It’s True. I Paint Like a Writer.


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!


36 Comments, RSS

  1. Sandra K

    Great Friday adventure, as usual. London, Edinburgh, and now Morocco! I can’t wait until next week.

    YES!! I celebrated the Supreme Court decision with my dear sister and her partner of 13 years. It was a happy, happy day.

  2. Not easy painting such fine perfect lines..they are all wonderful..
    It makes me laugh when you are not pleased with one and I already think it’s grand.
    The greenery..gardens.. I think I will parctice today..
    QC is having a wet summer so far..indoor weather today..50’s looks like fall~

  3. Oh, what a happy camper I am with this post. Love seeing the process and seeing how you learn from the ones that just don’t work so well.

    I’m curious about those tubs of color. Are those watercolor too, or another medium?

    The finished results are splendid! I’m looking forward to taking supplies north to enjoy a full week of laying low, making art, reading books, hiding out. Of course, right now I’m ADD on what to take with me and will overpack. At least Rick is riding his bike so I have a full trunk for the rest of it!

    Really, these are terrific and very helpful!

    • Vivian

      Hi Jeanie —

      Those tubs are Grumbacher watercolors. They are the paints I’ve been using for 30 years, starting in the 1980s when I made little sketches to help me design my embroidery. I still use them because I actually like their chalky, subtle tones. I have blogged about all my various paints, which include Windsor Newton tubes for really rich color, in several previous posts, the most recent was on March 29 of this year. I hope that helps.


  4. Such lovely posts, these last few weeks. Sadly, I was away and didn’t get a chance to try for the latest triscuit, but did want to mention that I love the fact that you have a guide to French butterflies.

    • Vivian

      Thank you, Sarah! Of course I did not think to buy a guide to French butterflies when I was in France, no, I had to wait until I returned to the US and decided to write about my French road trip and HAD to do a page about butterflies, and then had to roam all one the internet to find this guide. Now that Im back from Giverny, if I find that I forgot to buy a crucial book I will just get on a plane and head to Gilbert Jeune on blvd. St-Michel.

  5. Marrakesh.!!! Sounds like Humphrey Bogart or Errol
    Flynn might stop by for mid-afternoon cocktails. In the shade of the “palm” trees …..
    Ahhh, just dreaming.
    I can’t WAIT til the next episode, altho this one was terrific. I’ll never be able to paint like you, but I certainly enjoy watch how you do your magic. AND you have help. Kittys are good that way. You don’t need a paper shredder.
    You pick the most interesting things to bring to our attention. Thank you, Vivian

  6. The timing of this post couldn’t have been better for me. I was beating myself up over the fact I wasn’t getting across to paper what was in my mind. Glad to know it is a human trait rather than an artistic shortcoming! I’ll try again.

  7. Helen McHargue

    “By painting or writing to your strong points, you develop a style that is uniquely your own.”
    What great advice! I’ve been struggling with a bit of writing and this line really hit home. Thanks so much. I love your blog.

  8. Carol

    What a naughty kitty!
    That would have set me back a week or two. I learned a long time ago not to leave loose pages of anything around as the cats LOVE the sound associated with the ripping.

    I love watching each step of the watercolor process bringing the final masterpiece into realization. You are great to share so much of it with everyone.

  9. Love what you are going to paint next. Fun seeing how you start a painting and progress on it. Congrats to Carol for wining the Triscuit painting.
    Where are the Monet Chickens? I came to see them. 🙂 Well not just them. lol

  10. Joan

    What a great tutorial I don’t know how you paint so small. I’m a lover of miniatures since childhood when I had a doll house and got to furnish it with all those wonderful furnishings.

    The garden that you’re going to visit next looks intriguing. I’d love to have that water feature in my yard. I’m sure my little birds would love it too, especially this week when we’re set to break the all time high temp. for Las Vegas set back in the 30’s. The sidewalk was 105F at 6 am! Temp: 95F!

