I Always Mean Business


This was Fall on Monday (at Cedarmere, a local historic garden):


And this was Fall two mornings later:


This was the scene on Monday:


And this was the view 48 hours later:


I love a good misty Fall morning, but I liked that last view (above) better when the old Copper Beech tree was still there:


I did get to hug that magnificent Copper Beech numerous times before it was made fodder under the Wheel of Life. Alas. Nothing stays the same.

This (above) is the picture of a misty Fall morning, with tree, that you watched me paint on January 4, 2013. It’s a two-page illustration for my new book, Gardens of Awe and Folly (which I still refer to as the DGB):


The galley came out last month, and this week the first of the Big Three reviews came out:

In a nutshell:  “An engaging guide to gardens in locales ranging from Key West and post-Katrina New Orleans to Paris (“gardening capital of the world”) and Marrakech…whimsical.”Kirkus Reviews

The full Monty:   “A charming stroll through some public gardens. Swift (Le Road Trip: A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France, 2012, etc.) plainly loves the experience of gardens: the plentitude and solitude they offer, the colors and the scents, the tea rooms that provide the opportunity to relax and reflect. She also loves the idea of the garden, the ideal of one. For her, each garden says something significant about the city where it is situated, and gardens in general say something about humankind as a whole: “Ever since we first recognized ourselves as beings burdened with the mission of taking charge of this harsh, perplexing, seemingly pointless, and beautiful speck of dirt in the universe, our kind has been making gardens.” Thus, a garden is more than a garden; it is a means through which we make order, beauty, and sense. It is through gardens that “Earth has given life to every Eden we’ve ever imagined.”

For armchair travelers and gardeners, Swift proves an engaging guide to gardens in locales ranging from Key West and post-Katrina New Orleans to Paris (“gardening capital of the world”) and Marrakech. Of the eight locations visited, Long Island would seem to be the odd place out, but that’s where the author lives.

The chapter on London is perhaps the most compelling, focusing on change, both its inevitability and the natural resistance to it. The author returns to a favorite garden that she had discovered back when “travel was cheap and the Sex Pistols were dangerous,” only to learn that what she had once considered her private preserve was now a popular tourist attraction, its quaintness “redesigned…to make it dazzlingly relevant for the 21st century.” Yet disappointment gave way to acceptance, and Swift made her peace with the garden to which she returned, which was no longer the garden she had planned to write about. A breezy, whimsical book that does its best to approximate the renewal one might feel upon visiting a garden.”

Yay. I just hope that Publisher’s Weekly and The Library Journal also like it.

But we can’t spend all day wondering why Kirkus didn’t mention that the DGB comes with 200 illustrations, or why Long Island is not in the same league as Key West or Marrkech. (OK,  I get the Key West part, but I bet that to someone living in Marrakech, Long Island seems plenty exotic.)

No, we must get a move-on. (More Fall colors as of this morning:)


This is the color scheme that most inspired me:


So I went home and checked my inventory for the leaf that most resembled this wonderful landscape:


In answer to Laura’s question last week about how I preserve my fragile specimens: all I do is put them between layers of paper towel, wet them down, and store them in the fridge. The paper towel will dry out overnight, so you have to re-apply the moisture in the morning. This works pretty well for keeping the leafs good for about three days.

And so: I trace the outline of the leaf onto my Canson 90lb paper:


This is a tracing I made of my tracing, showing how I divide up the leaf into the cells that I will be painting separately.


I decide on which cells to delineate based on where I think the natural break for the colors are.


I began to paint this luscious hue of green with my Grumbacher paint:


But it didn’t take long to realize that I’d picked too bright a paint for the job:


So I trashed that first effort, and spent some time (that I should have spent at the get-go) matching that tone of green:


It turns out that it isn’t really as bright as I thought it was. I ended up layering a Grumbacher olive green over a Windsor Newton ocher, which surprised me because they are both very dull colors. But it’s important to layer the colors, to let the ochre reflect out of the olive green, to lighten it up a bit.

So I re-start:


After I took this photo, I dropped too much water onto the cell I’m painting here and ruined it.


So I start AGAIN:


Remember, I have to put down the ochre paint before I add the olive, but first I have to lay down a bright yellow:



Status check:


I didn’t notice this reddish glow in these photos until after I’d loaded them all onto my computer (here I am, adding a little bleed of scarlet on top of a blob of orange on top of my base coat of yellow,  below):


I paint ONLY by day light, so I know there wasn’t any kind of tinted, artificial red light on in my work room. strange.

This is me, adding olive green onto a quick layer of ochre on top of yellow (below):


I took this photo because I think these leaf paintings always look hilarious at this point:


I took the above photo at a distance from the work, but for this next one, I’m shoving the camera right into the small space between me and the paint surface, and the reddish glow is back:


And that’s how I figured out the origin of that reddish glow:


It’s coming from the bright, hot pink knit top I’m wearing!


It was probably at this point that I got a little chilly, so I put on a light blue fleece over the hot pink top, and bye bye strange reddish glow:


And I stood up to survey the work so far:


Oooo, now I get to play with some dark brown!


