November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was this good:

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Yeah, it was 40-Feathers good.

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

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

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

And then I saw this:

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Which turned out to be this:

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanks Giving, everyone.

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

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

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

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

Wherever she goes…

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…she makes her sketches…blogger-image-1348681512

… and she chronicles it all on her blog

…but especially in her monthly letters:

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

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

You can subscribe to monthly Sketch Letters,

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or monthly Map Letters,

! A PB SIDEBAR MAPS H255 x V236

 

or BOTH by visiting Carol’s Easy Shop here.

Vive la Vie Parisienne!

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

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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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