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That’s my motto for September: Every day, there’s a light or two less. In September it’s the sunsets that matter to me — as if by watching each one I can make the day last a moment or two longer even if I can’t stop the earth from turning away from the sun.

Exactly five years ago todayI was in France, in the Loire Valley, in a little town called Azay-le-Rideau. And, as it happens, I’m writing a book about that trip to France. AND as it happens, I happen to be writing the Loire Valley chapter, remembering my last dinner in Azay. I call it The Obligatory Proustian Experience (how can you go to France and not have one?)of hearing a song come on the radio playing in a little cafe that night in Azay, a song I hadn’t heard for over 25 years; a French pop song — a ballad — that reminded me of dancing on hot Summer nights in long Summer dresses with Certain Someones, etc., if you catch my drift. Very romantic. (The song was Elle by Didier Barbelivien, for those of you who were also listening to French pop music in the early 1980s.)

Well, that moment needs an illustration in my Damn France Book. Because that’s the kind of travel book I write: low on the literal, high on the weirdly subjective.

So I started with a photograph I’d taken of that very night, five years ago, with that song on my mind, in that little Loire Valley town (see above). Nice, right? (That’s why I took it.)  I studied it, and found that it would do just fine as my reference photo (see below, with  markings so I can tell where the horizon is):

Everything is there: the sky at sun set, the romantic landscape, the river reflecting the last lights of day. I like the back-light of this picture too, and how it makes everything in the foreground all velvety black…oooooo. That’s so romantic. I’m not sure I have the skill to paint this but boy, I sure want to try.

The only thing this scene didn’t have was a distinguishing feature, something that gave it that unmistakable romantic Loire Valley feeling.  So I gave it one:

That’s the actual chateau in Azay-le-Rideau, with slight perspective improvements on my part, to accentuate the turrets and the spires and all that castle-y stuff.

OK. Now I’m in business. I’m ready to paint me a picture of myObligatory Proustian Moment.

(There’s a light pencil sketch of the landscape and the chateau, with a dab of watercolor resist fluid to mark where the setting sun is.) Then I did a wash of my setting sun colors:

Whew. Got the yellow, pink, and violet paint to stay put and not blend into a puke taupe mess. Now, all I have to do is not screw up the river and I’m half-way there to a not-putrid illustration:


Not bad. Paintings always look kind of shitty at this stage, so I’m not worried that it’s a lost cause. Yet. Now for the brooding, gothic, romantic landscape features:

Ooooo. I like this.  Sure hope I don’t mess it up when I paint the chateau:

Hmmmmm. I’m beginning to have my doubts.

That chateau, it looks kind of cartoonish. And waaaay out of scale, which I didn’t notice when I decided to put it in the foreground. And the reflection of it in the river…that doesn’t look as watery was I want it to be.

I really like the hazyy look of the background there, but won’t I lose that whole mood when I paint in the black foreground stuff?

Oh well, too late: I’m committed to seeing this to the bitter end. Not just because I’m photographing it for all to see, but also because I have to learn what not to do. (By the way, I don’t normally take photos of all my works in progress — only the ones that are highly risky, to catch moments like this, when it all went wrong.)

Let’s just cut to the chase:

Oh, Jeeze. This is not what I had in mind. Nope. No way. But this is what you get for painting out of your comfort zone; sometimes you get a big fat load of crap. Or an illustration for a book I have no intention of writing (a self-published version of Sleeping Beauty).

I could tell this illustration was a stinker long before I finished it, but I made myself paint the whole thing so I could study the failure in all its completeness. And now I know how not to paint this picture! And I can’t wait to get it right!

And when I do, you’ll see it here.

Now, speaking of A Light Or Two Less:

This is Isabel. And below, is Panda:

Herre is Isabel and Panda doing yoga. This is the Downward Tub of Lard position.

And you’ve met my Hobos, the Brothers:

They were so little here, two years ago, they could all fit on the same patio chair. From right to left that’s Taffy, Lickety, and Butter, the leader of the pack.

Butter was the first of those fierce, wild, feral babies who let me touch him. This is a photo of the first time he let me scratch his little head:

Notice the little drop of milk on his chin. Butter loved his dairy products.

