October 2010



Top Cat took me camping in Shenandoahlast week . It was the ripest moment of Fall, peak leaf color in Virginia:


It was too cold to paint in my journal (45 degrees at night), but I did do a piece of earth-work art (see below):

Now, this was my first time in The Wild so I don’t know if each camp ground offers its own unique style of crazy.

But there’s a reason that I call this piece  “How I Was Minding My Own Business Laying Down Red Fall Leaves WhenThe Old Guy In The Camper Started Telling Me All About His Law Suits Against The Satanic Cults That Are Running This Country”.

And I also got into an argument with another old guy who called me “city people” and then called the cops. Long story. But in the end, I was not charged with anything, but I still did not appreciate the lecture from some big-hatted overgrown boy scout about letting old people in big-ass motor homes (“country people”) run their generators no matter how much it irritates the crap out of me.

But other than that, I loved camping. I loved the way Top Cat knows how to pitch a tent, and chop wood, and cook over a camp fire, and choose exactly the right Bordeaux to go with turkey dogs and baked beans on a full moon-lit October night.


I told him that I’d gladly do it again.

But Top Cat isn’t sure that there’s a camp ground in America that is big enough to keep a safe distance between me and my fellow pain in the ass Americans.

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Two of these leaves are real, and two on them are my paintings of leaves.

I can’t tell you how the real leaves are made, because I am not a tree.

But I can show you how I made my facsimiles.

Leaf No. 1:

The first thing you have to do when you look at a leaf with a painter’s eyes is to suss out your strategy. You do not paint a leaf all at once, you paint it in sections, sections (I call them “cells“) that are evident in its structure. And in this leaf, I see four cells:

This is how I’m going to paint this leaf; cell by cell.  Step 1:

Step 1: You can’t quite see it in this picture, but I’ve outlined the leaf (I laid the leaf on my paper and dragged a pencil around it so that I have an exact-sized silhouette).

Now I’m ready to begin with the first cell:

While my first wash of the main color (in this case, it’s an ocher-yellow)  is still wet, I will bleed in several other colors — in this leaf, it has green edges and brown rot spots inside the cells. And next, still while the paint is wet, I’m going to get out a straight pin and do this:

This is why I picked this leaf: it has great veins. And I’ve found that by using a straight pin to dig lines into the wet paper, I can make the best veins.

This is not hard to do. Just use the straight pin like an itty bitty pencil, and “draw” the veins into the wet watercolor. (Sorry that you can’t see it well in this pic — but remember, I’m snapping photos with my right hand while I’m painting with my left and we should be grateful that I’m able to get even these crappy shots).

OK. Veins done, we skip to another cell while the first one dries.

Cell 2:

Cell  3:

Note (above): This is a good shot of what the straight pin does to wet watercolor paper — see the veins? Not bad, huh?

The most boring part of painting a leaf is waiting for the watercolor to dry. So, to keep busy, I’ll do the stem:

Cell 4:




Yes, Grumbacher watercolor lightens when it dries: you might want to keep that in mind as you’re painting. Use lots of color! Use lots of red! Like this:

I chose this leaf because I want to show you a trick of the trade, namely Masking Fluid.

Masking Fluid comes in a little bottle (75ml for about $14.00) and it’s liquid stuff that you apply onto the parts of your picture where you want the paper to resist paint. I use a toothpick to “brush” it into small places — use whatever is easiest for you, but don’t use a paint brush. When this liquid dries it becomes waterproof, like rubber, and that is murder to get out of the bristles of your paint brush (I speak from experience).

But since it’s waterproof, you can paint right over it and when your painting is done, you just peel off the mask and voila!

The reason I’m using mask here is because this leaf has some tiny holes in it:

I’ll be putting  Masking Fluid on those little  holes,because I paid $14.00 for the stuff and I want to get some use out of it.

