Art Journal Tips

I had a really bad idea last week.

But first, a quick digression: Check out this window of W H Smith, the largest English bookstore in Paris, on the Rue de Rivoli (did I mention that it’s in PARIS? As in PARIS, FRANCE?): photo-5

See that book on the right? SEE IT?!?!?!? I’m so excited. I know this bookstore well and I NEVER thought I’d ever have a book in the window! (In my mind, I am buying everyone in the world a glass of champagne because I’m so happy!)

Thank you, Carol Gillot of Paris Breakfasts for sending this spiffy photo.

As I post this, Top Cat and I are on the road, taking a little 300-mile mosey around the Delaware Bay area on the east cost.

We left the Isle of Long via the Williamsburg Bridge…

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The most beautiful skyline in the world.

…and then we drove down the Garden State Parkway through the Garden State (Surprise! It’s New Jersey!) which is a drive that we love because, for one, the Garden State Parkway…

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…is planted with  fields of wild cosmos…

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…and leads us to Top Cat’s favorite playground…

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…Atlantic City. I, too, love AC because I get to say howdy to my favorite feathered friends on the boardwalk:

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This is what my feathered friends look like one second after all the french fries that I was feeding them are gone.

Other sights from the Delaware Bay:

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Somers Point is NJ’s best kept secret.

 

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Rose-Marsh (not Marsh-Roses, which would make more sense) in Cape May, NJ.

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Ochre-colored wooden door with louvres on colonial house in Smyrna, Delaware.

Our hunt for secret gardens took us to the perfectly preserved Revolutionary village of New Castle, Delaware:

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But even on a road trip, I haul my Damn Garden Book-in-progress with me:

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That’s me, working on the London chapter of The Damn Garden Book from the 16th floor hotel room of The Water Club at Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.

The Damn Garden Book got one step closer to publication this past week. I finally got my first three chapters illustrated and written and I submitted it to my agent — I do not “workshop” my writing; I re-re-re-re-rewrite it until I think it’s 99% of exactly what I want (I never get to 100%) and then I show it to my agent. Her feedback was very positive and she thought the book was ready to submit to Bloomsbury as is. So the manuscript is at my editor’s at Bloomsbury now and as soon as she approves the concept, we’ll negotiate a publication date and voila: the Damn Garden Book will be a reality.

One thing my agent observed was how much my painting has become more sophisticated. Well, I said, that’s what happens when you paint every day — you can’t help but get better. For example, here’s a little tiny illustration that appears in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam (Bloomsbury, 2008)…it’s on page 45 for those of you reading along.

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I drew this little illustration from reference photographs that I’d taken of my old, pre-marriage-to-Top-Cat kitchen:

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Photo montage of my dear old kitchen.

I loved my old kitchen. It had a corner, as you can see, that was just right for turning into a shrine to my love of all things Tea. About a year ago I re-did this illustration, expanding it to a full-page illustration. First, I drew it all over again:

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And then I painted it from scratch:

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I also changed cats — in the first illustration I put my cat Honey on the table — in this new illustration I put Woody Robinson on the table, in his favorite place: with his head under the lampshade.

But I can not leave you without a painting this week! So, seeing as it is August, my favorite month of the year, I’m re-running a favorite post from 2010 that I call: Painting August.

 

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So until next Friday, I hope you’re all enjoying the best month of Summer with road trips real and imagined.

Have a fab weekend.

 

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I’m always interested in how writers write. That’s why I am fascinated by their rough drafts:

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This (above) is a David Foster Wallace rough draft. Or, more accurately, it’s his notes for a chapter of one of his books. What interests me is that he’s not a linear list maker. He makes notes like a left-hander, rounding thoughts up in a non-hiearchical fashion, and then later culling those thoughts and hammering them into sentences and paragraphs. (Was David Foster Wallace left-handed? Stay here while I go check….

…I’m back. I couldn’t find any information about D. F. W.’s handedness but I’d be wiling to bet that he was a southpaw.)

Now, what I make of Marcel Proust…

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..is that the was a very organized thinker, and fearless about writing crappy first drafts (look at all that writing!) and passionate (all those huge vigorous Xs!) about editing out fluff or preciousness. I see that Proust wrote out all the bad ideas (the lightest and most fleet that come first to mind) and dug deep for the good stuff that lays low, in the back of consciousness.  It takes a lot of courage to not fall in love with your first concepts, to delete all the stuff that would have made your life easier if you had lower standards, pages and pages of it.

Here is Honore Balzac, correcting proofs:

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Back then, words must have looked so very, very different when seeing them in print for the first time, is how I account for these copious “corrections”. These days, the good old word processor gives you a sense of what cold, hard print looks like. Did I mention that I’ve been writing for days, weeks really, on end, trying to wrassle my Damn Garden Book into being? Writing makes me very tense. Very. Tense. But I’m on a word processor, so I get the shock of seeing my words in cold, hard print a.s.a.p. Yay for the modern age.

