watercolor how-to

We love Pumpkin Time here on the shores of the Long Island Sound.





I detect a slight flaw in the Pumpkin Placement Plan here.





Pumpkin Time is a good time to remember the most lonely word in the English language: Orange. The color gets a bad rap for being garish and unfriendly but some of my favorite things in the world are orange.




Here are some pictures of City Orange from my outing yesterday:


Upper West Side brownstone.


Yes! I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday! The bridge is undergoing loads of restoration so it is u-g-l-y at the moment, but as you can see, the City of New York spares no expense in making tourists feel welcome!


Saki basement bar in the East Village.

And what Secret Garden would be complete without a touch of orange?


Which reminds me, we are painting a Secret Garden today:


Of course, it all starts with a pencil sketch and masking fluid:P1190993

I use folded sheets of scrap paper to cover up bits of the picture before I begin to paint the gravel:


When the base paint is dry, I put my toothbrush to good use (which, in between the three times a day I use it for dental hygiene, lays around doing absolutely nothing). I load it up with a mix of grey and black watercolor and then I flick it at the illustration:


This is not really my Dental Hygine Toothbrush. This is my Dedicated Paint Flicking Toothbrush.

Let dry, and voila:


Here’s a painting tip: I save the bottle caps of Top Cat’s favorite GatorAid to use as mixing pans.


To get the many shades of green I need for a garden illustration I mix three different hues of green with two different hues of yellow and/or three different hues of blue. BUT to get the pure yellow that I prefer for my painting I mix two different yellows — Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow. (Alone, Cadmium Yellow is too orange and Lemon Yellow is too bright). And I keep my pure yellow isolated in a GatorAid bottle cap because I can’t be trusted to keep them clean if I put them in a palette-thingy.




Here is where I add some detail to the background wash:


For this illustration I wanted to try out an idea I had, about using some blue in the foliage, maybe to get a more dream-like effect:


I am still using my chalky Grumbacher paints mixed with the tubes of Windsor Newtons, mostly because I love what the chalky paints do when they dry. They leave an interesting residue on the paper, interesting textures that are purely accidental that I really like:


I am thinking that for this picture I want to leave the foliage looking very watercolory, like this:


So far, I am quite happy with the way this picture is going. So now I start to add plants:


I’m being careful not to over-do it:P1200010

But here is where I ruined it all:


I tried to paint tree trunks in ochre, which was bad enough, but then I made the mistake of painting them with straight lines. I knew it was wrong immediately. I was instantly unhappy with these wimpy, ugly tree trunks. But still, I thought I could soldier on, finesse the picture with other distracting details:


But those tree trunks just kept bothering me. So, i finally had to ditch the whole picture, having admitted what I knew all along: There is no rescuing a picutre that has a fatal flaw:

P1200082 2

Several days later, I went back and had another go at it. The steps were exactly the same as above, but the end was this:


You can compare for yourself:


Yes, the sad fact is that whenever you try something new, there’s a 80% chance that you will blow it. But hey: it’s only a bit of paper and paint. That doesn’t stop me from taking a whack at something new. And, for those times when making a crappy illustration feels too much like failure, there’s always champagne.

One of these days I hope to work up the nerve to paint my favorite time of day:


Twilight in Pumpkin Time.

I love the low light of a Fall evening:


I have to learn how to paint this most beautiful shade of orange. In fact, I think that when we finally invent a word that rhymes with orange, and it must have something to do with this quality of light:




I’m thinking that “floringe” might be the word, to describe the look of artificial lights glowing in a Fall evening. Floringe would be used especially in the case of the lights that shine from the inside out:


The lights that are seen from a distance:P1200145

To extrapolate, then, floringe, as the wisp of illumination that almost holds its own against the night, floringe could also be the word used when a blog goes dark.

Yes, dear readers, it’s that time.

