If Persistence is a Sign of Greatness, Then I Have What It Takes To Be Slightly Above Average

How To Make a Champagne-O-Meter for Winter Storm Jonas

Step One: Set a bottle of your favorite bubbly on the back lawn. Wait for snow. Or go to bed, since the forecast calls for snow to start falling at 2AM and sorry, only a slow dance with a Beatle is worth staying up that late for.


Step Two: Wake up next morning and check for accumulation:


Step Three: Gather together your Winter Storm Survival Kit (a 1,000-piece picture puzzle, Trader Joe’s fish sticks, homemade black bean soup, plenty of indoor champagne) and then do what Taffy does:


Step Four: Sleep late the next morning and then head out to the back yard:


Step Five: No, 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is NOT too early to open this baby up.


And yes, the best place to see a really beautiful Winter sunset is by standing out on your roof…



But chilling champagne and hanging out on my roof wasn’t the only thing I did last weekend. I also spent some time painting some really truly hideous pictures.

It all began with this photo:


This is the entrance to the famous garden in Giverny once owned by Claude Monet, photographed by me on May 15, 2013. Those are some miniature apple trees trained to grown horizontally along a wire fence, and in the background is a multitude of cherry trees in blossom and those really tall trees in the far back are in Monet’s water garden. That weeping willow to the far left is the one that Monet painted so often when he did his water lily pictures.

So two weeks ago I decided to try and paint this view:






Yeeeeech. First of all, I drew the apple trees incorrectly. Also, the tree line in the background is very unattractive. I regret my decision to paint in those arbors with the pink flowers in the middle-ground. And the whole picture is too dark, mostly because I used black to give the apple tree foliage some depth, some kind of definition to make them stand out as forms:


This is very discouraging. I don’t feel good about myself when I spend four hours painting something that turns out to be dreck. But what else can I do but take a break, wait to be snowed in, and start again:









Yeeeech. I thought that changing the perspective by raising the horizon would help the composition, and I didn’t paint in a sky — which I now realize was a dumb thing to do. Those arbors that were so noticeable in Yeeech Picture No. 1 are now merely hinted at by stroking in some faint lines in the pink haze — also a dumb move. And the  apple trees still aren’t doing it for me.

So, I start over again:


I’ve already decided that I’m going to do something completely different with the apple trees: I’m NOT going to paint them leaf by leaf — that is just the wrong way to handle these things. So I started by blobbing in some apple-tree forms and when they looked OK, I committed to the picture and painted in the sky.



I’m only going to add teeny tiny leafs here and there, and only int he foreground…yeah, that’s the ticket…






Yeeeeeeech. I mean, just yeeeeeech. I lowered the horizon, which was a good move, and I painted in a better looking background tree line, and I didn’t go crazy over-doing the apple tree foliage but still…YEEEEECH.

Although I am working from a reference photo that I took two years ago, I’ve been to this garden numerous times and I was just there last month, too, so I know very well the feeling of this particular spot. And I don’t get that feeling from this picture.

OK. I’ve now invested about 16 hours into finding all the worst ways to paint this scene. I’m pretty depressed. I have to figure out how to paint this picture in order to figure out how to paint any other part of Monet’s garden (which I plan to do a lot of). I think it’s time for some soul-searching, for facing some artistic self-truths, and stuff, but first I have to go find some champagne. Because champagne is happiness.

So I got a glass of champagne and I re-thought about all the things that went wrong during the three times I’ve tried to paint this pic. And I realized that it all came down to the size of the paper:


Each time that I’ve painted this view I have started out with a rather large sheet of paper, about 9 x 12  inches. This is all wrong. One thing that I know about myself as a painter is that I love to work small. Small small small small. And, as it turns out, this picture would be very happy on a much smaller sheet of paper anyway (as shown cropped, below):


So I cut me some new sheets of 90 lb. Canson watercolor paper — 15 centimeter square sheets:





And I started all over AGAIN:


And I painted for another four hours and then I was DONE:


And except for that wonky sign (which is removable), I don’t think I’ll be re-painting this anytime soon.

The better part of art, like life, is just about hanging in there.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

And speaking of hanging in there, here’s a picture of five of my cats doing just that, in their own very spectacular ways:


I had managed to wade out onto the back patio while I was digging out my Champagne-O-Meter, and had put out some trays of bird seed, which caused the felines to gather in the den:


 Kitty TV.