To soothe my nerves, I did paint an extra New Orleans picture…

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Truth is, so much less can go wrong with a painting than with a paragraph.

…but we’ll get back to that later. This is Don Delillo, whose books I do not read:

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And this is Chuck Palahniuk, also whose books I do not read:

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No judgment there against Don and Chuck, who are both literary and marketplace superstars, it’s just that reading fiction is a colossal waste of time. But I like following Chuck’s train of thought there, the one that ends with  “BOY IN COMA”. Fun.

I am an amateur graphologist, and the give away here (below) is the so-called “lyrical D“. That’s when the lower case “D” found at the end of a word resembles a musical note — see it?  I count eleven such lyrical D‘s here, in the words “and”, “world”, “wind”, “thread”, “round”:

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The “lyrical D” denotes a sensitive nature, a person whose general  wiftiness is because of artistic temperament, not stupidity. Not that these things aren’t mutually exclusive. The writer of all these lyrical D’s is…

…Walt Whitman.

So, as free-associative as his poems appear, they are actually meticulously composed, going by this rough draft.

Graphologically speaking, this next writer is very intellectual (vertical letter formation, straight downstroke formation to the lower case “Y”, very angular script). The “WAR IS PEACE” stuff gives it away:

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This is George Orwell’s rough draft for his novel, 1984. Raise your hand if you remember reading this in high school and thinking Jeeze…1984 is soooooo faaaar awayyyyyyy in the far, far future……Back in high school, I could not imagine a reality in which I would be 28 years old in 1984. But let’s not digress.

Next, we see that even geniuses revise:

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Yes, that’s Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. I can imagine that when he wrote the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in capital letters, he did so because the whole notion of a United States of America, the foreignness of those words, the power and danger of them, made his heart pound. He wanted to imagine what they would look like in print, he wanted to make monuments of those words. And yes, there’s that “lyrical D” again.

And then there’s the rough draft that shows the writer’s eternal obstacles and inconveniences, as seen here in a 14th century hand-lettered manuscript painstakingly inked by some anonymous monk or scribe,  recently discovered in some Ye Olde English archive, a vellum hand-bound book that has been gathering dust for centuries:

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Looks like Fluffy did a toe dance in the ink pot again.

It revives my faith in humanity, and not incidentally the written word, to see that literate men from time immemorial have chosen to share their intellectual lives and learned work and cloistered hearts with their pain-in-the-ass pet cats.

I have always said that I am a writer who illustrates. I say that because I wrote stuff long, long before I ever illustrated stuff. I only started to illustrate because I wanted to create a reading experience that depended on a visual element and I was the only illustrator who could stand to work with me. But let me be clear, as a person who does both: Writing is much, much, MUCH harder than illustrating. Paint is ten times easier to deal with than words, is all I’m saying.

Writing makes me very tense.

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If I’ve spent a day writing drivel and the obvious, I can’t sleep at night. If I paint a lousy picture, I forgive myself and try again; if I write a putrid sentence, I question my raison d’être.

Anyhoo. I wanted to show you, dear readers, my rough drafts. First, my rough draft is an actual physical object…it’s a three-ring binder notebook:

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Each page is held in a plastic sleeve, to protect the art work while I fiddle with the lay-out:

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First Chapter, above, Edinburgh — I map out each page, do the illustrations, and paste  in the text:

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The yellow Post Its (above, recto side — right hand page) show me how I need to format text when I do my next re-write. But since the illustration is the easy part, and since every writer worth her salt procrastinates the act of writing as long as possible, I do the illustrations first:

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This is the title page for the Rio de Janeiro chapter (above), and a two-page spread for the Rio garden for which I have not yet written text (below):

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More Key West with me being ever so clever with the horizon across two pages:

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Japanese garden pics, with space for text:

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London garden chapter:

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And a garden here on Long Island:

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You can see that I’ve tried to vary the way I do illustrations, give the reader a “chocolate box” reading experience (you never know what’s going to pop up, not literally, when you turn the page).

But I can not emphasize enough how horrible it is to write a book. I’ve been at it for a year and I am just now getting the hang of it. Last month I was so discouraged that I Googled my mood: miserable gardener. I wanted to see who out there in the universe shared my pain. Try it. Google miserable gardener and see what you get.

Alright, I’ll tell you. Here’s what you get:

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The miserable gardener is a pure bred border collie named Chess who gardens and blogs in the desert of Colorado. HE IS AMAZING. In addition to all kinds of expert info about Colorado gardening, Chess also blogs about the bunnies in his backyard:

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It’s been very hot in Colorado and this is how a bunny keeps cool.

And get ready for unbearable cuteness…Chess also blogs about     Baby      Bunnies:

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AND AND AND, recently Chess had a blog about something I’ve never ever ever seen before…

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BABY     BLUE     JAYS.