    I don’t agree with you about the drawing/painting of architecture…what’s wrong with those buildings in the last triscuit? They look like they’re in perspective to my eye. You did several buildings in WWCTR book as I recall…all lovely.

  11. Caroline

    Why is it so mesmerizing to watch you work? I love it when you show these step by step paintings (no one else on the internet has the nerve to do that!) and I can only imagine the effect it has on your cats, who must sit there in rapt concentration, awed by the strange way your hand swoops and serves over the table top, waiting for their chance to pounce on the invisible prey you seem so intent on.

  12. Karin

    I agree with Monique. I think your “failures” look pretty successful! Anytime you want to give away Failures No. 1 – 4 let me know. I will give them a good home.

  13. This may be the smartest post on writing and painting that I’ve ever read! It seems that I write and paint the exact same way. I just keep reminding myself Anne Lamott’s advice: first drafts are shit. I apply this to both art and writing.

    And now I am going to spend my week off drawing and deciding what I do best for “my style” instead of beating myself up for what I cannot do well.

    thank you!

  14. Carol

    I loved Monet’s garden and house. What a treat it was late march so the pond was quiet not in bloom. I was surprised by the narrow house not sure what I expected. Lucky family to live there.

  15. Megan Hyatt

    I really love the white buildings. As for the cats, well I guess you are lucky they let you paint at all… they could be lying on top of your watercolour paper!

    • Vivian

      Hi Megan–

      Ha! You are so right! My cats seem much more interested in “helping” me when I type on the computer than they do when I paint. They like to sit on the keyboard or nap on the printer, which is a bit inconvenient, and when it comes to painting all they do is drink the water in my paint jar. Yes, they have bowls of water all over the house but they HAVE to drink the stuff that I’ve been cleaning my brushes in.

  16. Judy Jennings

    Well, I’ve told you before how wonderful you are and how wonderful your artwork is, and how I love your blog. I have to tell you this week that I love #1 that you painted my favorite–a Scottie, and that #2 I love your fingernails. I really do. I’m so tired of long or square or black or yellow or designs of stripes or hearts or stars… And there are your perfect wonderful nails (no I don’t have a fetish). You just seem perfect and full of common sense. And talented of course. 🙂

    • Vivian

      Hi Judy —

      Thank you for the nice comment about my digits! Oh, lordy, you and me both. “Nail art” is such a huuuuuuuge waste of time. I cannot imagine how full and rich and intellectually satisfying your life must be if you have the leisure, the money, and the artistic drive to commission someone to paint little doodads on your fingernails. But I guess if you’ve already accomplished all your goals in life, the only thing left for you to spend your empty hours on is your manicure. Do I sound like an old fart?

  17. Jeannie

    I always wonder if those that belong to the “Flat Earth Society” use new technology. As the sister of a lesbian who recently married her partner of 15 years (Washington State is great state to live in), I was over the moon happy with the repeal of DOMA. Now if Congress could do something about those pesky voting maps and a sensible budget, it might be an excellent summer. (Putting my soapbox away now.):)
    As others have said, I oooh and aw over a painting and then you say “it isn’t right”. They look fantastic to me, but then, we are our own worst critics. I think painting and writing are similar because when you don’t exercise those muscles, it seems like everything you paint or write is crap. I spent a lot of time the past two weeks writing an obit and eulogy. Once you get all the emotion out of your system and have gone through reams of paper, you think Cesaer had it right – “I came, I saw, I conquered”.
    Rest assured that if my painting were as glorious as yours, I’d be dancing in the streets – hopefully in Marrakesh. Have a fantastic Fourth!

    • Vivian

      Hi Jeannie–

      I love this: I came, I saw, I conquered will be my new artistic credo. In other words, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

      I’m sorry for your loss of your loved one — obit writing is a very high form and I do know the challenges. Sounds like you got to the heart of it in the end.

