This Story Does Not End The Way That I Wanted It To

Many of my long-time Dear Readers know that I consider the magnificent Eastern Blue Jay …


…to be the Top DoG in the bird world.  Lucky for me, these little miracles of evolution are native to my home state of New York and are frequent visitors to my backyard, and during their Summer molt they usually drop a feather or two my way. Since 2004 I have been collecting these tiny gifts to put on display in my Museum of Blue :P1040939

However, as far as collecting Blue Jay feathers in the past few years, my heart hasn’t been in it. Three years ago my mind became preoccupied with a very ambitious project — writing and illustrating a book about a world tour of gardens. I know it doesn’t sound all that perplexing a job: You go visit a garden, you paint some pictures of it, you write about how nice it is, and you’re done.

But I wanted to avoid the usual dreadful garden vocabulary and I wanted to up-end the cliche garden philosophies and I wanted to make illustrations that were not botanical in nature — I wanted to make pictures that portrayed the soul of the place. On top of all that, I am not all that smart. So I had to think hard. It took up a lot of my brain power. And so it came to pass that, in the Summer of 2012, I was so busy pondering hard on garden things that I only picked up four feathers:


The way that I figured out how to avoid using  the usual vocabulary of garden writing was that I made a list of dreadful words that are so often used by garden writers that they stab me in my mind’s eyeball every time I read them. The list includes the words:

Sacred space, Communion, Magical, Jewel or jewel-like or gemNurturing, Benevolent, Abode, Haven,  or Glade.  All those bad-poet words that make you go yeeeeech.

I also banned the word “Nature” from my book, but then I put in a quote from Dorothy Wordsworth that contained the “N” word…and I kind of regret that now. How awesome would it have been to have written an entire book about gardens and not mention nature once???

In 2013 I was still cogitating on putting together nine garden stores that were completely cliche-free, void of any reference to renewal, or solace, or seeds. My garden philosophy is very rigorous in that I believe that gardens mean something that is specific and individual to every garden. My brain was sorely over-taxed by the task, so I’m amazed that in 2013 I still had the sightfulness to spy  these dainty gifts in my backyard:


Last Summer, 2014, this is what I gathered, Blue Jay feather-wise:


In 2014 I had not only a garden book to bring into being, but I was caring for a very, very old and completely time-consuming cocker spaniel called Boogie Girl (her story is here in a blog post called Happiness is a Warm Puppy):


This brings me to last Summer, the Summer of 2015.


My garden book, rife with digressions on dive bars, 1970s haute couture, rainy days, English tea, and not living in Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland), is done!

Just this past Thursday, the industry Torah, Publisher’s Weekly, has read it and reviewed it:

Vivian Swift (Le Road Trip), inspired by the ineffable beauty of a poinsettia tree she encountered in Brazil, tours nine gardens from around the world in this seductive illustrated travelogue. She starts in Paris at the Square du Vert-Galant, meanders to Marrakech, lingers in London’s Physic Garden, and roams through Rio de Janeiro’s Midnight Garden. In Key West, Fla., she pens a polemic about pines; visiting poet William Cullen Bryant’s Cedermere, she sings a paean to his pears. As Swift sees it, gardens pay “homage to this wondrous Earth.” Each chapter includes maps, inspirational quotations (as well as an “ancient Celtic prayer” she “just made up”), and a benedictory essay. Throughout, there is loveliness and wit through whimsical words (such as doodad and dithers) and pictures. Her splashy watercolors, washing joyfully throughout, include a lesson on how to paint fall leaves. Color illus. (Mar.)

So I guess I pulled off what I had set out to do — and made it look easy!

And so, in 2015, I put down my paint brushes and pushed myself away from my computer and I became, once again, a Blue Jay Feather Collector. Starting in June, I gave myself the goal of collecting five — 5 — Blue Jay feathers.

The way you collect Blue Jay feathers is, first of all, make your back yard a good space for Blue Jays. I do this by putting out bowls of dry cat — which they LOVE — in high places, out of the stalking range of any resident cat.

It also helps if you have a nice assortment of tall trees in your back yard, which I do, because Blue Jays love to look down on plotting cats and screech at them. They also like to perch high on a branch and send out a flute-like flows of rapturous calls, which are the songs that they only sing to one another.

Then, each morning, preferably shortly after dawn but definitely in the hour of your first cup of tea of the day, you have to walk out in the dewy grass of your backyard and send a request, very politely worded, to the Blue Jays and the Universe that goes like this:

Please let me see, today, the gifts that are everywhere in front of me.

It helps if, while you are requesting this mindfulness, if you can hold in your mind the image of a Blue Jay feather.

I was surprised at how surprised I was at how, almost immediately, it became very easy to find Blue Jay feathers!


I knew that 2015 was going to be a very, very good year for collecting Blue Jay feathers when, in late June, I found FIVE in one day.

Somewhere deep in the back of my brain I know there is the belief that life is good. I believe that in spite of the randomness of evil and the prevalence of human stupidity and the misery of history-in-the-making, that life can still be wondrous. That belief gets re-awakened and strengthened every time I find a Blue Jay feather just for the asking…and I hope you know that you, Dear Reader, are free to replace Blue Jay Feather with any other totem of your heart’s desire, which you will indeed find, too, simply by asking for the eyes and spirit to see that it is always there in front of you. And, naturally, by doing the work it takes to make your little acre of earth a good ground for those things to drop into.

