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I’m still at it. Still flummoxed by gardens. My paintings of them still look like crap. If you remember, when we last left off I was trying to do justice to a small walled garden off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh called Dunbar’s Close:

In the past two weeks I’ve actually tried TWICE to re-paint this, but the results were even worse so instead I went back and made certain necessary corrections to make this illustration a tad bit less crappy:

(I corrected the paved area in the background — it’s actually gravel there — and I darkened the tree so it pops more, and I studied my reference photos to try and get the benches right. I like everyone’s suggestions about putting something human-scaled in there, which I will incorporate in the rest of the garden that I haven’t yet had the nerve to tackle — Dunbar’sClose goes on and on and on…)

I’ve contacted the caretakers of Dunbar’s Close in Edinburgh and they have kindly agreed to send me a list of plantings in the three parterre gardens in the Close, my thinking being that if I could look at botanical references maybe I’ll be able to paint the damn hedges better. While I await receipt of these lists I went back to my comfort zone, garden-wise. I did a miniature painting of the secret doorway to Dunbar’s Close on the Royal Mile (miniature being my preferred canvas):

And then I did a street scene that includes this portal to Dunbar’s Close (line drawings and coloring-in being my wheelhouse, illustration-wise, if you know what I mean):

There are 83 “closes” on the Royal Mile such as this one that leads to Dunbar’s Close. My experience of this stretch of the Royal Mile is in January, in the rain, but I did not have a good reference photo of this so I got in touch with an Edinburgh photographer who went and took a wide-lens shot for me last month:

As you can see, it was a sunny day when John took his photo so I had to rain-it up for my purposes…because I’m an ARTIST, damn it, and I have a license. And  because you have to maximize your natural defects the best way you can, eh? Oh, if only I could spend my life making line drawings….

But no. I’ve always wanted to paint in shadows and light, which I think I’m going to HAVE to learn how to do if I want to become a good garden painter. So while I’m still waiting for the list of plantings from the caretakers of Dunbar’s Close, I’m skipping ahead to another wonderful garden I love, in Key West. And when it comes to Key West, I’ve always been very fond of this picture I took in 2005 when Top Cat and I spent a long February weekend there (this is our guest room at the Conch House Heritage Inn, built in 1885):

I love the monochromatic effect of this picture, the long afternoon shadows, and how the orange cat is the only spot of color. To paint this, I first had to draw it, enlarged from this snapshot :

I had to leave out that second rocking chair — waaaay too complicated for my skill level and I didn’t want to make myself any crazier than I had to. I also opened the left shutter on the door to make the French doormore comprehensible. And of course, there is only one way to paint this drawing: on my light box:

By putting my 90-lb Canson watercolor paper over this drawing and firing up the light box, the outlines of this sketch show through to guide me as I “color in” the shadows that I see in the photograph. It took me about two hours to paint this, pretty much holding my breath the whole time. This would be so easy to screw up and, in fact, I did make some flubs but hey– This was my first attempt at real painting so I expected that it wouldn’t be perfect. I was listening to NPR while I painted, and it seems Martin Sheen and his son Emilio have written a book about being a father and son and OH MY GOD Emilio Esteves, who I remember as a high school kid in The Breakfast Club, now has a grown son of his own who is married and living in Spain. That’s not right. That Emilio has adult children, I mean. I mean, for chrissake.

Anyway, Martin Sheen’s voice is what I remember when I look at this finished picture:

Yeah, I had to ditch the French door and the window entirely — there was no way I had the manual dexterity to pull that off. It was the rocking chair and the cat that I most wanted to paint any way and if you had not seen the original concept you would think that this was a pretty completely realized composition, eh?

Keep that in mind whenever you see any artist’s work: the end result is probably not what the artist had in mind (does any end result live up to the standards of perfection that exist in the artist’s mind?) and one’s artistic “style” is most likely a result of making the best of one’s  natural defects.

Thank you, one and all, for all your garden book recommendations last week. I’m still searching for the garden artist that I can steal from…I have a specific viewing experience in mind when it comes to garden art, and hoo boy some of the garden books I’ve come across miss it by miles.

Last Sunday I journeyed to the wilds of Westchester County to visit a billionaire’s garden because I wanted to see what a man with an undogly amount of money puts in his garden. Stayed tuned: I’ll  show you, right here, next week.

So here’s where I stand: My garden book has, so far , a  Winter Garden in Edinburgh, an American Tropical Sunset Garden, Robert’s Found Art Garden, a Billionaire’s Garden…do you see where I’m going? This is not your typical Garden Book.