Carol (in the Comments on Monday) asked Where’s Butter? And I meant to tell you all, but I was waiting for the right time, and there really is no right time.

Each of these little lights of my life – Isabel the Cream Puff, Pandathe Champion Purrer When She Was In The Mood, and dear sweet little Butterscotch the Smooch — went out this past year (Butter in April, Panda in June, and Isabel in July). For Panda and Isabel, there was nothing more we could do for them in the end except hold them and tell them how much they were loved.

As for Butter, we tried to keep him in the fenced yard with his more homebody-brothers and parents but he was the one who had to see what was across the street…I know he would have been miserable if I’d taken his adventures away from him, made him into a house cat; so I let him live “wild” as he wanted, even if it did in the end cost him his life. That’s the deal I make with my feral cats: I will watch over you best I can and you will be the cat you were born to be, even though I know there’s a high chance that you will break my heart.

That’s why I tend to get up in the middle of rainy mights and schlepp out into the backyard to check up on all my kittens, and why I do a roll-call every few hours of the day, calling all cats to stand and be counted. I don’t know how else to live with these maddening, delightful, wayward, untamed creatures.

This weekend I’ll take another stab at painting my Obligatory Proustian Moment. And whether it’s a beaut or another pile o’crap, you’ll see it here.

8 comments to A light or two less

  • Deborah

    1) I wish all my failed efforts were as beautiful as yours.

    2) Besides the sorrow & sympathy I feel for your loss, your story of the cats made me think of the saying (cliche?) about the cracks in our heart from heartbreaks are what lets the light in, what allows us to grow. You’re so lucky to have those cats; and they are so lucky to have you.

  • bunny

    I loved this post, and though I usually read your Blog frequently, I rarely comment. But your story of the dear cats brought me to tears. When you think of those sweet animals, and even friends and family members that are no longer with us, its a good time for reflection, and to remember just how lucky we are, to have the people in our lives we can love, and life itself.

    I also loved the way you walked us thru the stages of the beautiful watercolor for the upcoming book, you are truly a talent who has mastered the fine are of watercolor magic.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the great stories (and that Isabelle is very cute)…and keep up the good work, it gives me great pleasure to have something to look forward to!

  • Ken

    and yet I look at the the painting in stages and think “I wish I could paint like that.”

  • I love seeing your work in progress. Please keep sharing it with us.

    I’m beginning to draw (after many years of wanting to), but have yet to screw up my courage to the sticking point to try watercolors. Reading your book and following this blog give me the courage to finally pick up a pencil and just do it.

    Living in a world that value consumption more than creation makes books and blogs like yours an oasis for those who love/want/need to create.

    Thank you.

  • Isn’t it funny that we’ve both been to Azay-Le-Rideau?

    It’s sure not funny about the loss of your kitties.
    That’s so sad to lose so many. I’m dreading that I have 6, all of a similar age. Which means they might all go at once or near each other.

    I’ll bet you end up with a beautiful painting.

    All of a sudden my picture is showing up here, but it’s the one with my sister. We have a blog that’s about the two of us and our avocado grove.

  • I’m sorry.

    As for the painting – too bad it didn’t come out as you wished but I love the use of color and shadow. It’s pretty cool. I have a blank canvas sitting against the wall taunting me. Pictures have been bouncing around my head instead of words lately. Not a good thing when I’m getting ready to submit.

    Happy weekend all.

  • Nadine

    Pets will always break your heart because the odds are that they’ll die before us. That’s why I spoil mine everyday since no one knows which day will be any of ours last one. You never know.

    As for the painting: It is a great Sleeping Beauty illustration! Maybe you’ll do a princess story one day. You never know. Do you save your rejects in case they’re appropriate for a later project?

    My trip to the chateau used by Disney for his original Sleeping Beauty castle (so goes the rumor) was on a rainy day so I stayed in the car and shot it through the windshield, then checked it off my Loire “To See” list. It had fewer turrets than your version.

  • candice

    Oh, Viv, I’m so sorry about those sweet babies. What else can we do except take them in and know one day we have let them go? They lived well, having you wait on them tail and paw.

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