Now we can begin to paint:

Remember, the key to getting your Fall leaves to look real is to paint wet-into-wet, to create bleeds, like this (up-close):

And so on:

And, finally, we peel off the Art Masking Fluid:

I can’t tell you how peaceful it is, to paint these miniatures. I enjoy the concentration and smallness of painting one leaf at a time — it’s like meditation.

Just take your time, look closely at the leaf, get your strategy worked out before you start, let each cell dry before you paint the next one,and get lost in the details.

And here’s another big Merci from moi: if you’d like to have the  4-inch x 6-inch framed and signed original painting of this little red leaf, please leave a Comment below, requesting this prize. This blog is getting close — very, very close — to its 1,050th Comment and if you leave a note here, and you’re the lucky 1,050th Commenter, you’ll win this leaf painting!

See you Friday in the Winner’s Circle.

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This is Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, with his cat Cheddar.


The Prime Minister of Canada is a cat person! And if that were not reason enough to have some happy thoughts about Canada, here’s another one:

In Saskatchewan, Canada, this kind of hooded sweatshirt is called a bunny hug.

Bunny hug is my new favorite word.

That nice Mr. Harper (see above), the leader of the Conservatives, is up for re-election (for your information, it is Canada’s 41st Federal Elections).

He’s running against Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal party.

This is Michael Ignatieff:

And yes, that’s his cat!

Mimi is her name. When both candidates for the highest office in the land are cat people, I call that freaking paradise.

O, Canada.

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The world-famous author and even more famous recluse, Vivian Swift, boarded the 4:46 to MANHATTAN on October 6, 2010, to attend a WRITERS EVENT. She was wearing real clothes (the kind where you have to hold in your stomach and stand up straight in) and real shoes (you know, with leather soles and a little stack heel) and feeling very spiffy and cultural.

Good thing she had her camera with her — the late afternoon autumnal (see? “Autumnal”: that’s a WRITER’S word) sky was gorgeous, especially considering that it was hovering above QUEENS.

This is Long Island City (above). Long Island City is the new Brooklyn, which once was the new Lower East Side, which used to be the new East Village, which c. 1985 (otherwise known as Vivian Swift’s Hay Day) was ultra-cool.

Vivian Swift misses 1985 every day of her life.

The four-block walk from Penn Station to the WRITERS EVENT took Vivian Swift through the area known as The Garment District in mid-town MANHATTAN.

The Garment District is where wholesalers come to buy garments. Or maybe it’s where wholesalers sell them — Vivian Swift is a little fuzzy on the particulars, never having worked in the Rag Trade. But Vivian Swift would totally wear one of these frocks (see above) if she were ever on American Idol.

Vivian Swift is fascinated by the idea that there are brides out there who might want to dress their flower girls to look like pumpkins.

By the time Vivian Swift got to the WRITERS EVENT and had a glass of wine (thank god) the voices in her head stopped hollering “Everybody come look! Vivian Swift Out of the house and in Manhattan with grown-ups!!” This evening was, after all, NOT ABOUT Vivian Swift.

Ten years ago I came across a display in the 57th Street Borders Books for New Books. I liked the cover, so I bought it: The Forest For the TreesAn Editor’s Advice to Writers. Written by Betsy Lerner, an award-winning insider in the publishing biz as both a writer and a big shot editor, this book gave me my first understanding of how book writing was done, and it gave me the very first inklings of how I might make a place for myself in the book writing world. Betsy explains the business and  art of writing in a way that makes day-to-day, sentence-by-sentence sense. And I thought that if I ever write a book, I want it published by Betsy Lerner.

Seven years later, she accepted me as her client. (That’s the world-famous Betsy, on the left.)

Betsy’s book, The Forest For The Trees, has just been up-dated for the 21st Century and its official pub date was October 6, 2010. The writer’s group She Writes  (www.shewrites.com) hosted the launch at a fund-raiser held in their 37th Street offices. Betsy (on the left) was interviewed about her life and times as a editor/agent/writer (her memoir is Food and Loathing) .

Don’t let the dress fool you: Betsy is all Doc Martens Dead Head. 20 minutes in, she let rip with the first “asshole” reference and I knew we were in for a free and frank exchange of ideas.


