May 2016

Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately.

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I began this line of inquiry about three weeks ago, when I went to Seattle for a book event at America’s oldest travel book store, Wide World Books and Maps :

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I can assure you, Dear Readers of this blog, that our own Commentor Linda June brought her special sparkle of energy to the gathering and helped turn the event into a salon of witty and fun give-and-take (I love Seattle readers!) and as if that weren’t eventful enough, everyone there was treated to the premiere of my one and only Gardens of Awe and Folly Book Event dress:

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See? It’s got flowers, the way gardens have flowers. Get it? I looked high and low for a dress that made me look like someone who knew her way around a garden (or a dress shop) and this number thrills me because it’s “flowery” but not “FLOWERY”, if you know what I mean.

So that was Tuesday, but I’m talking about Monday when it was sunny and unseasonably warm and should-be travel memoirist and fellow Capricorn  Beth from Seattle and I were having tea in the wood-paneled Fireside Room. . .

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. . . at the famous haunted Sorrento Hotel, which quickly became a few rounds of cocktails outside in “The Garden” . . .

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. . . and just as the gin/chardonnay combo of the second Fred Astaire kicked in and the Seattle sun was glinting all golden and honey the way the Seattle sun rarely glints all golden and honey, and all worries and cares had floated off to the place where worries and cares are told to calm the fuck down, and Beth was telling me about the Scottish Terrier she knew who could count to six, I began a serious investigation, deep in my brain, on Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle?

Or, to put it another way, How hard would it be to create these peak moments in life more often?

I don’t have the answer, I just have the question. I also don’t have many photos from my fabulous visit to Seattle to show you because one of the side effects of this Seattle-induced rumination on the meaning of life was that I didn’t take may snapshots of Seattle this time around, although I did spend some time trying to figure out how to draw Scotties while I was in The City on Puget Sound That Has No Nickname:

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Which I will now leverage into a blog post about how I figured out how to draw cats while I tell you about the other side effects of travel to Seattle, which included dire physical consequences, but let me begin with my first attempt at painting my sweet Candy Kitty in 2006:

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This is me in one of my first attempts at watercolor, in which you can see I am very wary of the watery personality of the medium so I’m using the paint in a very dry application, almost as if it were colored pencil. After a bit more practice I got used to the slippery nature of the H2O, so I made another attempt at the same sweet  kitty about six weeks later and I painted Candy Kitty #2:

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I think you can see in Candy Kitty #2 that I’ve relaxed a bit, and that I’m getting comfortable with letting the paint do what it wants to do when it’s doing its thing with water — which is the same thing I try to do with every picture I paint. I liked this little pic so much that I put it on page 178 of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

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P.S. I also switched paper after I painted the Candy Kitty #1, from a very heavy watercolor stock to the 90lb. Canson stuff I use exclusively these days.

I’ve been very busy since I returned to the Isle of Long from my travels to the Great Pacific Northwest, schlepping to the optometrist for a new pair of reading specs to replace the ones I left on the plane and then carting myself off to urgent care for a chest x-ray (bronchitis tends to make you wonder if your lungs are putting in an honest day’s work) and generally spending my waking moments feeling pretty miserable and eye-sore.

Between those hours on end that I spent feeling very sorry for myself I also searched high and low for the psychic reason for these physical calamities, because it seemed obvious to me that there was some element of metaphor in all this squinting and wheezing, which has nothing to do with the picture I am showing you below, which I painted around the same time as I painted Candy Kitty #2, c. 2006, which we’ll call Nino’s Winter Mind #1:

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In reviewing my recent travels, as a returned traveller tends to do, and other deep thinking, I came to an understanding of what I was trying to tell myself with this bout of ill health. It’s about being a writer who might not want to write any more.

You see, I’ve spent the past dozen years sitting in a small room with my own self, writing three books. I’ve also spent a lot of time watching Bravo TV.

Then, as a side effect of writing one of those books, I went to Seattle and experienced what it’s like to get out of the house, and it was a lot better — a whole megaton better — than sitting in a room by myself, and it’s even better than watching a Real Housewife get the comeuppance she deserves (oh hell, they all deserve to have their uppances cometh).