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I could keel over from the cuteness. Do drop by The Miserable Gardener (he’s actually not all that miserable) — or you can click here to catch up. You will be glad you did.

Thank you, dear readers, and deepest gratitude to all you wonderful Commentors, for your understanding and empathy for the loss of our dear Oscar. My mother reads this blog and she always tells me that I have the best Commentors on the interwebs. I agree. Merci.

And, since we haven’t painted together recently, I’m going to end this post with a French Quarter illustration I did last week when the writing was going nowhere. It’s times like that when I’m really glad I have a paint brush handy.

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Note the little bit of masking fluid I’ve laid down in the back ground. That little bit is really quite important to the picture. If I don’t get that right, the whole illustration will be useless.

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I find that painting a repetitive form, such as the black lines for these shutters and door frames, is very relaxing:

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It’s time to peel off the masking fluid and see if I can make this illustration work:

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This is a full page illustration — the blank space of the porch (called a gallery in New Orleans) will be filled with text. And yes, I keep a tape measure on my desk to get the dimensions, and I write accordingly. I decided to leave the hanging plant as is, which is very different than what I usually do — as an amateur illustrator I tend to paint a lot of detail; but this time I was struck by the free-ness of this plant so I didn’t go over it as I’d intended, and paint in fronds. I think it still works, as the picture already has enough frou frou with the cast iron, nest-ce pas?

I do not write in the same room in which I paint. How about I give you a tour of my writing room next week? Anybody interested in seeing that?  I will, of course, be accompanied  by my writer’s mandatory  pain-in-the-ass assistant:

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Lickety, showing off his ambidexterity.

Have a wonderful weekend, my dear readers, and see you next Friday.

(Note: Comments are open until 11:59 pm Tuesday, July 30.)

 

 

 

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Yes, we will be painting together in this post just like olde tymes.

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This is my first try at painting the Chelsea Physic Garden deep in the heart of London. Yeah, it stinks. Those buildings do NOT look like multi-million dollar Victorian townhouses that comprise one of the UK’s most posh neighborhoods.

 

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This is attempt No. 2, where you can see how I tried to be more “impressionistic” with the buildings in the background. Yeah, this stinks too. But I was hoping the flowers in the foreground would save me. They didn’t.

For the record, both these paintings STINK.

And then, I suddenly remembered that I’d already solved this problem once before in my ow Damn Garden Book:

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This is the title page for the Edinburgh chapter. Note the city skyline in the background. Duh.

So I sketched out the buildings that surround the Chelsea Physic Garden in London…

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The next several pictures will be of my renewed attempt to paint the Chelsea Physic Garden but I’ll tell you right now (spoiler alert) that it doesn’t turn out right:

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I like the white space here. I’m going to work with this look later.

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I call this Failure No. 3

Unfortunately, this (see above) is not how the Chelsea Physic Garden is laid out. Those of you who have been to this lovely 4-acre walled garden founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries as a teaching garden where medicinal plants were cultivated will know that I’m trying to paint the quadrant known as the Systematic Order Beds, which actually look more like this:

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I call this Failure No. 4

There still isn’t something quite right. So let’s have one more go at it:

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Failure No. 5

BUT AT LAST!!!!  Ifinally got the Chelsea Physic Garden that I wanted. This picture (below) only took about four hours to paint, not counting the four previous attempts that cost me about 20 hours of my life. Fact is, I’m a better miniaturist when it comes to painting gardens…

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I prefer to tell visual stories in little bits at a time…

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Writing and painting are similar in that to get anything done, you have to be very sensitive to your shortcomings and avoid any picture or paragraph that lets those shortcomings hang out. By painting or writing to your strong points, you develop a style that is uniquely your own. The next series of pictures is of me painting a typical London view, but painting it in a way that highlights my strong points (and hides my weaknesses). Notice how I work front-to-back in this one:

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By the way, I later added people walking on the sidewalk to give a sense of scale. This is the actual view from my friend Wendy’s brother’s flat in Knightsbridge:

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Since I already know that I can’t paint architecture, I’m going to leave those buildings white. Voila: a style.

This tactic seems to work well for London…I wonder how it will work for Giverny? Because I have my heart set on painting this view:

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Ahhhh…the “paintbox” flower beds.

It might even be my nxst Triscuit. Which reminds me! We have a Triscuit to give away!! 

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WOW! I had to ask Top Cat to pick a number between 1 and 56…56!!!  Your Comments were just great last week and I’m still re-reading them  (a Van Gogh Triscuit must be in my future) so thank you, thank you, thank you to all who left a word or two. And just to show you how unpredictable Top Cat can be, when I asked him to chose that number of which he had 56 to choose from, he chose…Number One. So this Monet Triscuit goes to Carol Wall of Vancouver! (Carol please send me your mailing info to vivianswift at yahoo before this Comment section closes at midnight Tuesday, July 2/3!!)