I always let the previous cell dry completely before I start painting the next one:


I love rot:


You might notice that I haven’t added in those little marks of decrepitude that fleck the leaf yet. I’m saving that for the end:


First the yellow, then bleed in the orange…


…and now dab in the scarlet:


I forgot to take a photo of the last cell when it was finished, but now that the whole leaf is colored, I am using grey paint to add those flecks of decay I mentioned:


And this baby is DONE:


Do you think this leaf looks whimsical?


I only ask because my work (see: Kirkus review) is often called whimsical. I think that goes for my writing as well as my illustrations. The funny thing is, people who know me (such as Top Cat) would never call me whimsical. In fact, Top Cat is still annoyed with me because last Sunday we were stuck in traffic in Brooklyn (marathon day) and I got out of the car to direct traffic on Atlantic Ave., near the Barclay Center. The way I was yelling at drivers to Move It Move It Move It was hardly whimsical. The people who I was releasing from grid lock were applauding me in a definitely non-whimsical way, and the one old guy who yelled at me certainly didn’t like the way I non-whimsically yelled back.

It was a dream come true, directing traffic like that. I always knew I’d be GREAT at it. But Top Cat says I could have got myself shot.

I say, it would have been totally worth it.

People should let me tell them how to drive all the time.

So yesterday, on one of the finest Fall days in recent memory (sunny, 72 degrees) I celebrated my dream-come-true and went back to my favorite garden situation at Cedarmere.

(I forgot to load a photo here, so the next few sentences make no sense, but I will explain next week.)

Ahhhhhh…. Good book, Fall sunshine, nice knot garden on view, and a big fat G&T in the thermos.

Nothing whimsical about that.

(More about Big Magic next week.)

13 Comments, RSS

  1. Not sure I woul call your work whimsical..all I know is I love it..I can look at your books over and over again..so timeless for me;)
    The leaf is an exact replica..you make me want to try..and fail.
    I once got out of my car..when I was a much younger woman..and 2 little girls in the back seat..and asked the man in back of me if he wanted to drive my car..he had had the nerve to honk..as I had my left flicker on..he said..but you are not allowed a left turn here.And of course he was right.
    I learned a very valuable lesson.

  2. VivianFan

    Great Kirkus review! And if WHIMSICAL means awesome, inspired, funny, and on the right side of twee, then yes you are whimsical. We need more whimsy, and I think that’s what draws people to your books and this blog.

  3. Patricia

    You’re not bossy, you just have better ideas than everybody else. And I’d call your work magical but you do inspire whimsical feelings in me when I read your books. You help me daydream.

  4. carol

    WONDERFUL NEWS about garden book. The cover is beautiful. You – years ago – posted a picture of Isabel reviewing WTCTW. It would be really really really nice to see a picture of Penelope with garden book. (Just a tiny, very subtle hint.)

  5. I don’t see yr artwork as whymsical per se but your thoughts and stories are very tongue in cheek.
    I almost picked up a leaf to paint today. You’re contagious as well.
    You directing traffic?

  6. Felicia

    I definitely vote for whimsy and a whimisical Vivian. First because whimsy is such a fun word. Second because, to me, whimsy implies a devil-may-care attitude which I’d argue is what you were demonstrating in helping those poor people in that traffic jam. Finally you are whimsical in that you follow your own heart, march to your own drum beat. Not for you the notching of the world’s version of success on a battle ground of corporate America. No you’ve lived life on your own terms, an honest, good, sometimes messy and always authentic life.

    Embrace whimsy I say! Finally a big THANK YOU! for this very detailed leaf painting. I spent five days (totally frustrated) trying to paint a decent leaf. I can now see what I did wrong, I was trying to paint the whole stinking leaf at one time. Patience grasshopper, patience. Now I’m going to take a deep breath and try again. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. I tried drawing a maple leaf last night and it was awful – crooked, nothing symmetrical- a mess. Then I read this, “…I trace the outline of my leaf”. Well, duh – why didn’t I think of that !! This is one of the reasons I love your blog- I’ll never be the watercolor artist that you are, but I do pick of tips that make my feeble drawing attempts so much better.

    And another reason – lines like this, “I love rot”. So stinking funny!! As is the mysterious reddish glow.

    So excited for my DGB !!

  8. Deborah

    Whimsical, huh? Well, a bit of whimsy is always a good thing, I say! Bring on all the whimsy we can in this often-too-dadgum-serious world of ours. Do I think your books have been whimsical? Only in just the right places, is my reply. I love your two previous books so much, as they are a perfect blend of the heart-felt, the serious, the informative, the creative, and yes, the whimsical. None of us are any one thing all the time, thank God! But if someone labeled me as whimsical, that would be okay … Just ponder all the possible alternatives they COULD have called me instead.

  9. Top Cat is right — you could get killed but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!

    And for whatever reason it kind of cracked me up that the chapter the reviewer loved most was the Damned London Chapter that disappeared for so long. Seems fitting that you should get most kudos on one of the incidents that was most concerning!

    Now, the leaf — I loved it, loved hearing your process and seeing bit by bit. You remind me of a very important lesson (that my physical therapist reminds me of each time) — don’t do your “exercises” fast. You have to do them right and right takes time and starting over till you get it right. It’s a powerful lesson in discipline that I need to keep reinforcing in myself and you did it beautifully in this post! Happy weekend!

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