How to Paint a Waterfall


As a writer/illustrator who doesn’t want to bore my dear blog readers I tend to focus on the illustrating party of my work because if I wrote about writing all you’d see is a picture of me sitting at  desk, pulling my hair out.

If I wanted to bore the dear readers of this blog, I would blog about unpacking from that road trip to the Delaware Bay that I took two weeks ago:


Which I have not yet actually fully un-packed from. Yes, when I go on a car trip I haul out my biggest, ugliest suitcase and pack it with my own comforter and pillows because I do not use hotel blankets and pillows. Ew. Ew. Ewwwwwwwwww.  As you can see, when Penelope decides that this un-packed suitcase is her new favorite place to nap well, then, that suitcase stays un-packed until it becomes a hazard to life and limb (I’ve already tripped over it once, in the dark, when I forgot that there was a big stonking suitcase in the doorway between the dining room and the living room).


I took this picture last week, one week after than the one above it. I could walk into my living room right now and take anothear pic just like it.


Honest to DoG, I just took this pic, a WEEK after the one above: That black lump on the EMpire-style chair is Cindy and that’s Taffy, eyeing the Sweet Spot from under the coffee table.

And we all know that as long as Lickety and/or Taffy and Cindy are hovering nearby, dying to take their own turn on this amazing new fabulously comfortable napping hot spot, Penelope will never, never relinquish control of the big stonking suitcase, which will probably rot in this corner of the livingroom before I have the heart to take it way from her. (See: nice Empire-style chair, above, re: how I let these cats re-purpose every object in this house including, now, suitcases.) Which reminds me:

I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the universe for the six doses of Frontline I use every month in May, June, July, August, September, and October. For two tablespoons-worth of Frontline (approx. equivalent to a tea bag’s worth of tea), I generate this much trash, most of it plastic:


This ought to be a crime. This is excessive packaging and I hate it..but what can I do? Fleas are nasty and disgusting and germy and give my cats scabs .

Universe, please forgive me.

And now, without further ado, let’s paint!


I had already painted most of the rock face before I thought of taking photos.

But Step One was prepping this picture with masking fluid:


And here’s how to paint small falls of water  (I’m using a combination of light blue and greenish-blue):


First, I brush in strokes of clear water:


And then I drop the paint into the water:


I like the effect, very watercolor-y. I’m just letting water and paint do what they do when you put them together. (I also leave small areas of dry white paper showing.)


I had intentionally left some of the rock face unpainted so it would make a soft boundary to the water:


When I paint rock (which, by the way, I LOVE to do), I paint one rock face at a time. Here is how I do it: I brush in clear water on an area (let’s call it a “cell”) that I have drawn as a surface:


I am using my beloved cheapo Grumbacher paints here because with all the chalk filler in them, they blend really well (that is to say, they don’t really blend well at all, which is what I like) when I drop them into the “cell” that I have prepared for them. I mix four color right on my little bitty brush — blue, black, brown, and grey/flesh:


Here is what happens when you lightly drop your brush, which is loaded with paint, into a “cell” that is full of clear water:


I go back a dab in some black on the edges, and then I let dry. Where I used a lot of brown to paint that bit of rock (above), here I am going with more of a blue-grey color:


You never know what you are going to get! Well, sure, you can control the areas that need to be light or dark, blue or brown (so that the whole rock face makes sense), but within each “cell” you ever know how it’s going to dry — look at all that texture and interest that is in each rock:


And yes, you can see that I had to write “ROCK” with arrows on this drawing so I didn’t get confused as to what was rock and what was waterfall. Also, you can see that I have now lifted of the masking fluid that I had previously put down…I changed my mind on how I wanted this main section of waterfall to look.

Truth is, I had never painted a waterfall before I did this picture, so I did some preliminary sketches:


I tried out several different ways of painting a waterfall, and I cut out bits so I could hold them against what I’ve already painted to see how it would look. In the end, I decided to go for a much loser effect that did not require masking fluid:


And then I painted the rest of the picture:


This is one of the best things about re-booting the Damn Garden Book


…I can open up the scope of the book, thanks to the wonderful negative criticism I got last week.