So how good was the 2015 Summer of collecting Blue Jay feathers?

It was this good:


Yeah, it was 40-Feathers good.

But I was not ready to let things be. I guess I got a little greedy. Maybe a bit cocky. Maybe, even, a bit entitled. On the first day of Fall this year, I put it out to the spirits in my backyard that I wanted proof-beyond-doubt that I was the Universe’s favorite child. I wanted to find ONE MORE Blue Jay feather.

It was while I was pacing the backyard for the third time, with nary a Blue Jay feather in sight, that I thought about the moral of this tale (because I knew I was going to have to blog about my 40-Feather Summer). And I concluded that not finding that one last Blue Jay feather was even better than finding that one last Blue Jay feather because it would show that the Universe wanted me to learn something fine and elegant about the search itself…how it’s the quest for the Blue Jay feather that connects us to the profound mysteries of consciousness on this little speck of blue in the cosmos.

Which is how I wanted to end this story, all philosophical and Zen-ish.

And then I saw this:


Which turned out to be this:


Which is a “flight” feather from the wing of a Blue Jay (I hope you can see the ridge of blue on its outer edge):


I can’t tell you how astonished I was when I picked this one last Blue Jay feather up off the ground. It was completely unexpected, and ridiculously gracious of the Universe, and hugely annoying. I already had it all planned out, about how I was a better person for not finding that one last Blue Jay feather and all.

There goes my  grand finale, my message that it’s the search for the Blue Jay Feather of the Soul that gets us out of bed in the morning after yet another atrocity of hate, or apathy, or stupidity (check the latest news cycle). And what about my uplifting morale about how being a Being of the Search is a fine, fine way to live, in that it gives you a reason for living and does wonders for your personality and keeps you too busy to conform to what society wants you to do, which is to stop thinking and go shopping? That’s gone, too. And now, all I have to show for all that hard thinking is a crappy little Blue Jay feather. I mean, WTF?

Well, at this point, all I can do is feel amazed and overwhelmed by love and gratitude. Thank you, Universe, for the abundance of your gifts, thank you for letting me see that your gifts are everywhere, thank you for the mysteries and the meanings of your vast and life-giving (and, sometimes, even loving) presence, and thank you thank you thank you for always being open to interpretation.

Happy Thanks Giving, everyone.

This Month’s Most Important Cup of Tea

I’m taking a moment aside from my regularly scheduled blog to bring you this special Vive la France post.


We’ll always — always always always — have Paris.


I know that all of our hearts are in Paris this week…and my heart is with my special Paris friend, Carol Gillott of Paris Breakfasts. For those of you who might not know her story, Carol is an American illustrator who used to travel to Paris half a dozen times a year until 2013, when she decided to live her life to the fullest and picked up lock, stock, and paintbrushes and moved there.

Talk about living creatively without fear: Carol lives the artful life — art, food, fashion, travel, books…de luxe in thought, word, and deed.

Wherever she goes…



…she makes her sketches…blogger-image-1348681512

… and she chronicles it all on her blog

…but especially in her monthly letters:


I have been subscribing to Carol’s monthly sketch letters for over a year and I have saved every morsel from her monthly packets: the perfume samples, patisserie notes, grand chef calling cards, cafe mementos — all the ephemera extraordinaire that she tucked into each envelope. It’s a gift parcel from the world capital of elegant living every single month.


I feel duty-bound to share with you all these delights. Whether it’s for you (because you deserve it!) or for those dearest Francophile friends into whose life you want to bring some authentic Paris joy — I can’t recommend any other gift more highly.

You can subscribe to monthly Sketch Letters,



or monthly Map Letters,



or BOTH by visiting Carol’s Easy Shop here.

Vive la Vie Parisienne!

And please stay tuned to this blog — my regularly scheduled post is just behind this one!

The Difference Between October and November Means Something Deep About Life in General, Probably

This was October:P1040216

This (same place, same time of day) is November:


It gets worse.

This was October 31 at my favorite local public garden, Cedarmere (home of the forgotten famous poet, William Cullen Bryant):


This is the same place, on November 18 this year:


And this is the same exact place on November 18, 2012:

P1120519 copy

Come with me, further down this path (on Nov. 18, 2012):

P1120520 copy

And take this same walk with me on Nov. 18, 2015:


Let us turn and look back (on Nov. 18, 2012):


And let’s see what it looks like exactly (to the day) three years later:


The difference is not the wild and unpredictable vagaries of Autumn. The difference is this:


Between the time I took the October photo of this woods and the November photo of this same woods, there as been a lot of chopping down of these woods and Thank Goodness. There was just too much beauty going on here. Thank goodness that someone saw that, and chopped down all those offensive red maple trees and cleared the view of all its ability to inspire poetry and romance in the heart of any passer-by. Whew.

It’s exactly like what happened to me this past week. I’ve heard tell that blogs are out of style these days, and that Instagram is now the portal to modern culture and relevancy, and as I like to feel with it when it comes to not turning into one of those people who can’t stop talking about how much better things used to be [before hipsters and their damn tattoos, reality TV, smart phones, rap music, you name it],  I was looking for a way to check out this strange new world via my trusty Apple computer. One thing led to another and another until there I was, “upgrading” my entire operating system to the latest new hip version, which Apple calls El Capitan.

El Capitan has cleared out all the ease and comfort that I used to have when I used my trusty computer — yay — so that I can now, indeed, get a clear view of this Instagram thing. I don’t get it…why people just want to look at pictures of other people’s lunches and relatives and black and white photographs of vegetables… but I’m following Taylor Swift.

