What I did for Wood


Making the Art for a Book Called Dust Devil: a Memoir

by Paul O. Zelinsky


December 1, 2009:

I’ve finally finished the last painting for Dust Devil, Anne Isaac’s sequel to Swamp Angel, and what a struggle it’s been!

What was the struggle, exactly? I’m already beginning to forget.

If only I had kept a journal!


January 5, 2010:

Idea: Piece the story together from emails, receipts, bank records, sample wood packets from different suppliers, and fake a journal. Use all the facts I can find, and if invention is necessary… call it a memoir.


February 2, 20-some-year-too-long-ago-to-bear-looking-it-up-much-less-writing-it-down):

Here I am with Anne Isaac’s manuscript called Dust Devil. It’s about Swamp Angel, living in Montana; how she rides a huge dust storm into submission and finds a horse at its center. And on this horse, which she names Dust Devil, she battles backward-speaking Backward Bart and his gang, who are so nasty that they ride around on giant mosquitos. Fun!

Oh, how I hope this project doesn’t lob obstacles in my path the way Swamp Angel did! The worst part was procuring the material I wanted to paint on. I’d seen it at New York Central Art Supply: beautiful, ultra-thin, paper-backed wood veneer--absolutely perfect for Swamp Angel’s illustrations. But the supplying company was going out of business, the veneer became unavailable, and it was all downhill from there. If I find myself facing that sort of thing again, I don’t know what I’ll do.


June, same year:

I really have to see about that wood. Maybe it’s available, maybe there’s no problem. As I recall, the moment I finished Swamp Angel’s art, that elegant, thin, thin veneer – an obscure material and not an actual art supply-- started showing up in all the fancy paper stores in New York. So why am I so scared of history repeating itself?


December 5, 2006:

Putting off checking out NYCentral Art Supply. Dust Devil is in thinking-about stage. I’m disturbed by those mosquitos—is it possible to paint mosquitos that look like folk art? But learning how to paint a good folk-art horse—now, that should be a treat.


March 6, 2007:

All right. I go to New York Central, check out the paper displays. Super-thin wood veneer is there! The samples include a beautiful cedar, and also an aspen, possibly too pale to use, though symbolically it would be ideal (like cedar) for this Montana story.


HOLD ON A MINUTE—the size of the sheets is way too small. [Insert swear word here!]
Ask at the desk about this problem. Salesperson Kathy turns out to be a fan of Swamp Angel; she’s happy to help. She tells me that for a large order, this veneer company will cut wood to another, larger size. I calculate. The larger size would still be too small.What a shame.What a horrible shame.

Look online for veneer. Don’t see the beautiful, gorgeous, super-thin kind. Anne Isaac’s manuscript is not quite finished anyway; I do other stuff.

I have talked to people about my veneer problem. They all ask why I don’t just paint my pictures on paper and have the printer drop in a photo of wood for the borders. The way I dismiss that option—for reasons like integrity of the art, the opportunity to see the wood grain affect the painting and not just its borders, the wish to produce actual paintings that match the book, and the wonderful way I remember the Swamp Angel wood taking oil paint—is probably a symptom of some underlying disorder.


March 21, 2007:

Dust Devil has to be painted in oils on veneer! Swamp Angel used Tennessee woods— so right for the job—in such thin sheets that they could be wrapped around the drum of a drum scanner, giving the best possible reproduction. All I need is a couple of micro-thin Montana veneers.


April 15, 2007:

Working on another book, but thinking about veneer.


Then not thinking about veneer.


July, 2007:

Other book still. Fiddling with preliminary Dust Devil dummy. Not thinking about veneer.


October, 2007:

Finished other book. Doing other stuff. Such as putting off thinking about veneer.


November, 2007:

Still doing other stuff.


December, 2007:

Who knows what I was doing then, must have been something.


January, 2008:

Anne’s manuscript has been copyedited. Can now make sketch dummy.


