Paint What You Know

To continue  last week’s “Beautiful Words” list…

Irian Jaya (former name of the Papua province of Indonesia)


Coeur d’Alene (Idaho)

Ouagadougou (Upper Volta/Burkina Faso)

And oh my, how I wish we could call L.A. by its English translation: The Angels

I notice that all the above are place names. Hmmmm….I’ll have to think harder to find regular words that would fit into this list. Something like, maybe, cellar (which H. L. Menkin said was the most beautiful word in the English language).

Please feel free to add to this collection (above). Yikes. I just realized that I have started yet another collection…I can’t help myself. I am a Collector.


As many of you Dear Readers know, I collect Blue Jay feathers. (I collect molted feathers, one at a time, mostly gathered from my own backyard but occasionally from walks in the woodlands of the north shore of Long Island. Perfectly legal.)

In the past, I’ve also had a tea cup collection …


… and an Owl Jewelry collection…


The last remains of a once great hoard of Owl Jewelry

…and a collection of Bow pins…



The last remains of a once great hoard of Bow Pins.

I am the only one in my immediate family who collects stuff; I mean, the only one to hunt and acquire stuff with a particular focus. I don’t know why I do it.

Why do people become collectors?

Without getting too psychological about it (whew), I think I have an answer. I think some people become collectors because they are in love with patterns, in love with arrangement, and order, and design.

I think I’m that kind of person because my collections (of stuff, not words) are all about the delight I get from making patterns. I collect objects that I find pleasant to look at, and are familiar, but not without thrilling variations within their repetition.

In the ten years since I began to paint, I have also collected a monster pile of watercolors that I have begun to cull. That is, this past weekend I started to sort through my old collections of watercolors to trash, or save, as the case may be. These are some of the oldest watercolor studies that I have:


As you can see, in my early days as an artist, I was very happy painting pix that I thought of as compositions that I called Reiteration of the Form.


But now I can plainly see that it’s my collecting nature that I am painting here, my pleasure in making patterns with objects (even in 2D form). And yes, I was a miniaturist from the Get-Go.


If you look closely at the tricycle in composition of Pedals That Used To Take Me Where I Wanted To Go, (below) you will see that it is a cut-out:


I cut out that tricycle from its original Look! No Hands Vehicles! (below) composition  because it was red. Its  red color, along with its three-wheeled-ness, made it odd man out:


BTW, I was 47 when I was painting these minuscule studies, with my trusty (but definitely NOT professional quality) Grumbacher watercolors.


A set of 24 colors like this costs about $20.00. Cheap! Paint away! there’s no such thing as “wasting” paint like this!!


It was by painting these little nonsense collections that I learned what the Grumbachers were capable of, and what I as a painter could call my “skills”.


To get this variety of forms for each picture, I did a TON of research (on line, by Googling various vintage items on eBay; in the real world, by referring to my small collection of Sears catalogues from the 1960s and ’70s). So I learned that I was the kind of painter who took an intellectual approach to my subject, and insisted on historical accuracy.


Because my natural inclination was to work small, I learned that I enjoyed painting detail, and I had the patience to hold a very tiny brush very steady.


And because I painted reiterations, I learned that I did not bore easily, and had the endurance to work on a picture until all its components were right, and until there was enough “there” there that some sense or inkling of narrative could be intuited from the image.



Yes, that’s what I wrote, a sentence with both the word “intuited” and “narrative” in it. I do that sometimes, when I’m trying to sound legitimately “artistic”. Like, I could totally hang with any BFA out there.

All I mean is that, even in these little compositions of reiteration, there is a story going on, and it has to do with subject matter, as opposed to painters who paint story-less pictures, canvases that are only “about” color or paint, because that’s what ART is these days, or used to be; who can keep up?

Anyhoo, these were the first pictures I ever painted, for no purpose other than I wanted to know how to make a picture so, starting within my comfort zone, I painted objects whose forms appealed to me, in compositions that expressed my personality. Isn’t that how everyone starts out?