And to answer a dear reader’s question last week…no, the title of the Damn Garden Book is not The Damn Garden Book. I call all of my books-in-progress the Damn [fill in the blank] Book because most of the time that’s how I feel about all my books-in-progress. They are such a damn pain in the ass to write, and I wish they would write their damn selves,but they are, in the end, the best pain-in-the-assy things I’ve ever done.


I have a totally different working title for the Damn Garden Book which my agent and editor use. I don’t make them say “Damn Garden Book”.


And, to answer another FAQ, no, Top Cat does not take these photos. I take them myself. I use my right hand to hoist the camera, point, shoot, and hope I catch something useful. Half the photos I take are useless.


I was very happy to paint this new illustration because this is one of the most delightful consequences of receiving that wonderful negative criticism last week and opening up the narrative …


I get to add Seattle to the Damn Garden Book!!


This is the famous and beautiful Waterfall Garden Park in downtown Seattle. (I had to leave empty space for text, TBA.)

I am taking the next two weeks off, dear readers, to both get stuff done and do nothing. I forgot to tell you that  the DGB is a GO and the sooner I write the damn thing, the sooner it will appear in stores and libraries. I also want to hang out with men in kilts (the Long Island Scottish Games are this weekend), and re-boot my brain.

I will leave the Comments section open until Sept. 6 so please feel free to leave a comment or question about writing, illustrating, cats, or tea, or whatever.  Because I will check in often and use my spiffy new Reply function to answer any and all queries;  as for the future of this blog, I have a tutorial all about painting cats already planned for Sept 13…



But, as there are only so many Summer sun sets until Autumn, I must bid you all a fond See You Later, and hope to see each one of you back here on September 13.



Now get out there and goof off!

28 Comments, RSS

  1. Tracey

    I am excited about BOTH the Damn Garden book and the lesson on painting cats. The Seattle part of the book looks great. I love the little evergreens in pots.

    I trip over a Zappos box daily that my Siamese has decided is his new favorite place to sleep despite his three cat beds.

    Several years ago, my building had a major flea epidemic. I used Frontline and did lots of cleaning. However, an exterminator practically lived in the rest of the building. A little Frontline plastic waste prevents lots of chemicals sprayed around the house.

    Here in NYC, we can now recycle all plastic. Maybe you can advocate for better plastic recycling on LI (if you ever get free time).

  2. janet bellusci

    have a wonderful “break”, vivian. personally, between weeding and mowing, i’m spending my end of the summer quality time IN THE HAMMOCK!!!

  3. Deborah

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who avoids unpacking a suitcase for weeks (and I don’t have cats).

    Glad to see that Seattle will be a part of the DGB (someday you will HAVE to do a book that has Damn ____ Book as its for real title.)

    Since goofing off is my standard MO, I guess I’ll keep myself busybusybusy for the next 3 weeks, all the better to compensate for the absent Friday morning thought-provoking entertainment.

  4. Carol

    That is a lovely picture of you! Whenever I visit my sister (2 cats), my oldest son (2 cats), or my youngest son borrows a suitcase (1 cat), Pumpkin lies on the suitecase(s) as soon as I pull them out. Then whenever I arrive at destination, the cats there lie on them the entire time. Then I come home and Pumpkin re-asserts his primacy. I am seriously considering dressing only in black, grey and of course, orange!!!

  5. What a gift the criticism was if it actually felt like such a gift and by your words..I can tell it was..(the editors would have a field day with just this sentence..)
    Love the fir trees..too
    I can’t believe you can take all the pics with your right hand of the left hand working..
    Enjoy your time off..Cute last pic!

  6. Enjoy your break! I’m sure you knew that I was also taking a two-week vacation starting tomorrow and you planned your absence around mine. Thank you for your thoughtfulness!

    And I’m SO glad you are putting Seattle in the DGB. We do gardens proud here.

    Men in kilts – finest kind!

  7. Sherrilee

    Vivian and the rest of the blog crew – have a great two weeks. I’m in the throes of getting my only child off to college… sniff, sniff.

    Really enjoyed the photos of the kitties today. I’m guilty of not putting clean clothes away promptly and my two felines do love to lounge in the laundry basket!

