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One of the most important questions a writer must answer (when asked at cocktail parties, or by an agent, or in reply to that hammering voice inside your head):

What kind of writer are you?

The same is true of illustrators, which is the second half of my answer to that writer question. I am still feeling my way towards a definitive answer regarding What kind of illustrator am I?, having only been at this for about five years now.

So this past weekend I tried to grow myself as an illustrator, do something new, and very different with my painting. It’s risky, I know, to step out of your comfort zone, to leave what you know to head into foreign territory. But if I want to write a book about rainy days, hypothetically speaking, I’m going to have to learn how to paint rain in its many forms, especially one of my favorite rains: Scottish rain in Winter.

So this past Saturday I tried to paint a rainy scene in Edinburgh in January.

It all starts with getting the cloudy, moody, darkening but still light sky right:

This sky has too much paint in it (I like to let the watercolor breathe, if you know what I mean, and this sky has no air in it), but I didn’t scrap it ASAP because I knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me re: the dark, dark, but slightly illuminated street below. So I took a shot at it:

Well, obviously, that’s not the way to do it. What I was trying for was a very impressionistic use of color to suggest form, something that is quite a challenge to my usual linear way of doing things (that is, I like to draw outlines and color them in, not build form from color itself).

So here’s Take Two:

Slightly better sky, not so overworked.

Now let’s see how the street goes:

I have a slightly better understanding of how to suggest form with planes of color. Slightly. This is, by the way, The Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and that fancy steeple is St. Giles’. 

Good thing I had no expectation of getting anything usable out of this exercise, or else I’d be really annoyed at my incompetence about now. Instead, I went at it again:

O.K. , got a half-way decent sky. Now let’s see what I’ve learned about all those dark shapes on the street below:

Now I know, after three attempts, how hard this is going to be. Now I know, after three failed attempts, why this is going to be hard for me.

It’s going to be as hard for me, an illustrator who likes to outline stuff and color it in, as it is for me, a writer of narrative non-fiction in the form of travel memoir, to write freaking poetry. This kind of scene is way too poetic for me.

So here’s my fourth and final attempt at it (which is about one-third smaller than my previous attempts; I purposefully worked my trials in a much larger format thinking that if I could get the hang of painting it  big, I could then easily paint it small, where I am naturally more comfortable):

You don’t have to tell me. I know this sucks. But lucky me: I also know four ways to not paint a poem about Edinburgh on a January evening.

But I do not want to leave you, dear readers, with these ugly images of Edinburgh. I am working on another image of Edinburgh in January, one that has a cloudy, moody, dark and light sky that takes full advantage of everything that watercolor does best, and also has a bunch of  my cozy, comfy outlines waiting for me to color in.

It’s a picture of the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile, and there’s me, my sister Buffy, and my mother standing in front of it (I’m waving).

This is the kind of illustrator I am:

Love the sky. That’s a watercolor in the rain sky!

Next week I’ll show you what this looks like when it’s all colored in. Interesting factoid: that building right behind the Tron is a Starbuck’s. Another interesting factoid: the inside of this church is empty. It’s not being used as a going concern vis-a-vis the worship of a deity because it’s being used as an archaeological site. The floor of the church has been dug up to reveal an ancient stone road over which the Tron was built in the 17th century.

That road is known, from old city records, to be the oldest paved road in the city. It’s called Marlin’s Wynd, and it was built by a Huguenot stone mason named Walter Marlin in the 16th c. My mother is a Marlin. That’s why I dedicated my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, to Walter Marlin of Edinburgh, and my mother. Roads are in my blood. Thanks for the DNA, Ma.

Which is why I am thinking of taking a road tripthis January. No, not back to Edinburgh. To Athens. Or, I should say,  to the Athens of the South.


Because nobody — but NOBODY — knows me there.

I don’t normally look at my Book Scan sales stats, but since I’m thinking of going to Nashville I thought what the hell, let’s see if I’m famous there. Turns out that nobodyin Nashville has ever wanted (at least in the weeks of July 18 – Aug 14) to read my book…but people in Lexington and Louisville do! Thank you Kentucky!!

And thank you Seattle/Tacoma and Portland! The readers in my beloved Great Pacific Great Northwest are still THE BEST.

(Don’t ask me why, but sales for When Wanderers Cease to Roam took a spike beginning the week of July 31, and spiked higher in the week beginning Aug. 7. I have no clue what’s going on. But then the author is usually the last to know: make note of that, all you who are keeping notes on How Publishing Really Works.)

So I think I have to go introduce myself to the fine people of Nashville.

Readers? Do you know anybody in Nashville who could use a visit from an itinerant doodler/diarist?

P.S. You didn’t think I’d sign off without giving you a taste of August on Long Island, did you? Here’s how I herd cats  in my Queendom, as of August 19, 2011 (That’s Bibs, Oscar, and Taffy).

10 comments to Knowing Me, Knowing You.

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  • Deborah

    I’ll take credit for the Louisville surge — ha!

  • Shelley

    I love the way you bring us into your process of figuring out how to do something. It inspires me because you remind me that it’s ok to NOT know, and whatever “it” is, it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.

    And…I like aspects of all the attempts you showed us so far…None of them suck from my point of view, even if they aren’t as wonderful as the finished image will be when you get it the way you are seeing it in your mind.

  • Your watercolors are superb. Just leafing thru your book will prove that you do know yourself, and your style very well. Its amazing that you’re still learning, I look forward how someone so talented can get better!

    So thats what Adirondack chairs are for.

  • Rachel

    This is just a wild guess, but Cathy Johnson’s Artist’s Journal Workshop book was released end of June. It is turning out to be a HIT! Cathy is a wonderful artist and teacher with a lot of happy followers and has come out with this excellent book just as the Artist’s Journal movement seems to be really taking off. And she mentions Wanderers as a nifty book. Twice! Possible cause for sales spike????

    You are so kind to share your experiments and stretching exercises with us. Thank you.

  • I just tried my hand at painting skies this week!
    I sucked but I’ll keep going because I really want to learn watercolor after buying your book!

    I liked ALL of your little Edinburgh paintings! But, I like your “lines and fill in color” method the best and can’t wait to see it all finished! xo

  • Okay, if I could paint like *that* (your “failed” attempts, a-hem…) I would blow it up to the size of my garage door, paste it outside my house, and stand out there and shout at all the cars going by “LOOK! I MADE THIS!!”

  • Nashville!! Very good idea I’d say. The drawings are fantastic Vivian…

  • Susie

    Aw, Vivian, you know what kind of painter you are and we love everything/anything you do! Your ‘failed’ attempts are anything but….if I could paint rain (or anything else) like you can, well, all would be right with my world!
    I love the perspective on Tron Kirk, that huge spire piercing the rainy , cold sky. A bit ominous, somehow…..

    It’s interesting to watch how you decide and develope what you’re painting, the lessons are very helpful.

    And thank you for the extra kitty tidbit….

    PS. Thanks to Rachel for mentioning Cathy Johnson’s new book. It’s been itching the back of my mind and now it’s time to get my own copy.

  • Mary Martin

    Wow! I know how hard skies are to paint, rain or no rain, so I admire your studies very much!
    I lived in Nashville in my teens (a hundred years ago), but if I were still there my home would certainly be open to you! I bought “When Travelers…….” some time ago before I had heard anything about it, and was immediately enamored of your work. I currently have your new book on pre-order and am looking forward to the release date! Hope you are getting battened(?) down for the hurricane!

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