I got a taste of what it might be like to have a Real Life and it is as bright as a gin/chardonnay combo on ice and as sharp as a meeting of the minds with a Capricorn from Seattle.

Now, if you remember the little pic from above — Nino’s Winter Mind #1 — I want to show you how I re-worked that same idea a few years later, when I tried to paint like Maira Kalman:

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My first book came out in 2008 and I thought I had invented an whole new kind of reading experience and had the entire field of illustrated memoir all to myself, but in 2009 Maira Kalman came out with her illustrated memoir The Principles of Uncertainty and blew me and my quirky little travelog/chapbook off the literary radar into the deep space of the mid-list (where no one can hear you scream). I looked at her book and tried to figure out what made it so appealing to The New York Times in ways that mine had failed and I thought it might be the illustrations. She doesn’t do outlines. So I tried to make my pictures bigger (than a tea bag) and less structurally persnickety, and Nino Winter Mind #2 (above) was what I came up with.

This is Maira Kalman’s illustration of a scene in a foreign city (Cairo?) sidewalk from The Principles of Uncertainty (pages 32 and 33):
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So I went to Ikea in Hicksville, Long Island and came up with this:

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I think you can see why I came to the conclusion that I was a terrible fake Maira Kalman and I went back to doing the kind of illustrations that I can only do:

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left to right: Pinky, Winston, Vivian, Belle, and Nino, the gray and white kitty with the Winter Mind.

I know that, with this digression about me being a terrible fake Maira Kalman, I’m circling some great idea about authenticity and the side effects of travel, but I can’t quite put it together within the time limits of this blog post. All I really know for sure is that for the time being, I seem to be allergic to the idea of sitting in a small room for another three years, writing another book, even though the only thing that I can do half-right is sitting in small rooms for years on end, writing books.

Oh! I forgot! I can also paint cats! (It only took five years of practice.)

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For new Dear Readers, you can catch my tutorial How To Paint a Cat by clicking onto the link back there, seven words ago. (Smooches to our Dear Kitty here, Lizzie Cosette from The Marmalade Gypsy blog.)

As Dear Commentors Deborah and Monique and Kirra observed last week, getting out of the house often leads one to doing something stupid, saying something stupid, or driving 40 miles the wrong way. But ever since I let the thought of being a Three-And-Done author take up a rather comfy space in my brain I have felt as if there’s a Seattle sun beam glowing in my heart.

This Summer I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time out of the small room I’ve been cooped up in lo these past dozen years. Now, I know that real life is not like travel, where you have to make up every day from scratch and you never know if it’s going to end with epiphanies over vintage cocktails in a haunted hotel or other kinds of epiphanies over a take-away dinner of Pop Tarts and wine. Every day can’t have a peak moment as sunny and unseasonably warm as a Monday afternoon in Seattle.

Or can it?

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in America and I hope you’ll all join me in paying respects to James Alexander Malloy, 175th Inf., 29th Div., KIA June 16, 1644, the only Scotsman buried in the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. We Will Never Forget.

 

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It crossed my mind more than once last week, as I was tooling around the Great Pacific Northwest, that I am not as good at this travel-thing as I used to be.

I still think of myself as the intrepid 19-year old who took on the French railway system one-on-one to reserve a one-way ticket from Paris to Rome and didn’t think twice about the 20-hour trip, or the strange people I’d be bunking with in a tiny, uni-sex (the horror!) couchette on a rickety sleeper train. I stuffed a baguette and some Boursin into a plastic bag and took off.

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So here I am now, approx. 40 years later in my own native land, with a rental car and good luggage and Google maps and a platinum AmEx, and I can barely navigate myself for the three-hour drive down I-5 from Seattle to Portland. And once I arrived in the lovely precincts of Portland’s NECN (Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods), after confusing left with east for the 100th time, the best I could do — for two nights in a row (in this land that invented the gourmet locavore) — was walk to the Safeway for a do-it-yourself take-out dinner of Pop Tarts and wine. I can’t help but think that my 19-year old self would look at me as proof that travel is wasted on anyone over 30.

