Watercolor Tutorials

This, my Dear Readers, is Paulownia tree, of which there are many in bloom in Paris in May:

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And this is the Paulownia tree in Monet’s garden at Giverny (back view):

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And this is my study of the Paulownia tree in Monet’s garden at Giverny (front view):

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Our Dear Reader Felicia mentioned in a Comment recently that she’s been working on trees, and how they give her fits — they give me fits, too — so I am dedicating this post to BARK for Felicia, and I hope that you’ll all paint along with us.

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As much as it gives me fits to do trees (all those branches branching off in unpredictable ways) the one thing that I just love to paint is bark, because I know the secret! And the secret is that simply by letting watercolors do what they want to do naturally, you can let the paint do most of the work when it comes to painting bark! And it’s FUN!!

The key color when you are painting bark is gray. Bark is barely brown: it is mostly gray :

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And the good news is that making gray from scratch is one of the most fun things to do with watercolor paint! Here’s how:

I start with this color, called “Flesh”, for reasons that I don’t want to get into:

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Then I mix in some brown:

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Next I mix in some blue — pretty much any hue from ultramarine to turquoise will do, whatever you have at hand or whatever blue is the one you prefer to work with:

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I’m a big fan of my Grumbacher Prussian blue:

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Then I add a tiny tiny bit of black:

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I like to keep my grays on the blue-side, but that’s just me. You might have a totally different taste in gray:

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And then I’m going to throw in some Burnt Sienna:

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So now I have all the shades of gray that I’ll need for my bark — I will keep switching the palette ever so slightly, because the one thing you want when you paint bark is a lot of subtle gradations of color. I showed you my paint mix on paper so you can see the range of colors that will be possible, but in reality I will be working from a pan, in which I will have mixed all those flesh, brown, blue, and black paints to make an interesting gray:

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And now, Let’s Paint!

First, lay down a few strips of color:

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Vary the width of your strips by pressing down or lightening up on your paint brush. Do not paint them too close together, and vary the color of the strips (I’m working with browns and grays here):

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The reason that you don’t want to paint your strips too close together is because this is the secret about watercolor:

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When watercolor dries, you can stroke another strip of color right next to it and just because it’s watercolor, that edge of dry paint meeting the other edge of wet paint will form a nice texture, which in this case, looks exactly like bark — you don’t have to “paint” the texture at all..the texture IS THE PAINT!

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Is that nifty or what?!?!

Once I have most of the strips painted in, I load my brush with just plain, clear water and I run it down one side (the right side) of the tree trunck, to blend and soften that one area just a bit:

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And while the tree is still wet, I dab in some pure black paint:

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Again, I’m not going to work it much — I’m just going to let it do what it wants to do, which is bleed and pool in interesting places. Then I’ll let it dry, and voila:

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The bark practically painted itself!

Now, this is just a basic technique. If your tree has a different bark texture, or it has twists and burls in it, or it is smooth and kind of green, or  it is sun-dappled :

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Well, that takes practice and variations…but this painting-in-strips-thing is the basic way that I paint bark.

Yes, I expect to have to re-paint the Paulownia tree that I showed you at the top of this post, or just to re-work some more darkness and girth into the trunk and branches, but to keep things interesting for me I have been taking a stab at painting Monet’s flowers lately…and next week I’ll show you how that’s coming along.

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Have a great Super Bowl Weekend everybody! Go Peyton!

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This was October:P1040216

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

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It gets worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

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…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:

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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:

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

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

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Now I dab is some middle-ground color:

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

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

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Then do the blue sky:

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

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Just a touch of deeper vermillion:

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

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

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Add some ground color here…

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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…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):

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

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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:

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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”:

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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:

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

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Tree time:

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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:

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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:

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

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…and some brownery…

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

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…and stroke in some black shadowy stuff…

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…and bleed in some more greenery and blackery:

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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:

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

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

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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:

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I’m calling this picture DONE.

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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.