And now let’s us have some fun: Last week’s Triscuit…


…inspired Dear Reader Jane to get out her brand new Grumbacher paints and do some dabbing of her own! She sent me this photo of her Triscuit-making:


Well done! And thank you!

And as I hinted at last week, I have some unfinished painting business to get to today, so let us put all thoughts of regretful operating system updates and blog-quitting in favor of snap-shooting what I’m going to have for lunch aside and get to it!

Back to the un-axed days of October:


I start by laying down a few very watery patches of color…

P1040601…including yellow for background “light':


Working “wet on wet” — over-laying another color onto still-wet paint, I bleed in some bright green in the background:


Now I dab is some middle-ground color:



Well, it looks to me as if I over-did the background bleeds…


…so let’s start over, and this time let’s put down the yellow first (the most important color in this picture):


Then do the blue sky:


Let’s keep the background reds to a minimum this time:


Just a touch of deeper vermillion:


I have an over-fondness of bleeds, I think:


The trick, again, is to dab in color without dabbing in too much (which would make it turn to mud):


Add some ground color here…


…and we have our background wash, ready to paint in the middle and foregrounds:


I must mention painting with clean water is essential to giving life to watercolor. During the course of this wash, I’ve already used two or three changes of water. I use several 8-ounce jam jars at a time, each filled with water, so I don’t have to stop what I’m doing and dump out dirty water for new. I never let my water get any dirtier than this:


Now that everything is bone dry, I dab in areas of color into the middle ground of the picture. Notice that I use the word “dab“. I am not stroking my brush against the paper, I’m just tap-tap-tapping the point of my brush onto the surface. I vary the shape and color density of each dab to give a random pattern effect:


When I want more detail, I switch to my Size 00 brush, but I do not stroke paint into the picture: I still just dab at the surface of my paper:


These yellow in the very center of this scene will be the focus of this picture…


…but I made them too dark. So I’m going to rescue this picture by going over this area with white acrylic paint (I use white acrylic paint like it was Wite-Out):


Now comes the fun part! I get to add dark dabs! And now the picture is taking real form:





I hope you can see how, working from the lightest wash in the background to the darkest bits in the foreground, this picture has a kind of “glow” that imitates light:


Now I’m going to add color and texture to the center of this picture to make those yellow leaves and those silhouetted trees at the end of the trail (which are the focus of this pic) “pop”:



If you compare this (below) to the pic above, you can see how I am now painting a background of dark green color around the light green that I dabbed in, to make the foreground foliage stand out:


And now I paint over the white acrylic paint to make my yellow leaves:


Tree time:



I have already eliminated the fence in the right hand side of the photo because I thought that adding such a feature in this pic would make too much visual clutter…and now I’m thinking that I should have eliminated this dark, back-lit tree also, because I liked this pic more about four steps ago, when it still had happy, impressionistic look. Ah, well, let’s see if we can make this old tree work:


The first thing I want to do is soften the root system, using my favorite trick — the bleed. So I hose that baby down with a brush full of clear water:


While it’s still wet, I’m going to quickly work in some greenery…


…and some brownery…


…and I’m going to spread out some more dirt-ery (using a very wet brush to dilute the paint)…



…and stroke in some black shadowy stuff…


…and bleed in some more greenery and blackery:


Works for me. The more confident I become with my watercolor painting skills, the more I like to let the paints do their watercolor-thing, let the pigment and the water stand like a signature of the flow and spontaneity of the medium.

When I compare my painting to the reference photo, I think that the pic needs some more darkness in the way back, to make the light at the end of this path “flicker” more:



Now I take another look, and something tells me that I am done with the back and middle grounds here:


It’s time to tackle that big dark back-lit evergreen that looms over this scene:


I don’t want to over-do it. Less is more, so again I “edit” this view for the sake of visual clarity in the painting:


I’m calling this picture DONE.



I call this painting Cedarmere Woods The Way It Will Never, Ever Look Again.

I wish you all, my Dear Readers, a Happy and Merry Thanksgiving.






Merci to for photo.

That Was Then. This Is Now. I Like Then Better.

This is October on Long Island:P1040221

Same place, same time of day, this is now:


This was me, a mere 10 days ago, taking a photo that I forgot to load onto last week’s blog post:


Ahhhhhh…. Good book, warm Fall sunshine, nice knot garden on view, and a big fat G&T in the thermos.

It’s been raining for four days (see now pic, above). I haven’t seen the sun for four days. The only bright spot has been re-reading Big Magic:


Throw away any book, video, or blog by any other  “creativity” counsellor, particularly if that “creativity” counsellor is famous only for being married to Martin Scorcese for 5 minutes. This is the only How To advise you will need.

Elizabeth Gilbert cows what she’s talking about when she talks about creativity — she’s the author of Eat Pray Love (and she blurbed my book, Le Road Trip, so you know she has impeccable taste), not to mention Pilgrims (her first book, from 1997, awarded the Pushcart Prize and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), Stern Men (selected by the New York Times as one of their favorite books of 2000), The Last American Man (a nominee for the National Book Award), Coyote Ugly (made into a Hollywood movie), and the historical novel The Signature of All Things.

Liz Gilbert lives a creative life and she gets things done. That’s why you can take her advise all the way to the bank (the Bank of Artful Living, that is).

