September 2015

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:

P1030396

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:

P1030041

 

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):

P1030072

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

P1030079

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:

P1030047

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 …

P1030104

… and atop mighty mountains (see below).

IMG_0634

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 …

P1030220

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

IMG_0636

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

P1030218

IMG_0658

P1030181

P1030228

P1030205

It was basically one damn hill after another …

IMG_0637

 

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

P1030298

P1030264

P1030296

P1030171

 

P1030128

P1030213

And we were never in danger of going thirsty:

P1030059

P1030209

IMG_0663

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…

P1030239

P1030354

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

P1030376

At last we came upon the village a the sea …

P1030407

…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:

P1030392

P1030389

And then we tramped past the churchyard…

P1030393

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

P1030394

…to enter the teaarium…

P1030395

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

P1030398

Mine was tea:

P1030396

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

P1030019

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:

P1030451

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:

P1030454

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):

IMG_0702

P1030539

P1030462

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

P1030657

Not because it was all that great…

P1030691

…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:

P1030654

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

 

Read more

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 —

P1020540

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:

P1160268

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:

P1020789

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:

P1020787

P1020788

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

P1180785-450x337

P1020790

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):

garden_at_giverny

Claude Monet, view of his garden at Giverny.

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

e2ae8ef32aaddf4f4e86802e97a13d09

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:

P1020466

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

P1020467

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:

P1020474

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

P1020477

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!:

P1020479

I dropped in some more background texture:

P1020480

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

P1020481

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:

P1020768

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:

P1020769

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:

P1020753

P1020754

P1020755

P1020757

P1020758

P1020760

P1020761

P1020762

P1020763

P1020764

P1020765

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:

P1020766

Nope.

P1020767

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)…

P1160899-450x600

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 …

P1020404

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Read more

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:

P1020520

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:

Pelham NY high school

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!:

Pelham Ny Prospect Hill Elementary

This is another one of the elementary schools:

Pelham NY Colonial Elementary School

These are signs from Pelham businesses:

Pelham NY

And the wonderful Pelham Cafe:

Pelham NY Pelham Cafe

The Artistic Manner florist had a great shop cat:

P1020533

And this was the Old Lake Antiques shop:

P1020525

All these doors are actual doors from Pelham:

Pelham NY

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?

P1020530

Pelham NY

P1020532

P1020531

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:

Pelham NY

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:

P1020540

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).

P1020399

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

P1020404

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!

P1020708

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

 

 

 

Read more

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.

P1020299

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:

P1020297

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.

P1020295

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

P1140505-450x317

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

P1020294

P1020296

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:

P1020301

P1020408

P1020407

P1020406

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:

P1020312

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…

P1020313

…but this view is much better, right?

P1020314

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:

P1020352

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.

P1020353

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:

P1020354

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

P1020355

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

P1020356

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:

P1020357

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:

P1020358

P1020359

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

P1020360

P1020361

P1020362

P1020363

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:

P1020366

And some fuscia:

P1020367

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

P1020373

P1020374

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

P1020375

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:

P1020376

P1020379

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

P1020381

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:

P1020385

P1020387

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

P1020390

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:

P1020391

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:

P1020392

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:

P1020395

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

P1020397

And then I go back to holding my breath:

P1020398

And NOW I can heave another sigh of relief:

P1020399

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

P1020400

… DONE …

P1020404

… Done:

P1020403

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!

 

Read more