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This is October on Long Island:P1040221

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

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

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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:

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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:

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…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:

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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:

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Since I painted this:

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So let’s call this:

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

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

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

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Now, the foreground tree:

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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:

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So let’s carry on:

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Time to add shadows:

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Tree time:

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

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

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Now I pant in all those itty bitty background trunks:

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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:

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

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Like this, but not quite:

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

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And here’s my finished tid bit:

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

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

 

 

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Ahhhhhhhh…….Fall……

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

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And this was Fall two mornings later:

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This was the scene on Monday:

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And this was the view 48 hours later:

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

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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):

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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:)

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This is the color scheme that most inspired me:

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

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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:

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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:

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

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So I start AGAIN:

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

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Status check:

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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):

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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):

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

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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:

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

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

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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:

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And I stood up to survey the work so far:

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

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

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I love rot:

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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:

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First the yellow, then bleed in the orange…

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…and now dab in the scarlet:

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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:

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And this baby is DONE:

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Do you think this leaf looks whimsical?

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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.)

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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:

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This is Illustration:

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Here’s proof (by me, of course):

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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:

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

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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:

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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?

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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):

 

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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

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

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

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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:

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

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

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Too generic:

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Too long-stemmed:

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Too beat up:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:

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But not this:

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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):

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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:

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

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Fine Art (by Frederick Leighton):

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Illustration (by me, again):

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

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

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Fine artist (Georgia O’Keefe):

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Illustrator:

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Fine artist (Paul Klee in Tunisia):

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Illustrator (in Marrakech):

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Fine artist (the great Richard Diebenkorn):

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Illustrator:

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

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And here is how this illustrator sees Dance:

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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!

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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”:

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

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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):

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Old fences in the snow make for wonderful painting subjects:

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

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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):

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

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

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Or this Adarondak chair???:

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

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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!:

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

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And then I got on a whole pumpkin thing:

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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:
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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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

Same here:

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

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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:

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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!!!

 

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Today’s post is in honor of Dear Reader susie, whose Comment from last week  — in response to this picture of my first ever illustration —

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was this:

You hear and see all over it doesn’t take talent,

just perseverance.

I don’t think so, if that’s your first shot out of the box.

I read that and I had to prove the one thing I know for sure about life. This one is for you, Dear susie:

Talent is Overrated.

To start, I want to show you all a photo I took in Monet’s garden at Giverny, France, when I spent three days in the little village in May of 2013:

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I like the color scheme here, and I really liked those bright tulips. (I snapped this photo just as a passing breeze ruffled some petals.) I chose this picture somewhat at random for today’s post, because today’s post is all about how terrible, how truly terrible and awful I am at painting flower beds.

Oh, sure, I’ve made little bitty watercolor try-outs of flower beds:

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These are studies I made of Monet’s flower beds, picking out patterns rather than actual fleurs.

I’ve even painted bits of Monet’s Giverny garden before:

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I’ve also copied directly from Monet himself, in various Triscuit forms …

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But this is not the same as actually being able to paint Monet’s FLOWERS. The reason I do not paint Monet’s flowers is because I have no talent at painting flowers but is that lack of talent going to stop me? Non! Well, not today, at least. Because it doesn’t take “talent” to paint — because talent is overrated.

Talent is Overrated is the title of a book written by Geoff Colvin (published by Penguin Group in 2008). It’s about how the majority of people in the world never achieve excellence (or even proficiency, at their job, their avocations, their hobbies, etc) because of their notion that excellence is possible only thru talent, and  talent is a freaky, DoG-given gift that nature has not bestowed upon them.

In fact, Geoff argues, talent is the least part of excellence. Stick-to-it-ness is the only thing that matters:

One of the most important questions about greatness surrounds the difficulty of deliberate practice. The chief constraint is mental, regardless of the field – even in sports, where we might think the physical demands are the hardest. Across realms, the required concentration is so intense that it’s exhausting. If deliberate practice is so hard – if in most cases it’s not [the least bit] “inherently enjoyable” – then why do some people put themselves through it day after day for decades, while most do not? Where does the necessary passion come from?

Geoff spends a lot of the book answering that “Where does the necessary passion come from?” question, which interests me not in the least. I don’t care where “passion” — just another word for stick-to-it-ness — comes from. You know it if you have it. That’s all that matters.

I only care that if you have that passion, that desire to stick to it, then you know the secret that I know: you know the great quantity of horrible, boring, unpleasant, discouraging, and vexing work it takes to make “talent” happen.

And so I am going to paint for you today, because I can’t paint flowers for shit, and I dearly, desperately want to be able to paint flowers.

Specifically, I’d like to paint flowers like an Impressionist. And actually, Monet is not my favorite FLOWER painter, even of his own garden (excepting for the lilies, he couldn’t paint flowers for shit, either):

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Claude Monet, view of his garden at Giverny.