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Amazingly, on that epic 175-mile road trip, I had no trouble finding Exit 135, and rolled easily up to the doorstep of King’s Books in Tacoma. King’s Books, in case you do not know, is famous for its bookstore cats, Atticus. . .

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. . . (whose bio states that he was once a prize-winning rodeo rider who then became a friar, and joined the bookstore staff in 2009 where he now serves as both a shoulder-warmer and a spunky bookseller). . .

. . . and Herbert (seen below at the cash register):

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Believe it or not, but this (below) is Herbert’s Happy Face:

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My scritches had the same airplane-ears effect on Portland native Mahitabel:

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Mahitabel’s Person in Charge of Happiness, who is also a Dear Reader of this blog, rounded me up one fine morning and carted me to a handful of Portland’s great sights, such as the view from the beautiful  Tilikum pedestrian bridge of majestic Mt. Hood (a mountain named after the USS Federation starship, Excelsior class, Starfleet reg. NCC1703). Thank you, Vicki!

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Of course, the reason I was in Portland in the first place was to give the good people of Rose City the Vivian Experience at Broadway Books, a cozy Coney Island of the mind disguised as Portland’s best-hued and most lusciously-shelved independent bookstore:

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As you can see, I still do that funny thing with my mouth that bugs me whenever I see myself on video or in photos (in spite of the very kinds words of Dear Reader Kirra), and that’s not counting the crap that comes out of my mouth, meaning that I have amends to make to two lovely ladies who came to the event on May 5: both watercolor artists, they asked me about how I get such good-looking greens in my illustrations (example below):

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I must have looked puzzled by the question, because they explained that they were taught to make “color charts” in preparation for their watercolors, obviously by a teacher who really, really wants to make things as complicated as possible, and, they said, getting good greens was hard.

First of all, I was flummoxed by the whole “color chart” thing, having never heard of any such thing: I think that if your teacher makes you do color charts, that’s just your teacher trying to prove the rumor that watercolors are hard and must be taught by a professional. What crap. There. I said it: Color charts are as relevant to painting as diagramming sentences is to writing.

So, when these two sweet ladies who took the time to come out on a beautiful Thursday evening to hear me yak about myself and mentioned that, in their experience, getting good greens was hard, I proved once again to my 19-year-old self that I have indeed become a real asshole when I replied by scrunching up my face and bleating: Really?

I am ashamed that I, however inadvertently (the thesis surprised me, caught me off-guard), implied that anyone who found it hard to get good greens was worth a dismissive and snotty Really??  Instead, these lovely ladies’ question has stuck in my brain as a sorely missed opportunity for me to have asked some follow-up questions, gain some understanding of another’s process in creativity, learn something.

So, dear ladies of May 5, if you are reading this, please accept my apologies for not answering your extremely thought-provoking question and let me make amends by addressing the making of greens (which, I confess, in my ignorance of academically-accepted practices, I have never thought of as “hard”) in a future post.

Meanwhile, on one of my trips to and from the Portland Safeway, I came across this fella. . .

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. . . and this completely different black and white furry fella. . .

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. . . who, for obvious reasons, reminded me of this fella, in a village 5,000 miles away:

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Cats. The world over, they think they own the place. In the case above (Dear Reader Carol S., this is for you!), the cat in question is named Gaston, and he “owns” a little road called Rue aux Juifs in the village of Giverny, France. In the case of the Portland kitty, I don’t know that cat’s name but I do know that he’s as big a smooch as Gaston is, because when a little girl hopped off her bike to chase him down to say hello, Portland Cat did this:

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I met another of Portland’s Finest on my way to breakfast — Boo Boo, it seems, “works” at a dress shop on Alberta Street and couldn’t wait to clock in:

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What a way to start the day; a selfie with a cat named Boo Boo:

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Boo Boo must have been my spirit guide because five minutes later the universe let me check off a Top Ten item on my Before I Die Wish List and I got this breath-taking encounter:

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This is the Western Blue Jay known as the Scrub Jay — really?, bird-namers? You couldn’t do any better than “scrub jay”? Considering that blue is the rarest color in nature, and that birds with blue feathers are extraordinarily found only in the New World, and that blue is an awesome color. . . you couldn’t have found a better tag than “scrub jay”?? How about “Sunset Jay” (since it’s found where the sun sets, get it?), or “Frontier Jay” (in honor of its geography)? And that’s what I came up with after a solid 20 seconds of thought. . . cries — even “Boo Boo Jay” would have been an improvement. You namers of western blue birds stink.

