My Favorite Watercolor Hack or Two

We have a Winner!Top Cat has chosen and last weeks’s one-of-a-kind hand-painted Pub Date Celebration Triscuit with cat and tea goes to Number 171 …


. . . which of course no one picked but we’re going with the  closest number without going over, and that number is . . .

. . . # 168


Monique, a long-time Dear Reader of this blog, has never won a contest here in VivianWorld so for this challenge she changed tactics and asked her own Top Cat (who goes by the name of Jacques) to pick a # for her and the mojo was tres bien! Enfin! Congratulations, Monique! This Tricuit definitely is so you, all over!

And now let us return to the raison d’être of this blog which is, namely, Watching Paint Dry and, according to this week’s title, Hacks.

You all know that I have a new book out (shameless plug):


But you might not know that the picture on the cover is one of my better hacks which I had to do because, like Jenny Beavan, I have strengths and I have weaknesses in what I do for a living but I’ve found a way to hack around it so no one goes tsk tsk, she’s really let herself go. Read on.

This is how that illustration started out in life:


And this is what it looked like after I  cut out (literally, and I do mean: literally — with scissors) all the crap bits:


I bring this up because, if you remember from two weeks ago that I showed you all a picture of Monet’s Giverny garden allee before I hacked it:


And then I showed you this same painting apres hack:


When Dear Reader Nancy S. posted a Comment and asked how I did it,  I realized that I should have been more specific about this particular hack. Because, not to brag or nothing, but hacks are kinda my thing. I have a whole category of rescue posts on this blog and if you’re curious you can find them under the blog post category Watercolor Rescue. For today, tho, I want to discuss all the various ways I rescue paintings that have gone wrong, such as all of the above.

Getting back to the cover illustration for Gardens of Awe etc., here’s me in the act of re-drawing the pic around the bits that were salvageable:


(BTW, what I’m showing you here is an abridged version of this rescue — if you care to read the whole ugly story it’s here in a post that I called I Hoard My Mistakes for the Sake of Art.)

Architectural drawing is something that I am really bad at, and I accept that about myself. So it behooves me to avoid doing architecture whenever possible. But when I can’t avoid it, I hack it by keeping the drawing as simple as can be, and if it has to be in any way detailed I paint it in silhouettes as I have done here, below, in the background:


This silhouette trick is a device that I’ve used to great effect (if I do say so myself) in my previous book Le Road Trip:


and in the Edinburgh chapter of the DGB:


I am always on the lookout for architectural hacks. On a trip to Scotland in 2007 I found this illustration in a magazine:


Do you see how the artist, Adrian McMurchie, has flattened the building and yet has still kept the integrity of the architecture?


I originally thought that this was a fabulous hack, a brilliant way of avoiding the pitfalls of perspective and as such was something that I intended to use one of these days. But it turns out that Adrian McMurchie is a boy wonder at rendering sumptuous architectural illustration, so this hack might be harder than it looks but still, it’s something to keep in mind, don’t you think?

Getting back to my London rescue, after I’ve dabbed in some surrounding architecture to give a since of place, the last step I take is commitment, when I glue that cut-out remnant in place and I paint in the rest of the gardens around it:



For those of you who are reading along, I dare you to find the “seams” of this cut-out on the cover of your copy of Gardens of Awe and Folly:


No, not this cover. This is a workshopped dummy of the cover, a mock-up prepared by the Bloomsbury art department long before publication in which you can see the seams. Just click onto it and enlarge.

There are a lot more rescues inside this book but let’s just take a peek at this page, the title page  for the first chapter:


This is an especially daring rescue because it’s so big. You see, after I painstakingly painted that Beaux Arts Paris apartment building in the background, I painted that foreground allee of trimmed plane trees. (Maybe they are lime trees. I’m not good on those kinds of technicalities.) Well, those trees were bad, bad, bad. And I was not about to start over from scratch, no sir, because that building in the background was a pain in the ass to paint.

So I painted different trees on a new sheet of 90-lb. Carson watercolor paper, cut them out (along the black lines as shown) and glued them right on top the bad, bad, bad trees:


And no one is none the wiser!

Do you know that there’s a really famous who else who used the good old scissors-and-glue hack when illustrations went wrong?

This lady did:


Perhaps you recognize the work of Beatrix Potter, pictured here in this instance the story called the Pie and the Patty-Pan. If you look closely (which I did), you will see that dear old Beatrix hacked this picture in exactly the same way:


Oh yes, Dear Readers, you can believe your eyes. That little dog is a cut out! And it’s an excellent cut out, at that.

Now, there are times. . . many, many times, many many many times. . . when all you can do is paint the whole shebang over again. Like when I recently had a go at depicting this little scene in Monet’s Giverny garden (below). I was using a reference photo, which is quite obvious from the way I painted this picture as a full bleed (“bleed” is when the image goes right to the very edge of the paper):


I am still on a learning curve when it comes to painting Monet’s garden at Giverny, so for a first try this was pretty decent. But for what I wanted this picture to do — namely, show off those tall forms in which vines grow in the middle of a flower bed — it failed. There was no way to rescue it. The only thing I could do was start over.

