When Bad Ideas Happen to Good People

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.


23 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan

    Love the rose petals. I like the old painting of the kitchen, the new one is more detailed but they are both great. Especially love that darling cat with the head in a lampshade. They are strange little creatures with interesting ways aren’t they? Kepp up the excellent work.

  2. Karin

    I’m a relatively new reader so I thank you for the August repeat. any chance of you making a Triscuit of such a wonderful summer scene?

    Congratulations on the Paris showcase. I hope the French red it too, and every English-speaking person visiting the city. And if they don’t read English, they can fall in love with the pictures — I did!

  3. We used to have a WH Smith.. 25 minutes away.I miss it..Chapters took over I guess eventually.
    There really is a difference between the 2 paintings of your tea shrine..
    I would be over the moon to paint even pre the first one..
    The advice is well taken.
    Your book will be opened in a cute artist’s apartment in Le Plateau of Montreal tomorrow ..it’s one of my friend’s birthdays and she is getting When Wanderer’s Cease To Roam..She is a traveler..a writer..and artist.
    I know she will love it.

    • Vivian

      Here’s a big Happy Birthday to your friend! Thank you for giving “Wanderers” a good home — in my favorite Canadian city.

  4. Patricia

    Love your old kitchen and love both illustrations of it. And especially cat with head in lamp shade. Does Woody think he’s hiding? (I can’t see you therefore you can’t see me?). And congratulations on nearly making the Damn Garden Book official. I suppose you can’t ACTUALLY call it the Damn Garden Book, but it is kind of a catchy title…

  5. Susie

    Wow, congratulations on the progress for your Damn Garden book, I can’t WAIT to have my own copy, especially being a blog reader and following along as you give birth to it…makes the appreciation factor waaay high.
    Love Woody Robinson with his head under the lampshade, what a character he was.
    I had a cat, Twyla, who was afraid of everything. She used to sit on the dining room table, inside a bare wire lampshade…she would run there when she got scared or upset. And we had to NOT laugh at her while she sat there “hiding.” I didn’t have the heart to move it while she lived or recover it after she died……
    Last bit, I’ve been reading your blog long enough to remember that August painting post, very cool for me.
    Happy August to you.

  6. Lorrine

    I’m like Karin, I’m a new reader and even tho I have been going back to the archive I haven’t seen you paint August so thank you.

    Good forParis to have your book on display, I hope they sell out. I too have paid a visit to that very store in the past, the distant past, back when it was almost impossible to get English language news (now that I can travel with the internet I get the New York Times every morning no matter where I am in the world). W H SMith was a haven. So are your books.

  7. Judy Jennings

    Vivian, there are many painters out there (myself included) who really are not so good at drawing. You are superb . I have tried to “get” the shape and feel and expressions of cats for example. Can’t. Your guys look as if I could reach out and pet them. That’s hard to capture. Did you draw all through childhood the way I did, which didn’t seem to help me? Did you have lessons or art classes at school? Or has it all been self-study and practice practice practice on your own? I know I couldn’t even get that Windsor chair to be symmetrical. Mine would surely wobble. Sign me, “Still waking up early on Fridays, excitedly, to read your blog.”

    • Vivian

      Hi Judy —

      Last year my mother gave me some drawings she’d been saving for 40 years, stuff I drew when I was 8 – 10 years old. I’d be happy to dig them up to show you next week, along with stuff from my 20s and 30s (I used to draw all the time, for the embroidery I used to do).

      In a way, being able to draw well is a bit of a handicap; people who can’t draw have a head-start in developing a distinctive style that accommodates their skill level. So consider wobbly chairs a mark of individuality — it works for Maia Kalmen.

  8. Tiny Dancer

    Oh wow — that August painting captures everything I love about summer. Would you ever consider selling copies?

    Congratulations on making your Paris debut! I know that store, and I know that chain in England … who do we have to talk to to get Le Road Trip in the London shop window?

    Ah, those rose petals look like they might float off the paper in the next passing breeze. These tid bits of the Damn Garden Book are driving me crazy. I want that book!!!!!

  9. Pippa

    Oh! That meadow of cosmos! I would love to see you paint that — or better yet, I would love to drive the 2,000 miles between me and the Garden State so I could dive into that bouquet.

    So fun to see your book for sale in Paris. I suspect there’s a bottle of champagne cooling in the fridge n’est-ce pas?

    Yes, please, I’d love to see what 10-year old Vivian drew. It’s probably better then what 40-year old moi can do, but I’m prepared to be mortified and inspired.

  10. Well, August is my favorite month too because it’s my birthday month and that means I get to retire in five weeks — as soon as the social security starts! So I think you captured it perfectly. And I so love your honesty about not just the good stuff but the challenges of doing the Damn Garden Book — I learn way too much. No, not too much! Never too much.

    And by the way, loved the original and re-do of the kitchen. I keep telling myself — the more I do, the better I’ll get — and you are making that point!
    (Fun about the Paris book photo! Yay, Carol!)

  11. Patsy

    Dear Vivian:

    I just had to write to you to tell you that I gave your book to my sister in law and I have just received my mail today and there is a hand-written Thank You note from her, thanking me for your book. You could knock me over with a feather (blue jay, please). My sister in law is very hard to please and in the 14 years that she’s been married to my brother she has never written a note to me personally. Christmas card, birthday card, but never a personal note.