Next week, we head out on another road trip. We’re going to see this garden:

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It’s time to go to Marrakech!

 

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Yes, that’s me, trying to paint New Orleans. It was not a happy experience.
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But first — Cat News!! There has been a  recent appearance of a possible new member of our herd of backyard cats:

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This handsome fella has  shown up on the back patio for breakfast a few days this past week in spite of the fact that Bibs and Taffy get all North Korean on his ass every time they see him. I call him Newton. Hey Newton, if you’re reading this, I got some cat nip just for you (at the end of a Have-A-Heart trap).

Now, what is this I hear  (from Rachel and Sarahsbooks in Comments to last week’s post) about The Bed-book of Travel???

First of all, I thought I had written the bed-book of travel…

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…to be put bed-side for excellent late-night reading.

But it seems that somebody else, namely Richardson Wright, beat me to it in the 1930s:

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The Bed-book of Travel is a collection of short pieces to be read (preferably in bed or berth) by those who have been places, those who are going somewhere, and those who have wanted to go; Together with seven travelers’ tales. This book is now very rare and the one copy I found on-line last week for sale for $70 is already gone. I snoozed and loosed because I spent a few days mulling over this purchase, wondering if I really wanted to read this book seeing as how, if it turned out to be soooooo much better a bed-side travel book than mine, I will want to quit writing/illustrating bed-side books forever.

But the book that I really dread reading is this one:

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This is Richardson Wright’s 1929 Bed-book  about gardening (in paperback re-print from The Modern Library) which I  am awaiting delivery of, and if it’s half as good as its reviews say it is I AM TOAST. And not a nice slice of hot-buttered whole wheat served with a steaming cup of Assam tea kind of toast, nope. I mean a hunk of cardboard-like salt-free rancid Melba that’s been sitting in the cupboard leaning on the stack of Size D batteries waiting for cassette playing boom boxes to come back in style  kind of toast.

I wanted my Damn Garden Book to be THE go-to gardening book for reading in bed…but if it’s already been done I might as well retire my paintbrushes and take up something useful.

Useful, like dancing all day in the French Quarter with my own dear Top Cat.

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Ah, Love of my Life, nobody does a Grateful Dead-inspired free-form solo version of  Zydeco Swing  like you:

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Well, seeing as how I am not yet a reclusive former bed-side travel / gardening book writer  illustrator, I better get with the travel / gardening book illustrating. It’s time to do New Orleans!

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This is the pencil sketch for the full-page illustration that will start the NOLA chapter. It is designed so I can drop text into the middle of it. It is rare (never) that I use a ruler to draw a scene but in this case it was unavoidable with all those necessary straight lines of wrought iron railings and all those pesky perspective lines to get right. To answer Laura’s question from last week, I never attempt to erase pencil lines once I’ve put watercolor over them. It’s impossible to erase thru the pigment. Most times, tho, I don’t mind seeing a little bit of pencil in a painting because it is a ver authentic part of painting.

When it comes to erasing the watercolor, however, I have been known to use a nail file to clean up very small bits.

First, I painted in a quick bit of background architecture in pale blue, to represent a white building in bright sunlight (which will become more evident later in the painting):

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Dab in the background greenery:

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Working wet-in-wet I dab in the pale greens and add detail until I like the shape of the foliage:

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Commentor Judy Jennings asked about getting “natural” shades of green. To tell you the truth, all my greens are unnatural in that I edit nature all the time. My shades and hues are mostly close to the scene that I’ve observed, but if I need to lighten bits up and darken others for the sake of the picture, I do it. I also edit the shape of foliage all the time — see above. I make it a pleasing shape for my composition first, and true to nature second.

My biggest guess regarding Judy’s question about getting a “natural” paint color is that you must always keep your water CLEAN. I constantly dump out my water and get clean fresh stuff. Especially if I am going to mix yellows into green I always get a brand new glass of water. And if I have to work wet-in-wet with lots of yellows AND greens I have two glasses of water handy, one for rinsing the yellow brush-fulls and one for rinsing the green brush-fulls.

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For shadows I use blue with a bit of burnt umber mixed in it instead of black or grey:

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Now I use masking fluid to cover the table and chairs so I can cut loose with the stuff I want to paint behind them:

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While waiting for the masking fluid to become bone-dry, I do the middle-ground stuff:

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I pretend the table and chairs aren’t there and paint the railing-drapping greenery right over the masking fluid:

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I could never do this without masking fluid. Well, I could, but it would either look bad or would take me forever to paint:

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Fore ground:

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Peel off masking fluid, paint what is revealed underneath:

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Even down to the stems of the wine glasses, which I measured or you and are three millimeters high:

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Take a look, and add whatever else this picture needs:

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Not there yet::

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THERE:

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I Hate It. This will definitely require a re-do!!