No, I greatly prefer other Impressionists, such as the American, Childe Hassam:

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This looseness with paint is  foreign to how I do things naturally, as a fuss-budgety painter of Tricsuits. So I know, and rather dread, that it will take a lot of deliberate practice until I get it right.

And so, with a sigh of resignation for what I am in for, I begin:

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I paint fast and loose and this is what I got:

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I swear to you, this is NOT me trying to paint ugly. This is me trying to paint pretty, using skills I DO NOT YET HAVE.

So I do it again, this time starting with a quick little drawing/painting of the tulips:

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I got this far when it became clear to me that the painting was OVER:

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So I tried a different tactic. I used my masking fluid to mark out the flowers, and I swirled a verdant background all over them (because it’s a technique I ave used before, with some success)…Fun! Loose! Free! All the things I am not!:

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I dropped in some more background texture:

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And I lifted off the masking fluid and painted the flowers:

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YUK.

I am beyond frustrated at this point. I dislike painting ugly pix, and I loathe it when I do not know what I am doing. Of all the ways I’ve tried, so far, to paint an impressionistic flowers bed, none of them has felt like “me”.

So I do something that IS “me”. I try to paint an Impressionistic Triscuit:

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Nope. Impressionist Triscuits are not “me.”

OK, then…let me try doing a hybrid, mix a bit of Impressionistic blurriness with my natural fuss-potty attention to detail:

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I think the result looks…unhappy.

At this point I would like to quote from another Dear Reader whose Comment from last week’s post was right on the money. Barb Hutch wrote:

I don’t believe we know if you are completely self-taught or how you came to have such remarkable abilities. “Hard, relentless work” could be the explanation, based on all that you have shared. 

Well Dear Barb, as you can see, I am indeed what you would call “self-taught”, and by “self taught” I mean I have learned how to paint through “hard, relentless work”, and being willing to paint one bad picture after another.

Now, I’ve done this yellow tulip flower pic five times now, and I still havn’t figured out how to paint it. But am I ready to call it quits? Am I???

Hell NO!

Because I have it in me to try one more time. 

Again, I start by laying down masking fluid, then doing a light wash, into which I will drop shots of “flower” color:

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Although I am not happy with this pic, I am most unhappy the way the background comes on too strong. So, since I dislike this pic away, I’m going to try something that might become a new “tool” for me, a new way to tone down bad painting:

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Nope.

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Don’t think I’ll ever try that again.

By now I am thoroughly sick of this scene. Stupid yellow tulips. With their stupid red streaks. But am I ready to stop painting flowers??

Well, for now I am. But I am not ready to quit my search for the Way I Paint Flowers. I’m already eyeing a new photo of Monet’s garden at Giverny, one that I like better (probably because it has no yellow tulips in it)…

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Yeah. Maybe it was the reference photo’s fault. Stupid yellow tulips.

Maybe all I need is a super-pretty pic to get me in the groove. Pink tulips! Yes!

All I have to do is hang in there, withstand the discomfort of being really, really bad at painting flowers until the day comes when I can be good at it. But I am done for now…

…and in the meantime, I can still paint all the Triscuits and Squints my heart desires. And today, my heart desires to give away this lovely Squint of the Long Island Sound to the Reader who picked Top Cat’s Squint Number between 50 and 100. The number that Top Cat chose was …

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75.

“Right in the middle”, is how he explained his pick. SBut snce nobody picked No. 75, I went with the Dear Reader who came closest to that number without going over, and that Dear Reader is…

Catya.

Congratulations, Catya!

Please email me your address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, and I will post this out to you PDQ.

Thank you, everyone, for sending in your numbers!

Will I ever learn how to paint a damn tulip? Will there be a half-way decent Monet flower garden picture painted by next week? Or will I explain the secret of how I’ve seen hard working people like you and me become brilliant illustrators without having an ounce of “talent”?

Only the next seven days will tell.

Have a great weekend, Dear Readers.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have never used an actual “sketchbook” for my “sketching”. In fact, I have never, actually, “sketched”. I even dislike the verb, “to sketch”, based on what I’ve seen when people “sketch”, all wispy and mushy and tentative…but that’s just me. I have a very annoying personality.

