On Your Mark, Get Set, Thread Your Needle!

Fireworks, trumpets, a few baton twirlers, and a special guest appearance from the Philly Phanatic *: We have a winner! Top Cat has spoken and last week’s Giverny Triscuit goes to…


Number 42! Wait…nobody guessed number 42.

Number 16! What? Nobody guessed number 16 either??

Number 33! I think you’re doing this on purpose…another zilch guesses on that one. One more, TC, and get it right this time OK?

Number 12! And we have a winner! Congratulations, Deborah Hatt!  You hung in there and you got Top Cat’s 4th guess! Your Monet Garden Gate Triscuit will be signed, sealed, and delivered asap! (Email me your address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, please.)

Thank you to everyone who entered — you’re all eligible for next week’s Pub Date Celebration Triscuit!

* The Philly Phanatic is the mascot of the professional baseball team from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), the Philadelphia Phillies, and is only the best team mascot ever. And he’s green, so, like, gardening.


As for this past weekend here on the Isle of Long, the magic number was 58 — degrees! (14 C!) So as of 9:42 in the morning of February 20, Taffy declared that the grounds of Taffy Manor were officially 100% snow free. which is a cause for celebration considering that last year we didn’t get rid of the snow until April 4.

And being as he has appointed himself our neighbor’s watch-cat in charge of keeping Steve (our friendly neighborhood stray) off their patio, Taffy then gave the neighbor’s yard a good look-see:


Having discerned that the premises was 100% Steve-free, Taffy aided me in inspecting our old tomato patch…


…which in a mere 98 days will be planted with various heirloom and hybrid varieties. Top Cat, the Tomato Patch Kid, can’t wait.

These dregs of Winter, these hints of almost on-the-cusp-of-Spring days of February, these daggy days of counting down until the vernal equinox are the hardest days in the year for gardeners. Good thing that I, not being an actual gardening gardener, have a long history of “gardening” all year round. All I needed was a comfy chair, a needle and some thread, and I was off, gardening the four seasons:


I embroidered these four season long before I met Top Cat. Please note the black and white cat sniffing the flowers…that’s Woody Robinson, the original Top Cat, my one and onliest heart-to-heart kitty who I still miss every day. (Keep an eye out for him in almost all my sewing. It was my way of paying tribute to The Best Cat in the World.)

I’ve been embroidering since I was 10 years old but my output peaked in the 1990s, when I was in my late 30s/early 40s. Those were the  years when I had a vague but urgent compulsion to keep busy making stuff, the same drive that evolved over the years into an actual mission (which I now try to fulfill as a writer/illustrator/blogger) to make stuff that mattered. That’s why, in 1994, I entered this (below) in a contest hosted by a local historical society:


The goal was to portray this very old (17th century) house in Rye, New York; I embroidered the house with a four season motif of (from top to bottom) Winter, Fall, Summer (Hi there, Woody Robinson!), Spring. I won Best in Show. The historical society told me that they would love to keep this piece for their home office and I gladly gave it to them. I was happy that I’d made something that mattered to them.

I also sewed fantasy pieces, like this picture of me, Woody Robinson, and an itinerant cat-pet who I called Louie (he wandered into my life one day, and on another day he wandered back out of it) having tea in a garden of my dreams:

P1070082 (1)

For those of you who are stitchers, in this detail (below) you can see how I “garden” with satin, buttonhole, running, and feather stitches. Basic stuff! Easy! You can teach yourself these stitches in about an hour!


I had to put this garden in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam (on page 126) in honor of that time in my life when embroidery, and Woody, and Louie, meant so very much to me:


I was also riffing on the idea that me and the cats were citizens of our own isolated micro-nation, which I reductively called Pawsylvania:


But I’m perfectly capable of portraying actual, real gardens in thread, too. This is a portrait of the herb garden at the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan called the Cloisters:


I also included this garden in Wanderers because it tickled me no end to put my sewing in print:


I am a huge fan of herb gardens:


These mini-gardens are the fore-runners of my watercolor Triscuits:




And I even got a commission, to do a piece about the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York:


Besides gardens, I quite liked doing maps:


This is a map of a trip to France I took in 1985, through the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy:


And this is a map of a trip I took in 1990 (which includes an experiment in the use of paint):


You might have noticed that in this map I stitched in some flowers up in northern France, to stand for my first visit to Giverny. Or was it my second? I’ve lost count.

When I went to Giverny that time in 1990 I was on a mission, to take notes and get a feel for the lay of the land there. Because when I got back I drew a condensed version of Monet’s famous flower and water garden and I sewed for 98 hours, and gave the garden as a wedding gift for my sister Buffy:


I did a two-season view of Giverny here, with Spring on the left and Fall on the right. I took many, many liberties in this portrayal of the world’s most famous garden, liberties that I would not take today, now that I have been putting the Clos Normand under scrutiny for my watercolors. Speaking of which…didn’t I promise you that we’d paint Monet’s allee today?