Now, fear (as in the subtitle, covered in her chapter on Courage) is not my thing per se, but I found her chapters on Enchantment, Persistence, and Trust to be re-re-re-readble. When I went to hear Liz speak at Word Books in Jersey City on Oct. 29th:


…and was chatting with a few ladies in the audience as we tried to keep our nerves calm for when Liz appeared on stage, I know that there are people who also love her chapters on Permission and Divinity too.

By the way, the line of ladies waiting to get into the event (reservations necessary) went down the block:


I hope Big Magic puts all self-proclaimed (but resume-challenged) “creative” counselors out of business.

Speaking of enlightenment, I realized that it’s been a while since I painted something enlightening in this space; I haven’t painted “light” like this:


Since I painted this:

P1040740in a blog post I called Painting August.

So let’s call this:


Painting October. And let’s make it a Triscuit!


I’m laying down a yellow base to use as the light that is going to peek thru the foliage:


And some bleeds of light brown and burnt sienna for the dead leaves on the foot path:


Now, the foreground tree:


Whenever I paint foliage, no matter what color it is, I dab at the paper with the tip of y brush, whether it’s a size 00 or a 10. But I take care to make sure that my dabs vary in size — it’s very important to make the blobs in different shapes to avoid the dreaded Seurat effect:


So let’s carry on:






Time to add shadows:


Tree time:


I can see that I need to make the shadows as dark as the tree bark here…


…so I’ll do a fix and add more darker shadows:



Now I pant in all those itty bitty background trunks:


For the finishing foliage I’m loading up my little brush with green to add to the blob of black/brown that I used for the shadows:


The trick to this silhouetted foliage is to paint it in an interesting form that frames the rest of the picture:


Like this, but not quite:


I think it needs just a little bit of booster material:



And here’s my finished tid bit:


I liked this view of October so much that I decided to try it out in a quadruple-Triscuit sized mural!


And we’ll see how that turns out next week!



I Always Mean Business


This was Fall on Monday (at Cedarmere, a local historic garden):


And this was Fall two mornings later:


This was the scene on Monday:


And this was the view 48 hours later:


I love a good misty Fall morning, but I liked that last view (above) better when the old Copper Beech tree was still there:


I did get to hug that magnificent Copper Beech numerous times before it was made fodder under the Wheel of Life. Alas. Nothing stays the same.

This (above) is the picture of a misty Fall morning, with tree, that you watched me paint on January 4, 2013. It’s a two-page illustration for my new book, Gardens of Awe and Folly (which I still refer to as the DGB):


The galley came out last month, and this week the first of the Big Three reviews came out:

In a nutshell:  “An engaging guide to gardens in locales ranging from Key West and post-Katrina New Orleans to Paris (“gardening capital of the world”) and Marrakech…whimsical.”Kirkus Reviews

The full Monty:   “A charming stroll through some public gardens. Swift (Le Road Trip: A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France, 2012, etc.) plainly loves the experience of gardens: the plentitude and solitude they offer, the colors and the scents, the tea rooms that provide the opportunity to relax and reflect. She also loves the idea of the garden, the ideal of one. For her, each garden says something significant about the city where it is situated, and gardens in general say something about humankind as a whole: “Ever since we first recognized ourselves as beings burdened with the mission of taking charge of this harsh, perplexing, seemingly pointless, and beautiful speck of dirt in the universe, our kind has been making gardens.” Thus, a garden is more than a garden; it is a means through which we make order, beauty, and sense. It is through gardens that “Earth has given life to every Eden we’ve ever imagined.”

For armchair travelers and gardeners, Swift proves an engaging guide to gardens in locales ranging from Key West and post-Katrina New Orleans to Paris (“gardening capital of the world”) and Marrakech. Of the eight locations visited, Long Island would seem to be the odd place out, but that’s where the author lives.

The chapter on London is perhaps the most compelling, focusing on change, both its inevitability and the natural resistance to it. The author returns to a favorite garden that she had discovered back when “travel was cheap and the Sex Pistols were dangerous,” only to learn that what she had once considered her private preserve was now a popular tourist attraction, its quaintness “redesigned…to make it dazzlingly relevant for the 21st century.” Yet disappointment gave way to acceptance, and Swift made her peace with the garden to which she returned, which was no longer the garden she had planned to write about. A breezy, whimsical book that does its best to approximate the renewal one might feel upon visiting a garden.”

Yay. I just hope that Publisher’s Weekly and The Library Journal also like it.

But we can’t spend all day wondering why Kirkus didn’t mention that the DGB comes with 200 illustrations, or why Long Island is not in the same league as Key West or Marrkech. (OK,  I get the Key West part, but I bet that to someone living in Marrakech, Long Island seems plenty exotic.)

No, we must get a move-on. (More Fall colors as of this morning:)


This is the color scheme that most inspired me:


So I went home and checked my inventory for the leaf that most resembled this wonderful landscape:


In answer to Laura’s question last week about how I preserve my fragile specimens: all I do is put them between layers of paper towel, wet them down, and store them in the fridge. The paper towel will dry out overnight, so you have to re-apply the moisture in the morning. This works pretty well for keeping the leafs good for about three days.

And so: I trace the outline of the leaf onto my Canson 90lb paper:


This is a tracing I made of my tracing, showing how I divide up the leaf into the cells that I will be painting separately.


I decide on which cells to delineate based on where I think the natural break for the colors are.


