In The Way Back Machine

It is December, 1966. I am ten years old and in sixth grade at North Willow Grove Elementary School. In a parallel universe there is a girl my age with perfect hair walking to school with her little sister:


In this parallel universe this girl’s name is Elizabeth Terry (although it appears that we use the same Lennes Arithmetic book):


(N. J.Lennes was the chairman of the mathematics dept. at The University of Montana, a fact that I was not aware of until I googled it five minutes ago.) Yes, I drew this picture when I was ten years old in December 1966 (I dated the pic on the back). From the same year I also have two short stories that I wrote and illustrated, both with a main character named Peggy Anne who lives in Oklahoma and made friends with a new girl who had just moved from Canada.

When I was ten years old I thought Oklahoma was the coolest state in the union but I don’t remember why. I am not showing you those two short stories, which I made into chapbooks, because it creeps me out: I have to tell you that it does not give me any pleasure to look at this old stuff. Me and Johnny Rotten both agree (and if you have not read Johnny Rotten’s memoir, titled Rotten, you are missing out on a memoir that speaks to my heart and soul): we hated being children.

However, in spite of the fact that it floods me with memories of a terrible time of my life, I can look at that drawing of mine from 1966  and see that I had pretty good draftsmanship for a ten year old. Yes, I always knew I could draw. Yes, I used to amaze the dim wits in my elementary school  that I could draw FREEHAND, especially since I’m a leftie. No, I do not remember deriving any particular satisfaction from the fact that I could draw well.

Which brings me to the Thought Of The Day.

Drawing well is the worst thing that can happen to an artist.


Thomas Kinkade, the so-called Painter of Light, whose over-priced mass-produced “art” hangs on the wall of one in 20 American households, could draw.





I’m picking on him because he is dead and I do not want to call a living artist (oh, honey, I could name names…) banal … but sadly, that’s the trap of being able to draw well. It’s like being born beautiful. Pretty girls don’t have to dig deep to find a personality or an I.Q.; good draftsmen don’t have to dig deep to find their own unique style. Pretty girls and good draw-ers tend to be bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ring.

Claude Monet couldn’t draw…that’s why he invented impressionism:

A Bend in the Epte Giverny by Monet

Edward Gorey himself said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1986…


“Sometimes I think my life would have been completely different id I had ever learned to draw.”

Edward Gory: All his people look the same, he draws them wearing fur coats and in profile so he doesn’t have to bother with clothes or faces, his “settings” are rudimentary…and yet, his work oozes with portent and depth and connotations…

So, if you can not draw as well as the ten year old me (see above), STOP TRYING. And start looking at what you can do well, what you can do  really, really well — color, subject matter,composition, point of view,  etc. — and let that be your springboard to make the art that only YOU can do.

Meanwhile, here’s what I did this past week to make my art a little less banal:

I’m working on a memory of a Brazilian garden for my Damn Garden Book. At first, I painted  it like this:


But this did not seem true to my memory of it. So I hit upon the idea to represent it more like a true memory:


Yes, I sliced it. (Truth to tell, I sliced it and then painted over bits of it, and then re-constructed it whole for the blog — which is why there are some subject matter discrepancies in the “before” shot, if you know what I mean.) Now the image looks more memory-like and the text will look interesting on the page.

So, until we meet again next Friday, I hope you’re all hanging out in the back yard and enjoying these last wonderful Summer days.




20 Comments, RSS

  1. Carol

    Happy Friday! By chapbooks, do you mean chapter books? (Sorry, I am slow this moring. Only had 1 20oz diet coke thus far!) I love your illustration. Kalman, Gorey and two cats!! Thanks for a great start to the weekend!!

  2. Everyone’s lives are so different..It sounds banal saying that but look how many lives there are?
    I know I was loved..but I can’t remember how I felt about childhood.
    There are so many extenuating factors.. friends..bullying(I hate bullying..)..tastes..where you live..
    It’s a huge puzzle.
    You did draw so well!
    And I tend to agree with you..He did draw and paint well..but his workd never spoke to me.. the first times yes..the light..but it was always teh same..
    One artist..I love and always have loved is Trisha Romance.. she can draw..and paint..but her works speak to me.. I do have a few of hers here..and I think I loved them so because they evoked all my feelings of family.
    I still love her.. met her once briefly at the opening of a gallery in Florida..Years and years ago.Lovely.
    I grew daturas.. mine opened in the morning also.. they are spectacular en masse..Perfect painting of them.
    They always remind me a bit of Brugmansias right side up:)

  3. Left hand, right scissors. I can relate. What really impresses me is your sense of perspective — pretty accurate perspective — and the ripe old age of 10. And proportion.

