February 2016

Fireworks, trumpets, a few baton twirlers, and a special guest appearance from the Philly Phanatic *: We have a winner! Top Cat has spoken and last week’s Giverny Triscuit goes to…

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Number 42! Wait…nobody guessed number 42.

Number 16! What? Nobody guessed number 16 either??

Number 33! I think you’re doing this on purpose…another zilch guesses on that one. One more, TC, and get it right this time OK?

Number 12! And we have a winner! Congratulations, Deborah Hatt!  You hung in there and you got Top Cat’s 4th guess! Your Monet Garden Gate Triscuit will be signed, sealed, and delivered asap! (Email me your address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, please.)

Thank you to everyone who entered — you’re all eligible for next week’s Pub Date Celebration Triscuit!

* The Philly Phanatic is the mascot of the professional baseball team from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), the Philadelphia Phillies, and is only the best team mascot ever. And he’s green, so, like, gardening.

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As for this past weekend here on the Isle of Long, the magic number was 58 — degrees! (14 C!) So as of 9:42 in the morning of February 20, Taffy declared that the grounds of Taffy Manor were officially 100% snow free. which is a cause for celebration considering that last year we didn’t get rid of the snow until April 4.

And being as he has appointed himself our neighbor’s watch-cat in charge of keeping Steve (our friendly neighborhood stray) off their patio, Taffy then gave the neighbor’s yard a good look-see:

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Having discerned that the premises was 100% Steve-free, Taffy aided me in inspecting our old tomato patch…

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…which in a mere 98 days will be planted with various heirloom and hybrid varieties. Top Cat, the Tomato Patch Kid, can’t wait.

These dregs of Winter, these hints of almost on-the-cusp-of-Spring days of February, these daggy days of counting down until the vernal equinox are the hardest days in the year for gardeners. Good thing that I, not being an actual gardening gardener, have a long history of “gardening” all year round. All I needed was a comfy chair, a needle and some thread, and I was off, gardening the four seasons:

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I embroidered these four season long before I met Top Cat. Please note the black and white cat sniffing the flowers…that’s Woody Robinson, the original Top Cat, my one and onliest heart-to-heart kitty who I still miss every day. (Keep an eye out for him in almost all my sewing. It was my way of paying tribute to The Best Cat in the World.)

I’ve been embroidering since I was 10 years old but my output peaked in the 1990s, when I was in my late 30s/early 40s. Those were the  years when I had a vague but urgent compulsion to keep busy making stuff, the same drive that evolved over the years into an actual mission (which I now try to fulfill as a writer/illustrator/blogger) to make stuff that mattered. That’s why, in 1994, I entered this (below) in a contest hosted by a local historical society:

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The goal was to portray this very old (17th century) house in Rye, New York; I embroidered the house with a four season motif of (from top to bottom) Winter, Fall, Summer (Hi there, Woody Robinson!), Spring. I won Best in Show. The historical society told me that they would love to keep this piece for their home office and I gladly gave it to them. I was happy that I’d made something that mattered to them.

I also sewed fantasy pieces, like this picture of me, Woody Robinson, and an itinerant cat-pet who I called Louie (he wandered into my life one day, and on another day he wandered back out of it) having tea in a garden of my dreams:

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For those of you who are stitchers, in this detail (below) you can see how I “garden” with satin, buttonhole, running, and feather stitches. Basic stuff! Easy! You can teach yourself these stitches in about an hour!

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I had to put this garden in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam (on page 126) in honor of that time in my life when embroidery, and Woody, and Louie, meant so very much to me:

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I was also riffing on the idea that me and the cats were citizens of our own isolated micro-nation, which I reductively called Pawsylvania:

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But I’m perfectly capable of portraying actual, real gardens in thread, too. This is a portrait of the herb garden at the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan called the Cloisters:

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I also included this garden in Wanderers because it tickled me no end to put my sewing in print:

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I am a huge fan of herb gardens:

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These mini-gardens are the fore-runners of my watercolor Triscuits:

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Vegetables:

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And I even got a commission, to do a piece about the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York:

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Besides gardens, I quite liked doing maps:

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This is a map of a trip to France I took in 1985, through the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy:

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And this is a map of a trip I took in 1990 (which includes an experiment in the use of paint):

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You might have noticed that in this map I stitched in some flowers up in northern France, to stand for my first visit to Giverny. Or was it my second? I’ve lost count.

