumes as The Great Antonio and Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. Now, she’s letting readers into her head with a collection of some of her most personal drawings – and a message of inspiration for kids.

If Found, Please Return to Elise Gravel is a new all-ages sketchbook collection from Drawn & Quarterly out this week that features colorful drawings on every page of both real and unreal things – ranging from animals and scenes from nature to all manner of bizarre imaginary creatures. But it’s also a love letter to the reader about the value of simply getting ideas down – about the fun of creativity, and encouraging the reader to create things on their own.

Newsarama called up Gravel to talk about her book, creativity, and much more.

Newsarama: Elise, what was the inspiration to put your ideas and drawings down in one book like this?

Elise Gravel: I was working on many picture books with publishers, who had all these ideas about how they were supposed to be done. At night, to please myself, I drew some things in notebooks, things that were totally “me.” My daughters started looking at these notebooks - they would get up in the morning and look through them, and be very excited about what new drawings were there.

I realized kids could be excited about learning about the artistic process, and what would appear in a sketchbook when I did exactly what I wanted, so I submitted to a publisher here in French Canada, and they took it!

Nrama: What was the process like of picking and choosing what went into the final book?

Gravel: Well, I chose the illustrations that were most interesting to me - I picked what I thought kids reacted the best to, and found the most interesting. I had fun doing it!

Nrama: There’s more than 200 pages in the book - how many pages total did you have to edit things down from?

Gravel: That’s hard to say! Some drawings come from an actual sketchbook; others come from things I drew on loose pieces of paper or even napkins. So I have no idea, but probably 70% of what I had done during the year went into the book.

Nrama: The book talks about being an artistic person – did you find any themes or ideas emerging as you put this together?

Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)

Gravel: Oh yeah, for sure. I think that doing that is like automatic writing – if you keep drawing, things will appear, and you’ll find they tie together unexpectedly, themes and thoughts and characters and ideas, and it’s the same thing with writing. It’s almost like a form of meditation. It winds up giving me ideas for other books in the process.

I’m into meditation – finding ideas that are free-flowing, and letting others go. It’s very relaxing.

Nrama: I agree. There’s something very therapeutic about just getting ideas down.

Gravel: Yeah, especially for people who really feel the need to create, and you have to get the down, or create music or sculptures or whatever. That feeling of “I need to get these ideas out” is important, because otherwise they would spill into my whole mind - I have to get them out to keep having new ideas.

Nrama: There’s a certain way that lets you move forward.

Gravel: It’s like breathing. You need to exhale, to make room for new ideas.

Nrama: When you were growing up, what were some books that inspired you and encouraged you to be creative?

Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)

Gravel: I don’t think there was one book - I grew up in French culture, and in French we have so many more comic books and graphic novels, and we had so many more than there were in English. I had hundreds of comic books at home, and they were very funny, very creative, very different. I think having access to all those ideas led me to try to think in images – to create artistically, visually, and also verbally, like my brain was formed with images and text all at the same time. So you have comics to blame for how I am now. [Laughs]

Nrama: What were some comics that made a specific impression on you? I know that can be like “What’s your favorite movie…?”

Gravel: It is! I was really into Tintin, and Sempé, and Gaston, and Gotlib, and a lot of other French and Argentinian creators.  I don’t have one specific creator that I can think of now, but the classic Belgian comic style was what inspired me.

Nrama: What were some of the materials you used to create the material we see in the book? It looks like a lot are pen-and-ink and markers…

Gravel: Yeah! I use all kinds of markers – Sharpies, micro-pens, regular black pens, and I found these incredible watercolor brush markers I ordered from Japan that have an incredible color palette. But I’ll use anything I have access to, including my daughters’ markers, because I can find them anywhere in the house.

It’s something I talk about in the book – you don’t need a lot of sophisticated equipment, you can make art with whatever you have around.

Nrama: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Gravel: I definitely hope people will get the message that anything you can do is good – if you want to draw, then draw! Draw for the fun of it. Let go of everything else, because if you think about it, it blocks your creative ability. If you draw thinking it’s only for yourself, it’s only for fun – that’s good. That’s the most important message I have for kids.

I think there’s a point where kids stop having fun creating things. They start getting positive reinforcement from grownups, and then they stop drawing because it’s fun or because it feels good, they draw because they want more of that reinforcement. And then they get anxious about how people will receive their art, and that’s the surest way to block creativity – I want to get them back into that fun mindset.

Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)

Nrama: You kind of hit me in the nerves with that evaluation – though that was more writing than art growing up.

Gravel: You get anxious about how people see things?

Nrama: Like, it gets less important that you make something than, “But is that a good idea? Is that a good idea?” Trying to please others before you please yourself. I’ve found in recent years that just writing things up in full and trying to get them finished is both fun and sometimes even encourages some growth as a person.

Gravel: Yeah! I think both are important. And I think if you write or draw as a job, you need that work that pleases yourself. That will help you so much when you get stuck. You have to go back and find that reason why you started doing it in the first place, and make that mental muscle strong again. And it’s hard.

Nrama: Well, I’ve heard more than one person compare craft to a muscle – you have to work on it every day, and you can get it in shape, but you have to try to stay in shape.

Gravel: Exactly. And this sketchbook came mostly when I was working for others, on commission, and I said, “I’m going to lose that creativity unless I draw whatever I want, if I don’t let every thought come out on paper.” So it is a muscle, creativity.

And another message I want to send to kids is – if you like to do something, do it all the time. Don’t limit yourself – “Is this a bad subject?”

If you want to copy stuff from other books, do it! It’s a good way to learn. Stop feeling bad about the rules of drawing, because it’s asking too much to try to follow all the rules and to try to please other people. Just have fun.

Nrama: It’s a balance.

Gravel: Yes. The story of every artist’s life.

Nrama: What’s coming up next for you?

Gravel: Oh, many things! I’m actually working on the second volume of my book Olga from HarperCollins, and some work for Drawn & Quarterly, and more for HarperCollins…and I just want to do another volume of my sketchbook. I don’t want to give anything away. You tell people about your plans, they start expecting things, you start expecting things, and it changes the course of your art.

Nrama: It’s kind of dizzying, how much you have on your plate.

Gravel: It is! I’ve finished about 50 books now, in French and in English. I think I have 10 projects ahead of me, and I get more ideas, the more I get done. But I’m always busy. That’s the story of my life.

Nrama: What’s it been like working with Drawn & Quarterly?

Credit: Elise Gravel (Drawn & Quarterly)

Gravel: Oh yeah, I love them. I’ve worked with many, many editors in French and English, and this is my first time with D&Q, but they are among the very best. They have good ideas, but are not too directive – I feel very free and guided at the same time, and very confident and happy.

Nrama: What are some comics you’d recommend to others?

Gravel: For grownups, I love the work of Lisa Hanawalt, particularly her book Hot Dog Taste Test – it’s similar in themes to my sketchbook. And I’m a huge fan of Kate Beaton – her adult books, and her books for kids. And Jillian Tamaki – all those Drawn & Quarterly ladies are creators I admire. They’re all very fun and interesting and open about their work – inspiring people.

Nrama: Anything you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

Gravel: I forgot to mention this, but while I was making the sketchbook, I was taking pictures of the sketches and posting them on Instagram, and it helped build a big following for these drawings, and someone said, “You should submit this to a publisher!” And that’s how the book came about. People on Instagram really contributed to this book – I wouldn’t have done it without those followers. I thought Instagram was just about self-promotion, but it’s not – it’s a great bit of interaction, and it brought me a lot. So, thank you!

Twitter activity