*****Quick note from Future Me: I did shut this blog down in 2013, and I stayed away for a year and got a dog, but now I’m back (as of Jan. 2015) and the blog up and running again. Meet me here every Friday morning at www.vivianswiftblogcom. Now, back to this poignant post.******

I have been blogging for six years. My blog has evolved from a really crappy stream-of-concisouness diary into a weekly presentation of what I hope is interesting and useful  and honest information and about the trials and errors of living a creative life. I take a lot of pride in making my blog live up to the intelligence and humanity of my community of readers, dear readers, many whose stories and names and cats I have come to know and treasure, as friends and inspiration. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And in the same way that I know when my painting lacks necessary oomph, I know when my blog is running out of steam. As both painter and blogger, sometimes I have to get away and be more of a person living in the world than a person who observes it.

So. I will not be here next Friday, or the next. Or the next. I will be writing my Damn Garden Book full time, and showing up as a Commentor on my favorite blogs — if you are not reading The Miserable Gardener you are missing the best gardening blog written by a pure bred border collie ever — and herding my cats. Doing what I can to gather steam.

I do plan on being back in the blogosphere, someday, and I might even post something here from time to time, so please drop by. I’ll have to post updates about theDamn Garden Book, of course — I’m under contract to finish it sometime in 2014. And you can always reach me at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, because I do want more garden photos. We’ll stay in touch. Because when a blog goes dark, it doesn’t go away forever. It only goes floringe.

Meaning, there’s always a light left on. You’ll always be able to find your way to my door.



Read more

So first, we drew le chat reduced to its lumpy, adorable snowman-like proportions:


Then I found an image of a really cuuuuute kitty on the internets:


She is of course la Lizzie Cosette of the marmeladegypsy blog.  I drew Lizzie in snowman-esq style, just to rough out her shape:


I filled in a few shadows, to familiarize  myself with her markings and stuff..


…and then I traced the bare outlines of that sketch onto watercolor paper:


The paints that I’ll be using for most of the color in this kitty portrait are grey (Davy’s Gray in the tube) and my trusty ancient  Grumbacher watercolors:


I will mix these colors right on my brush, getting various shades of brownish-grey, blackish-grey, and rusty-grey as needed, and for the most part I’m going to let the pint and the water do what it wants to do:


I do love the chalky texture of these paints.

I am going to start with the face because if I don’t get the face right I will trash the whole thing and start over. So I will work quickly to get some black markings in on top of wet brownish-grey:




I painted the eyes in and, before the paint got too dry…


…I laid in some black around the eye, but I didn’t let it bleed as much as before because bleeding colors is OK for getting a nice effect for  fur, but this is not fur:


For the inside of Miss Lizzie’s ear, I used a very pale blueish-grey:



I used the same blueish-grey to paint Lizzie’s chin and I let it dry….P1190870

…and then I went back with my paint brush dipped in clear water to “pick up” the paint. I do this because I want a very delicate shading effect here, and subtracting paint is a good way to make an area look outlined, but painterly:




OK, I think I got the face alright, so now I’m going to start painting the fur. Lizzie is a tabby tuxedo, so to give shade to her white bits I use a very watery light blue wash. I just like the look of a very light blue shadow to indicate whiteness:


And, again, I’m going to work wet-in-wet, that is, I’m going to dab some brown and black and grey into the very wet blue wash, to get a nice watercolor effect:




All that, above, is done before any of the paint has a chance to dry. I’m not going to over-do the fur…I’m going to leave the body impressionistic. But I am going to get a lot of detail in the punim because she is soooooo cute:


I’m not painting the whiskers — I don’t have a brush fine enough and also, I like the look of pencil here:


And now I check it against my reference photo. It looks to me that I placed Lizzie at slightly the wrong angle on the paper; she’s leaning too far to the right. To correct that, all I have to do is crop the paper:




That’s better. Also, I notice that I’ve made one ear too pointy, so I go back and add some round-ness:



And I’m going to add a sliver of height to her darling little head between them adorable ears:


And I have to add some white paint over some brownish-grey stuff I painted on her cheek (I erased the penciled-in whiskers on that side before I painted, FYI):


Then I beef up her Cleopatra eye liner:


Add the whiskers back in:





Smooch, smooch, smooch. I love kitties.



