A Squint Through My Back Pages

I have never used an actual “sketchbook” for my “sketching”. In fact, I have never, actually, “sketched”. I even dislike the verb, “to sketch”, based on what I’ve seen when people “sketch”, all wispy and mushy and tentative…but that’s just me. I have a very annoying personality.

Instead of putting my works-in-progress into a fancy, expensive, hard-backed “sketchbook”, I use this:


Yes, it’s a no-frills three-ring binder from Staples. It costs around $5.00. I stock the binder with those full-page plastic “sheet protector” things, and I’m good to go. Go to Town, that is. The town being Pelham, Westchester County, New York, where I was living on that fateful Sept. 11 of 2001, and the “village on the Long Island Sound” that was the subject of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam.

Pelham NY train station

My original concept for When Wanderers Cease to Roam was for it to be square, so I trimmed regular bond paper into 8-ich by 8-inch squares, and started making little paintings on Canson 90-lb watercolor paper and arranging them on “pages”. Above is a view of our delightful old train station, c. 2004, when it had Ticket Seller windows!!!  (now pretty much gutted, when they installed a spiffy new commuter cafe).

Below, that’s the Post Office:

Pelham NY post office

The Pelham P.O. used to be a bank, until the Great Depression shut it down.

Pelham NY post office

The owls on the facade are fake, of course — such owls are used to keep pigeons off the premisis (I don’t have spell check).  The mighty Pelican, being the official bird of the Town of Pelham, is featured on the bank/post office lanterns, which was a detail that I  l-o-v-e-d:

Pelham, NY post office

Yes, the perspective of that front door and the scale of the person inside are wonky. I could correct this easily, but until I find a permanent home for this pic, I won’t bother.

If you know my book (WWCTR), you will know by now that none of these pictures of Pelham made it into the published product. They ended up not fitting into the narrative, for being too specifically “Pelham”, or for being kind of boring.

This is the high school:

Pelham NY high school

Pelham NY High School

So, for now, all these pix are sitting in my Pelham Notebook.

This is one of the four elementary schools in Pelham — love the brickwork!:

Pelham Ny Prospect Hill Elementary

This is another one of the elementary schools:

Pelham NY Colonial Elementary School

These are signs from Pelham businesses:

Pelham NY

And the wonderful Pelham Cafe:

Pelham NY Pelham Cafe

The Artistic Manner florist had a great shop cat:


And this was the Old Lake Antiques shop:


All these doors are actual doors from Pelham:

Pelham NY

I was painting with my trusty Grumbacher watercolor paints at this time, and now I’m looking at those greens (above) and thinking, Wow — How did I do that?


Pelham NY



And, yes, once a year there used to be a Christmas Tree sale on the village green, to raise money for some charity or another:

Pelham NY

Ah, yes, I had an immense love for my old hometown, the town of Pelham on the Long Island Sound.

But of all these “sketches”, I DO have a favorite, a hands-down No. 1 fave, the one I will run into a burning building to rescue, and it is this one:


This is a watercolor illustration of a view of Pelham Lake, on the edge of town, in Winter, near sunset, viewed from the rail road tracks high above it. It is not an attractive pic, and was not a pic that I was particularly happy with, even when I made it.

But this pic is my all-time most beloved pic because this happens to be the first watercolor painting I ever did.

I painted it, and it was bad, but here’s the surprising thing: not a single member of the Watercolor Police  rushed into my apartment and arrested me for making such an ugly picture. And I realized that hey — I don’t need anybody’s permission or approval to paint! I’m allowed to be lousy!

And I kept on painting.

Which brings me to the Great Squint Give Away (see: last week’s post).


I am giving away this Long Island Sound Summer Sunset Squint to one lucky Commentor.


All you have to do is leave a Comment below, in which you pick a number between 50 and 100.  Comments will close after 5 days (which I have to do to control the spam), but  next Friday I will open the sealed envelope and reveal Top Cat’s pre-destined winning number!


Meet me back here next Friday — and be sure to have a fantastic next-to-penultimate Summer weekend!