So now I’m off for two weeks in France: Paris and Giverny; then to Marrakech to see the Majorelle Garden. To give you a preview of the two posts that I have for you in the queue, next week we will see how I manage to paint four really, really, really, really hidious stoooopid pictures of my New Orleans Fragrance Garden…

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…before I happily get it right finally (no, that’s not it above — this picture above stinks!!!!) ; and then the week after that I give you a tour of the knicks and knacks of my workspace:

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I will have my iPad with me in France etc. and Carol of  the highly chic, fabulously popular  Paris Breakfast blog is going to show me how to post from any cafe … so I might be able to send you all a few pictures and a quick update while I’m on the road.

How much you want to bet that what I post will be photos of great French cats?

P.S. Comments on this post will close after five days (nothing personal; it’s the spam, and closing Comments after five days keeps the spam to a manageable level of about 3,000 messages per week).

 

Next time we meet, one of us will be in Paris!!

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Now, before we begin todays’s lesson, I’m posting some pictures of my cat Cindy at work (as per last week’s request from Janet, Carol, Patty, Susie, Janice, Sarah, Deb, and Gitana). This is Cindy “helping” Top Cat and me with our 1,000-piece puzzle:

But it’s no surprise that with so much kitty “help”, our 1,000-piece puzzle ended up as as 998-piece puzzle:

And the other day, during one of our rare sunny January mornings, I found Miss Cindy taking a well-deserved rest near one of her biggest projects…

…where she can bask in her sense of accomplishment:

I know, I know: only Cat People will find this cute. [Note her handiwork on the chair here, just a fraction of her entire ouvre on our livingroom furniture.] So let’s change topics toute de suite.

When I first began doing the art work for my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I was using Grumbacher paints:

These paints served me well. They are inexpensive (about $20 per 24-color sets like this, get them from Blick Art Supply on line), so I felt very free to slosh around and make mistakes until I got the hang of what I can and cannot do with paint like this. Also, I was working very small (all illustrations in Wanderers are reproduced in the original size) so I could bang about with these paints all day and mess up as much as I wanted without having a major impact on the local landfill.

Here, for instance, is the very first time I painted The Lone Skater (on page 9 of When Wanderers Cease to Roam):
Since this picture is the exact size of a Triscuit cracker I call all my itty bitty pictures “Triscuits”, but I didn’t have a Triscuit handy when I photographed this for you, so I used a Tostito:

But after a few months of practice, I went back and re-painted The Lone Skater and this is the illustration that appears in the book (done with Grumbacher paints):

When my second book ,Le Road Trip came out in April last year, I was contacted by Carol Gillot, the fabulous watercolorist and blogger of Paris Breakfasts fame (parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com) .

She told me it was time to upgrade my equipment. She advised me that Grumbacher paints have a lot of cheap chalk filler in them and I should try painting with a higher quality of watercolor, so I bought a teeny tiny beginner’s kit of Windsor Newton paints at my favorite art supplier Dick Blick:

Oh My DoG. First of all, the Windsor Newton paints are sooo cuuuute!! (See tea bag for size comparison.)

And the intensity of color and the fluidity of the stuff makes painting with these watercolors feel like the Grumbacher had the power of a golf cart while the Windsor Newton has the oooph of a race car.

Compare these two garden illustrations. First, there’s the Grumbacher:

And now, with Windsor Newton:

I think we all can see the chalk in the Grumbacher now. But that is not to say that just because of the vivid, rich color possibilities of Windsor Newton that I have forsaken my beloved Grumbacher paints all together. Oh no. Because I know my Grumbacher paints so well, chalk and all, that I know how to use them to achieve certain misty, pale, subtle effects that I cannot get (yet?) with the Windsor Newton. This, for example…:

…is all Grumbacher. Maybe because of the chalk filler in them, I can trust the Grumbacher to blend and mix and/or stay put in scenes like this — see how the sunset yellow doesn’t get muddy when laid down next to the pink…and how the pink stays in place when it’s so close to the blue? And note the way the blue bleeds so beautifully into the wet wash that I did on the top. I can only do this with Grumbacher.

Let me know if you have ay specific questions about paint or paper or masking fluid or watercolor stuff and I’ll try to include an answer for you in next week’s post too. As Jain says, I have all kinds of wee tips that I’m happy to share!

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Anybody who puts a book out in the world loves to hear that, against all odds, that book has found a reader who:

A. Doesn’t write to tell you how much she hates it.

B. Does write in to ask an interesting question that I can turn into a blog post!

I got this question from a new reader in the Nutmeg State (50 points for anyone who can right now name The Nutmeg State):

I have a question for you, that will definitely expose my complete lack of knowledge about watercolors. Do you paint with watercolors from a tin, or are you using those special pencils that you sketch a bit first, and then blend with water? I also noticed that you often have some well-defined outlines in your work. Are these made with a fine ink pen first, followed by adding color?