Read more


So, it’s Friday evening and I’ve poured myself a nice cold of  Pinot G., and I’ve met my deadlines for the week (yes, Dear Readers, sometimes people actually pay me to write.) and you and me can discuss the crucial issues of the day.

Namely, Summer is over. I watched it go, sitting in my backyard, at 4:44 pm Daylight Savings Time on the Long Island Sound Sunday, Sept. 22. More of a bummer this year than usual.  Don’t get me started.


I did not pick up a paintbrush this whole past week (spent all my time wordsmithing, you know) but I do have  something worthy to show you from a spot of painting (let us all now assume English accents) from yonder fortnight.

Two weeks ago I was working on an illustration of the beloved children’s tale, Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter is my idol when it comes to illustration, and I  have a chapter on London Gardens in my work in progress, the Damn Garden Book, so I was not going to miss the opportunity to reference my childhood infatuation with All Things English, starting with Peter Rabbit.

You know the story. For my illustration, I had to get the lay of the land, namely farmer MacGregor’s garden:


The wondrous Beatrix illustrated it as a walled garden on the edge of a woods. And my favorite scene:


Voila, Le Chat. (they call them moggies in England, by the way.) See how this ties into our whole Paint a Cat saga?

So, here is my interpretation of Peter Rabbit at this most crucial part of the whole story of Peter Rabbit:


(I have blocked out the left hand side for future text, FYI.)

As soon as the paint dried on this thing I knew there was a problem with the cat but I didn’t know what.

I put it away for 48 hours, took a fresh look at it, and it hit me like Thumper:


The cat’s head is too small. Of course!! That’s why it looks more like an ermine than a C-A-T.

But the thing had already been painted, and it’s watercolor, so o lordy, what to do?

I am now going to tell you, Dear Readers, a Trick of the Trade.

All I did was paint a new (right) cat on a separate bit of Canson 90 pound cold press paper (the only paper I use — I love love love this paper) . Then I cut it out, and glued it over the ermine, like thus:


Here’s a close up:


I know from experience that when this picture is scanned for print and published in a book, the fact that it’s a cut out will never register with the reader:


In fact, if I am not about tell blab about it right now, you probably would never have noticed that Peter himself is a cut out, pasted in front of the MacGregor garden in the background:

P1190666 2

And you know what? I feel A-OK about this because I have recently discovered that our darling Miss Potter did the exact same thing back in the day when she was watercoloring her way to immortality.

Take a look at this illustration below:


See that DoG? Look closely:


Look closer:


Yep. He’s a cut out. Underneath that Pomeranian, probably,  is some small-headed Pug that gave the delightful Miss P. second thoughts.


And if Miss P. can do it, then I can do it.

Read more

Last Sunday Top Cat took me into a magical woods on the southern shore of the Long Island Sound…

…otherwise known as The Gold Coast of Ye Olde Long Island…


…where Ye Olde Money of yore transplanted ancient yew trees from the Olde Worlde to make Instant Stately Homes (now gone to ruin)…


…and where the haunted forest is reclaiming ye olde acres of lawns into native wild flower meadows once more…


…where I came upon  yon ancient cottage…


…which beckoned me to pause…


…and consider its perfectness as a refuge from the madding world…


…where I could gather inspiration from nature and light and where cats could roam free…


…but there was just one little problem…


scale.  For this magical realm goes by the name of The Muttontown Preserve (I’m not making this up) and it encompasses the last American address of — I’m not making this up — King Zog, the last, deposed monarch of Albania and I conjecture that ye Ole King had a young Princess for whom nothing would do but she had a play house in the American Colonial vernacular.

I can not tell you how much I want this house. If you hear about some crazy cat lady claiming that she is the reincarnation and rightful heiress of the late great King Zog — that’ll be me, staking my claim to this itty bitty ranch house in Muttontown. I’m not making this up.