Contented with my cat and bird sightings, I left Portland early on a Saturday morning to make a detour to the Oregon Coast, to a place called Seaside, to a place in that place called Beach Books:

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I got there around 11:00 am, just in time to catch Book Shop Cat Oz making his commute to work:

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Oz hoists himself up onto his window seat and checks his To Do List. EAT is the thing he took care of back in the storeroom, on his way into the office. Next item:

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SLEEP is the next item on the agenda:

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Chances of him knocking off READ before the end of the day look slim.

Adieu, sweet prince, and onward: My reason for being (that day) lay 8 miles down the road– Cannon Beach Books, whose booksellers can read readers’ minds and put in hand a reading experience that was curated specifically for you. (I saw them do it, over and over.)

Another bout of travel-induced mid-life soul searching began a few hours later, as I finished my delightful visit to the Oregon coast and got into my rental car for the drive back to Seattle. I used to be good (or so I thought) at logistics, but I hadn’t bothered to look very hard at a map when I planed this trip and booked my flight home out of Seattle. When it dawned on me (just the day before) that it would have made much more sense to fly home from Portland, the penalty to change plans at such a late date would have cost me, in dollars that my 19-year-old self would understand, five-and-a-half weeks of backpacking around the South of France.

So I drove north that late afternoon, spending four hours trying not to feel like I’ve become the kind of dopey, half-assed traveler my 19-year-old self would despise, before devoting the final 90 minutes of my Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip to repeatedly making the wrong turns on the various I-5 exits to Burien.

And just think: if I had not made the blunder of flying home to the Isle of Long from Sea-Tac airport, I would not have been able to catch this view of Mts. Rainer and St. Helens . . .

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. . . and would probably not have had the opportunity to leave my glasses on the plane (rendering me functionally blind for the next week while I awaited replacement!) or pick up a nasty pulmonary infection (that has leveled me for the past 9 days!).

Now, this is only the last half of the story (of me, half-sighted and hacking). There’s a whole other first half that I haven’t even told you about yet, in which my 19-year-old self might not look at me with all that much disgust, as I only got the car on Day Four (it was the driving that done me in) and thus greatly reduced my opportunities to act like a dip shit. I’m still an awesome pedestrian!!

Next week, my Wonder Ones, we will explore that mythical city, Seattle, in a post that I will Call:

The Side Effects of Travel

Maybe we’ll even paint something green.

This Just In: I’ve been hearing from Dear Readers this morning that the Comments button to this post is not working. Serves me right, for any number of reasons, but mostly I guess it’s to mortify my grubby need for approval (You Comment! You like me!!). While my crack team of IT interns. . .

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. . .fixes this latest glitch, you can email me at vivianswift at yahoo dot com and I will re-post your dear words with tear-stained alacrity. Soon as we sort out the series of tubes.

XXOO

P.P.S. OK, it seems that the Comment thing may or may not be fixed. You are welcome to try to leave your message, or email me, or not. *Sigh*. Whatever.

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Last week I showed you how an illustration of a secret garden can go all wrong when you (that means me, I, the left-hander holding the brush above) over-do it. So this week, let’s not end with a much-needed glass of champagne consolation. . . what am I saying?? I love ending a painting session with champagne, even if it’s for consolation! Rule of Life: There Is Never a Bad Reason to Drink Champagne.

So, this week, let’s roll our painting session towards a glass of champagne just because, but hopefully not because we (that means me, I, the let-hander picking up the paint brush) have made yet another illustration go all wrong. OK?