28 Comments, RSS

  1. Bravo on so many levels. Bravo for keeping on when most of us would probably have settled for door number three. (Or who knows? Maybe even one or two!) Bravo for understanding yourself and recognizing what format is your favorite and most likely to reveal the best results (even if it took a few times). Bravo for trying (repeatedly) a format that isn’t your comfort zone. Just because you weren’t satisfied with the results doesn’t mean that it was time wasted. Bravo for your skill in recognizing what makes the painting better — be it no black leaves or a better horizon line — and then going for it. And Bravo for surviving the storm in good humor, it would appear! I hope the champagne was delicious and that eventually you got to chill (bad word?) with the cats!

    • Vivian

      Gracias, Jeanie — I think it’s good to test your boundaries every once in a while, even if it’s only to confirm what you thought you already knew. Every five years or so I like to take a sip of coffee, because who knows? One day I might discover that I actually don’t dislike it after all, and then I can understand what it is about that drink that preoccupies so many millions of people in the world.

    • Vivian

      Merci for the hair comment! I can take a few “Bad Painting Days”, maybe even be inspired by them, but a “Bad Hair Day” just makes me want to lie down and watch hours of HGTV.

  2. Patricia

    Ever since snow was forecast for the other coast, I’ve been waiting for the champagne-o-meter to appear. Here in Seattle, we got our snow in the form of lots of rain. Great for driving but useless as a champagne chiller.
    Love the teabag painting and its big brothers too.

    • Vivian

      I felt a little cheated that the snow came in the night hours so I couldn’t watch the inches pile up, hour after hour (I am easily entertained). But I cam totally happy to wait until next Winter for a day time blizzard, thank you.

  3. Deborah S.Farrell

    I would have been quite happy to see any one of the paintings in one of your Damn books.

    It doesn’t seem like it’s officially winter until I see the champagne-o-meter. Looks like the bird is checking it out, too.

    But where’s the blue cake? I was expecting to see that winter glory, too.

    • Vivian

      Ah, yes, the blue cake. I’ve been meaning to address that. Ever since I lost 30 pounds two years ago (piled on mostly from eating cake for lunch and Rice Krispies Treats for desert after having cake for lunch) my tastes have changed. I hardly indulge in sweets any more and I just can’t get enthusiastic about cake any more. This makes me sad, until I put on those black jeans that I couldn’t get into for the past 10 years. So now I have a big bottle of blue food dye that I don’t know what to do with. Any ideas?

  4. Megan

    Oh poor you, to be so dissatisfied and to stick with it. Bravo. I have to say I love those wash-y pink trees! I love the photos of the snow. When I saw the first one I though uh oh no snow in NY. Wrong. Love Taffy, so relaxed, he has his priorities right. Ah kitty TV, brilliant.

  5. Linda June

    I loved your blog this time (okay, I love it all the time) but this time I totally understood your thinking about painting. I do watercolors myself, and I know how you can spend hours on something, only to throw it away when you stand back and look at it. Your talent shines, however, so I’m glad you keep at it and so generously give us the process and the finished product to look at. I’m eager to see your garden book, which I ordered months ago now. We don’t have snow here in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, so I’m glad we can have champagne without having snow!!! Won’t be the same though without all those darling kitties!!!

    • Vivian

      You never get snow on Puget Sound? OK, that’s the sure sign of perfection. And wouldn’t it be great to see the stuff that, say, Normand Rockwell or Picasso threw out because they were duds? All we ever see are the keepers…what I wouldn’t give to have been able to go through Matisse’s trash.

  6. kim

    Oh you have me laughing! I love your dreck! I was like, oh I like that with the first painting. Then, oh the second one is beautiful…to find out, no, its yeeeech! I love your “hideous” paintings! It’s no wonder I love your books so much…I keep the two I have on my bedside table because they are so special! So looking forward to the day Indego tells me your garden book is available… It’s been in my cart forever!!!

    • Vivian

      Kim, I would be so honored to know that my Damn Garden Book earned its spot on your night table. That is EXACTLY why I write: I want the world to have somewhere nice to go to after the exhausting and never-ending To Do List is mentally written up for the next day and before the Ambien kicks in.

  7. ann

    Thank you for a new experience. I’ve never seen a sunset through an icicle. Living in the south, we don’t see much frozen H20.

    I liked all your watercolor efforts. I agree with you, the last painting was the best. The way you softened the background trees made the painting. I always enjoy your work.