I began to paint this luscious hue of green with my Grumbacher paint:


But it didn’t take long to realize that I’d picked too bright a paint for the job:


So I trashed that first effort, and spent some time (that I should have spent at the get-go) matching that tone of green:


It turns out that it isn’t really as bright as I thought it was. I ended up layering a Grumbacher olive green over a Windsor Newton ocher, which surprised me because they are both very dull colors. But it’s important to layer the colors, to let the ochre reflect out of the olive green, to lighten it up a bit.

So I re-start:


After I took this photo, I dropped too much water onto the cell I’m painting here and ruined it.


So I start AGAIN:


Remember, I have to put down the ochre paint before I add the olive, but first I have to lay down a bright yellow:



Status check:


I didn’t notice this reddish glow in these photos until after I’d loaded them all onto my computer (here I am, adding a little bleed of scarlet on top of a blob of orange on top of my base coat of yellow,  below):


I paint ONLY by day light, so I know there wasn’t any kind of tinted, artificial red light on in my work room. strange.

This is me, adding olive green onto a quick layer of ochre on top of yellow (below):


I took this photo because I think these leaf paintings always look hilarious at this point:


I took the above photo at a distance from the work, but for this next one, I’m shoving the camera right into the small space between me and the paint surface, and the reddish glow is back:


And that’s how I figured out the origin of that reddish glow:


It’s coming from the bright, hot pink knit top I’m wearing!


It was probably at this point that I got a little chilly, so I put on a light blue fleece over the hot pink top, and bye bye strange reddish glow:


And I stood up to survey the work so far:


Oooo, now I get to play with some dark brown!


I always let the previous cell dry completely before I start painting the next one:


I love rot:


You might notice that I haven’t added in those little marks of decrepitude that fleck the leaf yet. I’m saving that for the end:


First the yellow, then bleed in the orange…


…and now dab in the scarlet:


I forgot to take a photo of the last cell when it was finished, but now that the whole leaf is colored, I am using grey paint to add those flecks of decay I mentioned:


And this baby is DONE:


Do you think this leaf looks whimsical?


I only ask because my work (see: Kirkus review) is often called whimsical. I think that goes for my writing as well as my illustrations. The funny thing is, people who know me (such as Top Cat) would never call me whimsical. In fact, Top Cat is still annoyed with me because last Sunday we were stuck in traffic in Brooklyn (marathon day) and I got out of the car to direct traffic on Atlantic Ave., near the Barclay Center. The way I was yelling at drivers to Move It Move It Move It was hardly whimsical. The people who I was releasing from grid lock were applauding me in a definitely non-whimsical way, and the one old guy who yelled at me certainly didn’t like the way I non-whimsically yelled back.

It was a dream come true, directing traffic like that. I always knew I’d be GREAT at it. But Top Cat says I could have got myself shot.

I say, it would have been totally worth it.

People should let me tell them how to drive all the time.

So yesterday, on one of the finest Fall days in recent memory (sunny, 72 degrees) I celebrated my dream-come-true and went back to my favorite garden situation at Cedarmere.

(I forgot to load a photo here, so the next few sentences make no sense, but I will explain next week.)

Ahhhhhh…. Good book, Fall sunshine, nice knot garden on view, and a big fat G&T in the thermos.

Nothing whimsical about that.

(More about Big Magic next week.)

This Month’s Most Important Cup of Tea


As you can see, I am of two minds when it comes to October.

What kind of month is it? It is either the End of Easy Living (oh, how I love feeling 10 years younger every day in Summer Mind), or it’s The Beginning of Coziness (I look better in soft wooly sweaters than in tank tops). Hard to tell, so why choose?

Here’s a season-appropriate take on our conversation last week, re: Fine Art v. Illustration.

This is Fine Art:


This is Illustration:


Here’s proof (by me, of course):


One thing that I know for sure about October is that it is time to find my Perfect Fall Leaf of the Year.

I’ve been searching far and near: my backyard:, a walk around the block, and a journey to a little nature preserve that is 9 miles away but the way I drive, it’s 24 1/2 (I’ve been living here 11 years on Long Island and I can still get lost 5 miles from home.) The color out there is pretty spectacular:


Notice that I prefer to take my Fall Color photos on an overcast day.


That’s because I work exclusively from photos, and low light is the only way to get real color out of the scene. For contrast, here’s a picture I took on a gloriously sunny day:


See that center radiance? In real life, it was a vibrant glowing orange — not a pale yellow; the bright light washed out the whole loveliness of this view. So I prefer to get the photo with color — light effects I can paint in on my own, later.

But still…is there anything more wonderful than a bright and mild Fall Day?


Besides any random old day in SUMMER, I mean?

I found some interesting color when I stopped by a local garden called Cedarmere, home of William Cullen Bryant (read all about him and his garden in my Damn Garden Book):



You will never catch me painting out in the public like this:


For one thing, I can not stand up while I paint. Just can’t do it. Well, come to think of it, I can do it, I just don’t want to.

Every year my annual Fall Leaf Painting post gets the most hits of anything else I put up on this blog — literally tens of people tune in. Just to remind you, here’s the last leaf I painted (before this blog went florange), in 2013:


This year, before I set to painting The Perfect Fall Leaf of 2015, I’m going to show you something that I’ve never discussed. I’m going to show you  how I choose my Perfect Fall Leaf to paint.