If you want to learn about yourself as a writer, and you want to learn about how to take your place in the writing world, get this book.

You’re welcome.

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After reading my last post (last Friday), you might be wondering: So what else can you, Great and Wondrous Vivo, do with that rolled up piece of paper towel (see below)?

And what else, Vivo the Magnificent, do with those bleeding water colors (see below)?

Well, I was dabbling this past week, trying not to notice that I’m a month behind schedule in meeting the dire deadline of December 1 for when I h ave to turn in 208 pages of text and all 300 illustrations for That Damn France Book, and I rolled me some clouds (see below)…

…and I bled me some earth-colored watercolors (see below)…

…and I came up with a vineyard in Bordeaux:

See? Even I sometimes listen to me, and use my own painting tips! (I know — I’m as surprised as you).

I have 57 days to get my Dan dance Book book done on time. That’s 912 waking hours. Minus the week I’ll be traveling in October (if you’re in the Baltimore area, come see me on Oct. 25!) and the weekend that I’ll be in D.C. at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity (Oct. 30!) and that leaves 768 waking hours. Minus 700 hours in which I just sit and watch my cats do cute stuff and that leaves me well and truly *#@??ked up.

I really have to go now.

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This (above) is the September sun set that I want to paint for you today. I chose it because it’s got two of my favorite things (to paint) in it: clouds, and diagonals. It’s got diagonal clouds: a two-fer!

I’m going to use two techniques for this painting. Ha ha. I said “Techniques”.

There are two gimmicks that I’ll use for this painting, my two favorite gimmmicks: First, I like to use a bleed. That’s when I put two very wet colors next to each other and let them flow into one another, like this:

The other thing that I like to do when I paint clouds is to do a nice dark wash of sky color (in this case, blue) and then use a rolled-up piece of paper towel to sponge up some paint, as much as I can, off the surface of the watercolor paper.  Like this:

The trick is to dab the rolled up piece of paper towel onto the wet watercolor paint as soon as possible — like a nano-second after you’ve swabbed the paint all over.

For the September sun set that I’ll be painting today, I’m going to divide the picture into three zones:

So, let us begin.

1. Zone 1, with rolled-up paper towel clouds:

Let dry.

For Zones 2 and 3, I’ll do bleeds. I’ll brush the lower part of the painting with water, and then start layering in the sun set hues very quickly, letting them bleed into one another delicately. . .

I only got a photo of the first layer, a yellow wash. I had to paint this part very quickly, while the paper was still nice and wet, so I didn’t have time to get photos of the whole process. But here’s what I did:

From the bottom up, I brushed on a layer of light yellow and yellow ochre mixed together, then a little light orange, then some light red, and then magenta. (I’m using the names of the paints in my beloved  Grumbacher paint set — the “light red” looks dark orange to me, and the “magenta” looks like pink when it’s diluted with a lot of water.)

The I dabbed in dark blue zig-zaggy layer on the middle part (to make the underside of the clouds) and I made it pretty wet, too, to let the water take an effect. Then I sat back and let gravity and Grumbacher paints do their magic:


Now it’s time to do Zone 4, the make-believe tree line:

I like to paint my tree-line black. There’s something about a black tree-line that is a tiny bit melancholy, and a beautiful September sun set  is a bit melancholy, so my September sun set will have a black tree-line, like this:


Now that it’s done, I can assess what I’ve got here

Well, I like the diagonal sweep of the cloudy sky. I LOVE  that part of the cloud that is just Canson watercolor paper showing through a very thin layer of wash.

But I don’t like that weird pointy bit of blue on the right hand side…see it? It’s a an upside-down triangle shape ? But all is not lost!  I know how to disguise it!

Hell — my whole raison d’etre as a painter is to fudge my shortcomings as an artist. Disguise is my middle name!

So here is the finished picture:

Do you see any strange-looking blue triangles anywhere? NO?

I dare say that I got away with it.

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