40 Comments, RSS

  1. Kirra

    Lovely blog post about how you started painting. I love your first pictures, you definitely need skills and patience to paint those small detailed pictures with watercolours. What do you mean you in the ‘past’ you’ve had a tea cup collection??? I love teacups too, but only have a small collection due to space reasons.
    Here in Australia there used to be a popular TV show called ‘Collectors’ that ran for years interviewing people about their collections. Lots of people collect many different and bizarre things.

    • Vivian

      Australia in the house!! Oy Oy Oy!

      I would have been a big fan of “Collectors”. That’s the kind of show where it would behoove the interviewer to follow the most important piece of advice I ever got when I started out in journalism (at the ripe old age of 30!): Don’t interrupt your interviewee; in just five minutes of talk, they’ll show you how crazy they are.

      I still have over 50 tea cups. I just don’t have the other 50 I used to have, and I don’t have all the shelving and lifestyle accoutrements that went with them. I also don’t have them on display any more — my current house has 30 windows; I don’t have the wall space I used to have. I would do a tea cup collection painting, but I learned to avoid wheels, circles, or disks. They are a PAIN to put in perspective!

  2. Leslie

    And what will become of the culls? Your bow pins are wonderful. I have a collection of lost plastic barrettes that have many wonderful bows. Piquant! I also have a pretty good collection of pine cones. I am mated to a man who likes bare walls. Talk about opposites attract. Still, the drive to collect presses on. Seeing so many seems to highlight the unique qualities of each. So glad that the book is done, freeing you for happy thoughts and pastimes.

    • Vivian

      The culls, trust me, were too awful to look at. It’s the bow pins that make me wonder, What will become of them? I gave away a horde of costume jewelry to a thrift shop whose sales benefited an animal shelter; but the bow pins….I can’t yet part with this last remnant. And Awwwwwww: rescuing lost barrettes. In all my days of walking around with my eyes pinned to my feet (I forgot about my collection of lost baby mittens), I never came across a barrette. Must be that some people have Mitten Karma, and some people have Barrette Karma.

    • Vivian

      And then, there’s “Newfoundland”, quite a beautiful place name in its own right. And it sounds to me as if the land was found by poets, capital-R Romantics.

    • Vivian

      Oh, yes, I do have a collection of cat portraits. I will see if I can dig it up for a future post. (P.S., the cats are as lumpy as the watering cans.)

  3. Alica

    that’s funny about H L Menkin’s favorite word, cellar. Or was it “seller”? Seems to me that one of the reasons his synonym for “basement” is so pretty is because of the way it makes elegant use of the “C” and the “A”. What I mean is that the word LOOKS prettier than “seller”. Or am I nuts?

    I think your watering cans look like they have a lot of personality. And if I could paint one tricycle like the one you painted I would call up everyone I know to announce the change to my Facebook status to ARTIST. hah hah.

    Yes, like Leslie asked, what will become of these culls? Because I know someone who would love to give all of them a good home.

  4. Joan

    What a lovely collection of collections! What prompted you to start painting in the first place? I’m always interested in seed sprouting stages of any creative endeavor.

    I’m also curious about the “culls”…what will become of them? Surely these collection paintings aren’t going to the trash???? EEK. Share them with your blog loyalists instead, please.

    Driving through San Clemente, a little seaside town in CA, I would pass by the exit Avenida Magdalena on my way north. I couldn’t pass that sign without saying it out loud whether I was alone or with passengers. I loved the way it rolled off my tongue, like a song.

    I’m loving these favorite words/names/places postings. On the flip side of the coin, one of my least favorites words is thistle. Who ever dreamed up that tongue twister. I can’t say it without lithping.

    • Vivian

      I think I started painting collections because I had no interest in pairing still life or landscape. i still don’t care for still life, but I do enjoy landscape painting very much, but only in miniature.