    • Vivian

      I happened to be with a small group of visiting South Africans in their 20s here in New York when they went for a walk in a snow storm one afternoon. They had seen pictures of snow but had never experienced it first hand. The first thing that shocked them was that snow was cold, and the second thing was that when snow piled up into snow banks it was much more solid than they thought: in pictures, it looks as fluffy as goose down, and the whole experience of “cold” delivered in tiny packets of flakes was something that they could never have imagined possible. I will never forget the way they touched it and held snow balls and then turned to each other with looks of amazement on their faces, as if they were asking each other, “Is this for real?!?” It was so beautiful.

  8. Of course I like the last one best – only because you told me the others were YEEEECH. As usual, your toss aways are what I wish I could do! Do love the idea of being true to what works for you – be it size, colors, medium – last week I spent a whole day trying to get outside my comfort zone and produced one god-awful thing after another. Back to my happy place – muted colors, vintage-y vibe and all was well.

    We didn’t get any snow from the recent storm – fine by me! Love your sunset pictures , ice and all.

    • Vivian

      I was talking to Top Cat just this morning about why don’t quit this whole illustrated travel memoir-y business and start writing erotica, which it what people seem to really want because it sells like crazy (according to an article we read in the Sunday New York Times). As tempting as it sounds, I decided that I couldn’t do it, the same way that Michael Jordan couldn’t quit basketball and become a baseball player. You do what you do because it’s who you are…and at heart, I’m not a soft core pornographer. Much to my chagrin.

      And god for you to test the limits — but now we both know that art isn’t worth doing if ti doesn’t come from a happy place, nest-ce pas?

  9. Laura

    I’d like to see a side by side by side by side comparison of your paintings in this post to really understand the differences and your judgements of each. This part of the artistic process is the hardest to verbalized and you’ve taken me closer than anyone has before. Thank you.

    • Vivian

      I agree with you, Laura, 100% — I think it would be so much more informative to see my Yeeechs No. 1, 2, and 3 side by side. I wish I knew how to do that — but in the next post I will put them up one after the other, for better comparison. Let me know if that’s helpful, OK?

  10. Kirra

    Happy very very late birthday Vivian! Sorry I’ve been away on holiday and am only catching up on your fabulous blog posts now. Some of my friends are 60 or over and are still doing great things, so don’t let it put you off. I am one of the people in my 30’s now who will get to look back to this time when I’m 60 in 2042, I hope I can have champagne and make great art like you!
    I like you explanation about the DGB, I do similar things when using my Mac and word! But when it is published I will need to use the real name to tell all my friends how great it is 🙂
    I wish I could drink champagne chilled in the snow, but that’s not going to happen here in Adelaide, Australia. We’ve had a very hot summer so far, like you winter being rather warm until the recent snow.
    This post is really impressive, to spend so much time painting things that don’t work out but keeping on going till you do get it is a real demonstration of how persistence can pay off. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Vivian

      Thank you for the B-day wishes, Kirra, ALL THE WAY FROM AUSTRALIA! I also hope that future-60-year-old-you will have plenty of things to look back on and wonder at the risks and chances and escapades and lucky breaks and meetings-of-fate you took advantage of. People always regret the things they DID NOT DO more than the stuff they DID do (I’d even include marriage in that, but I exclude having children…I’ve never had or wanted them and I can’t get people to talk honestly about their regrets pro or con about that). And I think that if you want to be good at anything you have to be willing to be bad at it too — you should see how many pages and pages of text I toss out before I write a really good paragraph. By comparison, painting a few bad illustrations is easy.

      Stay cool, and keep a look out for thirsty koalas for me, please?

  11. Ach…I dont even think a gun to the head(perish the thought) could get you to do a pencil value study and a thumbnail first.
    This view is a triangular one with dark silhouettes on the horizon and darks in the foreground so especially difficult to capture and balance. You would really have to abstract it IMHO to get it to work or just decide to change some of those annoying darks somewhere. Very frustrating for sure.
    Love the previous posts watercolor!!! Right up your ally. I usually avoid doing difficult things 😉 though I dont always have the choice. Sometimes something looks easy to paint and it isnt at all. Most annoying.

    • Vivian

      You’re right about doing value studies — I am a very instinctual painter, and I would lose interest if I had to analyze a scene before getting to play with my paints. It’s like diagramming a sentence: I guess it’s not a bad thing to know, but I’m sure the only people who enjoy it are grammarians and not novelists. Believe me, I have made a life style out of avoiding difficult things, but when it comes to improving a manual or mental skill, no pain/no gain.

  12. Casey

    I hope I’m not too late to comment! I read this on Friday and was too absorbed by the process that I forgot to chime in with everyone else, that all the pictures look good to me but I agree that No. 4 is extra fine. And that it is so fascinating to watch an artist in real time. Persistence IS a sign of greatness!

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