Which I did:


Yes, I much prefer the second version.


So, getting back to Nancy S.’s query about how I rescued Monet’s allee. . .


. . . I admit that I was nervous about going back over this painting because watercolor is so fragile that it can be easily killed by over-work. A lot of times you can’t put a layer of color over another layer of color without the whole thing turning into mud. So. . . I practiced off-site:



So, OK: I was pretty sure I could layer a dark green over the lighter greens and blues in the foreground without making mud. So I was ready to go ahead and take a chance that I was not going to ruin this picture with my rescue.

Since I did not photograph the actual rescue, I’m going to make this facsimile to show you how I did it:






There are two reasons why I knew that I’d have to use an undercoat of white acrylic paint to achieve this rescue. First reason is because I had tried just painting a light blue over dark green and it didn’t work. If you look closely below, I am showing you the difference between the white-undercoated blue dots and the no-undercoated blue dots (where my paintbrush is):


You can see that without the acrylic undercoat, those blue dots disappear into the dark green paint. So undercoating is the only way to go:


Second reason I use acrylic paint is because if I used gauche (as Nancy S. asked), as an undercoat and put blue watercolor over it, I would certainly have got mud. Gauche is water-based, and soluble, so it is not really suitable as an undercoat. It just can’t hold its own against an over-paint (such as above).


Et voila:


It was a pleasure for me to go back to this beautiful Spring memory of Monet’s garden today because last week, after Taffy had gone to all the trouble of declaring his domain Winter-free, we got this:

P1070267 (1)

Snow. Not a whole lot, but just enough to give new life to a critical pile of snowy crud at the local Whole Foods:


However, by week’s end the temperatures were back in tune with my need for it to be gone my March 17. . .


. . . and all I can hope is, Is anybody ever going to take that damn trolly back to where it belongs?


P.S. For all of you who thought I might have been a bit too harsh with the marvelous Jenny Beavan, here’s a photo of her Oscar co-winner from 1987, John Bright (that’s him on the left), taken in Aug. 2015 when he was 75:

So, have a great weekend everyone. Hope you’re enjoying your perusals of Gardens of Awe and Folly . . . something tells me there might be something coming up for all you 5-star reviewers out there. See you here next week (free of charge).

17 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan March 11, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    Yep, Taffy looks a bit miffed.

  2. Monique March 11, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    I just thanked Jacques..because he is closer..right in front of you.
    Very excited to have your TRISCUIT of joy here..
    As you know I am in Canada and your boook is pre-ordered..apparently March 16th is the happy day..but of course I always think things can happen earlier and have been checking every day.
    I have to tell you a show you the love I have for your books..first of all this will form a I have your other two..but this is how much I really love them..had I been envisioning a trip to Washington with Justin Trudeau et famille ..I probabbly would have jumped on the chance to pre-order in the US..but..I didn’t get my invitation..
    you must know about our sagging dollar..go seee the difference in the price of your book here compared to the US..yes that’s how much I love your books:)
    It’s almost double.So double love.
    Anyway..sometime after March 16th..I will be reveling in reading The Gardens Of Awe And Folly:)
    It is fun to win..
    I feel like an Oscar winner:)
    Thanks again!
    I love the obelisks w/ the myosotis and tulips..well everything.

  3. deb Mattin March 11, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    I absolutely love Helen Mirren – mostly because she is not trying to look 25, but instead working to look like a smashing dame of 70! So classy, so current, so pretty – and did you see her plant a big fat kiss on Stephen Colbert’s lips ?!!

    Agree that Ms Beaven needs to up her game ! Nothing says “old” like a 66 year old dressed in full-on aging hippie mode.

    I have my GoAaF and am only allowing myself to read one chapter at a time in order to drag it out as long as possible. It is so lovely. I stared very hard at the cover and can’t see any sign of a hack – what a pro.

  4. Marg-o March 11, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    Congratulations Monique of the North for winning le Triscuit and for sending us your PrimeMinister for a visit, LOVE him. I loved seeing the do-over of Monet’s garden side by side, it’s a good example of thinking and re-thinking what makes a good picture. maybe my problem isn’t lack of coordination with a paintbrush but rather a lack of good ideas. You, Vivian dear, really do see the world with an artist’s eyes.

  5. LINDA JUNE March 11, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    Just got your Garden book. WOW! So far I have only read the first chapter on Paris. I’m saving and savoring it, and will read another chapter tonight. If I go too quickly it will be all over too soon and I will have to wait six months or so before I look at it again with “new” eyes. Bottom line: I am loving it! Thank you for all your hard, painstaking work. And thank you perhaps even more for sharing all you did on your post today. These blogs are time consuming but very much appreciated. Being a watercolor artist myself, I really am learning from all your hacks and tricks (acrylic paint, who knew?) I’m working on a project right now and will give that a try. The shopping cart/trolley: Don’t these things just annoy you to no end?! How many hundreds of people have seen it there and not had the foresight/decency/gumption/orderliness/whatever to return it to the herd of other trolleys? It always boggles my mind. Made for a good picture though!!!