Instead of putting my works-in-progress into a fancy, expensive, hard-backed “sketchbook”, I use this:

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Yes, it’s a no-frills three-ring binder from Staples. It costs around $5.00. I stock the binder with those full-page plastic “sheet protector” things, and I’m good to go. Go to Town, that is. The town being Pelham, Westchester County, New York, where I was living on that fateful Sept. 11 of 2001, and the “village on the Long Island Sound” that was the subject of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam.

Pelham NY train station

My original concept for When Wanderers Cease to Roam was for it to be square, so I trimmed regular bond paper into 8-ich by 8-inch squares, and started making little paintings on Canson 90-lb watercolor paper and arranging them on “pages”. Above is a view of our delightful old train station, c. 2004, when it had Ticket Seller windows!!!  (now pretty much gutted, when they installed a spiffy new commuter cafe).

Below, that’s the Post Office:

Pelham NY post office

The Pelham P.O. used to be a bank, until the Great Depression shut it down.

Pelham NY post office

The owls on the facade are fake, of course — such owls are used to keep pigeons off the premisis (I don’t have spell check).  The mighty Pelican, being the official bird of the Town of Pelham, is featured on the bank/post office lanterns, which was a detail that I  l-o-v-e-d:

Pelham, NY post office

Yes, the perspective of that front door and the scale of the person inside are wonky. I could correct this easily, but until I find a permanent home for this pic, I won’t bother.

If you know my book (WWCTR), you will know by now that none of these pictures of Pelham made it into the published product. They ended up not fitting into the narrative, for being too specifically “Pelham”, or for being kind of boring.

This is the high school:

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Pelham NY High School

So, for now, all these pix are sitting in my Pelham Notebook.

This is one of the four elementary schools in Pelham — love the brickwork!:

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This is another one of the elementary schools:

Pelham NY Colonial Elementary School

These are signs from Pelham businesses:

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And the wonderful Pelham Cafe:

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The Artistic Manner florist had a great shop cat:

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And this was the Old Lake Antiques shop:

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All these doors are actual doors from Pelham:

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I was painting with my trusty Grumbacher watercolor paints at this time, and now I’m looking at those greens (above) and thinking, Wow — How did I do that?

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Pelham NY

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And, yes, once a year there used to be a Christmas Tree sale on the village green, to raise money for some charity or another:

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Ah, yes, I had an immense love for my old hometown, the town of Pelham on the Long Island Sound.

But of all these “sketches”, I DO have a favorite, a hands-down No. 1 fave, the one I will run into a burning building to rescue, and it is this one:

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This is a watercolor illustration of a view of Pelham Lake, on the edge of town, in Winter, near sunset, viewed from the rail road tracks high above it. It is not an attractive pic, and was not a pic that I was particularly happy with, even when I made it.

But this pic is my all-time most beloved pic because this happens to be the first watercolor painting I ever did.

I painted it, and it was bad, but here’s the surprising thing: not a single member of the Watercolor Police  rushed into my apartment and arrested me for making such an ugly picture. And I realized that hey — I don’t need anybody’s permission or approval to paint! I’m allowed to be lousy!

And I kept on painting.

Which brings me to the Great Squint Give Away (see: last week’s post).

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I am giving away this Long Island Sound Summer Sunset Squint to one lucky Commentor.

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All you have to do is leave a Comment below, in which you pick a number between 50 and 100.  Comments will close after 5 days (which I have to do to control the spam), but  next Friday I will open the sealed envelope and reveal Top Cat’s pre-destined winning number!

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Meet me back here next Friday — and be sure to have a fantastic next-to-penultimate Summer weekend!

 

 

 

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Hi everybody!!

It’s good to be back in the blogosphere! I hope you missed our get-togethers as much as I have because today’s post is going to make up for my absence — get ready for a two-tea-cupper update on all things V. Swift

Another entry on our Beautiful Word List: Shenandoah.

So, now back to where we left off, at the Squinting thing.

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As you recall from my last post, I made a huge leap in my precocious artistic development when I hit upon a new format for my watercolor illustrations. Namely, the long, narrow, horizontal format that I now call a Squint:

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I can’t remember how I came upon the idea of doing the Squints, but I’m sure it had something to do with avoiding full-page illustrations, which I still did not feel I could do, even after 2-3 years of painting, even tho I was  already an acknowledged prodigy, having published my first illustrated book at the precocious age of 52.