When I went to Giverny that time in 1990 I was on a mission, to take notes and get a feel for the lay of the land there. Because when I got back I drew a condensed version of Monet’s famous flower and water garden and I sewed for 98 hours, and gave the garden as a wedding gift for my sister Buffy:

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I did a two-season view of Giverny here, with Spring on the left and Fall on the right. I took many, many liberties in this portrayal of the world’s most famous garden, liberties that I would not take today, now that I have been putting the Clos Normand under scrutiny for my watercolors. Speaking of which…didn’t I promise you that we’d paint Monet’s allee today?

This is the famous allee:

 

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So let’s pick it up from here:

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The trick is to work in very small doses of color. Let each little smattering of color dry before patting in another color except for the times when you want the colors to bleed . . .

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. . . like here, where I made several small pools of greenish colors, which I then swiped with quick strokes of my size-00 brush, in order to imitate stalks and leaves:

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I am playing here, dashing in a little blue to the green paint, and stroking through it (wet-in-wet):

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I think it is the years that I spent as an embroiderer, sewing pictures one little stitch at a time, that gives me the patience and the control to work in such tiny, small, careful increments. Embroidery is good training for miniature painting.

Back to flowers: Oooooh, I like it when blue bleeds into purple…but I always keep red seperate because blue/purple + red = mud:

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Ooooooo, some more blue/purple bleeds for effect:

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And now, fun fun fun, I’m just dabbing in as many different shades of green as I can:

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Add a few foreground leaves (I looked it up: these are called “strap-shaped” leaves, the ones that stand tall like this, as in tulips for example):

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Now for the little pom-pom shaped saplings. . .

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. . . and the arbors (or are they trellises?). . .

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. . . paint in the green gate at the foot of the allee and voila:

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Done.

Hmmmmmm… wait a sec. Compared to the original photo…

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…isn’t there something missing? Like, a certain amount of truthfulness? Since I don’t like red-leafed trees I edited out the one on the left hand side, but I now feel bad about  that … and I wimped out on the dark areas in the back ground… and I totally gave up the foreground; I didn’t even try to “get” that lovely effect of the lilac-colored tulips dotting a cloud of small light-blue flowers.

Believe me, I really wanted to leave well enough alone. It had taken me six hours to paint this picture and I did not want to risk ruining it all by doing the kind of painting that I am not very good at (red trees, dark backgrounds, actual flower painting).

So I let this picture sit around for about three days until it became evident that I had to have a go at making it real. I decided to add all those bits that I’d left out, no matter if it ruined the picture. My Giverny garden painting has to be a true as possible. Damn it.

I meant to take pictures of the transformation, but I got very caught up with the process so all I have is this end result:

Giverny, Monet's garden, Clos Normand

I’m so happy that I didn’t have to rip out stitches to fix this pic. So, yeah, I still pick watercolor over embroidery when it comes to gardening.

Well, I hope all you Dear Readers had some extra spare time this morning — this was a long post, again; at least a 2-tea-cupper. Next week I promise to bend your ear for only as long as it takes to paint a Pub Date Celebration Triscuit … along with several medium-sized digressions, of course. Because the world needs my opinions on almost everything.

And once again, Congratulations to Deborah Hatt for winning the Monet Garden Gate Triscuit!

See you all next Friday!

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On the left (below) is the delicious cracker made by Nabisco*, a salty whole grain hors d’ouvre-holder and snack food beloved by Americans. On the right is a Triscuit made by me, an author-illustrator beloved by 6 out of 7 of my cats*.

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*Nabisco/Mondelez (pronounced mon-dell-eeeze) has given me permission to use their trademark Triscuit to describe my teeny-tiny paintings up until the time they send me a cease and desist letter. Thank you, Product Manager at Mondelez Global LLC in East Hanover, New Jersey.

*Steve is the new cat #7, a feral tuxedo Manx that I’ve been feeding for five months but haven’t been able to trap yet because he still doesn’t understand that he belongs to me, dammit.

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Kirra, this snow is for YOU.

Last weekend it got so cold here on the north shore of Long Island that I had to rescue my Champagne-O-Meter from the backyard (I wish I could put a photo in parenthesis):

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For 2 days the temperatures hovered around Zero degrees ( 0 F, -18 C) and I did not want my champagne to totally freeze. So on Sunday morning I put the bottle back out on the patio and left it there for 7 hours (I wonder if inanimate objects are subject to “wind chill”?). And then it was — finally — 5 o’clock and I brought that baby inside and popped the cork and voila! I got a Champagne Slushie!!

