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First, I did a number of sketches.

Oh, wait. I forgot to tell you that I’m working on some illustrations of a delightful walled garden in Edinburgh called Dunbar’s Close, a small secret green space off the Royal Mile. Dunbar’s Close is a long narrow formal landscape comprised of three outdoor “rooms” — this is just one of the sketches I made of the general layout of the garden.¬†The space is sandwiched between the Canongate Church and its cemetery and another tenement building. There’s a hill in the distance with the old Scottish Royal Academy on it.

I have an idea to paint all three of the Dunbar Close garden “rooms” seperately so I settled on an eastern view of the first “room”, which I drew on tracing paper and taped onto a light box so that when I turn the light box on I will be able to paint the image on my watercolor paper without having to draw it on my watercolor paper. Andyes, I am deliberately screwing with perspective so I can show more of the fancy shrubbery without dong an aerial view. That’s Coco, my really feral cat, helping me. I trapped her over ten years ago and it’s only been in the past 12 months that’s she begun to let me pet her. I’m left handed, so of course she’s decided to park her butt right where she will be most “helpful”. Yes, that’s a cup of tea in between two jars of water for the paints. Yes, sometimes I get confused and dip my brush into the tea cup instead of the water jar. I like the taste of ultramarine.

It wasn’t until I got this far that I realised that I had no idea how to paint shrubbery. It looked so easy — just swab some green stuff around! But oh, crap: it’s going to be harder than I thought. So I started to experiment:

This is how I learned that stippling is the only way to paint boxtree shrubs.

This is my second attempt to paint the damn boxtree shrubs. Still pretty icky. So I started over again:

Only to discover that I can’t paint ivy, or trees, or gravel, or background. So I start over again, but this time I’ll start with the gravel:

The gravel still looks shitty. Time to START OVER AGAIN. Technically, by this time I’ve turned the view of this garden from east to west…but you don’t really have to know that. I just wanted to avoid having to paint a whole lot of ivy, and the¬†western walls have a nice stone pattern that I think will be more fun to do, so that’s why you won’t see two walls of ivy in the finished picture. Aren’t you glad to know that?

I liked this gravel better — made by letting the water do a lot of work while all I did was drop blobs of paint into it. So, whew. Now I can start on the cobblestone pathway.

So far, so good.

As it is starting to look a little monotonous, I’m going to add some warm color here in the cobblestones. Also I love this garden and I want to make it look a little more magical…

I’m not saying that this is the final illustration, or that I’m totally happy with it, but obviously I’ve learned a lot since this –

And it only took two days out of my life. Just imagine what I can learn if I START OVER AGAIN!

So that’s what I’ll be doing this fine Spring Friday: learning again from my mistakes, forcing myself to get it right this time, suffering for my art.

I’ll let you vote: Who isn’t entirely bored by my detailed telling of my trial-and-error methods and wants to see what this thing will look like after I’m done today? Better yet: does anyone have any suggestions to make this picture better?

20 comments to Old Dog, New Tricks

  • Deborah

    my suggestion:People sitting on the benches, with a critter (dog or cat) at their feet.

    Not tired of reading of your efforts, but struck by the arena of patience. My neighbor told me the other day that I had a lot of patience. He was referring to my gardening because I’m always out puttering — whereas his goal in life is to spend as little time out in his yard as possible. But I would have no patience with painting. As I’m reading this blog, I found myself imagining crumpling up the paper after the 2nd or 3rd attempt and quitting forever.

  • Jen

    I’d like to the see the hint that there had been some activity in this garden. Something left behind, a personal item: a book, a coat, a scarf caught somewhere, an umbrella left behind. Something that invites the viewer to conjure ideas of who had been there and what they had been doing.

    Your persistence is inspiring.

  • Carol

    Are animals able to go in the garden? May people come in with their dogs? Would a cat be able to get in? And Coco could be the model!!
    I would love to see more of all the garden pictures.

  • Vivian, You make my day! I definitely like the dialogue that accompanies your art experiments and I feel that I learn so much from “watching” you.


  • julie

    Maybe a bird in the tree. Or one last leaf on a branch. Something that questions the geometry. Does that make sense? Love watching the step by step process unfold.

  • I’m always amazed at your attention to detail and your stick-to-it-ive-ness.
    What surprised me most about this is that the painting isn’t really small, you’re using a bigger format.
    And seeing your paints out, even if they are on the wrong side while Coco keeps you company, is interesting. She’s on your photos, isn’t she? Those mostly black with a bit of orange cats are hard nuts to crack. Even when not feral….Does Coco purr for you?
    Adding a bird or kitty to the garden room would give us a size reference and grab our hearts into the scene….what do you think?