      The culls have been thrown out. They were really, truly, really, really bad. They were depressing to look at.

      I’m with you on Avenida Magdelena even tho I don’t approve of public streets being named for religious personages. But heavens! “Thistle” is one of my favorite flowers! I wonder if it’s a Scots word, altho the “th” would contra-indicate that.

      My French ex-husband thought the “th” sound was disgusting. “How you can put the tongue out the mouth like that?” he used to ask, with horror. No you now why they talk the way they do when they speak English.

  5. Casey

    I can’t imagine putting that much work into making these pictures that you were not going to use except as practice. I guess that’s why you’re an artist and I’m an armchair wanna-be.

  6. Wild about the reiterations — and to be honest, I wouldn’t see in these the obvious signs of early work. They’re terrific! You are motivating me to make a whole page of cat eyes. I can’t do cat eyes to save my soul. And there are a few other bits I should reitrate in my journal until I get them right. Love so many about them but those sleds just make me grin all over! So do the sunglasses, but then it’s a glorious day here. Talk about ends of the spectrum!

    Your words about learning the materials are really wonderful reminders to me. We don’t get terrific right away. It takes time. Even Vivian Swift took time! My impatient inner critic needs that reminder so thank you!

    • Vivian

      I think that if you did noting but draw cat’s eyes, in no time you would become very, very good at drawing cat’s eyes. Honestly, all it takes is practice. But there is also a little trick to it — I’ll show you my short-cut in next week’s post.

      Yes, it even took Vivian Swift a long time to get half way decent at watercolor pairing, but she had the advantage of starting out at the young age of 48. (ha ha)

      (I’m re-doing my bio, as per Bunny’s Comment, see below.)

  7. bunny

    Love it, and I can see your talent shinning through, even at the young age, when you were just starting out. Love the way you “study” an object, and draw, and redraw, there is a nice perspective happening, and what we do see coming thru the curtain, is the precursor of two of my all time favorite books, and one in the oven!!!
    Cant wait, as usual, love the post, keep up the good work!

    • Vivian

      Ha! I like that, and from now on I will make my bio read: “Vivian Swift started illustrating at the young age of 48.” Good one.

  8. Fridays are the best! Cup of coffee and my undivided attention as I study each picture and laugh at your stories.

    Keep forgetting that each of these paintings is a miniature – so much patience and skill to make such tiny treasures. I love the sunglasses in all their funky glory. And how serious you approach your paintings, what with the research and all – no wonder each one is really a work of art. You’ve helped me understand that while much of being an artist is skill and talent, there’s also a serious amount of hard work involved – practice, practice, practice. Darn! I want to be able to paint like you tomorrow.

    • Vivian

      Deb! I hope your package has arrived by now (containing your winning Piece of Toast, re: the walled garden from the north shore of Long Island).

      I’m pretty sure that ALL of art is more about hanging in there than it is about “talent”. The way I think about it is that I had a “knack”, an ability that gave me a head start (I can draw) but that’s all it is: a head start. I also happened to have the willingness to put my “knack” to good use by putting in the hours and hours it takes to get things done (Triscuits, collections, sketches, books) . . . but the skills I have are nothing that can’t be acquired by anyone else, through practice and more practice. All you have to do is find what your style is — that is, find out what it is that you already know how to do, and build from there.

      P.S. I haven’t shown you the pix I’ve done that are really and truly ugly, because I’m too embarrassed by them. But I might have to put some of those utter failures on view soon, just so’s you’ll know that getting good at something first means being very, very bad at it for quite a while.