Today I am going to paint the secret entrance to a well-known secret London garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is actually not at all secret anymore, having lately become one of the Top Ten tourist attraction  sights in all of England. As you can see below, I have penciled in a few guide lines and put down a wash of yellowish-grayish watercolor in the area where the high brick wall (that surrounds the garden) will be:

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So far, it looks ugly, but that’s just for now. Because yet to come is the part where I am painting the Chelsea Physic Garden on a sunny day, and in the background I will lay down the color of sunbeams:

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Quick, while it’s still wet, I blob in some pale greenery:

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And more greenery:

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I add some medium-dark greens for the middle ground:

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I dab in some detail foliage (but not too much, don’t want to over-do it) and add shadows, and if this were one of my famous tea-bag size miniatures, we’d almost be done:

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I paint in the two figures — for the record, a man in a grey shirt in front; a woman wearing a pink shirt in back — and in the foreground, I paint a foundation layer of greenery (I’m afraid I’m going to have to use the word “green” and “greenery” very often in this post):

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This next bit is fun for me: I get to paint some detail stuff in middlingly-darkish greens here. By the way, I practice making these itty bitty leaves in one sinuous stroke before I put them in this picture — think of it as calligraphy: it only looks good if you get the stroke right, and you only get one chance to get the stroke right:

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Using the same stroke, I add contrast by using a very dark green (which is regular green that I’ve mixed with black):

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And here is where I lay my brush down because here is where I DID NOT OVER-DO IT!

Yay for me!

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Next: The Wall.

If I had drawn these penciled-in guidelines (see below) directly onto the watercolor paper before I put that ugly yellowish-grayish wash over on top of them, the pencil lines would be fixed permanently by the paint. But O Clever Mio, I instead I let the wash dry completely and put the pencil lines on top of the wash, where they are fungible and I will be able to erase them all off after I paint in these bricks:

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Oh, how I love painting bricks. Yes, you have to concentrate on getting the teeny tiny spacing of these teeny tiny dashes of paint right, but it’s a pleasantly mindless concentration that permits you to paint while also listening closely to  talk radio, or following the CD of the cast recording of Hamilton, or creating in your head the perfect put-downs to the jerk who was loud-mouthing against Boston Rob being the greatest champion of Survivor in history (He is. So shut up.) at your brother-in-law’s barbecue; it’s that kind of meditative, calming pondering that I only get done when I have a lot of bricks (or the like***) to paint. Ahhhhh. . . . I could paint bricks all day.

But sadly, the brick painting comes to an end and I must finish this task. So, lastly, I hold my breath and paint the grille. Yuk. I have to paint straight lines, in an uniform, unvarying width, with a 00-size brush. If I screw up at this final step and do something blobby and/or squiggly, I will have ruined the illustration and wasted hours and hours of work:

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Whew.

DONE:

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Except. . . look at this closely:

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The whole time I was painting this illustration, I kept thinking how odd it was that the entrance to the Chelsea Physic Garden was surprisingly un-symmertrical. Well, duh. Upon looking at other reference photos than the one I was stupidly fixated upon further research, of course I saw that the entrance to the venerable Chelsea Physic Garden is of course symmetrical.

Luckily, my superpower is The Rescue of Watercolor Illustrations. (Really. You can look them up, in the side bar to the right, under Rescues. )

I do what I gotta do. I cut out the offending non-symmetry, I Elmer’s Glue-in a new piece of paper, and I paint in a new symmetry:

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And the rest is history, on page 142 of my book, Gardens of Awe and Folly:

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I don’t know why I can not get a good photo of this illustration — sorry, but this is the best that I can do!

P.S., I also decided to switch the people in the pic, moving the guy in the grey shirt to the back and the girl in the pink shirt to the front. It was a necessary edit to preserve the continuity of the narrative, or just a whim on my part.

So that’s how it’s not over-done, my Wonder Ones. Thank you all for your delicious stories In The Defense of Names two weeks ago — I have been traveling and have not been able to respond as I would want BUT. . .

. . . I am home from my roaming and I have so much to catch you all up on. I went to the Great Pacific Great Northwest and I met Dear Readers in  Seattle! I met with Dear Readers in  Portland! I happened upon Dear Readers in  Cannon Beach!!!!