First of all, it can’t be boring:



That leaf above is from a Tulip Tree, which can grow to 60 – 80 feet straight up. They are called The Redwoods of the East and were one of the first trees sent from the American colonies back to England, where they became (and still are) a favorite shade tree for large country estate gardens. Their foliage is prized for its brilliant yellow-spectrum hues:


But what I’ve shown you so far are just baby Tulip Tree leaves. Here’s a grown-up one:


Yeah, I’m not painting that.

My criteria for the Perfect Fall Leaf is that it must contain every color of the season, particularly green; to do that, I have to get it either right before or right after it falls off the branch. Timing is everything in the Fall, because nothing moves faster than the peak of this season.

Here is what is wrong with the following beautiful Fall leaves:


I don’t do interesting viens anymore, because I did some in past years and they don’t look real, or convincing as an illustration, no matter how perfectly you paint them, like this:


For the same reason, I also don’t paint weird leaves, like this:


I did this interestingly weird leaf (below) to a T, and I’ve never really cared for the end product:


This next leaf is a nice mix of colors, but it’s small:


And I’ve learned that these kind of small, chicken-poxy leaves, in the end, don’t have enough oomph to be a Perfect, Stand Alone Fall Leaf:


I’m willing to consider a little decrepitude, if it’s picturesque enough:


But I also want to do something that I haven’t done before:


Too generic:


Too long-stemmed:


Too beat up:


But my search was not entirely in vain. I did find a few leaves that might, maybe, possibly be The One.

So here are the contenders:





No, I’m not going to show you the painting process today — I think this thinking process has been taxing enough for the last Friday in October. Because while I might have divided feelings about October, I am of ONE MIND when it comes to November:




Let’s Do This!

When: Saturday, November 7, 2015, noon – 3-4PM

Where: The Sunbury Arts Center in Sunbury, PA

Who: Me, and you, and you, and you…but not Taffy:


Taffy will be “busy” that weekend.

Why:  I’m giving a Watercolor Workshop, thanks to a special invitation from the nice people from Sunbury who read this blog. Thank you, Dear Reader Dennis!

What:  I’m going to show you how to paint stuff like this:


And this:

P1040102And this:


And this:


And this:


But not this:


The one thing that I hope I don’t have to share is how to make a desperate rescue ……but anything other than that, I’m fine with. Ask me anything. Well…almost anything. Here’s a story about that:

I met a lady at a rather formal dinner affair a few years ago and, upon hearing that I am a writer of illustrated travel journals, opened her eyes wide in surprise and asked me, “Can you make a living at that?!

Every time I think of that lady I wish bad things would  happen to her. Add this to last week’s list: Asking nosy questions pertaining to a person’s monetary value to society is probably the best way to NOT be interesting.

I came across a very weird observation about illustrators in last week’s New Yorker magazine. It was in an article about a French graphic novelist named Riad Sattouf (seen below with his cartoon childhood self portrait):


This guy is Franco-Arabian and grew up feeling neither French nor Arab and, as a result, he says about his childhood, “I lived a very violent solitude. This is something a lot of illustrators have in common.”

Quoi? “Violent solitude?? OK, I know how French people talk and that “violent” thing is typical flouncy windbaggery, but the sad “solitude” part is, how you say, le bull sheet.

I, for one, was immensely popular as a school girl. The fact that I had red hair and was skinny and was a know-it-all made all the kids vie to be my best friend. Oh, yeah — I also preferred study hall over recess anytime — that made me very big with the tastemakers of elementary school. And moving a lot and changing schools every other year allowed me to reap the affection that my peers always show for the new kid.

Belle of the Ball, Princess of the Playground, Queen of the social hierarchy, c’est moi. I don’t know what this Sattouf guy is talking about when he says us illustrators are bred from childhoods of alienation and loneliness! And besides, he’s a cartoonist — not an illustrator.

About illustrators: New Dear Reader Susan Gillespie’s Comment last week got me thinking about the whole illustrator v. artist thing, so I dedicate this post to her, and to all you “illustrators at heart “.

Illustration will be the topic of my workshop on Nov. 7,  about how different the world looks to an illustrator than to a fine artist.  At the moment I can’t tell you what the difference is (my mind is already on the WEEKEND!) but I’m sure those differences exist, and are profound, and all, and I have days and days to think of something not stupid to say about it.

But what I can show you today is this:

That is how a fine artist (Vincent Van Gogh) sees French food:


And this is how an illustrator (namely, me) sees it:


Fine Art (by Frederick Leighton):


Illustration (by me, again):


Fine Artist (Monet, doing  The Garden at Montgeron):


Illustrator (it’s always going to be me, by the way):


Fine artist (Georgia O’Keefe):




Fine artist (Paul Klee in Tunisia):


Illustrator (in Marrakech):


Fine artist (the great Richard Diebenkorn):




And here is how a fine artist (Henri Matisse) sees Dance:


And here is how this illustrator sees Dance:


I know there’s a difference between the fine artist’s eye and the illustrator’s eye, but I can’t explain it, not this close to the WEEKEND!!! But I know I’ll come up with something for when I have to be smart and workshoppy. And when I do, you know that I’ll share it here, too, with all of you Dear Readers.

By the way, I hear that there are a few spots still available for my  Watercolor Workshop on Nov. 7, so if you are in the Sunbury/Lewisburg (home of Bucknell University) area and you want to hang out with us in an afternoon of “violent solitude” (and yes, we’ll let you sit with us at the popular kids’ table), call 570-286-0818 to register.