But speaking of crazy cat ladies…

…it’s time to draw us some kitty cats!

OK. Here’s how I decided was the best way to share my minuscule amount of knowledge of the visual arts, of which I am not a certified practitioner of.  First, I am going to show you how I draw a cat from memory:

I start with a bottom-heavy oblong shape:



Then I add hips — by the way, I’m doing this from memory to make a point:


The point is that since I have been looking at cats my whole life I have internalized the basic structure of Le Cat:


And as you can see, the basic structure is no more complicated than that of a snowman:


So really, when I paint a cat, I don’t actually have to sketch out this blueprint — it’s already “on the paper” before I pick up a brush:


But I am showing you the building blocks that I visualize when I look at a cat:


And when I say “sketch”, I don’t mean make those crappy wispy wimpy scritching marks that a lot of people do when they “sketch” — I mean commit yourself to making a strong, unequivocal line:


Voila, The Cat. Now, to make a cat head on, you use the exact same strategy…but let’s go through the basics of the dear little kitty face:






Got it?

OK. So, now we’ll make another snowman:


And we’ll erase some lines to make the kitty face front:





And, voila:P1190796

Kitty Cat.

I hope you can see that drawing a cat isn’t all that hard. But it’s something that every cat lover should know how to do, in case of emergency:


I like this kitty’s little smile. But really, those ears? That tail? Those dangling front legs?

I got this Lost Cat poster from a new book that I just started reading:


It’s very cute and I recommend it. But it got me thinking….how can I apply my cat-snowman lesson to a real life cat?

So I found a really cute cat from the internets:


And now all I have to do is interpret this cutie as a kitty snowman:P1190786

You see? All I had to do was  get the basic building blocks of this sweet kitty to start her portrait. Again, I have to say, this is a drawing of what I usually only visualize before I start to paint. It took me a long time before I understood that the time I spend just thinking about what I’m going to paint before I paint makes all the difference between a good painting and one that is a crap shoot, so yes, I spend a fair amount of time visualizing. I’m just saying.

Next, I picture the particular markings that make this sweet kitty her own self. She’s a darling tuxedo tabby, which in my mind looks like this:


Then I plot out where the dark and the light spots are:


And now I’m ready to paint.

Which I will do next week. I will paint this adorable sweet kitty girl and show you how I do it, brush stroke by brush stroke.

However, if you are new to cat painting, you can draw your kitty like I did, and do a nice watercolor wash over your pencil drawing and it will look really nice too. I would have done this to my pencil drawing here but I ran out of time this week. SORRY.

And now, for the Winner of our fabuloso Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things Give Away:


Top Cat picked : Melissa! Melissa, please send me your snail mail address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com and I will send you this beautiful book a s a p. Melissa is a new dear reader — welcome!



Read more

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…


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…


…is planted with  fields of wild cosmos…


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


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


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:


Somers Point is NJ’s best kept secret.



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


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:






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


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.


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


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:


And then I painted it from scratch:


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.








aug-20And, finally, we crop it:


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.


Read more

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


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…


..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:

7 Balzac manuscripts

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…


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:


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


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”:


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:


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:


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:


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.


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:


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


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


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:


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):


Two page-spread for Key West:P1190087

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


Japanese garden pics, with space for text:


London garden chapter:


And a garden here on Long Island:


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:


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:


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:


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





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.


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.


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



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








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:


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.)




Read more


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


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.



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:


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…


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:












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


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:


I call this Failure No. 4

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


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…


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


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:







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:


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:

P1160399 2

Ahhhh…the “paintbox” flower beds.

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

P1180785 2

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:


It’s time to go to Marrakech!


Read more

Some days, nothing works out the way you planed. But…P1150574…if at first you don’t succeed, or if at second, third, and fourth you don’t succeed (see above) then pour yourself a nice big gin and tonic and sit around listening to sad songs (I prefer old Motown, the Temptations Since I Lost My Baby and the like) and feel sorry for yourself and seriously consider writing novels (ewwwwwwwwwww) or anything that doesn’t require having to come up with  illustrations, and then take two aspirin AND START OVER AGAIN.