February, 2008:

Dummy progressing, but big, ugly, Backward Bart is a challenge. Every time I try to give him a face, he comes out looking like one ethnic stereotype or another.


March, 2008:

Dummy still progressing. Seems to work pretty well in sketches. On paper.



April 21, 2008:

Am privileged to be one of the participants in Author Week at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. Decide to ask second and third graders for advice on Backward Bart. Nose like this? Or this? What about these eyebrows? We put together several potential Barts, all funny, I think. I can’t tell. I’ll ask editor, art director, to choose.


May, 2008:

Continuing to put off dealing with veneer issues. Try to learn to draw better horses. Those back legs always look weird when I draw them.


June 7, 2008:

An excellent portent: I’ve been invited to be part of the First Annual Bozeman, Montana, Children’s Festival of the Book this August! A bit late in the game but I can still do research there.


July 8, 2008 :

I find a very-thin-veneer supplier online. Phone them. Not like New York Central’s: these veneer sheets ARE large enough. They will send samples. Hooray!


July 15, 2008:

Small samples come in the mail; one wood looks great, a kind of spruce. Perfect for Northwest US. Jump up and down and shout YES! YES! YES! in my studio. Happily, nobody lives underneath me.


July 21, 2008:

Salesman from veneer company informs me that they don’t have any of that spruce to cut up for veneer.
None of their other woods look suitable. My ears begin smoking.

Try not to think of wood.



July 24, 2008:

Art Director has chosen this Bart. Now what? Where’s my cedar?


August 1, 2008:

Somewhere else online I find cedar veneer. Not sure if it’s thin enough. And it comes only in two-foot-by-eight foot sheets. I order one sheet.


August 20, 2008:

Cedar arrives, rolled up in big box. It’s way too thick, and it features narrow, repeating strips of grain. [Insert worse swear word here.In UPPER CASE.] Smells good, though. Don’t know where to put the stuff. Too expensive to throw out. Back in box, in middle of studio floor is all I can think of.

August 21, 2008:

I arrive in Dust Devil territory: Bozeman, Montana.


August 22, 2008:

Appointment with a curator at the Museum of the Rockies. See real antique chaps, log cabins; learn Montana styles for shaping the top of your cowboy hat.


August 25, 2008:

My luck must be changing: find a website that apparently sells the stuff New York Central used to have! Company is called Nanowood, and it’s in Belgium. I send them an email explaining my plight.

August 29, 2008:

I’ve scanned and printed out my final dummy at the art size. The next step—painting. On wood.


September 1, 2008:

Nanowood replies! Yes, they can provide large enough sheets.Yes, wood grain is rotary-cut, not stripes of narrow repeats. All right!!!! Email is signed “best regards, Herrmann Chantal.”

Note: names may have been changed to protect the innocent.


September 2, 2008:

I want to order just a few sheets of cedar and maple to see how they look, and then I can order more. But how? Nanowood.com has no order form or payment option. I start a reply to the email:“Dear Mr. Chantal…” and stop. A dim memory from high school French: signature may be Last Name First Name. Is this person French speaking? I start again: “Dear Ms. Herrmann…” Oh dear, which is it?

I Google his/her name. Nothing. Then I decide to search for the name, in both orders, on Facebook. There is a Chantal Herrmann in Belgium, with a photo. A nice looking young woman. I write the email, feeling like a Peeping Tom.


September 4, 2008:

Ms. Herrmann answers.Veneer costs only $4.00 per sheet-- but $110 minimum for shipping! So much for the small order idea. I ask for samples.


September 23, 2008:

This is not going smoothly. Tiny samples arrive, the size of business cards. The maple’s grain is so broad nothing’s visible on the sample card. The cedar doesn’t resemble any cedar I know. I look up the French name they also used for it, Bossé. Turns out to be a tropical African tree in the Mahogany family.

I email Belgium, tell them my problem and hesitatingly ask whether they know any other suppliers of micro-thin veneer who do other woods, such as American cedar.