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Dear Readers, your eyes do not deceive you. This is what deep-frozen champagne looks like, a glass full of icy bubbles! It was fabulous.

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Note: A bottle of champagne left out in sub-zero temperatures for 7 hours will freeze from the bottom up. The first glass you pour looks a lot like regular champagne, except for being much colder, but when you set the bottle down after your first pour something happens strange happens and the normal laws of champagne physics break down. The champagne begins to flow upwards out of the bottle, against gravity, in a continuous froth of bubbly foam until you quickly pour a second glass, at which time balance is restored to the Champer-Verse and the stuff behaves normally, except for its being mostly icy slush. At which time you give Thanks that you have a wonderful reason to not totally hate Winter.

Getting back to the Triscuit thing, to long time Dear Readers of this blog that means one thing:  Time for a Triscuit Give Away! For new Dear Readers of this blog, please let me announce that it’s Triscuit Give Away Time!! Which we will get to at the end of this post (feel free to skip ahead to the end if you are like my husband and think blog posts should not go on and on, like mine tend to)  because for now, I want to discuss How I Cheat When It Comes To Drawing Really Hard Things in Perspective.

Consider, for example, a view such as this:

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This is the allee of Monet’s garden in Giverny, the main feature of his sumptuous flower garden (which is way better than his more famous water garden, by the way). I took this photo in May 2013 at about 7 o’clock at night, long after the garden had closed for the day. You can read how I was able to sneak this photo, and a lot of others, when the garden was officially closed,which I consider a red hot travel tip, by clicking here. We’ll wait while you read up on this.

Hey! You’re back! So let’s get to it: Drawing all those arched arbors down this rather long garden path/allee is way, way above my pay grade as a draftsperson. I could never do it without cheating. So what I do is, I cheat. First, I have print out a black and white copy of this photo (from my computer, on plain white paper — no fancy photo-quality sheets necessary):

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The black and white picture make it easy for me to see the contrast I need in order to trace those arbors onto tracing paper:

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I could never see those trellis lines if this photo was still in color. So, in black felt tip pen I trace over the arbors and the horizon, because a horizon is a useful thing to know in any picture, as it keeps the painter from painting things that look like they are floating in the air:

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The next step is to trace those guide lines onto watercolor paper (use either a light box or tape the sheets onto a window, if it’s a sunny day):

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I slather in the background, using very broad strokes and watery paint. I will try to keep these features very faint in this picture in order to emphasize the foreground — the lovely floral allee:

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I have to get those two huge yew trees at the top of the all just right — they are the key to the scale and truthfulness of everything else I will paint:

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So I finish these yew trees and then I take a good look at the picture and I see right away that the top trellis/arbor that I drew would not work in this picture. So I erased them and, as the pencil lines were so faint, they are hardly noticeable under the paint of the yew trees (paint tends to “fix” graphite, BTW). And then I was all set to get to the good stuff: the flowers! I LOVE painting these flowers!! And sorry, I got so engrossed painting these wonderful fleurs that I forgot to take pictures of the progress, so here’s a pic of the piece when it’s about 80% done:

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I use white acrylic paint to paint over the arbors because I need them to POP, and putting down a base of white acrylic paint before I paint them green will do that:

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See? (See: Below)

Clos Normand Giverny Monet garden

You might notice that in the end I futzed the horizon line on the left side of this picture. I did that because I thought it was too strong a horizontal and I thought it was distracting. For the record, that (left) part of Monet’s garden is very complicated — lots of topiary and trained shrubs and big brambly stuff that I don’t want to get into — but I hope I’ve indicated enough of a there there…but I might look at this picture next month and decide it needs more definition. However, for now, it’s done.

Monet panted in series: haystacks, poplar trees, Rouen Cathedral…you know what I mean. Good lord, he painted his water lilies 270 times. So just because this is the second picture I’ve painted of his allee (counting last week’s picture) does not mean that I am done with this view, no siree. I went to Giverny last December specifically to get a sneak peek at Monet’s garden in Winter, which is how I got this photo:

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I love gardens in Winter. Love love love love them. I love them so much that I put a Winter Garden in my garden book (in the Edinburgh chapter). I also adore decrepitude — that’s why I had to write about a decrepit garden in London for Gardens of Awe and Folly. To me, a flower garden in December (in the northern hemisphere) is all about decrepitude, and all about Winter. So poetic! So truthful! So soulful! So to me, this view of Monet’s garden is deliciousness times two. I could not wait to paint it! So, without further ado, let me trace those arbors and get down to painting!!!!

