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This is why I am illustrating my Damn Garden Book instead of photographing it:

Joann's Secret Grden

This (above) is the entrance to the Secret Garden belonging to my neighbor (and most excellent Chilled Wine Cocktail On The Patio Hostess). You have to walk through the wooden doorway to get to this:


Now, if I were a mere photographer I could only give you, the viewer and eventual Dear Reader of the Damn Garden Book, one or the other view of this nifty Secret Garden. GOOD THING I am an illustrator and in possession of an Artistic License. So I can give you both views at once:


I apply masking fluid with a tooth pick:


And I use my second-fattest paint brush to lay in some sunlight:


In this illustration I will be working mostly from the back to the front, laying in background foliage before I hit the foreground:





P1190949I’m adding detail now:






Working the middle ground now:


Something told me that I could stop here…


…but a pain in the ass little voice urged me to go on, put in some really dark, dark background:



Tree branch-painting time:


Before removal of the masking fluid:


After removal of the masking fluid:


Painting in the blank bits left by the removal of the masking fluid:




(Yeah, the lantern looks wonky. That will be a later fix-up.)

Hmmmm….I think the dark stuff adds punch to this illustration, and the view is definitely more narrative than anything a mere photograph of the garden could relate….but I think that for my next illustration I will see if I can leave it at the point where something tells me that I can stop here (see above).


This (below) is what is at the far end of that little walkway into my neighbor’s Secret Garden:


I’ll be painting this for you next week and, being as I have either already had a shot at painting this or I can time travel, I already know that it does not go well. But try, try again is my motto. Stay tuned.

Speaking of try, try again, do you recall when I painted this Annie E. Casey Seattle Waterfall Garden for you?


I took another look at it and found that it was lacking in narrative. So I futzed around with it and…


…yes, that female figure is a cut-and-paste (literally). To get a model for that figure, I pulled a chair to the bottom of our living room stairs and I asked Top Cat to stand on the fifth stair and take a photo of me. Photos, of course, lie. The figure of me was foreshortened (as photos tend to do) so I had to improvise in getting the legs right even though I know I would cover them up with a cut-and-paste fern frond.

Tricks of the trade.

Thank you to the many Dear Readers who have sent me photos of their Secret Gardens. If this post gives you an idea of how I will be presenting your garden, should I decide to include it in the Damn Garden Book, I hope this encourages more of you to send me your snaps. And even if you can’t get Fluffy or Fido to post in the actual garden, or there’s a particular bit that won’t fit in a frame, feel free to include that too. As you can see, I am not limited by Earthly geography.

In fact, I think photography is the reason so many garden books are so damn boring. You can’t possible get a great garden captured in lousy photos. There’s always something that gets hidden, or overlooked, or cropped, or foreshortened. I’ve seen photos of famous gardens I’ve been to…




… and they never get it right.

Illustrated Garden Book to the rescue.

Feel free to discuss the awesomeness of illustration over photography.


14 comments to How to Paint a Secret Garden

  • Excellent secret garden pic. I’m a big secret garden fan – both the magical book itself and secret gardens everywhere.
    Specially big fan of walled and courtyard gardens.
    So when are we going to Tea and Sympathy?

  • I agree the paintings to me are perfect.. I love the addition of the woman..It just changes the whole feeling:)
    I was happy for Alice Munro..82..
    Une perle rare.
    I envy your steady steady hand and precise masking..
    We’ve had the most beautiful ever I think so far~
    Chilly mornings for sure..but warmer days and sunshine w/ blue skies.
    Love it.

  • I have no idea why that person shows up as my pic:(

  • Three cheers for Alice! And three cheers for adding more dark to the garden — makes it lusher and a little more mysterious! I should think it would be lovely to join your friend there for tea or tonics! And yes, you nailed it on that negative space — excellent addition. Thanks for another useful lesson!

  • Patty

    I am amazed at how small you can paint! Photos do not capture the emotions a garden inspires.

  • Jeannie

    I love the addition of the dark. It adds depth and interest. I do textiles. A teacher, eons ago, gave me some excellent advice: people always go to their favorite colors and values but they stop short. To make things interesting you need some deep darks and light lights. A few “ugly” colors too, to keep things interesting. I have used that advice with textiles and with paints and it does make a difference. Have a fabulous week!

  • Oh my goodness… I have been absent from blog reading for so long and look what I have been missing. I LOVE YOUR DEMOS!!! Thank you for posting this. And a Damn Garden book?? I can’t even stand it- that is right up my alley. I will be sending you pictures. You are awesome.

  • Cheryl McLaughlin

    just felt like saying – again – how much I love your work. YOU are amazing – your work is just so different from anyone else’s, and I mean that in a very good way ;-)

  • Patricia

    Am home again and looking at the rather sorry state of our garden … an imaginative watercolor interpretation is the only thing that could save it now (at least until Spring). You make gardens look the way gardeners dream thay’ll look but seldom do.

  • Vivian

    Thank you, Cheryl — sometimes I really do forget that being different can be a good thing.

  • Vivian

    The poet Wallace Stevens always used to add one ugly word to each of his poems. The more I paint, the more I understand that making a picture that’s just “pretty” is boring. Yes, at first I was thrilled when I could paint something that looked “right” but now that my success rate is about 80% I find myself getting bored. And then I paint a wholloping fugly one (see next Friday’s post) and that reminds me to stay humble and stay curious.

  • Vivian

    Isn’t that Albert Camus? I tried to embiggen the thumbnail to be sure but it only gets pixelated…but I think that’s the famous existentialist philosopher novelist.

  • Vivian

    I have to see the Bad Cat’s Secret Garden (although I must say, almost every photo I’ve received so far has had a, shall we say “entitled” cat in it).

  • Vivian

    I have found that gardeners are very hard on themselves. They say that every gardener will show her garden with the words “You should have seen it a month ago” OR “You should see it when I finish it next year”.

    Also, I have to apologize to all those whose Comments are being caught in the spam filter. Japanese and Italian spammers have found a way through the firewall and I’m getting slammed with thousands of fake Comments a day and in order to protect the blog I’ve had to dump pages and pages of text. If you don’t see your Comment here feel free to email me at vivianswift at yahoo dot com.

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