    She really loves the book and can’t thank me enough for thinking of her.

    I might get that note framed.

    Thank you for your books, your blog, your art, your humor, etc etc etc.

  12. NJ Nadia

    Wow. That August picture.

    I think I figured out why you can paint like that and i can’t. I see that you start painting after you have already thought out the whole picture in terms of where the layers of paint will go. So you start with the background highlights, which do not make sense until you paint in the front layers — you have visualized what you’ll need the background to do so that you can leave it to shine through.

    Me, I paint things as they occur to me, meaning that I paint the foreground, then background, then middle ground. I have to spend more time organizing my paint process before I even pick up the paint brush.

    I can see all that in this demo. It all makes sense. Wow.

    Just, WOW.

  13. Jeannie

    I love the brick courtyards. I must have been a mason in a previous life as I am always drawn to brick and iron work. The meadow of cosmos is spectacular! When ever I have gone through New Jersey, that is not the view I had. 🙂 I’d love to see your old drawings and embroidery! Seeing other’s beginnings gives me hope that I will someday be able to draw/paint better.

  14. Joan

    The Damn Garden book is nearly ready for publishing???? Yahoo! I’m sure it will bowl us over just like the previous two have done. Can’t wait to get my mitt/paws on it! Do you have even a hint of when that might be?

    The repaint of the kitchen is so good…you manage to get in so much detail in these tiny little paintings. Amazing!

    I love the reposting of the August, sun filtered yard scene, even tho’ this is the second time I’ve seen it, it’s still filled with inspiration.

    I’m participating in Brenda Swenson’s (CA watercolor painter/workshop instructor) who challenges you to a 75 drawings in 75 days with pen only. She herself took this challenge from one of her teachers and was astounded by the development of her drawing skill. Me, the Queen of Procrastination, does 5 drawings in one, day, skips a week, marathon drawing the next week. But hey, I’m old and cranky and trying to paint my way to the end of my road. At the end of the challenge she mails you your Artistic License (looks just like a CA driver license) and guarantees that your hand to eye coordination and observation skills will be greatly improved. This is the last year she’s doing the challenge. So I’m going to stick it out come hell or high water.

    Glad you enjoy August so much. My favorite month is October…love everything about the fall: Pumpkins, leaves, wood fires, the change is the feel of the air, the difference in the light. Apples! Can’t wait.

    The photo of the the wild cosmos is lovely. Reminds me of Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautify America campaign…when I visited TX a few years ago, the wildflowers were in bloom everywhere in the beautiful Hill Country. Eye Candy for sure.

    Congratulations of having your book in the Paris bookstore window!!!! Kudos to you, and well deserved too. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next. It’s always a pleasure to visit you on Friday. Cheers!

  15. Sherry Kitchen

    Ah..it’s Friday!! Thanks for my home state mini-tour. New Castle reminds me of my Dover birthplace, still love walking the Green and seeing State St during holiday season with a single candle in each window..that’s Christmas to me. My P-dawg, being very generous this week, has ordered the ”Trip” for me…Monday is delivery date…YAY!! So what’s the ”bad idea” the petals..the stay in Atlantic City.. the drive down the Garden State parkway!?”Champions do everyday what amateurs do occasionally(my P dawg says this all the time) You are a champion.your work ethic is awesome..Love the petals on the page and the vivid August green.. I also like the Reader comment of a 75 day streak.TY TY TY Enjoy your trip…safe travels!

  16. You bring colors alive (including grey!) and I love coming along on your road trips. Thank you for giving us a treat every Friday. I save it for the end of the day so I have something to look forward to when I get home. The perfect way to start the weekend!

  17. Gigi

    It was so sweet of you to post while on the road – and while finishing your third Damn Book. I feel guilty that your fans cause you to work too hard. We can hardly wait for the next edition.

    The Garden State sure knows how to do parkways! Reminds me of the wild flowers that grow on Mt. Rainer. They have to be seen to be believed.

    What a lesson the rose petal exploration turned out to be – thank you for showing us how you resolve a good idea gone a little sideways. I adore the way you handcraft your books!

    Pretty please – share the drawings from when you were just a girl. Some of us may still be stuck at that level. =)

  18. Now I’m glad I saved a few drawings. I remember I saved little tiny houses you made out of paper, and put each shingle or brick on to a base, then made houses with chimneys. They eventually collapsed, but I should have saved them anyway. They took hours and hours of your time.

    I have more here, too. You’ll get them soon.
    love from mom

  19. Carly

    NJ Nadia: You’re so right! I get it now, you have to envision the whole painting before you start, then you’ll never lose your place while you’re putting on paint (I tend to lose my place and forget whether I’m painting background or foreground. You put it perfectly. Thanks.

    And yay for Paris! They now have the passport to Vivian World!

    Love the cosmo fields on the NJ turnpike. Makes me rethink my opinion of NJ.

  20. Laura

    Practice makes perfect. That applies to everything. A drawing a day, from observation, will show improvement over time. The variables will be your subject, concentration and length of time. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your brain, eye and hand as they learn to “dance” together.
    I will show your before-after example to my students when school starts. Thank you for providing yet another real world example.

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