Thank you for asking, dear reader from the Nutmeg State.

Until recently (see last week’s post) I was using hobby-grade Grumbacher paints that come in pans — 24 pans for about $20:

I have nothing bad to say about my Grumbacher paints. They have served me well through two books.

I’m using two sets of Grumbacher 24 — because I use a lot of black (to mix into other colors) and I keep some of the pan colors pure and use others of the same color as mixing bowls. I also use the paint tray itself as my main mixing area, which is why they look so cruddy.

Lately I’ve been gifted with new paints in tubes to help me get a brighter look for the gardens I’ve started to illustrate and I was so excited about the purity and intensity of the colors that I went out and bought some pans of paints — a Windsor Newton “field kit” (I still can’t give up on the ease of using pan paints).

This is my brand spanking new paints and mixing thingy. And, dear new reader from the Nutmeg State, I always use a tea bag to reference scale (those Windsor Newton paints are so cute!!). See how clean and spiffy they look before I get cracking:

This is my set-up: new paints, cup of tea, helper cat in the background (meet Coco, new Reader from the Nutmeg State), and my brushes in their souvenir Maya-head tequila shot glass from Acapulco (makes me feel like life’s one big Tiki Bar!).

Which brings me to the second part of your question, new reader from the Nutmeg State: What do I use to make outlines?

I draw with a .018-point Rapid-o-Graph pen, a steel-tipped drafting tool from Germany that is a pain in the ass to use but is the only way I can get a very fine, sharp, dark black line.

When I don’t want a sharp, dark black line but I still need a line,  I use a very fine paintbrush to make the outline. I do not use those pens or colored pencils that you can blend with water because I don’t know what they are. And because I like to do things the hard way.

To get a paintbrush with a fine-enough point on it I have to engineer it myself. I start with a .O or a .OO size brush (the smallest that you can find):

And then I very carefully cut off half the bristles:

Now let’s look at some outlines in Le Road Trip. The buildings in this illustration of Bayeux (on page 68) are outlined with my German drafting tool:

In this illustration of Mont St-Michel (page 92) I used my itty bitty brush to outline the young couple having a picnic on the towering wall surrounding the fortress/abbey (and the blades of grass on the hillside):

In this illustration of a door in Bordeaux (page 143) I used both my German drafting tool (on the door, obviously) and my itty bitty brush to outline the mer-people and to do the railing:

Since my illustrations in Le Road Trip …

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… are reproduced in their original size, I use my itty bitty brush quite often just to be able to get a landscape down to miniature proportions, like this picture of Bayeux cathedral on a canvas that is approx. one half tea beg high and two tea bags long:

Thank you, Reader from the great Nutmeg State of Connecticut, for this blog post.

And to the reader in Quebec who sent me that nice piece of hate mail last week: You got me. You’re totally right: my whole book is just an elaborate cover, a sinister ploy to broadcast my cruel and evil anti-Quebec prejudices throughout the world as evidenced by that joke I reported about the  Quebec accent on page 96, and everything else you said in that 1,000-word lecture on what a dumbass I am not to acknowledge the truth of the beauty and bravery of the French spoken by its conservators up North, yadda yada yadda.

Jeeze. I always thought Canadians were so polite but hoo boy, do not get them riled up about the way they pronounce “jardin” as “jardaiyyyyynnnnn”, I’m warning you all.

 

 

 

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A professional artist has taken pity on me.

Carol Gillot, the artist behind the wonderful blog Paris Breakfasts.com, has sent me a selection of professional-grade water color paints in tubes to help me give my gardens the pizazz (that is, the saturation and the transparency) that I need. The reason I use hobby (child) quality paints in pans is because they are so easy to use — no fiddling with those itty bitty damn screw-top lids and stuff. And because I’m a Capricorn and we Capricorns are nothing if not creatures of habit. Once I find something I like, I stick with it. Capricorns are famous for being able to have the same thing for lunch every single day of their lives and for being excellent prison guards. We like routine and we like being bossy. We don’t like change.

 

But Carol also sent me some of her scratch pads and the colors she gets from the Windsor Newton paints she sent me are amazing.

You probably can’t see it in these lo-res scans, but the color is rich, subtle, and sparkling.

The greens! O, the greens! The greens are alive! So even though it goes against my basic nature, I will be diving into these new paints this weekend. That ominous rumble you hear, like a low thunder across the horizon, will be me cursing my ham-handed incompetence while I find my way with these new toys.