September 30, 2008:

They reply, adamant that their wood is truly cedar. Hope I haven’t offended them.


October 1, 2008:

Feeling desperate. Go back to NY Central. Ask again about the larger size available through special order.


WHOOPS—I seem to have miscalculated the first time. This new size might actually be (just barely) big enough. But it would be very expensive. A log would be put in the slicer just for me—sight unseen, no returns.


October 16, 2008:

I bite the bullet, return to the store and tell Kathy I want to order a batch of cedar. I need about 15 sheets of dark wood. Or should I get 20? 30? And about that aspen; it might not work but I don’t know if I’ll find any other light wood. I’ll take some aspen. No, I won’t. More cedar? Less aspen? Less cedar? More aspen? I’m driving Kathy crazy. End up with a lot of cedar and some aspen. Total cost: almost $700. It will be several weeks before it reaches New York.


October 22, 2008:

Glad to be traveling a lot this month, or I’d be spending it worrying.


November 5, 2008:

Kathy calls: wood is in. Hop straight on the A train into Manhattan. The good news: cedar is very interesting. I like it even though the whole book can’t all be on this cedar; it would be too much. The bad news: unlike lovely brown of wall samples, this wood is actually purple. No problem, says Kathy—purple turns brown from exposure to light and air. The seriously bad news: aspen looks like white paper, useless.


November 6, 2008:

I think I may want to try using some of that Nanowood maple after all.


November 7, 2008:

I lay cedar sheets out on top of every available surface in my studio—the table, the bed, the toilet seat. Barely makes a dent in the cedar pile. Bring the pile home and cover the beds, floor in daughters’ empty room, the piano and the harpsichord in the living room, etc., etc. Have to be very careful not to sit down on any of it.


November 14, 2008:

“Mon cher Nanowood: despite shipping costs may I s’il vous plaît order 20 sheets of votre maple? Dust Devil only needs maybe five or six, but as long as I’m paying all that shipping, I suppose I can find something to do avec extra sheets. Peut-être I will put ‘three sheets to the wind’ five times. (Just kidding.) Sincerely, Paul Zelinsky.”

(All right, ce n’est peut-être pas exactly what I said).


November 21, 2008:

No response from Nanowood. Email again.


November 26, 2008:

Can’t keep on living like this. Luckily, the cedar has darkened somewhat, and turned noticeably browner. Time to pack up home cedar and take back to studio.


November 27, 2008:

Prepare some of the cedar for painting, with two coats of Polyurethane. I wish it were summer; it’s too cold for open windows, and Poly is toxic. I hold my breath, brush some of the liquid onto the wood, run to the window and breathe, slam the window shut, run back and brush some more, breathe a little more, brush some more, and run home for the night.

Coated cedar comes out pretty dark, but quite beautiful.


December 30, 2008:

Still nothing from Belgium.

Ma chère Mlle. Herrmann, if I have in any way offended you, je le regrette énormément and please forgive me and email me back, d--n it.


December 31, 2008:

Nanowood writes back. They’ve been very busy, drowning in emails, sorry mine got lost. I’ll hear from them again next week, when they’re really back from holidays.


January 4, 2009:

I am painting at last! Oil on cedar. Not Bossé, merci beaucoup. But what happened to the wonderful way that my Swamp Angel wood took oils? This is oil paint torture, it’s like sliding paint around on glass.

I complain to friends, who tell me to stop it already and just paint on paper or canvas, for heaven’s sake. I persevere.


January 8, 2009:

Still nothing from Belgium. I repeat my request for twenty maple sheets.


January 14, 2009:

Still haven’t heard anything. Send email offering to phone.


January 15, 2009:

I have been painting on this Polyurethaned cedar and not only doesn’t paint want to stick, it won’t stay opaque. My brightest whites look gray and dull on the dark wood when I come into my studio the next morning. Layer on top of layer, lighter and lighter, when will it end?