Yes, dear readers, I preloaded my post today before I went to France and it’s a good thing I did because it turns out that I hate blogging on my iPad with a PASSION but before we continue with our previously recorded program (still in NOLA, watercoloristically speaking) here are some pics I took on the aforementioned iPad to show you the beautiful weather in Paris:





My hotel room in the 6th arrondisement came with this:


I took these pics with my ipad and boy do I hate blogging on this thing.  So that’s all the Paris I can give you for now, but do read my friend at ParisBreakfasts for her report on my arrival on her home (Paris) turf!

For today please enjoy the following tale of watercolor redemption, and take heart. Sometimes it’s necessary to paint ugly in order to get to the less-craptastic stuff.

Let’s get back to this:


The problem, it dawned on me after four really awful attempts at painting a most beautiful garden in New Orleans (see above), was that I had  gotten hold of the wrong concept. My original idea for this garden was that I would illustrate it in a  format that I call a “squint”.

The format had worked well for me throughout Le Road Trip, where I used squints frequently:





These squints — the long, narrow strips of paintings that I used (above) were a lot of fun to do and I think they are vey successful when it came to illustrating France. For the Damn Garden Book I had planned on using vertical squints, rather than the horizontal ones in Le Road Trip:


This is my thumbnail sketch for a two-page layout using vertical squints. But as you can see (way above, those crappy 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th attempts) it was NOT working for me in regards to this fabulous New Orleans garden I was trying to  paint.

And then I realized that I’d gotten the wrong point of view. Not only were the squints not going to work, but I’d been painting the garden from a very boring full-frontal point of view. You see, the most important feature of this garden path that I’d been trying to paint is the garden gate that had been imported from France, but I’d been depicting it straight-on:


Oh lordy, this stinks. It does no justice to the story I am trying to tell about this garden. It looks fake fake fake fake.

Luckily, when I was visiting this garden in New Orleans, I had taken many reference photos of this gate so I went back to the drawing board and re-did this gate from an entirely different perspective:


So let us begin again.

First, I apply masking fluid with my trusty toothpick in the itty bitty bits:


I use the tip of a paintbrush to apply the masking fluid over the bigger bits:


When I failed to draw a pleasing mulberry tree branch in the upper right hand corner the first time…


…I erased it and drew it again, but it was still too gormless to keep:


So on the third attempt I got a decent-looking branch drawn, and I sketched in leaves.


I put masking fluid on those leaves and I’ve ever done this before and I have no idea how it will turn out. We’ll see. But I’m already a bit discouraged. This picture as given me a lot of trouble and I’m in a bad mood. So, while the masking fluid dries, I go make myself a cup of tea.


I want a fancy-colored sky here because this illustration is more about mood (it’s New Orleans, baby!) than meteorology.


Quickly, I do the wet-in-wet background foliage:


Even when the paper is only damp, you can get nice little bleeds:


For brick work I mix two colors of Grumbacher paints with two colors (brown and burnt sienna) of Windsor Newton, for richness:



See how there’s a Triscuit in the middle of this picture?


For the Tahitian Dawn Bougainvillea in the foreground I dab pink, orange, and red in wet blobs:


I lay down a base color for the garden path:


The stuff behind the garden gate will be tricky:


Now, for the rambling roses that are big pom poms of bluey-pink:




Dirt here:


So far, so good. Now, all I have to do…


…is peel off the masking fluid and not screw up painting the gate.


To heighten the rich brown color of the wooden gate I mix blue…


…and brown directly on my paintbrush…


…so when I apply it to the paper I get a wonderful bluey-browness here:


Now for those mulberry leaves, which I have  no idea what I’m doing,  I pray to the big DoG that I won’t blow it this late in the game:


Exhale. They look OK.

For the lantern I intend to use an old trick I’ve been using for years.