  9. Judy Roberts Jennings

    I love watercolor, but there’s a “certain look” that I like best. I like to look at other peopke’s watercolor sketchbooks and travel journals and go to Flickr to see what’s there. While there’s lots of good stuff, only that “certain” look excites me. So when my daughter first handed me your “When Wanders Cease to Roam,” I held it close and looked at it all day, because THAT was the look I craved. I well remember the day she emailed me from Seattle and asked if I knew you had a blog and sent me the link. I spent the next how many days doing what? Guess! Your watercolors make me happier than any I’ve ever seen. The above sketches are all perfect. I sooooo wish you had your own line of greeting cards because they would be a hot ticket, and my card drawer would overflow with them.
    By the way, the word I always liked saying the most (tho not the prettiest) was in high school Spanish class–it had EIGHT syllables–independientemente, which meant “independently.” You’ve done all your painting independently, YOUR WAY. You are highly skilled but so many other qualities shine through…. Love!

    • Vivian

      Well, that’s a delight — to find out that my watercolors have a “look”, and it’s one that you feel so attuned with. I am humbly grateful for your kind words. You make me feel as if I’ve earned my keep for the day.

      And you’re right about independientemente: it takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, it IS a lot of fun to say. And so easy to spell!

      I once met a Nigerian fellow who had a 9-syllable name and, once he told it to me, I immediately memorized it (and I can barely remember anybody’s name, even if it’s Joe). It is simply the coolest, most “independientemente” rolling-off-the-tongue awesome name I’ve ever heard. I wish I could spell it out for you here, but I don’t think it’s polite to send people’s names out in the world without their permission (this guy lives in the US) but I promise, if I’m ever doing a book event in your neck of the woods, I will tell you that name and you will LOVE it.

  10. Kathryn

    Couer d’Alene is as lovely as it sounds. My new favorite word is smeuse, the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal. I pronounce it like muse with an s in front of it. Very fun to say and they are everywhere on my walks.
    Pattern and patience-and entertaining color with cheap paint , no less.
    Hey, I just noticed the teeniest weeniest smiley face at the bottom of my screen. I’m sure I’ve never seen it before.

    • Vivian

      I LOVE that there is word for the gap in a hedge made by a small woodland creature!!! I bet it doesn’t even have an etymology except as the invention of some genius who saw those gaps int he hedge and decided that the world needed a word for it (see: chortle, quiz, floringe).

      Smuse. What a wonderful way to start the day. Thank you for that.

  11. Anonymous

    Slits, my favorite word of the moment.

    So I’d given up checking the Vivian Swift blog for new posts. Then I idly clicked at the wrong “favorites” site and discovered someone had sneaked back, in fact had sneaked back Some Time Ago. Sure, I now have issues of trust; on the other hand, my favorite sweetest realest blog is back, and welcome.

      • Thea

        Would that I were August, the name holds promise. But, no, disappoint I must. I am the one who discovered your site through a commenter on a writing blog, argh, and also the one mucho grateful to you for directions to connecting with the late Chess (quiet sob). Yes, that’s right, I just rappel around the universe.

        • Vivian

          Ah, dear Chess. Yes, he was one of the greats (as are all DoGs). Glad to have you back in circle of readers, Thea. A lot has happened since my blog went floringe in 2013…but then again, maybe not.

  12. Patricia

    For me, most of my collections started accidentally. I wound up collecting inkwells because I could not bring myself to pay $200 for an inkwell set hidden in a book that snapped shut for traveling. I have spent far more many times over collecting inkwells here in Seattle, on the east coast on my travels and in England, the mothership of inkwells.
    My other collections; blue willow china (my childhood toy tea set was blue willow), and
    netsuke. I’m not admitting to any others … well, books, but who doesn’t have scads of books?

    PS. I’d happily send a SASE if you’re getting rid of any of yours. Or you could start a bidding war and pay for your next trip in pursuit of art.

    • Vivian

      Is there a word that means the opposite of “buyer’s regret”, or do we use have to go with “missed opportunity remorse”? I get that: I still think about a blue enamel necklace that I didn’t buy in Dublin in 1985, which might be why my Blue Jay feathers, by blue faience hippos, and my lapis lazuli jewelry (all acquired after 1985) mean so much to me. Sigh.