  18. janet bellusci

    art, humor AND politics ~ perfect way to start my morning! if only SCOTUS felt positively about the voter’s right act, i would feel more positively about them.

    i’ve said before how i enjoy your PROCESS, but today, getting to watch you paint ‘from front to back’ really tickled me…such a beautiful result.

    and let’s hear it for MS WORD!!!

    as always ~ thank you, vivian.

  19. Carly

    Ahhhhhh…as if Saturday mornings were not awesome already I get to wake up and start the day with a dose of art and wisdom from Vivian.

    I don’t paint at all but watching Vivian do it makes me think that if I WANTED to paint, there would be nothing (that is, my own negative inner voice) stopping me. Thank you!!

  20. Wendy

    I love it. I love watching you work. And your advice on creating my own style is something that I’ve never heard from ay art teacher I ever had. Oh well. Those that can, do, those that can’t…

    Yes, kicking and screaming, America sooner or later does the right thing. She’s only human, after all.

  21. Mindy

    I love the demos and have always wanted to ask this: how do you take pictures of yourself while you are painting? I have seen you in person and I know you don’t have four arms. Is Top Cat your accomplice?

    Yay that the forces of enlightenment won one this week. I almost went into my cave for the duration after the Voting Rights decision. Glad was I here for the demise of DOMA.

    • Vivian

      Hi Mindy–

      I take those photos myself. When I get to a point in a painting that I think would be useful to share, I just sit back, point my wonderful Lumix/Panasonic camera at it, and shoot. Back when I did a lot of embroidery I bought a special (and enormous) “macro” lens for a 35mm camera, but this little gizmo takes amazing close ups and it’s about the size of a deck of cards. I love it. It’s the only camera I have and it’s good for the wee details of a Triscuit to the whole valley at Giverny.

  22. i feel such pressure to make a quick comment before the gates are locked, but sometimes i lack the proper time to ooh and ahhh at your clever work, but i want i really wanna say is stop chucking out the ones you don’t like and start doling them out to your faithful readers 🙂

  23. Lorrine

    Yes! What Jain said! A long time ago I got you to sign your first book for me and if I had one of your “failure” paintings of the Chelsea Physic Garden I could start my Vivian Swift Hall of Fame. Pllleeeeeessssseeee???????

    • Vivian

      Hi Lorrine —

      Oh, lordy…maybe if I give it enough time, these failures won’t be so embarrassing to me and I’d be happy to offer them up for adoption. But now they just look so, so wrong and I don’t ave a big enough ego to think that I can get away with spreading inferior quality stuff around. But, then again, maybe in time I won’t take myself so seriously. Thank you for the sentiment, tho. I do appreciate it.

  24. Patricia

    Just when I think I’ve got Top Cat’s method figured out, he throws me a curve! Love the post of course and I also love reading my fellow readers comments … it does slow me down as I have to keep flipping back to what they’re referring to.
    In my opinion (and you practically ask for it by giving us space to reply and no doubt read carefully and then go ahead and do any damn thing you want anyway), the book is called “The Damn Garden Book” not the damn architecture book so leave them white or not. We’ll love them either way.

  25. Constant Comment

    I’ve never seen gardens painted this way — you truly do have your own style. And if you hadn’t told me I would never have guessed that those wonderful building silhouettes were your way of painting to your strong points. Point well taken.

  26. Deb mattin

    First-DOMA finally gone and we can maybe focus on improving life for everyone instead of trying to make it worse for groups relegated to second class status! and brave of You to include it with your post, what with folks using the Bible as a weapon.

    Now, I may be the last to say it , but can’t imagine tossing any of them to the discard bin! They look lovely to me.

    I love the series of paintings you do to tell a story-sort of like zooming in with a camera for a closer look.

    Love (and need) the advise to write/paint with your own voice and it will define your style. Hard to balance trying things outside my comfort zone, like being more adventurous with color, and being true to my style. More good advise-go with your strengths. Thanks for the insights.

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