You have to use Grumbacher paints for this trick, because you need the chalk that makes their colors so matte. I first apply a layer of yellow Grumbacher, and then I make an edge of darker orange and I let it dry thoroughly:


Using very clean water, I then use a wet brush to pick up the paint in the center:


And we are DONE:


I hope you can see how the lantern “glows” from the way I “erased” a bit of the yellow/orange paints. I decided to leave certain planes of the garden gate white — that is, blank paper — because I think the white bits make its unusual shape  pop more this way. It’s also very attention-getting and this gate is really the subject of this picture in the first place.

Oh yes, I am much happier with this point of view than the one I tried, and tried, and tried, and tried to make work before. Right?

I will still be on the road next Friday, so there won’t be a “live” post here, but I could maybe take you on a tour of my work space / studio, which is where I keep my paints, paper, feathers, files, and threads:


Yes, long before I painted gardens, I used to embroider them.

So if this sounds interesting to you please leave a Comment below…or otherwise I’ll just wait until my return on May 24 to throw something together if I’m not toooooooo jet lagged. Studio tour? Yes or No?


Read more

Yes, that’s me, trying to paint New Orleans. It was not a happy experience.

But first — Cat News!! There has been a  recent appearance of a possible new member of our herd of backyard cats:


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…

High res Cover

…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:


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:


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.


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



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!


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):


Dab in the background greenery:


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


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.


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




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:


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



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


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


Fore ground:



Peel off masking fluid, paint what is revealed underneath:


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


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


Not there yet::




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…


…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:


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!!

Read more

I’ve been back from New Orleans a whole week but I’m still under the spell of that city’s tropical secret gardens…

P1150188 2

…especially since it is still cold (still cranking up my electric blankie at night, and dressing in fleece from head to toe during the day) and dismal (rain today, and yesterday, and tomorrow) here on Long Island. Ahhhh, to be back in the French Quarter…


…where every cup of tea is full of  possibilities, both psychic


…and esthetic:


And as if that weren’t enough bliss to get you through the day, the Quarter also has a fantastic book store culture. I started my Book Shop Quest with Beckham’s Books on Decatur Street:


First things first. Before I paid any attention to the books I had to get a good picture of the book shop cat, Juniper:
P1140841 2

Who, of course, was not going to help me one bit.


You’ll notice that while not running away altogether, Juniper did everything possible to stay out of focus.


There’s ten more photos of more of the same blurry cat-like object…and even some pix of a disappeared cat:


So let’s focus on the sure thing at Beckham’s Books: GREAT BOOKS!


Finding this on my first day in New Orleans was the omen that convinced me that this was going to be the best New Orleans trip ever:


I already treasure my copies of The Silent Traveler in Paris and The Silent Traveler in Edinburgh Chiang Yee (1903 – 1977) was a traveling memoirist, like me, who also illustrated his wanderings in ten books under his “Silent Traveler” persona in the 1940s to the 1970s. Yee was in San Francisco in the 1950s but his book wasn’t published until 1963.


Cable car on California Street.

I love reading travel memoirs from The Golden Age of Travel (capital-T Travel died in 1978), and if there’s pictures, so much the better:


Japanese Bridge at Golden Gate Park, the same bridge I romped on in 1966 when I was 10 years old.

It was when I went back to Beckham’s Books two days later that I finally got a good picture of Juniper, the Book Shop Cat:


Ever seen a cat bird-dog someone’s cafe-au-lait? Only in New Orleans, my dear readers, only in New Orleans.

And I found another treasure!


Irwin Shaw (1913 – 1984),  author of the 1970s best seller Rich Man, Poor Man, writes here about his first visit to Paris on the day of its liberation from the Nazis on August 25, 1944 and of his life as an ex-pat in The City of Light in the 1950s – 1970s. And as if that weren’t thrilling enough, there’s illustrations by Ronald Searle!


Searle (1920 – 2011) has a delicious sense of humor about Paris that is both timeless, and very 1970s (Paris! Paris! was published in 1976).


In Ronald Searle’s Paris even the dogs smoke Gaulois.