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Getting back to the Squint, I liked the way it could contain, perhaps, a bit more information than a Triscuit:

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…but would also look really neat, and unexpected, uh, different when placed on a page:

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Although none of the above Squints made it out of my sketchbookI very happily used other, specially-created Squints as the main artistic motif for my second book, Le Road Trip:

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I still think they look spiffy on the page.

And now, please allow me to show you How To Make a Squint.

Since I work exclusively from reference photos, the first thing I had to do, in order to find the Squint in each reference photo, was to cut out a frame in the exact shape of a Squint, like, say, this one:

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With my “frame” in hand, I roam around the photo, looking for The View. As you can see, below, this view could make an OK Squint…

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…but this view is much better, right?

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OK, time to get down to business. I make a few pencil lines on the watercolor paper to use as guides, to show me where the horizon is and, roughly, where the foliage will go:

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And that’s all I need — the pic is now a composition.

I am using my trusty Grumbacher hobby-quality paints because when it comes to painting sunsets, I know what the paints will do and I trust them — I know that no other paint than Grumbacker will give me the subtlety that I need.

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Also, because I tend to mix colors directly on each little disk of Grumbacher paint, I have to rinse each pan before I use them, to get at the pure pan color:

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To do the sun set sky, I start with my Big Brush:

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I lay in colors by using a method called “Wet in Wet:

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See why I like the Grumbacher? So far, I’m laying in orange, blue, and fuscia, and the paints have not gone all muddy on me:

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Yes, this takes practice, and a LIGHT TOUCH — do not overdue the brush work here — but the Grumbachers are great for this.

On a seperate bit of paper, I test my blue mixes (I’m using the colors that Grumbacher calls Prussian Blue and Cobalt Blue, and it looks to me like I have a bit of Violet in there too), before committing them to the composition:

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To mix and apply the “clouds”, I switch to my 00 Extra Fine brush to dab lightly:

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Checking in here, I see that the left side of the sky looks OK, but I need to dab in some more goldenness (that is, orange paint) onto the right side of the sky:

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And some fuscia:

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Now, we do the water — again, starting with the Big Brush:

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For the shoreline, I am going to bleed some black Grunbacher into the damp “water” thusly:

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I am, frankly, a little worried here; I might have dabbed in too much black paint, too soon…this could ruin the whole shebang. Oh well. Time will tell.

While this bit is still damp, I go back and make some shadows on the water, still using my 00 Extra Fine brush:

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Next, I check to see if so far, so good.  And, so far, so good. I can exhale now.

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Since the foliage (back lit by the sunset and, thusly, in silhouette) will be such an outstanding part of this Squint, I will now switch from my Grumbacher paint to my trusty Windsor Newton Lamp Black paint, because I like the density of this paint — it covers better than the Grumbacher Black — and it’s also easy to handle:

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After painting in background foliage, I make another check, back to the reference photo.  So far, no major screw ups:

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This part of the photograph (below), this sillohouette of leaves and the negative space of the foliage,  here in the lower right quadrant, is, for me, the crux of this picture:

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The whole pic will look stooooo-pid if I don’t get this bit right. So I make a light pencil sketch to guide me:

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And I hold my breath as I begin to paint the leaves, and to not paint the stuff that doesn’t need painting. Less is More. You can quote me on that:

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NOW I can heave a sigh of relief. The negative space looks OK:

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And then I go back to holding my breath:

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And NOW I can heave another sigh of relief:

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Add some upper left hand corner leaves, dab in some lower left hand corner foreground stuff, and then we are DONE …

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… DONE …

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… Done:

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And yes, Dear Readers, this Squint can be YOURS. I’ll even throw in the reference photograph, ALL FOR YOU.

HOWEVER:

Because of bad planning on my part, and because of normal, yearly, and annoyingly inconvenient data up-dating of this blog (I think it’s called “backing up”), I can not offer this Squint up for giving away this week. Also, your Comment to this post might take a day or two to appear…

…I apologize for this technical glitch but please be assured that your Comment today will be received, and will be in the queue, and will indeed be published, eventually, for the amusement and edification of others, and that your Comment will AUTOMATICALLY qualify you for the contest I will hold NEXT WEEK.

I do hope I have made this incredibly complicated for one and all.

The Comments will close, as they usually do, after 5 days from publication of this post (to deter spam), so Comment Early! And often!

These Squints are fun. We should do this again, real soon.

Have a GREAT penultimate September Summer weekend, everyone!

 

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