This is the famous allee:



So let’s pick it up from here:


The trick is to work in very small doses of color. Let each little smattering of color dry before patting in another color except for the times when you want the colors to bleed . . .


. . . like here, where I made several small pools of greenish colors, which I then swiped with quick strokes of my size-00 brush, in order to imitate stalks and leaves:


I am playing here, dashing in a little blue to the green paint, and stroking through it (wet-in-wet):


I think it is the years that I spent as an embroiderer, sewing pictures one little stitch at a time, that gives me the patience and the control to work in such tiny, small, careful increments. Embroidery is good training for miniature painting.

Back to flowers: Oooooh, I like it when blue bleeds into purple…but I always keep red seperate because blue/purple + red = mud:


Ooooooo, some more blue/purple bleeds for effect:


And now, fun fun fun, I’m just dabbing in as many different shades of green as I can:


Add a few foreground leaves (I looked it up: these are called “strap-shaped” leaves, the ones that stand tall like this, as in tulips for example):


Now for the little pom-pom shaped saplings. . .


. . . and the arbors (or are they trellises?). . .


. . . paint in the green gate at the foot of the allee and voila:



Hmmmmmm… wait a sec. Compared to the original photo…


…isn’t there something missing? Like, a certain amount of truthfulness? Since I don’t like red-leafed trees I edited out the one on the left hand side, but I now feel bad about  that … and I wimped out on the dark areas in the back ground… and I totally gave up the foreground; I didn’t even try to “get” that lovely effect of the lilac-colored tulips dotting a cloud of small light-blue flowers.

Believe me, I really wanted to leave well enough alone. It had taken me six hours to paint this picture and I did not want to risk ruining it all by doing the kind of painting that I am not very good at (red trees, dark backgrounds, actual flower painting).

So I let this picture sit around for about three days until it became evident that I had to have a go at making it real. I decided to add all those bits that I’d left out, no matter if it ruined the picture. My Giverny garden painting has to be a true as possible. Damn it.

I meant to take pictures of the transformation, but I got very caught up with the process so all I have is this end result:

Giverny, Monet's garden, Clos Normand

I’m so happy that I didn’t have to rip out stitches to fix this pic. So, yeah, I still pick watercolor over embroidery when it comes to gardening.

Well, I hope all you Dear Readers had some extra spare time this morning — this was a long post, again; at least a 2-tea-cupper. Next week I promise to bend your ear for only as long as it takes to paint a Pub Date Celebration Triscuit … along with several medium-sized digressions, of course. Because the world needs my opinions on almost everything.

And once again, Congratulations to Deborah Hatt for winning the Monet Garden Gate Triscuit!

See you all next Friday!

18 Comments, RSS

  1. Linda June

    Have always loved your embroidery work–never knew you did so much of it though! I can now see why you do so well painting small. Always enjoy reading your blogs!

  2. Kirra

    Congratulations Deborah, lucky fourth guess! I also didn’t realise you did so much amazing embroidery, I guess you’ve had a lot of practise doing it since you were 10! Good work on the allee, I like how you added in the ‘real’ bits after a few days. Do you still do embroidery? I would like to learn one day but not sure I have the patience!

  3. Casey

    Congrats Deborah…you got the Top Cat mind meld!

    I have a thing when I check in on your blog. I scroll through it first to get an idea of what we’re dealing with on this day to see if I need one cup or two but this time I caught your last sentence about this post definitely being a 2- copper, so I paced myself. So much lusciousness, from the get go of the Fanatic and Taffy’s wonderful fluffy fat paws poised on the picket fence (haha, say that fast 5 times!). Great stuff.

    And altho the first iteration of the allee was a beaut I have to tell you that when I looked at your second version my eye was drawn all over the picture from the foreground and the background because of your addition of the dark places. Its like y’u have a 6th sense about what makes art and this time I saw that sense in the making. Very cool.

  4. Patricia

    Perfect, both before and after. I also learned embroidery at age 10 and promptly quit after making a few lumpy pillow cases. Which I still have and use.
    Somewhere out there is my perfect craft or art style. I just haven’t found it yet.

  5. Marg-o

    He he. “Simple stitches”, “You can learn in an hour”. And then it would take me a lifetime to learn how to sew like you, and sewing like you is the only way I want to sew. Also paint like you, but thanks to your blog I get to do *that* vicariously.

    Not only do I like your long form blog posts but I also wish you’d write five books a year. Can’t get enough.

  6. Well, first of all, bravo on the glorious stitching. It is probably the one craft/art I have never taken up for more than a one-time disaster despite how much I love seeing it. Is it the patience? The threads so small? Who knows? But I certainly admire and appreciate it in others and yours is some of the best. No wonder it has been commissioned and added to permanent collections!