  8. Nicole

    I am really looking forward to the cat-painting lession, I’ve wanted do that for years. Thank you! And on the next book flogging trip, please come back to Seattle if you can.
    Yesterday I got a desk in a repurposed room that I’m going to be using as a little studio, so I won’t have to put paint and paper away every time I use them. Well, that and my old lady cat, who left a horseshoe of teeth marks in every piece of paper, cardboard, book covers, steel blinds, whatever she found, is no longer with us. The biting was her only bad habit. She was 17.

  9. Patricia

    Woo hoo! We’re in the Damn Garden book (Seattle made it). The waterfall park is one of those funny hidden surprises you find tucked away. It’s WONDERFUL on a hot summer day (yes, we do eventually get warm weather here). I also love the Bloedel Reserve and my personal fave is Kubota Gardens, another hidden gem.
    Enjoy your brief summer vacation and men in kilts.

  10. You are so wise! Get that DGO finished but enjoy the rest of these precious weeks. I am heading out your way to go to Robert Moses, Captree specifically, and I will have sketchpad and watercolors in hand. Enjoy! And thank you for sharing so generously your techniques, your paintings-in progress, and, of course, your cats!

  11. Jeannie

    Have fun!!! Those skies are beautiful in the photos. I would embrace each and everyone since we all know that the time of year that needs a champagne bottle to measure precipitation is just around the corner. (Where did spring go, by the way?) First, I slept through commenting on the way back post. I loved it! Now, I have been to the Waterfall Park in Seattle and you have captured it beautifully. I love rocks. I admit to sneaking a few into the car on road trips. Beautifully creamy green ones from Montana, glorious orange from Utah, etc. I am going to get a few out of the garden and see what fun I can have with some paint and your advice. I about fell off my chair when I was reading about the suitcase. I have ceded my favorite reading chair, my favorite sewing basket, and other things to the cats. When they move onto their new “favorite”, I think I get back the previous one. Nope! No how, no way! Once a favorite, always a favorite. Enjoy your break.

  12. mo

    have a lovely end-of-summer break … i’ll be looking forward to your witty description of whatever-it-is-you-do-on-your-well-deserved-break. hopefully your narrative will include pics of men in kilts, like it has for the past 2 years. and hopefully it will be clear weather this go-round.

    how wonderful that you found the negative feedback helpful. that really makes it positive feedback, doesn’t it … can’t wait to add your DGB to my collection of Vivian Swift collectibles.

    as for painting lessons, of course i look forward to the cat lessons, but i hold out hope that at some point you might consider dog lessons as well. for us woof, woof types 😉

    enjoy, enjoy these last days of summer, and see ya when you get back … meantime, hugs!!

  13. Bunny

    Sorry to hear about the DGB, hope you can turn the corner, and get on the good foot.
    Your cat stories/photos, and watercolor of said furry creatures are a hoot. Did you ever consider a short whimsical non fiction of your brood? I am quite sure there’s a story there somewhere.
    Nice photo of you!!!

  14. Susie

    Every Friday morning I get my “Vivian” fix, often with a laugh, I always learn something and you grab my heart as well.
    Enjoy goofing off in those sunsets and come back to us when you’re ready……
    See? I could go on and on about how interesting/educational/heart-grabbing/funny each of your posts are but I force myself to pick one or two things.
    Yes please to cat lessons.
    How’s that?

  15. Sherry Kitchen

    Thanks for the rock masking scoop. Nice… and making me feel sooo much better about unpacking/or not! My P-dawg unpacks in the first hour home..ugh! Love your lazy life kitties..can hear them purring. Am excited about the DGB ”GO” and the cat lessons.. maybe my portraits will improve ..hope the rewrite flows as beautifully as your waterfall.Enjoy goofing!

  16. Hooray that Seattle makes it into the book! We do love our gardens here in the Emerald City. And the UPS garden is one of the most delightful. Good on you to take a vacation. (My summer is looking up now that I found a cottage with a garden for rent. I can’t wait to move in. It even has a little cat door knocker.) Have yourself a ball – go play!

  17. Deb Mattin

    Love the cats and how they claim the house. My cat loves to find something to sit on- even an envelope will do in a pinch! I saw a funny picture of a cat crammed into a tissue box with this caption, ” If it fits, I sit”.

    Eagerly awaiting the DGB and the ” fatal flaw” story. It’s hard to believe any of your writing has a flaw, much less a fatal one! I can’t paint or daw, but I’m fascinated with all the technique and pointers you describe. I do try to write and it is damn hard. I think I have a witty story, but somewhere between the idea and the writing it goes on a walk-about.