38 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan September 11, 2015 @ 7:35 am

    Well it is spring here in the southern hemisphere, the flowers are everywhere and the air is heavy with perfume. Not looking forward to a long hot summer though. I had an overwhelming desire to pick number 49, however as I can’t I guess I’ll pick 69. Thanks for a great blog post.

  2. Monique September 11, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    I feel like painting things in my town nw..;)

    You ae so detail oriented..every painting is so precise w/ the brickwork etc..I love many kinds of paintings..your detailed ones very much too..
    Did you work on the spot or a photo?The inside of the antique store:)
    I love them all.
    The Christmas tree sale is so sweet..Pretty pretty town..here too!

  3. patty September 11, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    Love your work. I choose number 11

  4. Kate Meleney September 11, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    So true about the Watercolor Police – I do believe they lurk somewhere in our grey matter, and it takes fortitude to keep them at bay! Loved the instructional on your ‘Squint’!

  5. Patricia September 11, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    I’m trying to read Top Cat’s mind a week in advance. # two is my best attempt.

  6. Deborah S. Farrell September 11, 2015 @ 10:46 am


  7. Deborah S. Farrell September 11, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    Ok, I entered my number (aka, my age), but I also wanted to comment on the paintings: I love The Doors! I also love page protectors — when they are on sale at the beginning of the school year, I buy them by the 100’s and still seem to be always running out of them. (There are 2 kinds of people in this world, those who know the value of page protectors . . .)

  8. Barb Hutch September 11, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    Wow! How you have honored the town of Pelham!
    My number pick is 39. I don’t believe we know if you are completely self-taught or how you came to have such remarkable abilities. I embroider so it was those pgs in “Wanderers..” made the whole experience almost overwhelming. “Hard, relentless work” could be the explanation, based on all that you have shared. Would love to know more about training. Thank you for all this charm & loveliness, Barb H

  9. Joan September 11, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    What a lovely post this one is is! I love to see the progress of a painter, the stories behind what grabs you to photograph, then sketch/paint what you love. And the first watercolor ever! It would be a treasure that I would run into a burning building to save. I have my first watercolor. Lousy as it is, I can vividly recall how pleased I was, how I felt while painting it every detail. I framed it and it sets on my antique buffet that I walk past every day. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    My number pck is 16, one of my most favorite numbers.

  10. Maryanne in SC September 11, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

    #71, please?

    For some reason, I had it in my mind that you weren’t reopening until September 14, so I missed last week’s post. But I missed you, so I checked here from Jeanie’s Marmelade Gypsy blog and YAY! You’re back!

    The Squints are wonderful. Requesting permission to take the rest of the day off and paint some of my own. (I’m allowed to be lousy.)

    Ah, thanks for coming back. Missed this!

    Maryanne in SC

  11. janet b. September 11, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    the town of pelham is so european-looking in your inspired paintings. so much evidence of the talents of italian brickworkers and old-world stone masons who arrived in droves in the 1900s. here’s a number: 62

  12. Nancy S September 11, 2015 @ 5:16 pm

    Love all the detail in each of those buildings! My lucky number will be 82.

  13. Dennis September 11, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    I would have to pick #59.

  14. Michele September 11, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    I had a great piece of constructive criticism last week but my internet wasn’t and isn’t working properly so I will keep it short and just leave a number and hope it doesn’t get lost in space, 53.

  15. Thea September 11, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

    57. You were in my life this week — or at least your negative-space squint was. After we rose from our final Beach Yoga pose, I noticed across the beach and bay on the opposite point a feathery line of shrubbery across the top ridge, at the moment silhouetted against a golden sky set ablaze by the setting sun. I recognized the squint at once. Rest of the class was doing Endless Summer since there was an arrangement matching that film’s poster: lifeguard tower, photographers standing on the fronting sand mound, surfers taking on rare giant waves of the south-facing beach. I really enjoyed my private “squint” moment that would be lost to me were I not a reader of this blog.

  16. SusanA September 11, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

    Your brickwork and stonework are fabulous! I was going to choose my favorite number, 8, but then, thank goodness, I read your post again! Between 50 and 100? I’ll make it 80.