And now, I give to you: The WEEKEND!

Howl The Eternal Yes!

Today I want to talk to you about How I Do What I Do.

Wait. That sounds too grandiose.

Today, I want to show you How I Make The Sausage That Is My Art.

Which is illustrating, and which I do from photos.

Yes, I paint from photos. There. I’ve said it. n answer to that age-old question, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, my answer is: “I get them from the photographs I take.” (And yes, I carry a real camera around with me so I can take photos of passing scenes that interest me.)

This is a picture of something I saw on a morning walk in my Long Island neighborhood one day:


Oh, my…I was entranced by [with?] the way the morning light was streaming through the branches of this small stand of young trees. I took the photo, thinking that if I could study it long enough, I might be able to paint such a scene…back-lit foliage on a June day:

P1030840This led to a Summer-long preoccupation with studying the effects of back-light on green grass….as you can see below, when I snapped another pic of the same phenomena:



Please note that I am taking photos of photos, which look like crap when you post them on your blog, to show you the alongside the watercolor studies I did. Sorry about that.

Sometimes I would snap a photo and not know that it would make for a lousy study until after I’d painted it — like this “beach” scene below, taken on a North Shore of Long Island cove, which even with artistic license did not make for a compelling picture (but note: I never throw anything away — even the duds are worth keeping, because nothing that you try to paint ever goes to waste):


One year I went out walking with my camera on Dec. 26 specifically in search of subjects.  As soon as I spied this heap of apres-Xmas trash, I knew I had a “scene”:


Same as when I walked past this bike-and-basketball scene:


Sorry that it’s so hard to see the basketball — but in my mind’s eye, that little blip of orange basketball was THE focal!

This is hard to see, in the photo below, but I zoomed in on a backyard fence on which were poised a line of plastic pink flamingos with an American flag accoutrement that I couldn’t resist (which I also edited [moved the flag] when I painted the scene):


Who wouldn’t have found this little vignette adorable?:


Once I have done my studies, I gather them together on scotch tape them on a page and stick them in my sketchbook, for future ref:


So I repeat: Never throw away your studies! If nothing else, they bring back fond memories of stomping through snow fall on the day after Christmas of a year you can’t even remember…good times).

I confess that I do not put away my garden hose so it suffers in Winter because I am a bad, bad people — and I am so glad! Because this was such a pleasure to paint:


I loved the elegant loops of the hose, and the variations in the color of it — yellow-green, bright green, brownish-green, olive — I had such a fun time painting this, even though I knew I would never find anything useful (publishable) in it:


Another Winter blizzard, another walk around the neighborhood, another fabulous view — you can’t see it very well on the photo, but that little red bow tied around the post was the whole reason that I wanted to paint this very wacky and cool and dilapidated fence:


Old fences in the snow make for wonderful painting subjects:


The challenge here was to paint a white fence IN THE SNOW!!! What fun!!!:


Another fence  (see below) — by the way, all you have to do to get a better view of both these photos and the resultant paintings is to move your mouse onto the photo (as, below, or above) and click onto it…the gremlins of the internets will blow up the image so you can gander at it better (and, in the case below, see what happens when you use yellow-winted masking fluid where you want white snow to be):


GREAT tree house, and a fun way to practice painting a Winter tree:


Could YOU pass by this bit of snow-dusted topiary and NOT want to paint it???:


Or this Adarondak chair???:


The only reason I took this snapshot (below) was because of the candy cane decorations in the lawn — aren’t they adorable?:


Sometimes, when you least expect it, like, say, when you are wandering through a hardware store, you come across a still life that tickles your fancy and lucky you! You have a camera handy!:


A few years ago I went to my local Whole Foods:


And then I got on a whole pumpkin thing:


The thing that I liked about this display (below) was the hierarchy of pumpkins…the big fella on top, the middle fella in the middle, and the two tiny babies on the bottom:

As you can see, I was too timid when I painted in the shadows, made them too pale, and lost the whole POINT of the pic! Those two tiny baby pumpkins on the bottom step just disappear! But that’s why you have to do these studies: to teach yourself to not wimp out! Use that black paint! Black paint is OK!! So are exclamation points!!!!

Now, I took a LOT of artistic licsence when I did the next pic:


The thing that tickled my fancy about this scene was the three small tomatoes sitting on the back step. Why? Why would someone put tomatoes (and a green pepper) on the back step? Why? Were they in the middle of harvesting their vegetable patch and got called away by — what? The bends? An emergency salad-making convention? The desire to compose a sonnet?

I LOVED those three little tomatoes on the back step:

P1030855 2

I also loved the rake — which was a weird, really small rake, which I could never have painted AS IS because it would not have made any sense. Now, earlier that week I had seen a big pumpkin on a front porch, and a squirrel was perched atop it, but I didn’t have my camera and did not record the scene, but I used the memory of that to “jzuush” up my little picture (as seen above).

“Jzuush” is an artistic and fashionista tecnical term for “spiffen up”.

When I saw these Autumn leaves scattered on this sidewalk (below), I wondered if I could make a painting out of it:


Nope. It was obviously above my pay grade. But I give myself props for trying.

I also wondered the same thing — could I make a painting of this? —  when I came across this delightful scene, which I call Picket Fence With Wonky Brick Sidewalk and Autumn Leaves:


I bet that if I hadn’t shown you actual photographs of this…


…you would never believe that my Squint illustration was based on actual fact! Right?