    Fridays won’t be the same with you on break, but hope you have some good R&R.

  18. Melissa

    Definitely want to see the cat tutorial. Be sure to include the maddening fact that they lie there like the dead until you start drawing them and then intuit, from their deep sleep, that you are looking at them and it is important for them to stay still, and they immediately get up and go somewhere else.

  19. Megan Hyatt

    Love the cats… Penelope is very lucky. We once had a cardboard carton which had displayed a dozen Stollen at the supermarket, Chester our black cat fell in love and it didn’t get thrown out for three months. We are planning our first (my first)trip to America for October and now my skin is crawling as I think about strange beds! to quote “ew”. However a trip from Aus does not allow a lot of baggage. Love your waterfall and can’t wait for the cat painting tutorial. Have I mentioned, love the cats? Thanks for another brilliant blog post.

  20. Judy Jennings

    Vivian, I was so excited to see Seattle added to your book. I’m a Midwestern girl, and cornfields are in my blood. I like it here. But when i visited my daughter Beth, who married and moved to Seattle three years ago, I fell in love with the GREENESS of that place. Fascinates me that WHEREVER you look there are flowers, flowering trees, shrubs, etc. but I really love that there are so many SMALL parks, or just islands of green with flowers in the middle of a block or on a shady street corner, etc. EVERYWHERE! Hard to believe, but I think Freeway Park right downtown with the interstate running through is my favorite with all the water features, waterfalls with their babbling roar and the high “cement” cliffs like the cave dwellers. Green and flowers everywhere. Will say that after a bit the noise of downtown drives me bonkers though so back to the boondocks for me.
    Waterfalls are hard to paint–yours is great, and the rocks are perfect. It’s amazing to see your paintings continue to go one step further each week–improve is not the correct word because your work is so perfect already–but I really do see you getting better and better, and again that’s not the right word either because you don’t NEED to get better. There’s just a new level of perfection and yes, beauty to what you do. And no, I’m not buttering you up. Don’t know you, don’t need to, don’t want something from you. Just highly admire your skill and the joy it gives me looking at your work. Have a relaxing “rest” of the summer.

  21. Carly

    My greatest fear is that you will burn out on blogging. It’s obvious that you take a lot of care in your blog, and the amount of useful and enlightening and funny and wonderful information you communicate each week is so above and beyond the ordinary drivel that I know it must be draining. I often am amazed at the depth of info, I mean, don’t you have to save something for your books??

    So yes yes yes, Reboot, and come back refreshed and ready to inspire all your needy and adoring fans!!!

  22. Joan

    I so love your tutorials no matter the subject. The rocks you painted are amazing!

    I have to agree with Deb Martin’s comments about cats: If it fits, I sit. My cat will sit on pieces of mail, a paper napkin, try to fit into the tiniest box. We’ve had a Keuring coffee K-Cups box gracing the living room for months now. The princess cat decided this was going to be her new castle. No is not an option with cats.

    Have a wonderful hiatus and return with more tutorials. I’ll be waiting !

  23. Sapphire

    Happy to hear that you are taking the best part of the summer and keeping it for yourself! I love falling asleep to the sounds of the NightBug Symphony–too soon, the quiet and stillness that is winter will be upon us.

  24. Margaret

    I wish you the best for your break – hope you have lots of time to ‘do nothing’ between all the work! Looking forward to your return…

  25. Enjoy the cat days of summer, Vivian. And, oh how calmly and rationally you received all that kind criticism from your professional book doctors. I hope they told you to make sure there is more YOU in your book (so, not just the stories of the beautiful gardens of the world, but *your* unique take on them and reasons for investigating them in the first place). Your first two books are so personal – I think it’s evident by now that us book- and blog-readers adore your Vivian’s-eye view of the world!

  26. Have a glorious time with Men In Kilts. I appreciated how you discussed the criticism. But in terms of how you write? Well, I would be interested in that one, even though it’s probably not so visual!

    I am SO looking forward to a cat tutorial. I can draw one cat — backwards in mostly-silouhette with globby spots like a calico. This weekend I did him ala Matisse. It’s time to learn a new technique!

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