    For whatever reason, something you said last week about doing the painting over time and time again till you got it right finally clicked with me and linked up to all sorts of things like musical scales and play rehearsals. I’ve been agonizing over (ironically) a street in Giverny, trying to work from my photo to a) be accurate b) make it my own because I can’t “paint” a photo as a photo and c) get the technique right. I’m on version four. And what you mentioned here about walking away for a few days is something I have practiced for a long while with my collage work. In fact I just did a touch up on an older piece I was perfectly satisfied with till I looked at it a few weeks later. It didn’t take much but made all the difference.

    I learn so much here. Thank you.

  7. I think I am pouting..but Congratulations Deborah!
    I’m crabby I think.
    No power since Tuesday night..it came back on this AM..but internet is off and on..very erratic..so quickly here..
    I am a stitcher..and appreciate all your beautiful stitchery and your lesson:)
    Instagram has great stitchers..a feast for the eyes also..ok bye before I get cut off.

  8. Carol

    I can see how you made the transition from stitching to painting. Both are lovely and very painterly. You have inspired me to pull out my many photos of Giverny and paint, paint, paint!

  9. Leslie

    I have been hoping that embroidery had not been left in your past. It does take more time, but the time in only adds to the richness. Are you looking at your old work because you are contemplating a new project?

  10. Nancy S

    Vivian, your embroidery is beautiful! What a gift! Loved this week’s triscuit before you added the tree in the background and the foreground. But wow, after I saw it after you wer completely finished, I loved it even more. That foreground just makes it pop. Did you use gouache on th the flowers or did you just use masking fluid?

  11. Vivian, great job! How can I get you to like and admire this wonderful copper beach planted by Monet himself? He must have had good reasons therefore. I remember I had to make an effort to like the dark colored leaves, too, because they don’t look as natural as green ones, but now I consider it the most beautiful tree in Monet’s garden. Majestueux. Did you notice that the color of the leaves changes when you stand under the tree and look up? They look green. C’est magique.

  12. Megan

    Nice to see Taffy looking so dapper, even if he isn’t a Steve fan. Tomatoes you say, well we are drowning under a surplus of tomatoes. After 30+ years on tank water we throw the washing up water on the garden, thrifty you see. Result tomato plants all through the garden. I’ve made many batches of sauce and have two more baskets waiting to be made into tomato sauce but no more containers to freeze it in! yesterday my friend came to lunch and her 7 year old daughter said, “you have tomatoes that need picking” so I now have another couple of kilos she also found 6 cucumbers and two zucchinis one that must weigh over a kilo! She had so much fun and I was grateful. Love the embroideries. I use to do a lot of flower embroideries, stopped ages ago, wonder why? Maybe there will be a resurgence due to your post. Great work, love the cats.

  13. I loved your embroidery work in When Wander’s Cease to Roam. Mostly because I could just admire the artistry of it without being the least tempted to try to replicate it. Sometimes it’s wonderful to be part of the audience. So what a delight to see more of your work here! Hope it won’t be the last.

    As for your paintings, ah you temptress! I’ve been back to the art shop to get smaller brushes, found a great one and I’m dabbing at the smallest specs and standing back in wonder. Who knew such little dabs of color could be so beautiful?! Thanks again for the wonder tutorial.

    And congratulations to Deborah, well done!

  14. Thea

    In order: San Diego Chicken has my heart even over the Philly whatever. Taffy the Cat beats both handily.
    Love how the insight gained from stitchery aids your painting art.
    For my eye, the Giverny miniature gained richness and depth through your later additions.

  15. Yip-Yip-Yippeeeee! I am one very happy woman, for sure!! I shouted “I won! I won! I won!” into the quietness of this old farmhouse on this sleety, Michigan night. I expected a comment from my own “Top Cat” … but he was sleeping in his chair with our kitty on his lap, so alas, no comment. (Later however, he did share in my happiness!)

    Thank you so much, Top Cat! And dear Vivian, thank you for offering the give-away in the first place. I cannot express how this has brightened my winter-weary soul!

    I fell in love with your paintings, your embroidery, and your writing when I read “When Wanderers Cease To Roam” about four years ago. I was immediately enraptured with the book, every tiny little aspect of it. I bought copies for my children and friends, and I have raved about it on FaceBook repeatedly. I simply love the book and re-read the chapters, as each new month rolls around, year after year. I always notice something new my eyes failed to notice before. I especially love the entire concept of Pawsylvania, and having had my own “Woody Robinsons,” I understand missing him every day, even though many kitties bless our lives along the way. My two Woody Robinsons were Percy and Buster. Percy graced my life over 40 years ago, when I was a young wife and mother. Buster was my kindred spirit for more than about 13 years, and that big-boy tabby absorbed buckets of tears during a very sad spell in my life. God sends us our kitties (and doggies, but especially kitties for me), and they touch our hearts, like few humans can many times. I’ve always had cats, but some just stand out from all the others.
    Thanks again, Vivian and Top Cat! And thanks to all those how congratulated me. You are all so gracious and kind. God Bless You, all.

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