Same here:


Yes, sometimes sun set on the Long Island Sound is just too pinky/lavender/silver to be true:


This is where I stopped blogging for a few hours because I suddenly realized that it was a fine, fine Fall evening and I gasped at the folly of me sitting at my computer when sun set on the Long Island Sound was a mere 25 minutes away!!!  And I jumped up and dashed out the door and got in my car and fought my way through traffic-jam traffic through the Village of Roslyn on the north shore of Long Island and jumped out of my car and ran — yes, I RAN — to the cliff above Hempstead Harbor and began snapping away at the fleeting, all too fleeting display of light of this day, the one and only day of October 8, 2015:



And if I make a painting of this once-in-a-lifetime sun set of Oct. 8, 2015, you can rest assured that I will show it to you all, my Dear Readers, right here.

Oh? That embedded video below? That fantastic dance song that makes you feel twenty years younger just by listening to it? With the armies that fight by glitter that makes you wish the whole world was run by cardboard-weilding pop stars from Brisbane? That’s just my latest reason Why I Am Ever So Glad That There Are Australians To Make This World a Better Place:

All I want to know is: Why do Australians say “Geronimo”? It’s not like the average American yells Ned Kelly …so why do Aussies know about Geronimo in the Land of Oz? Aussies: Please explain.

Meantime, hit repeat and everybody get up and dance!!! It’s the week-end!!!


This Month’s Most Important Cup of Tea

I have no flower paintings to show you this week, my Dear Readers — because Dear Reader Felicia (in her Comment, last week) has provided me with a perfect excuse to digress from this blog’s usual thrills of watching paint dry to discuss what I did on my Summer vacation. It all came down to a cup of tea. In fact, it came down to this month’s Most Important Cup of Tea:

And here it is:


Every cup of tea is a journey, or is the beginning of a journey, or maybe it’s the end of a journey, I forget what the philosophy about tea and journeys is.

Today I want to tell you about this cup of tea (see above) and the story of the journey that brought me and this fateful beverage together on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 9th. It’s a spiritually uplifting story of struggle, hardship, determination, victory, wine, and the life-changing magic of the Japanese art of tidying up, or at least one of those things.

This epic life-changing journey began on a cloudy and cold day in the city of Newcastle, a dreary, truly morose city in Northumbria, the northern-most county in England. This is not a photo of Newcastle:



That was a photo of our first experience of Northumbrian countryside, west of Newcastle.

This is a photo of the Bed and Breakfast where Top Cat, my beloved husband and traveling companion, stayed, our first night out in the Northumbrian countryside:

P1030057North Houghton Farm is where I met Scamp, Rascal, Sally, and Biscuit, who live to mooch treats from the kitchen (a room they are not, strictly speaking, allowed to enter):


This is also where we (Top Cat, my dearly beloved husband, and I) came across a portent of things to come:


In this two-pub village in Northumbria is where we found the beginning bits of stone wall that would be, for the next six days, the raison d’être of Top Cat and I’s reason for being in England:


And that is how we, Top Cat and I, began the journey of twelve-forty-billion steps, a once-in-a-life journey to fulfill a life-long dream we’d had for the past, oh, four or five months, of Walking Across England Along Hadrian’s Wall.

We walked along this wall, built by a Roman fellow named Hadrian (hence its name), or along non-continuous bits and pieces of it, or in its ditch (see below)  for 97 miles, through low-lying pastures and fields …


… and atop mighty mountains (see below).


It  was whereupon in such alpine climes we moseyed alongside Hadrian’s mightiest gathering of stones, the true “wall” part of the wall, and also where we climbed up even loftier mountains …


… which we climbed down upon in order to climb up upon other truly bothersome peaks …


… from whence we saw nothing but miles and miles and miles of pain-in-the-ass upping and downing …






It was basically one damn hill after another …



Luckily, along the way, there were plenty of fine farmhouse B&Bs to rest our weary feets:








And we were never in danger of going thirsty:




So we were still in fine fettle when we reached Cumbria (see below), the western land of gentle rolling hills and a Roman wall that could only be surmised by the topography of the land…



… until we reached the North Atlantic coast whereupon the wall became, for all intents and purposes, purely imaginary:


At last we came upon the village a the sea …


…where we verily mourned that there was no more Roman wall to conquer, and wept like that Grecian chap in that poem, and took souvenir photos of ourselves at The End:



And then we tramped past the churchyard…


…and smote the fierce hound savagely guarding the inner sanctum of the Wallsend Inn…


…to enter the teaarium…


…where we celebrated our journey and vanquished our thirst with the beverages of our choice:


Mine was tea:


I should add that our English journey actually began in Edinburgh …


that’s Edinburgh Castle, on that hill in the center

… and ended with a 143-mile cab ride from Glasgow to a small village in the western highlands of Scotland:


Long story. But take it from me, when your Virgin Train from Carlisle runs too late for you to catch your ScotRail connection in Glasgow, Richard Branson will put you IN A CAB and drive you the rest of the way.


Where I had this month’s Second – Most Important Cup of Tea:


The western highlands is where you go if you want to watch the sun set over the Inner Hebrides (we saw three sun sets over the Inner Hebrides):




It was on the train ride back to Edinburgh that I had this month’s Third – Most Important Cup of Tea:


Not because it was all that great…


…but because of the miles and hours of scenery that passed us by. All you have to do is point the camera out the window and shoot:


And that is the Story of Tea for September, 2015.