  13. These paintings are WONDERFUL!
    I completely take back any negative comments I made about Grumbochée.
    It looks terrific here. There is a book here of your collections. I could never do anything like these…not even close. Too messy.

    • Vivian

      Paris Breakfasts in the house!!! Thanks so much, Carol. You were the one who ordered me to upgrade my paints from Grumbacher to Windsor Newton, which made my garden book possible — those W-N greens are soooooo lush! For that, I can’t thank you enough…although I did give you a Merci in Grdens of Awe and Folly.

  14. July has been a hot, miserable month…and I’m not just referring to the weather. The only saving grace was a trip to a writers’ conference in Taos…and returning to your blog to find that all is still right with the world, at least in a few places. As I caught up and wended my way through the blogs I missed, I laughed as though I was watching political comedy or breathed deeply while on a visual meditation tour. I can now face the rest of August…and maybe even September, with hope that the globe and international tempers cool down a degree or so. Meanwhile, Vivian’s garden is the place to wait it out.

    • Vivian

      Welcome back, Gigi! I agree, it’s been a hot and nutty Summer. Too nutty. I’m trying to keep the craziness at bay, and focus on the gloriousness of each day by spending an inordinate amount of time looking for Blue Jay feathers. I’ve had some great luck, but most days I don’t find a single plume, but it’s the looking that makes the day memorable. And every time any thought of December crosses my mind, I just run out my kitchen door and circle the backyard screaming “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”. Gets it out of my system.

  15. As a brand new reader via ParisBreakfast, may I add a word to your place names collection. . .Walla Walla, the town so nice they named it twice. This is where I live in Washington state, not too far from Coeur d’Alene. When recently visiting France and Italy, people loved trying to say Walla Walla. Two other names from my area in SE Washington and NE Oregon include Wallula and Wallowa. I also love your words and paintings about collections as I am an avid collector in my own right, although without the patience to document my collections in petite paintings as you. Your blog is such a wonderful find for me. Thank you.

    • Vivian

      Welcome, Susan!

      I’m going to offer an opinion that is, as the Car Guys say, “unencumbered by the thought process”, that the word “Walla” must be an indigenous people’s word for something that is prevalent in your neck of the woods . . . Pine trees? Mountains? Rivers of a certain heavenly hue? I will proceed from here into the black hole of the internet to get to the bottom of this. Farewell to several hours of my life…

      In French, your hometown would be spelt: Oualla Oualla. And I’m neither French nor Italian and even I have trouble saying “Wallula”.

  16. Laura

    Artists are naturally collectors, of that which is observed and that which is believed, felt or experienced. Life is abundant with visual and intellectual stimulus which I believe are amplified to an artist. From elegant simplicity to chaos, I believe artists try to bring order to life through visual composition practice.

    Thank you for sharing your early work. It takes courage to expose those early years, and yours are simply beautiful. Be proud.

    Unwanted art supplies? Please consider gifting to local schools, arts, recreation or rehabilitation centers. My classroom has been the grateful benefactor of many kind donations of paints, papers, inks, fibers and the like. My art society students are now collecting art supplies for a local adult with disabilities rehabilitation center who is in desperate need for support.

    • Vivian

      Thank you for the leniency re: my early stuff.

      I am always astounded, when I see photos of artist’s studios, at the amount of paints, brushes, crayons, pastels, pens, inks, etc etc etc that they have. I have one Grumbacher 24-pan paint set, and one travel-sized Windsor-Newton 12- pan set. I admit that I have about 20 paint brushes, when I only use three of them with any regularity (which I buy in duplicates so I’ll always have a fresh one, or two, on hand), three toothbrushes, two protractors, two 6-inch rulers, and three pads of 90-lb Canson paper. So, you see that I am a “just in time” kind of inventory manager when it comes to my art supplies, and the chances of my having “unwanted” stuff is close to zero. But I’m sure we have Dear Readers who will take to heart your recommendation of donating art supplies to schools and social service centers. Thank you for that!

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