The Breakfast of Champions


Left over blue birthday cake and lots of vitamin Champagne. Thank you everyone, for your Happy B-Day wishes — Top Cat tells me that I share the day with Sade, Kate Moss, Ruth Reichl, Ethel Merman, and the guy who invented the Zamboni, whose name was Mr. Zamboni.

I couldn’t be prouder, as if having the same birthday as Albert Einstein somehow gave a person intellegence and great hair. According to my birth day cohort I should be a singing gourmet ice skater with a heroin habit. Nice!

So today’s the day I catch up with the Comments: do you know that there are people who e-mail me to say that they are in too much awe of the high quality of the Comments that they don’t have the nerve to leave a word of their own? What can I say? I can’t help it if all my readers were born on Albert Einstein’s birthday.

Margaret in England got me thinking about how Amero-centric I am. From now on I will try to use universal food to compare my art work to. How’s this?:

And for my Damn France Book I’ve been using the old tea spoon parameter when I paint landscapes:

This format is a lot of fun, especially when I put threesomes on one page like this (those top two pictures are of the farmhouse B&B we stayed in Haute Medoc Bordeaux when we were in Damn France and the bottom one is of the town down the road). They are a challenge to compose but the format is also very forgiving — sometimes I don’t want to have to paint the whole building, just a detail of it; this format widens the view while narrowing it at the same time. The visual representation of a squint. I love it.

I do indeed draw the picture in pencil before I paint it and I’m as surprised as anybody that more of those pencil lines don’t show through. When the paint is dry, I take my eraser and rub it all over the picture to pick up any stray marks (especially if I’m painting a lot of “white” areas — that is, leaving the surface of the paper to show through as “white”) so I guess that’s why the pictures look so clean.

As for equipment, this is the whole kit. This is the butcher-block table that I paint on, with my three sets of Grumbacher Deluxe Opaque Watercolor 24-pan sets (the set on the far right is there just to show you what they look like when they are brand new — I mix paints directly in the pans and it gets ugly). I go through a lot of green paint, so I have to have two sets in rotation when I’m painting. Each Grumbacher set costs about $20.00 and I buy them on line from Blick.

I use Canson 90-pound watercolor paper, which is light weight for watercolor. A tablet of 15 sheets of 11″ x 15″ paper costs $9.00 but I buy it at Michaels with 50%-Off coupons.  I can do a a whole lot of crappy painting for $4.50!

That note book that you see on my table (in the lower right hand corner) is my diary. I found a great spiral-bound 8″ x 8″  blank book about ten years ago at The Morgan Library and I loved it so much that I persuaded a local stationery store to carry the book so I could buy it in bulk. It’s the only note book I use now, and it’s  why I wanted my published book to be in an 8″ x 8″ format; however, due to my sloppiness around the margins, we had to make the book 9″ tall. But I’m not making the same mistake with my Damn France Book.

I mostly paint from photos, but I take photos specifically so I can paint them. The exception being times when I’ll see a sunset or a certain color on snow that I’ll remember well enough to bang it out (all my paintings in the January chapter [of When Wanderers Cease to Roam]of twilight on snow are from memory).; and since my work table is in front of two windows, sometimes I’ll just paint what I see out the window (check out the rain on the windowpanes on page 59).

I paint from photos because I am a bit secretive about my work. I like to paint in private, in warmth, with a cup of tea handy. I don’t mind making an ugly painting but I don’t want any witnesses.

But you want to knw what I like best about my work room? The thing that makes my work room the most awesome work room In The World? I have a screen door on my room — an indoor screen door! I have two cats who are so miserable to the other four cats in the house that they have to live in my room together (and they love each other, so they’re happy) but I didn’t like it that I had to spend my days in this room with these cats with the door closed, cut off from the rest of the house. Top Cat put an extension phone in there for me, but I still felt too isolated. So I asked him to make me a screen door!

Now I can sit in there, hunched over my tea-bag sized paintings hour after hour, and anybody can stop by and talk to me through the screen door. The fact that hardly anybody ever doescome by and talk to me is not the point. I am communicado with the rest of civilization and I have the world’s only indoor screen door! It’s such a great invention that I don’t think it should be called an indoor screen door, I think it should be called a Viviani.