    This was a helpful post for me from an art point of view because my drawing skills are negligible. When I was in sixth, I drew and painted a series of floating profiles — heads only (because I knew how to draw profiles), painted them in blues and called them heaven. The teacher called my mother, wondering if I should talk to a counselor. But I guess I was going Gorey and didn’t know it! Sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever find a real style for my drawing or painting — but at least after reading this I feel better about not having one, because maybe, really, I might be onto something!

  4. Patricia

    I’m screwed. I had a happy childhood (even if I never got a doll house OR a train set)and I can draw. No wonder my watercolors look like crap! At least I wasn’t born pretty (once I asked my mom if I’d be pretty when I grew up and she told me I had a lovely forehead).

    Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

  5. Sherrilee

    So since I can’t draw at all, there is hope for me?

    Lovely Daturas and lovely kittens on the adironacks. It’s starting to cool down at nights here so my kittens are snuggling more.

  6. Deborah

    Ooook la homa, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain! How could you not love Oklahoma after hearing that song?

    Besides your artistic and storytelling bents showing by age 10, the traveler bent is also apparent.

    This blog unleashed epiphanies for me. At first, I was eating my heart out at your talent — at that age, I was drawing ‘roses’ as spirals and coloring them in magenta (my most favorite color). I still can’t draw worth a damn. And I guess I’ve been so focused on that (and so consumed by envy of those who can draw) that I’ve ignored what I do have ~~ the love of color — I remember staring at a ‘black’ tulip when I was barely taller than it was, being mesmerized by the color. And the bleeding hearts. Flowers and color are one.

    AND — I was gardening by age 7. Long way of saying I think our proclivities endure. And I do remember being really, REALLY frustrated at being a child in my early years, frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t read and write, as well as the stoopid powerlessness that you mention.

    Still in pursuit of majorelle blue paint (for an unpainted storage chest) — and a neon purple for the lid. (Maybe eyeball popping yellow for inside). The world is a carousel of color: wonderful, beautiful color, color, color.

  7. Sapphire

    I’ve heard it said that winning the MegaMillions lottery can be a curse. Which, let me just say, in no way serves to diminish my desire to experience this for myself first hand. Ditto for beauty and drawing talent. I’ve lived a long, full life without any true deprivation, have developed enough character and personality for four people, and have a good enough sense of color and design to be really pissed off when I learn that Martha Stewart has stolen yet another one of my good ideas. All of that notwithstanding, I would still enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to possess excessive monetary wealth, stunning physical beauty and the talent of photorealistic drawing ability. Even for just a year or two. Or three.

    Childhood is something many of us Capricorns endure rather than enjoy. The smile on my face in a photo of me at my high school graduation is almost too big to be held down on a two dimensional surface–the smile says “at last, childhood is over and I no longer have to deal with arbitrary and capricious adult authority figures!” I literally snatched the diploma from the principals hand. The good news is that Capricorns often grow more childlike as we age, taking all manner of things less seriously and learning to enjoy life in a way that people who have had a happy childhood will never know because, for one thing, and unlike most people, we do not look back on our childhoods with regret.

  8. Sapphire

    Also…Inquiring minds want to know: are you actually going to name your next book “Damn Garden Book” or is this just a working title?

  9. SusanA

    Hi, Vivian. I just got your book, after looking around on Amazon for artist-journal-type books, and stayed up way too late last night reading it. I absolutely love it!

    I just discovered your blog and will probably stay up way too late reading it too! So far, I’m loving how you show your process. I’m just learning how to paint, draw, and keep a sketchbook, so I’m sure I’ll be here often. Thank you for sharing!