  17. Deb Mattin September 11, 2015 @ 10:39 pm

    Oh my Dog, (to quote you), I L.O.V.E. the stones in the picture of the high school – the colors, the shapes are just beautiful Ditto for the bricks – so realistic.

    Another laugh-out-loud moment when I read about the Watercolor Police. What a revelation – and why is it that it takes so long to give ourselves permission to make brave efforts at something new? Given my success drawing a cat , thanks to your tutorial, I have started drawing other things – some recognizable, some looking like the best effort of a 2 year old, but they all make me happy. And thankfully, the Drawing Police have not shown up to haul me away.

  18. Dennis S September 12, 2015 @ 7:39 am

    Ok, lucky number # 66.

  19. Eileen Alston September 12, 2015 @ 8:53 am

    Your paintings make me want to visit Pelham. And I love pelicans. #84 Thank you!

  20. Francie Link September 12, 2015 @ 10:44 am

    I love all your drawings and your books. I’ll pick No. 77, if it’s not already taken.

    Please keep blogging…I adore everything you post!

  21. Catya September 12, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    I love your blog, Vivian, because it’s sort of the watercolour equivalent to watching a movie’s credits for the secret surprise at the end. You not only learn something about how the movie was made, but you get entertained, too, and feel like you’re in on a secret. You always reveal something great! Thanks! Please make my guess 74. 🙂

  22. Richi September 12, 2015 @ 11:38 am

    Loved ‘When Wanderers…’, made me want to visit the village on Long Island Sound. Someday. I pick #89

  23. Kim September 12, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    Hello Vivian,
    I am a newcomer to your site. I’m an American artist living in Germany. I’m pretty sure they have watercolor police here. Although, they are fairly harmless and will provide water upon request 😉
    My number is 12.
    Kindest regards, Kim

  24. Kim September 12, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

    Alrighty then. I’m the idiot that does not read the fine print. My new number is 99.

  25. Nancy September 12, 2015 @ 2:06 pm

    Such detail in your work. It would take me forever to paint. Beautiful! The number I pick is 76.

  26. Linda June September 12, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

    I LOVE all your paintings of Pelham–beautifully done. I keep struggling with watercolors, but I need to put in more time struggling. After all, what is a struggle without a struggle??!!! Love this squint, too–very nicely done. Glad you are back and doing your blogs. I had missed you when you were gone.

  27. Jeanie at Marmelade Gypsy September 12, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

    First things first, 54!

    Second, why oh why hasn’t the Pellham Chamber of Commerce, school board or other entity asked you to design their brochure/booklet/whatever? I know they couldn’t afford you but half the work is done! And I love it all and of course it motivates me (again) no end!

  28. Margaret September 12, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    81 for me, and what a treat–all those brick patterns!

  29. ann September 13, 2015 @ 8:18 am

    I love your buildings and architecture. My perspective always looks crooked. You have such talent. I pick number 72, the year I graduated from high school.

  30. Dennis S September 13, 2015 @ 11:12 am

    Beautiful work. I pick number 93.

  31. Nancy September 13, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

    I would love to know how long it takes you to do one of these small paintings. With all the detail, it would take me hours! My new number is 90.

  32. Dana September 13, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    Trying my best to read Top Cat’s mind but he must have one of those foil hats on! So I’ll have to guess….. 87. Thanks for the opportunity to have one of your fabulous squints!

  33. Dennis September 14, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    Come on #56!

  34. susie September 14, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

    97-right in the middle, ha ha ha.
    Your first watercolor painting ever? You hear and see all over it doesn’t take talent, just perseverance. I don’t think so, if that’s your first shot out of the box.
    Man, even after years of messing about with watercolors, I still don’t come close. But the police haven’t got me yet, so I keep at it.
    And it’s fun.
    Thank you for the give away.

  35. Nancy S September 14, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

    Just got my copy of Le Road Trip and enjoying it. Can’t wait until your new book comes out! I will take another chance and try number 95.

  36. Carol September 14, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    My number is 65. Fingers are crossed!

  37. Dennis S September 15, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    Let’s try # 79.

  38. Nancy September 15, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    Hoping to win with number 51.

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