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P.S. above: Last week I mentioned that I photoshop my fingers for these action pix…this week I just left the band aids on. My hands get very dry in the Winter but that’s OK: I can paint wounded. I’m so very, very brave that way.

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 And done:

Clos Normand Giverny Monet garden

You can see that in this picture I left the foreground arbor/trellis intact (the same trellis that I eliminated from the Spring version). It works here, I think. (Fun fact: in total, the allee has only 6 trellises. Trellises? Is that a word?)

I can not tell you how satisfying this was to paint! It was heaven. That’s why, like stout Cortez at that place where he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer…wait. I think that was Alexander the Great, who wanted to keep going; Cortes was the chap full of wild surmise. I could go either way with this literary reference because any hoo, I was not ready to quit this wonderful allee, and as I was sober (it was at least an hour away from Sunday Cocktail Time), I decided to paint a Triscuit as a token of my appreciation for all my Dear Readers:

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Voila, the Giverny Triscuit:

Giverny Monet garden gate Clos Normand

Now, I know that some of my Dear Readers do not come from Nabisco countries so they might not know about Triscuits, so maybe this will help set the scale (because I assume that everyone knows about tea bags):

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The Triscuit is 4.5 centimeters square, about the size of a Gum Nut Baby. It’s really small, but you know that small is my “thing”.

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This is a view of Monet’s allee facing away from the house, towards the big garden gate at the bottom of his flower garden. That’s the gate the the master himself used when he strolled from his studio to his water garden (on the other side of the wall there). It’s a historic gate. And now that I look at it…the gate is wrong. Back to the painting. . .

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OK, now it’s DONE.

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To win this Giverny Triscuit, all you have to do is leave a Comment in the Coments at the end of this post, and guess a number between 1 and 50. When the Comments close after five days — sorry, it’s a spam-avoidance necessity — I will have Top Cat choose a number and announce the Winner in next week’s post!

The fine print: In order to be eligible  for this contest you must have left a Comment here in the past two weeks.

So Good Luck, my Dear Readers, and keep Commenting…Pub Date of Gardens of Awe and Folly is March 1 and I might be in the mood to celebrate with another Triscuit Give Away (or another bottle of frozen champagne, depending on the weather).

 

 

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Last Friday’s little storm caught me by surprise, meaning that it blew into Long Island on the very day that the last of the stuff from the monster Winter Storm Jonas had melted, leaving me optimistically out of champagne, so all I have to show you today is a Pinot Grigio-O-Meter:

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The snow started at 9:30 and was over by 3 o’clock in the afternoon which, on a snowy Winter day, was indeed a very Happy Hour. This weekend is predicted to be super cold with flurries, but rest assured that the Pinot Grigio has gone on to booze heaven and there is a new  Champagne-O-Meter awaiting its destiny:

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I’m so very happy to hear that last week’s Watercolor tutorial was very helpful to a number of Dear Readers. If you remember, we painted bark:

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Dear Reader Sandy Lane left a Comment that she did a happy dance after she painted her first tree (with or without Pinto Grigio, she did not say). And our own Felicia sent me a message — OMG It Works! followed your steps  and on my first try painted the best tree I’ve ever painted.  It actually looks like a tree! I’m beyond excited and so grateful for your tips. And she sent me proof:

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Very cool — I love the shadows and the background evergreens! Thank you, Felicia!

So, my Dear Readers, what shall we paint today? How about a nice flower garden? Like, the one in Giverny that I am currently obsessed with? The one that Monet tended for 43 years, from 1883 until his death in 1926? You know, the one with the memorable allee:

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Yeah, that one. I’m using my own reference photograph to draw from:

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As usual, I am going to work in miniature, because painting small-scale is where I feel most at ease. First I get my sky in, and then I use my fattest brush to blob in some different shades of green:

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I am working wet-in-wet here — meaning that I dab in wet watercolor on top of already wet watercolors — because I like it when the colors bleed in interesting ways, like this:

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Oooooooo…I like this bleed so much that I am going to leave it alone, and do my best to make sure that it stays there as a part of the picture. I use my smallest brush to fill out the foliage on top, to make an interesting silhouette. As you can see, even though I work in miniature, I do my background in little bits and pieces; I work too slowly to be able to  paint a background (even a teeny background such as this) in one swell foop:

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This picture is going to take about three and a half hours to paint.

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One of the reasons it’ll take so long is because I take great care when I have to paint a dark background behind a light-colored object, in this case a small tree in the foreground. I have to say that painting in these fussy details is very, very relaxing for me.