And then Mr. Zamboni will be bragging that he was born on the same day as that lady who invented the Viviani.

10 comments to The Breakfast of Champions

  • What a great idea, an indoor screen door! That would have been great when my kids were little. And what a good name for it. Thanks for the inside look at your process and materials. It’s rainy and time for tea.

  • Happy belated Birtday–no that’s not a typo. My niece had a doll cake made by a friend, you know, those plastic dolls baked in a dress-shaped cake? and the inscription said “Happy Birtday.” I take pride that my day is shared by Proust, but I wish my mother had held me in another day (hard to do as I was a scheduled Caesarian) so I could share a birthday with Thoreau and E.B. White, my two favorite writers. Love your January Blue cake.

    Thank you so much for showing us your studio and supplies! I *knew* you were a pan person and not a tube person (well, not really, but I’m glad because watercolor tubes are expensive and intimidate me and pans of watercolor are more like playing). I’m also glad to know your wonderful work is done on homely supplies, like Michael’s watercolor paper. I hang out with a lot of illustrators and some admit they only use gesso on silk or handmade paper squashed through a sieve.

    Like you, I have (or did have) cats in my room and having air makes a huge difference! A screen door wouldn’t have helped. All of our screens are ripped from the cat fights on either side of the doors and windows.

    I can’t imagine anyone staying away from commenting because they feel some comments are too high-toned or something. Trust me, I have more trouble with syntax and I’m a professional! I’m writing an essay for a scholarly children’s literature text and have been in a swivet for three days over how to use the word “juxtapose.” (“Juxtapose beside? Juxtapose next to? In juxtaposition with?”) I’m asking my husband before I turn the thing in.

    Anyway, I have a passable set of 24 color watercolor (pans) by Pelikan, a lot of brushes. All I need is the paper, which doesn’t sound as “toothy” as some. I just need to get a tea bag (the Tostidos are gone), a photo to copy, and sit down . . .

  • Happy Belated Birthday Vivian..
    I have not seen a blue cake since 1972, and that one had green trim that turned out to be Crest toothpaste. The cake was brought by a little neighbor girl who had not been invited to my sister’s party. She heard there was going to be fire-eater there, so she invited herself and brought a truly inedible cake. Hope yours was better..and there were no passive-aggressive neighbor kids at the party. Nor cocaine-addicted fire eater guys who were friends of your Mom’s that actually was not fond of kids.

  • PS. You aren’t going to…GLUE that piece of cutlery on the page, are you?

  • Rachel

    Oh, Vivian, I have been so enjoying glimpses of how you do your work. My computer is in the shop for the second week, it was seriously attacked by a virus, so it has been catch as catch can, but I am reading and enjoying. Hippo Birdy to Ewe. Mine is Jan 30. Hugs, Rachel

  • Janet

    Vivian, thanks for showing us where and what you use to create your mini-masterpieces. I had wondered if you painted from photos, too. I love the idea of a Viviani, which could be either an indoor screen door or a blue birthday drink with champagne and curacao.

  • Sandy in Guilford CT

    You always make me smile!! I think I will try the squint approach to painting, framing a subject and focusing is always the big step and I tend to get too much involved!! Hummmm opaque WC (gouche??) You certainly get beautiful effects and I had not noticed any lack of transparancy. Good old Dick Blick (or cheap joes even better!) and I also love 90# paper, but teabag size (or triscuit) is quite minute delicate work – I am even more impressed with your set up and cat company :-) Whatever, it surely works for you and your silver tongue – Happy Belated Birthdate!!!and thank for sharing the nitty gritty details!

  • jen

    I missed your birthday! Did you really have that bluey-blue cake? Wow! Your blog is very entertaining. Working among kitty butt and all. =)

  • SusanSW

    Wow, sorry I missed your birthday but that looks like the perfect birthday breakfast!! Champagne and cake! (though I prefer mine pink).

    Hope it was a happy one.

    Thanks for all the tips and I love reading your blog.

  • Oh I love this as a birthday cake idea! Might have to use it!

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