14 comments to Back to the drawing board

  • Tracey

    The little Scottish garden is too tidy. Perhaps you relate more to the less immaculate, rustic gardens such as Robert’s garden?

    One of the most beautiful gardens that I’ve visited in recent years was Wave Hill in Riverdale.

  • Mary

    Riverdale WHAT? State, please; in case I can go see it?

  • Tracey

    Riverdale, NY:

    The Hudson views are amazing. The gardens are beautiful.

  • mo

    what about Longwood Gardens in PA? what a spectacular place. i’m trying to think of “oddball” gardens, like hedges shaped like animals and such.

    i love your sketches, all versions. terrific ;)


  • Love the wee painting of the secret doorway. Especially the warm red on the outside wall and the peek of green inside, it works so well with all the gray tones. (Love the other paintings too but that little one really drew me in!)

  • Mary

    Thank you, Tracey. The pictures look lovely. I live in Phila., so I will try to get there someday.

  • Deborah

    Your painting of the portal makes me waaay less dizzy than the photograph of it.

    Lovin’ your concept of a garden book. This is pretty far off topic, but combines my love of maps & the outdoors: the illustration of the 100 acre woods on the endflaps of my copy of Winnie the Pooh. I’d have to look up who the illustrator was.

  • jacqui

    Look forward to your Billionaire’s garden….I would think Prince Charles is a billionaire and I love what he put in his garden…conscientiously and sustainably and also in Scotland.
    I feel like a tree full of ripe fruit, dripping and ready to harvest with memories since you have introduced the topic of gardens. Last week I was introduced to Old Moss Womans secret garden. I hope she can be found other than Facebook. If I were going to paint a garden, I would just have to sit in it. If I could choose one garden to visit in autumn, it would be that of Tasha Tudor. The first time I sat and ate in a garden other than a relatives back yard, it was in Ojai, California at Alan Hookers Farmhouse Restaurant. I still use recipes from his vegetarian cookbooks altho I do not think the place is open any longer. My photos of visiting kitchen gardens in the Dordogne region of France inspired me to use tree trimmings to fill potholes in the long driveway and as trellis for growing peas. As well as making a garden scrapbook. Then I discovered The Cook and The Gardener…..You would love all of these….when I get back home I will go across the street from my apt building with my seed collection and add to the new volunteer village center garden. Meanwhile I am going to tea today with an old gardening friend at the new Tea Chai Te caboose that has an indoor garden patio. It is soooooo MAY everywhere!!

  • Joan

    I love the little painting of the exterior of the close entry….the sky is very moody and lovely. The softness of the colors is enchanting. Reminds me of “the Secret Garden.” One of my favorite childhood books.

  • janet bellusci

    I’ve been seeing a lot of coverage on this new book about Jefferson’s incredible gardens:
    “A RICH SPOT OF EARTH”: THOMAS JEFFERSON’S REVOLUTIONARY GARDEN AT MONTICELLO by Peter J. Hatch. You may want to explore this book (and the gardens) as well.

  • Joan

    Vivian: Check out Abbie Zabar’s (of Zabar’s Deli) delightful garden books. I can’t remember if the Potted Herb is the one about her year tending to her roof top garden at her apartment in Manhattan…both books shown in the link are delightful. They are no longer in print but I found them at used bookstores online…her drawings are very nice too

  • LOVE the porch painting. Such wonderful shadows and a feeling of comfort there. I want to spend some time in the rocking chair. I’m looking forward to seeing your billionaire garden photos. I don’t think I want that responsibility but maybe a millionaire’s garden would suffice for me. ;)

  • My pets have always supervised me while I garden. Is this true for anyone else?

    I just finished “Botany for the Artist: An Inspirational Guide to Drawing Plants” by Sarah Simblet and found it helpful (plus many of the photographs by Sam Scott-Hunter are amazing). The following books are on hold at my local library (will let you know if they’re any good):
    - “The Art of Botanical Painting” by Margaret Stevens
    - “Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted” by Justin Martin

    Thank you for sharing with us your artistic process (including the messy frustrating uncertainty of it all). I find the art, your various drafts and your commentary interesting in the same way that I prefer rehearsals over the final production. And when you need some comic relief just watch an episode of the Canadian TV show title “Slings and Arrows.” (You think painting is hard? Try directing a group of high-maintenance Shakespearean actors!)

  • I love the rocking chair/porch one, the light is incredible.

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