And that aspen is awful. Hey, what would happen if I stained it? Go to hardware store and buy stain. Try it on aspen.

An amazingly intricate grain pattern appears. Hmmm. Not bad. But not quite as light as I’d wanted.


January 21, 2009:

Nanowood answers, at long last. My 20 sheets of maple are ready to ship. I need to prepay, though. I reply immediately; I don’t want to send credit card info by email. Would it work by phone? Don’t hear back.


January 29- February 11, 2009:

In Marshall Islands, visiting daughter who lives there. No wood, no oil paints, no progress.


February 16, 2009:

I find on returning that Nanowood still hasn’t responded. I phone. Leave message.


February 17, 2009:

Email from Nanowood: Thank you for phone call. Unfortunately shipping cost has gone up to $153 minimum. And we don’t take credit cards.You’ll have to wire the money into our bank account in Belgium.


February 17-23, 2009:

Can’t even begin to describe the hoops we jump through to wire money, with various banks helping themselves to unexpected bits of it and insufficient amounts ending up transferred to Nanowood.


February 23, 2009 (Monday):

Nanowood emails that the money has been transferred and package will go out the next day to arrive on Friday. Hallelujah.


March 2, 2009 (Monday):

Finally, the wood has arrived!


The maple curls up like a scroll. And the grain is so widely spaced that it’s mostly useless. I feel like curling up, myself. I feel like maple veneer.

Well, maybe there’s nothing more I can do to get wood for this book. At least I have plenty of aspen I can stain.


March 6, 2009:

Paint, paint, paint.
Whew! I was beginning to think this stage would never arrive! Hang the first finished piece on the long, bare wall of my studio.


March 29, 2009:

Have a framer dry-mount some maple to heavier paper. It doesn’t work; now the paper wants to curl up. Maybe with enough tape the maple can stay down.


April 11, 2009:

The stained aspen looks pretty good. I’ll use some of that, some maple with lots of tape. Just get it done. Swamp Angel didn’t let anything stop her, why should I?


May 12, 2009:

Paint, paint, paint. I like painting the giant mosquitoes! They’re even fairly folk-arty. Mosquito-painting is actually more forgiving than horse-painting.


May15, 2009:

Discover that if I tape a piece of maple flat onto cardboard before applying polyurethane, it dries flat!


July 26, 2009:

Celebrating wife’s birthday in her childhood town, Cheyenne,Wyoming. Go to The Wrangler for some cowboy duds, i.e., a shirt, to wear to the rodeo. I can’t look at enough horses. But I notice something in the boots section: I’ve drawn every boot in my book – and there are lots of them—with notch and straps in the wrong place. How did I do that?

July 29, 2009:

Back in Brooklyn. Repaint boots and boots and boots.


August 14, 2009:

Paint, paint, paint. Cedar, maple, aspen.


September 20, 2009:

Painting. Long days. Longer weeks. No time for lunch. I’m in Montana, c. 1840.


November 15, 2009:

No time for journal entries.


November 26, 2009:

Almost there. I think I’ve figured out horses’ back legs.


December 1, 2009:

Is it possible? I’m DONE!

My once-bare studio wall is completely covered with paintings on wood. I actually like these pictures!


 How to sum all of this up?

Cost-benefit analysis:

cost-benefit analysis


To complete the calculation, will need to fill in “World’s response to Dust Devil.


Still, I know that I prevailed! I rode this giant storm into submission! I am flooded with relief. Inside my head, a party is beginning.


December 10, 2009:

Invite visitors in for a look. Responses are enthusiastic. They seem genuine. I am encouraged.

What a good idea to have kept a journal. I’ll have to remember it for the next book.


January 1. 2010:

Now I need to straighten up the mess that is my studio.What am I going to do with this box in the middle of the room, with the 2’ x 8’ sheet of cedar?

Anybody need some cedar veneer?

text and pictures © 2010 Paul O. Zelinsky