  • You have never bored me yet!
    I like the suggestion about adding something to give an idea of scale. Coco would be good. (Or a tea bag?)
    What patience you have.

  • Rachel

    I am with all of those who vote for continued pictures of how you do your illustrations. Instead of ruining the effect for later, they make it even more magical.

    MY LE ROAD TRIP ARRIVED ON WEDNESDAY. We have reached the Bayeux Tapestry and I am having a really wonderful time accompanying you and James (TC) on your honeymoon. Thank you so very much for sharing your vision with us.

  • Love seeing your paints, brushes, and work space, cat included. I like the freeform looseness of the original sketch AND the highly finished version too. Perhaps add some warm light in the windows in the background…?

  • mo

    i really enjoy reading these posts about how you get from point A to point Z and all the stops between. most interesting. i love the suggestion that Jen made, about a hint of someone having just been there, like an open book or journal with pen or something like that. personal, unobtrusive, yet intimate at the same time.

    thank you for sharing with us once again ;)

  • Janet

    I, too, like being invited into the kitchen to watch you prepare the meal. The stone work in the work in progress is especially nice, along with the tree in the center. The perspective feels a little off to my eye, but only what is in the lower quarter. I think it’s the downward pointing corner on the foremost right angle shrub. Maybe a bird on one of the tree branches could introduce a sign of life? But so would some of the things others have also mentioned.

    Your perfecting technique is impressive. I fear I often give up too soon on a lot of things, and you remind all of us to stay at it until it’s right. Thank you for that.

  • Sally

    I love your step by step art sharings, and yes, would love to see the finished one. Also love your new book – it arrived yesterday and I’m trying not to read it all in one day…like to prolong the enjoyment.

  • Sally

    Vivian, I love looking over your shoulder at the process, even the process in process. Please keep posting such. Re: Le Road Trip–I’m just back from dinner with 2 friends, one of whom is the birthday girl du jour, a francophile and felinophile, and whom we gifted with one of the hot-off-the-press books I ordered. I think it hit the mark.

    Have you been compiling FAQ or inFAQ about the France book? Let me add to the list: Tell me please (this is a question in disguise), that the beautiful paintings on pages 72/73 (the best, I think. in the book) were not painted the size of Triscuits. And re: the type (and sorry, I might have missed this in an earlier post): it’s said to be “hand set” by you. Clearly it’s your hand printing but seems to be used as a printing font. How does that work? ( I believe Wanderers was hand lettered by you, wow, daunting).

  • I could never tire of your details…love seeing your trial and error. I’m teaching myself watercolor so seeing your process is like getting a free lesson from someone whose art I love. And I love the final result. It’s perfect. :)

  • We love seeing your process (and cats, and tea cups and thrift store trips, and, and…). I find your art journal and painting lessons useful and fun. So please DON’T STOP doing what you’re doing.

    In WWCTR I treasure all of the unexpected and wholly delightful lists and collections you assembled (a page of orphan mittens, different ways to make toast, imaginary seed packets). I mention this because that’s what I’d want to go along with your lovely painting above. A page showing the little things you found on your walk there, or sampler page of the windows looking down on this garden or perhaps a “Favorite Gardens” mini memoir a la “A Tea Time Memoir in Five Miniscule Chapters” (pp. 46-48 for those of you following along in the book).

    Thank you for your blog!

  • janet bellusci

    first, i am AMAZED at what you think you “can’t” do. second, i ADORE watching your process. third, your work is inspirational and soothing, no matter how much it gives you pause as you do it. and finally, just LOVE coco helping.

  • Jeannie

    I love these posts. I am trying to learn to draw and paint with watercolors. Seeing your trials and tribulations makes me easier on myself. Us non-artist types think that you sit down and the paint just flows off your brush into beautiful washes of gravel or leaves. Thank you for sharing your trials and errors. I find the left wall needs something or the benches need some darker contrast (shadow?) to make them stand out. Thanks again!

  • BB

    so not bored ever!

  • Mary

    Patience: equals VIVIAN SWIFT.
    I could never do it, but I love to read about how you do it. Genius.

    I read Le Road Trip, and now I’m going to do it again, only pay more attention to the paintings.

    Again; GENIUS

  • I love these process posts, fascinating. I like the idea of an item left behind to suggest that someone was just there and gone.

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