Luckily, the garden that I’ve been slaving over this past week is a Winter garden in the opaque city of Edinburgh:

In this case, I think the chalk-heavy pigments of my pan paints suits the dense, cloudy atmosphere of a rain-soaked Scotland:

Yes, these is something fitting about the overcast colors I can get from my simple kiddie paints as I paint these small walled garden rooms from various aspects (for the record, I’ve done two views of each parterre, facing East and facing West, behind tenements on the Royal Mile). Note, please the small (3-ich x 5-inch) picture on the right here:

It wasn’t until I’d finished this sketch that I saw what a blunder I’d made in being too literal as I looked at my referenced photos. Although this is the way it actually looked from the viewfinder of my camera, you can’t have trees growing out of the tops of laurel bushes like this:

So how do you correct it? One way would be to re-paint the whole thing.

Another way would be to just cut out the problem area:

…and paste a newly-painted corrected background in place:

I really didn’t think I’d get away with it, but I think it’s quite successful. If I hadn’t told you that this was a pieced-together illustration, you’d never have known, right?

One last thing: I am doing ONE book event this Summer. It’s a Bastille Day event in Nashville, Tennessee — on Saturday July 14, of course. I’ll be at  Parnassus Books in Nashville at 2 o’clock, and I’ll be giving out my tips and my advice on life, art, and travel writing. If you are in the Nashville area, please come! There will be wine!

Parnassus Books

4505 Harding Pike

Nashville, TN

www.parnassusbooks.com

 

 

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Do you do your drawings on the spot?” I was asked yesterday, about the illustrations for Le Road Trip. The question was put to me in a darling Australian accent because I was being interviewed by phone from Australia by columnist Blanche Clarke of the Herald Sun, which was quite a thrill for me — Le Road Trip is available in fine bookstores everywhere Down Under grace a Bloomsbury Sydney!

My answer was, “No, not a lot. I mostly draw from the reference photographs I take.” Which turns out to be not entirely true. There are actually quite a few on-the-spot sketches in Le Road Trip.

 

This is the first one that appears, on page 19. These ladies were sunburnt and drinking wine at 9 in the morning — my kind of people! — and I did this quick drawing of them.

When Top Cat decided to change his trousers in the middle of  the Quai d’Orsay (on page 21):

…I took photos of the act (he moved too fast to sketch and I wasn’t going to ask him to hold the pose, for chrissake), but I drew them later that day, into my personal top-secret notebook, by looking at the review screen (digital cameras: I Heart You) because I thought  I was going to erase the photos because Jeeze. I don’t want photographic evidence that my husband hangs out in Paris in his underpants.  But then I put the drawings into a book that is now out into the world anyway so go figure.

When I saw the cat sitting on top of the Renault in the Latin Quarter:

…I drew the cat and the car on the spot (this was the last car I tried to draw — I can’t draw cars and I don’t like drawing cars, which is why there is no traffic in my Paris illustrations) and I jotted down some passers-by, but I filled in the buildings (later, when I got home from France) from reference photos I took of the scene. I have a lot of pictures of this cat. And there’s no way I could have drawn all those windows and awnings in such detail while I was standing on a crowded sidewalk.

This is how my buildings look when I draw on the spot:

You can tell, of course, that I drew the people quickly by sneaking looks at them while I was blocking in the vague apartment buildings along the Place d’Alma. I wish I could have taken photographs of them but that seemed intrusive. So many people have are visibly moved when they pay their respects to Princess Diana — I hope I got a little of that with these stick figures.

Now this is a hybrid drawing, a mix of on-the-spotism and research:

I thought the lady reading her newspaper, oblivious to her job of selling newspapers, was funny, so I drew her before she could put the paper down. Then I did a quick sketch of the kiosk and the newspaper racks, which didn’t interest me much at the  time. But when I decided to put this sketch in the Le Road Trip I realized I should have paid more attention to this newsstand. Specifically, I hadn’t drawn the top of it.

Luckily, Top Cat’s sister was heading off to Paris that month so I asked her to bring me back a photo of a newsstand, especially the top of it. And that’s why the top of this newsstand is quite different, if you’ll notice, from the rest of the drawing.

Now, this picture, I’m sure you can tell, was done in situ:

Crappy background details is the give-away that I did this on-the-spot. There’s more such Paris sketches that I could show you (pages  36, 37, some of 38, 39, and two out of three of page 44) but what is this, come kind of Ph.D. exercise? I want to skip ahead and show you just two more illustrations that  you might find interesting.

This one from St-Malo, for instance:

(Page 108) This house fascinates me. I didn’t mention it in the book, but around the turn of the 20th century it was so chic for French people to drop in English phrases in their conversation that even Marcel Proust commented on it, saying that it was such a bore to be in the company of such pretentious people.

This house on the outskirts of St-Malo in Brittany is actually, truly called Villa Remember and seems to date from that period. It had such an interesting roof line that I wanted to draw it (as pictured). Top Cat had to wait while I sketched and he got bored so he took a photo of me at the gates of Villa Remember, because he had nothing else to do.

That’s how I was able to drop myself into my notebook sketch later, when I saw his photo (of me).