Next week it’s just you and me, catching up on life and adventures. Warning: There Will Be Cats.

*** The Like: I have a future blog post all about painting bricks and the like [stone walls] set up, for the perfect frantic too-busy aggravating day when we all would like to achieve a little Zen in our lives. Which should be real soon.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

 

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See you in Cannon Beach (Oregon) on May 7!

If I had not run out of chapters in my book Gardens of Awe and Folly  I would have taken the extra pages to give you all a tour of some of my favorite every day Secret Gardens, like the one my neighbor Joanne has in her back yard:

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This (above) is the entrance to the Secret Garden belonging to one of the most excellent Chilled Wine Cocktail On The Patio Hostesses I know.  Step into that wooden archway entrance gate (below) , and you are treated to a more complete view of the pathway that leads to Joanne’s hide-away around the corner (that you can’t see in this pic because it’s secret):

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Well, it’s a GOOD THING I am an illustrator and in possession of an Artistic License so that when I take my pencil and draw this illustration, I can give you both of these views at once:

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Next, I apply masking fluid with a tooth pick (because I need a really fine line):

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To start, we have to lay in some sunlight, which I will let dry before I go to the ext step:

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Since I’ll be working from the back to the front of this illustration, the next thing I do is lay in background foliage:

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All I do is dab dab dab the lightest shades of green, quickly, while everything is still wet:

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And now the plot thickens.

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I’m putting in a light green wash on the left side here because as you saw in the reference photo, this is where all the shade is:

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Dab dab dab in some nice rich greens, and then I’m done mapping out the brights and darks of this illustration:

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BTW, I really like what happened up there, when I dab dab dabbed wet-in-wet and got some nice blotches that could very well stand as is and look totally convincing as foliage. But I don’t spend much time pondering this because I can’t wait to get a move-on because . . .

. . .I  LOVE THIS PART! This is the part where I add more detail to the background:

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Oh, I love dab dab dabbing with my size-00 brush!

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And now I start adding detail to the front-ground, over-painting the wash with dark leaf-shaped flicks of my 01 brush:

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I paint bigger leaves with a fatter brush, whose size I don’t know:

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And then I work the middle-ground:

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Something tells me that I could stop here . . .

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. . . I could stop here, call it DONE, and let those nice watercolor blotches do their job, but noooooooooo,  an evil little voice urges me to go on, put in some really really dark, dark background:

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More is More is what that evil little voice is telling me:

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Time to get out the 00 brush again and make some tree branches out of all that brightness in the background:

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Let’s take a look before we remove the masking fluid:

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I hate to say it, but I’m starting to doubt that really dark background. And I’m getting a bad feeling about that bench and lantern. Where O Where is that voice that should be telling me  Quit While You’re Ahead?

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But there is only silence as I plod on anyway and sure enough, I paint over those wonderful blotches that I liked so much:

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And oh well, I guess it’s DONE:

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WHAT WENT WRONG: Yeah, the lantern looks wonky, and the bench doesn’t make sense —  I made a bad choice when I included them in the pic. Also, I don’t “get” the wooden gateway either; it’s almost invisible, lost in the more and more of the foliage. Well, it’s a good thing that I work small, so the fix-up shouldn’t be all that hard.

CAN THIS PICTURE BE SAVED?

This is it BEFORE:

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And this is it AFTER:

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Hmmmmm, I dare say that, in the end, I saved this pic, and if you had not seen the BEFORE maybe you wouldn’t even notice the heavy-handed layer of paint on the left side. But alas, we are wise to the muddle and in our heart of hearts we all know that it was a better picture when it was “half” DONE.

My Dear Readers, this is what a bad day at the office looks like to me: I spend approx. 5 hours working on this picture, for a chapter that never makes it into the GoAaF, which even if such a chapter existed I would not (probably not, depends on how tired I am by deadline time) would not use this illustration for anyway.

Well, I don’t know what would you do after such a bad day at the office, but here’s what I do to end the day on a sweet note:

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A little champagne, a blue jay feather, and the company of a cat — that’s all it takes to make it a perfect day in VivianWorld.

Have a great weekend, my Wonder Ones.

 

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