There are 35 wonderful illustrations in Paris! Paris!



The good people and cat at Beckham’s Books offer a free map to all the other book shops in the French Quarter, so my next stop was at Crescent City Books on Chartres Street:


And to prove that my entire visit to NOLA was charmed, I got there just as their book shop cat went on duty:


I can vow to the 100% truth of this sign:


Oh, Isabel, I love you so:


Upstairs at Crescent City Books you will find the Gardening Section, near Isabel’s bed (on those old wooden stadium seats) and her litter box (under the Sale table).


Is this not the best title you ever saw for a gardening book?


Of course I bought it. It was published in London in 1973 and I don’t know if you know anything about London in 1973, but that was not a sparkling year for garden writing of the bedside variety.  I imagined stories of delightful garden get-aways, fantastic garden follies, quaint garden indulgences, dreamy garden escapes…


…instead, I got a book of guaranteed garden enervation.


In 1970s England, Less Common Vegetables were egg-plant, sweet pepper, and “cob corn”, which the reader is instructed to boil for 15 minutes before eating. Y-a-w-nnnnnnn.

So I guess it does live up to its cover, in a sleep-aiding way. So that means that if I want to read my perfect Gardener’s Bedside Book I’ll have to write it. Unless one of my dear readers does it first. Any volunteers?

Next, I hit the elegant Faulkner House book store on Pirate’s Alley…


…and I bought a book (I always buy something when I go to a book store, because I want book stores and their cats to always be there for me), a new guide book about New Orleans.


I asked about a book store cat, but they have a book store poodle here and she was napping upstairs. “She’s in a mood today,” I was told.

Next it was on to Kitchen Witch on Toulouse Street…


…which sells nothing but cooking and food-related books, which is why they use an old oven as a book case:


They had three dogs on duty here, but I only took a photo of Jackson the Basset Hound because I did not want to disturb the other two, who  were sleeping in a corner. I did not by a book here — see those amber bottles on the table in front of the toaster (below)? That’s the house’s special red-beans-and-rice-spice that they sell, which I bought so I can not only read New Orleans when I am back home on dreary Long Island, I can taste it too.


Lastly, there was Arcadian Books on Orleans Street:


It’s run by a French-speaking American scholar with a strong French-speaking clientele and a slight hoarding tendency:

P1140885 2

You can read more about this amazing place here  but let me quote from a previous visitor:

Some day in this place, the wrong butterfly will land on the wrong bookcase, which will tip over, and the whole joint will go down in a cloud of book dust and really heavy hardbacks…Meaning, this is the most chaotic, crammed, beautiful bookstore in the city. It’s like a portrait of the whole project of reading/knowledge: messy, hard to make sense of, and full of more than you’ll ever have time to take in or understand.

P1140886 2


The proprietor, however, is shockingly put together and squeaky clean…

And handsome, too, I might add…and on his bulletin board behind his desk, this Frenchcartoon made me laugh out loud:

P1140887 2

Then again, I always find the conditional subjunctive tense hilarious. It loses something in the translation, but this obviously well-to-do sweater-vested middle-aged inhabitant of the seizieme is using a very literary kind of speech to say to his plump little wife, “I should make myself acquainted with a great poet, so that he can have  the benefit of my melancholy.” (Note to Jain: I know you’re reading this on your iPhone, so here’s the French caption that you can’t see in this photo:  Il faudrait que je fasse la connaissance d’un grand poete, afin qu’il puisse beneficier de ma melancolie. Yes, it’s much funnier in French.)

Note the cat under the coffee table (in cartoon above) — that counts as the book store cat.


This, dear readers, is my last post before I head off to Giverny, Marrakech,and Paris, where I hope to make the acquaintance of a great poet so that he can make good use of my melancholy.


P.S. Dear readers, because of renewed spam activity, I will have to close Comments on my blog after five days. So, if you are reading this on Wednesday or later, I’m sorry to say that you will not be able to leave your message but it’s nothing personal. I’m here every Friday — hope to see you here too.


Read more