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I do not have a relaxing personality. I’m a bit too cranky and antsy to be what most people might call “nice”.  I’m not built for meditation or contemplation or anything like introspection (I am not very deep), but I can get very Zen-y when I have to be gentle and calm to make itty bitty brush strokes around titter-bittier stuff in my teeny tiny illustrations. I just love the slow breathing and the patience it takes. My mind wanders, and I find myself having very gratifying hypothetical conversations with people I truly dislike, tete-a-tetes with pin heads in which I get the better of them with my outstanding wit and wisdom. Oh well. Even in my most serene moments, I like to argue with the world.

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By the way, I have to photoshop my fingers in these pictures in order to make them look all smooth and pink. It’s February and my hands are dead dry and chapped and most of my cuticles and finger tips are split and u-g-l-y. I just thought I’d let you know that I’m as guilty as Vogue magazine when it comes to faking an impossible standard of beauty. Sorry.

I’m very proud that I am painting this scene true to life, even though it means that I have to paint a red-leafed tree. I can’t stand red-leaf trees (I don’t know their names but I’m sure a lot of you Dear Readers can tell me). Trees should be green, period. Maroon trees depress me.

You can see how I am doing my best to show off that interesting green blob-bleed on the left side of the picture:

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And now for the FUN part! I get to paint the flowers!! Again I am working wet-in-wet, bleeding in blue and purple to make an interesting cloud-like pool of color, which I swipe through to make those vertical lines (for a change of texture):

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Time to finish that foreground tree:

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The detail that I’m adding in here are the extremely violet tulips that grow at the very top of this allee:

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I make the same wet-in-wet clouds of color for the other side of the allee:

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Monet painted his garden furnishings (including his Japanese bridge) a very vivid and unusual shade of green. I match his color by mixing a Winsor Newton (watercolor) blue-green with an acrylic emerald green — the acrylic paint has the “oomph” (the artificiality and opacity) that I need to make Monet’s arbors and trellises stand out amidst the jumble of his very “busy” garden:

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Like this:

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You can see what I chose to edit out of the scene that I ended up painting by comparing it to the reference photo again:

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Now,  if you compare that photo to this one I took from a very slightly different angle. . .

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. . . you can see that I have left out that tall poplar tree smack in the middle of the view:

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I really don’t like the way that poplar tree juts up in the center of this view. But, *sigh*, I know that I will end up putting it in, however, for now I can’t bear it. Also, you can see that I go easy when it comes to painting in at the necessary darks in the background — call it lack of confidence, or fear of making the whole thing look too muddy. But I also know that I’ll have to go back and dab in some chiaroscuro as soon as I get the nerve to do that poplar tree.

These are all the exact same issues I will be dealing with when I paint this other view of the allee:

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In my world, this is a mural. But that’s for next week.

The other news in VivianWorld is that I got my hands on a pre-publication copy of Gardens of Awe and Folly. Bloomsbury mailed me my official Author Copy.

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I took it out of its wrapper and put it on the little table in the hallway where I dump all of our junk mail. I made a cup of tea, and I went to eBay for some reckoning-avoidance shopping (why are all the cool vintage Monkees T-shirts only to be found in the UK??). Then I went to my cardio/kick boxing class at my gym, and I stopped by Loew’s to buy 40 pounds of bird food, and when I came home and did a load of laundry and watched  Judge Judy. Etc.

OK, it wasn’t until the next day that I opened the book for inspection. As always, Bloomsbury has done a superb job making this book a lovely object to hold in our hand. The illustrations are colorful, the binding is archival, the quality of the paper is fine-arty. And then I found one mistake in text layout that is all my fault (I indented a line that should have been left flush) and I slammed it shut.

All in all, I find that the DGB is indeed a lovely book full of wisdom and humor that I desperately wish I could re-write and re-draw all over again, just so I could make sure it is 100% indisputably, with-a-doubt, painfully and putatively pluperfect. I am in agony. The book is done, I can’t futz with it and more, it’s out there and I can’t reel it back in for just one or a few thousand more tweaks.

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And then a professional garden writer and horticulturist named Nina Koziol called me up and interviewed me about the DGB for the Chicago Tribune newspaper and website and she didn’t once tell me that I got it all wrong, and we had a delightful chat about the wacky world of gardeners. . . so whew. Maybe I pulled it off.

17 days until pub date. March 1, y’all. I think I’ll send the day in bed.

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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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