Baby Steps, Ugly Baby Steps

This is a really crappy painting of mine that I call The Lone Skater.

It is the approx. size of a Triscuit, but we ran out of Triscuits so here it is with a Tostito.

This was one of the first watercolor paintings that I did, ever, about five years ago when I started working on my book (which is called When Wanderers Cease to Roam in case you are a new reader dropping in from Toulouse — Bonjour! by the way). At the time that I painted this picture, this was the very best that I could do.

As a brand new beginner watercolorist I had the good sense to start small. It’s efficient: the smaller your work area, the less time it will take for you to find out whether or not your effort is a lost cause — I didn’t want to have to work on a big painting for an hour and then realize it was trash; when your painting is the approx. size of a Triscuit you know within minutes whether it’s a keeper or not.

Working small also gives you the luxury of starting over and over over without wasting a lot of paper and feeling guilty about using up too much landfill for naught. You can paint a dozen crappy paintings a day(and if you are a beginner, rest assured that you will paint a dozen crappy paintings; if you don’t paint a dozen crappy paintings a day then you are not trying hard enough) and feel OK about throwing them all away.

Baby steps. Working on a small scale lets you take  baby steps before you get all abstract-expressionist-mural-size confident.

I had the nerve to put this first painting of  The Lone Skater in the dummy book that I put together (all I had was the first three chapters) when I sent the proposal for When Wanderers Cease to Roam to publishers. When Bloomsbury bought the manuscript this picture was there on page 9, in the January chapter.

So then I had a contract to deliver an entire book. And I kept painting and I worked my way through all 12 chapters, by which time I’d been using watercolor paints for a whole year and I could not help but improve my technique as an illustrator. There was such a difference between those paintings that I’d done for the last few chapters and the stuff I’d done for the first three chapters that  I had to go back and re-paint most of the old illustrations at the very beginning of the book, including The Lone Skater.

This is what The Lone Skater looked like when I re-did it after I’d been painting for a year. This is the picture that made it into print on page 9 of WWCTR.

What a difference a year makes.

Practice, practice, practice; sometimes I think I should apply the same ethic to my deplorable cooking skills but then Top Cat would start expecting me to make dinner once in a while and that would seriously cut into all the time that I already spend not lifting a finger around the house. As much as it amazes me how my crappy painting skills have improved by dint of simple practice, I have to insist that there are some things about me that are as good as they are going to get.

8 comments to Baby Steps, Ugly Baby Steps

  • It is good to see the size of your paintings by comparison with biscuits. But I don’t know what those are! We don’t get either sort in the UK. I think you will have to add an additional something so that I can see how big the biscuit is so I can see how big the painting is…..
    Anyway, I love your work and always enjoy reading your blog, whatever the size!

  • Barbara Lemme

    Giving up cooking for art is always a plus with me! Though I must say before eating healthy was so important, cooking was more fun and an art. Back to art.

  • Margaret, do you have Carr’s Water Table biscuits? Or ordinary saltines? That’s a comparable size, isn’t it, Vivian? Your paintings look to be 2 by 2 inches. Smaller? Now we all want to know what kind of watercolor paints you use. Winsor & Newton? Pans or tubes? I am always flummoxed by mixing colors. Always turns out muddy.

  • Barbara Finwall

    I’m at November in your book- almost to the end of the year and savoring every word and picture. I love your little watercolors. How interesting to know that you do them so small and what a perfect reason. Do you ever work from photographs or do you paint on the spot (plein air-ish)?

  • Vivian! In your next post can you answer some of our burning questions about how you paint? Pencil sketch underneath (I stare hard at the paintings in your book and can’t see any underpinnings)? Where did you learn to letter? Calligraphy lessons? We all really want to know! Surprisingly, there was no description on the copyright page of your book about how the book was made–you know, like “the illustrations were rendered in acrylics on Arches cold-pressed paper” or something.

  • Nice to see the difference. I guess I have to practice some more!

  • Jan

    That’s so encouraging! Now all I have to do is apply the practice part! ha!
    I SO love the miniature size too. Vivian, have you heard about “Inchies”? They’re tiny works of art that measure 1″x1″. (thus the name) I’m not sure where the trend started but I’m guessing it was a follow up of the Artist trading card craze. They’re like baseball trading cards..but are little works of art that are the same size. Lots of folks create and trade them. There’s tons of groups online that deal only with ATCs or Inchies! Anyway…I love the concept and your mini art reminded me of them.
    Thanks again for taking the time to share all of your good stuff!
    Pass the salsa, please!

  • Maryann

    Oh heavens! This post had me rolling with laughter!!!!!!!!!! I was going to quote all of the funny stuff from your post here in this comment, but there is just too much! Suffice it to say: You are delightfully funny!!!!

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