  10. Joan

    I can draw, but not at will. Go figure. I love to paint watercolor without a preliminary drawing, Just go to it.

    I had no childhood to speak of. Violent home, chaos. All I wanted to do was get away from those insane people as soon as possible.

    I love Gorey. And Escher.

    The only thing I recall about Johnny Rotten was cracking up when I heard the name…oh, and the Snot Bunnies. OMG! Laughed till my sides hurt.

  11. Sherry Kitchen that the teabag size goes way back! ”Le Road Trip” came Saturday morn…had devoured it by Sunday evening. Wonderful read and pictures..Love your way of telling tales. Inspirational..every window, garden gate, hedge now captures my attention in a whole new light. You have provided a project direction of subject matter for this strange new medium that I’m trying. Watercolor.I usually draw with the color but am not quite satisfied(not unusual)with the colors I end up with a black .5 tip to rein it all in to something recognizable.You made up nicely for that bum childhood.I loved my childhood nothing after quite matched the first 12 years! Huge lake for swimming and skiing and skating, we made paths to run on the banks…trips to the beach toasting in the sun while building sculptures and sand castles. Especially like your design slices.Thanks!

  12. Judy Jennings

    Vivian, the faces you drew on the two girls are so good–faces are HARD–and you were only ten. But it’s the very thing I noticed about your cats (besides the fact that you capture their bodies perfectly in your work)–those cat FACES are beautiful. I tried and tried to copy those. Ha! Garbage.
    Have you seen the book about Gorey’s house? It’s all black and white photos and is the most wonderful house I’ve ever seen. Talk about personality. Wish I could have met him.
    My Capricorn daughter understands totally what you say about childhood. She was 20 at age 5. Light of my life.

  13. Sherry Kitchen

    PS…you are the only person I know((besides me))that gets excited about feathers…since finding you approx 1 month ago..i have found..or they’ve found me…6 blue jay feathers…two white spotted woodpecker and one huge crow/raven mom’s a capricorn..she’s 93 and loves feathers too!

  14. Jen A.

    Just walked in the door at 10pm from a long road trip day through VT, up to Lake Champlain, hanging out with the wind and waves and rocks, napping in the sun, eating and drinking our way from morning until night. The smell that greeted me on the back deck – datura, which are most fragrant at night. Then I remembered to check your blog post and see this great illustration of datura. Love that you show a still-furled blossom. I think that piece of visual information helps tell the story. And the background colors are damn nice, too.

  15. Laura

    You did it again, Professor Swift. You gave us one of the great lessons of art-making in the difference between technical and emotional artistry. I teach that art-making involves 3 areas, the mind for ideas, the heart for emotion and the hands for technique. When my students struggle with their self-imposed technical expectations, I remind them of the power of the idea and expression, exemplified by Gorey, Monet and Kalman. An excellent lesson.
    I love the slices to reformat or add interest in compositions. That is a great technique to express motion as the viewer scans the broken image.
    Brilliant, again.

  16. Carly

    I love my Saturday “appointment” with Vivian’s blog, but today is another example of why I love coming here. Best Comments Section EVER. I’m not a Capricorn, but Sapphire’s essay on Capricorns has taught me a lot about my January friends. Monique enlightened me about Trisha Romance (I’d never heard of her) and Patricia made me laugh: You have a nice forehead. (Patircia, I’m sure you had nice eyes and nose and smile to go with that killer forehead.) Judy recommended a book I MUST find, and laura gave me my art teachering of the week (in addition to you, Vivian, you are my art teacher for life).

    Thank you to everyone who comes and Comments.

  17. I wish I had read your post when I was young and in art school. First I went to art school in Paris, and took private lessons with an artist in her studio. Then when I moved to San Francisco I enrolled at the SF Art Institute – but I never could draw very well even though I had masses of ideas – so I stopped. But I can pass hours looking at artists’ works – not Kinkade though – but you know Picasso could draw nicely.

  18. Megan Hyatt

    Hate to be boring, but straight to the cats, the fellow on the left looks a bit unhappy that his sun went away, he needs a cuddle. I LOVE your cat paintings you really capture their personality and what it is to be a cat. Love your blog ALWAYS so entertaining and informative. Thank you.

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