Mostly, however, I do draw from reference photos, such as this:

(page 121) After a hard day of travel, missed trains/detours/late arrivals/hoboing for 12 hours, Top Cat and I fetched up in a dumpy hotel room late at night in Bordeaux. This is our dinner, a chocoalte bar and half a bottle of warm Evian. I took the photograph because I wanted a memento of our Worst Day on the Road, never intending to make anyting of it.

But much later, when I came across this photo,  it was only then that I saw the poster that was  hanging above the bed. At the time, I did not see the thing at all — I have no memory of it, not the least little bit. But in the photo, I clearly saw the similarity between the look Top Cat shot me and the glowering raised-sword expression of the Bernard Buffet Gendarme. I love it!

So, to answer the original question, Do I sketch on the spot?

The answer would have to be: Yes, and No.

 

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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:

 

Having failed so miserably, I decided to take a break and go 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):

This secret entrance is almost totally camouflaged as just another alley between nondescript buildings on the Royal Mile:

There are 83 “closes” on the Royal Mile such as this one that leads to Dunbar’s Close. BTW, I know some of you, dear readers, like to see Where I Get My Ideas From. For this illustration, I plagiarized this reference photos:

Another wonderful garden that I love is 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. So let’s PAINT IT!

First had to draw it:

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.  Of course, there is only one way to paint this drawing: illuminated on my light box:

I really shouldn’t paint without supervision. Thank you, Coco cat.

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:

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?

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.

 

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Two of these leaves are real, and two on them are my paintings of leaves.

I can’t tell you how the real leaves are made, because I am not a tree.

But I can show you how I made my facsimiles.

Leaf No. 1:

The first thing you have to do when you look at a leaf with a painter’s eyes is to suss out your strategy. You do not paint a leaf all at once, you paint it in sections, sections (I call them “cells“) that are evident in its structure. And in this leaf, I see four cells:

This is how I’m going to paint this leaf; cell by cell.  Step 1:

Step 1: You can’t quite see it in this picture, but I’ve outlined the leaf (I laid the leaf on my paper and dragged a pencil around it so that I have an exact-sized silhouette).

Now I’m ready to begin with the first cell:

While my first wash of the main color (in this case, it’s an ocher-yellow)  is still wet, I will bleed in several other colors — in this leaf, it has green edges and brown rot spots inside the cells. And next, still while the paint is wet, I’m going to get out a straight pin and do this:

This is why I picked this leaf: it has great veins. And I’ve found that by using a straight pin to dig lines into the wet paper, I can make the best veins.

This is not hard to do. Just use the straight pin like an itty bitty pencil, and “draw” the veins into the wet watercolor. (Sorry that you can’t see it well in this pic — but remember, I’m snapping photos with my right hand while I’m painting with my left and we should be grateful that I’m able to get even these crappy shots).

OK. Veins done, we skip to another cell while the first one dries.

Cell 2:

Cell  3:

Note (above): This is a good shot of what the straight pin does to wet watercolor paper — see the veins? Not bad, huh?

The most boring part of painting a leaf is waiting for the watercolor to dry. So, to keep busy, I’ll do the stem:

Cell 4:

Done.

 

 

Yes, Grumbacher watercolor lightens when it dries: you might want to keep that in mind as you’re painting. Use lots of color! Use lots of red! Like this:

I chose this leaf because I want to show you a trick of the trade, namely Masking Fluid.

Masking Fluid comes in a little bottle (75ml for about $14.00) and it’s liquid stuff that you apply onto the parts of your picture where you want the paper to resist paint. I use a toothpick to “brush” it into small places — use whatever is easiest for you, but don’t use a paint brush. When this liquid dries it becomes waterproof, like rubber, and that is murder to get out of the bristles of your paint brush (I speak from experience).

But since it’s waterproof, you can paint right over it and when your painting is done, you just peel off the mask and voila!

The reason I’m using mask here is because this leaf has some tiny holes in it:

I’ll be putting  Masking Fluid on those little  holes,because I paid $14.00 for the stuff and I want to get some use out of it.

Now we can begin to paint:

Remember, the key to getting your Fall leaves to look real is to paint wet-into-wet, to create bleeds, like this (up-close):

And so on:

And, finally, we peel off the Art Masking Fluid:

I can’t tell you how peaceful it is, to paint these miniatures. I enjoy the concentration and smallness of painting one leaf at a time — it’s like meditation.

Just take your time, look closely at the leaf, get your strategy worked out before you start, let each cell dry before you paint the next one,and get lost in the details.

And here’s another big Merci from moi: if you’d like to have the  4-inch x 6-inch framed and signed original painting of this little red leaf, please leave a Comment below, requesting this prize. This blog is getting close — very, very close — to its 1,050th Comment and if you leave a note here, and you’re the lucky 1,050th Commenter, you’ll win this leaf painting!

See you Friday in the Winner’s Circle.

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