  6. Maryanne in SC March 11, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

    I take your point about dressing age- and event-appropriately. I’m 65 this year, and sometimes it’s hard to know What Not To Wear, having worn it all at least once. I think I’d like to sit at Ms. Beavan’s table, though, and all are welcome. She said later (in The Hollywood Reporter) that her choice was deliberate:

    “I am British with a slightly rebellious character; I always have been. But, actually, in truth, you’ve seen me. I’m short, I’m fat. I really would look ridiculous in a gown. What I was actually wearing at the Oscars was sort of an homage to Mad Max — a kind of biker outfit. I thought, “If I can’t beat them, or if I can’t sort of join them, then why not try doing something a little bit fun?”

    XOXO and cheers to fun!

  7. Gail March 11, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    Yay for Monique! Love your hacking tips!

  8. Michele March 11, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    As Maryanne said, it was a deliberate dress choice in reference to the movie. If you only you did a bit of reading before you are so vitriolic. What a back-handed compliment to start with anyway, and then show the sort of person you really are when you turned on her, of course in a humorous way. Yes I hear you. In the past I have been known to say “hasn’t she got a mirror” but as I have gotten older I find it unnecessary to name call, so to speak. I’m sure you have many faults.. If I was in the long grass I certainly wouldn’t want to meet you. I don’t expect this to be published, it is for you to read, not the masses, to try to tell you to have tolerance toward people. I’m sure I am not the only one of your followers that has this opinion.

    • Marg-o March 14, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

      Put down the chardonnay, Michele, and back away from the keyboard.

      • deb Mattin March 15, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

        Gotta remember this comment ! Too funny and right on.

  9. Kirra March 11, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

    I GOT MY BOOK THIS WEEK! Yay!!! All the way here in Australia on pre-order, very exciting. Unfortunately I’ve been busy this week and have only read the first chapter but have a long weekend here (Monday public holiday/day off) so can read lots this weekend.

    Congratulations Monique! Enjoy your triscuit 🙂

    Thanks for the rescue debrief – Beatrix Potter, who knew!?

  10. Deborah Hatt March 12, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing your “hacks,” Vivian! They are great for helping those of us who need all they hacks they can get (namely ME).

    Congrats to Monique! I LOVE your triscuit – the calico kitty and white wicker are simply perfect! I adore my own triscuit (from the last give-away). I look at it many times a day, as it’s right where I open our door to the south patio. We are blessed!

    As to Jenny Beaven … congrats to her for her Oscar. I had never seen her, before the 2016 Academy Awards on tv. My first thought was, “SHE is a designer?” But then I remembered all the times I saw Edith Head on tv for Oscar’s night. Edith was also a woman of unique appearance … her thick, glossy Mr. Spock hair-do (well, more like a rustic, back-country “bowl-cut”) and her weird, thick-rimmed super-round glasses. I always wondered why someone who could create such gorgeous outfits for Audrey Hepburn didn’t also use her incredible talents on herself. But, I wonder how freeing it must be to go to events like the Academy Awards and still remain “This-Is-Me-Like-It-Or-Not.”

    Myself, I was taught from the cradle, “It hurts to be beautiful: Welcome to a life of pain.” 🙂 My 84 year old mama washes her face and puts on her makeup every single morning, before coffee, before everything! It is her routine, and it makes her feel like she’s ready to take on the world. (She’s amazing, BTW) I am not as disciplined, but I do not leave home without “putting on my best face.” However, I admire my wonderful and loving sister-in-law, and indeed, my own little sister, who rarely ever bother to dab the tiniest bit of gloss on their pale lips. There’s something to be said for those “authentic” types, who feel great about themselves as they are. Sometimes I wish I could be more like them. But, alas, I am what I am. And this old barn feels best with a fresh coat of paint – it is who I am.

    BTW, back in 1987 I was 35, the busy mom of four rascally kids and a blessed wife, working in a medical laboratory, raising horses, and playing piano at continual events. Just thinking about it now makes me oh-so-tired! Whew! I wish I had HALF that energy today. Sigh … Being almost 64 is not near as easy. for sure. 🙂

    In parting – thanks for telling us Beatrix Potter was a watercolor hacker! Boy, does knowing this bring me comfort and joy! She was one of us!! Hooray!

  11. Cheryl March 12, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

    Thinking back to last week’s post regarding the “garden guardian’s kiosk” in Paris–I recently read about “she sheds”, the woman’s response to the man cave. Your third of a third of a room in Paris would be a lovely she shed.

  12. Nancy Shuey March 13, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    Thanks for that acrylic paint hack, Vivian. So good to know.

  13. Monique March 13, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

    Deborah..I love the way you write:)
    I am old barn w/ a fresh coat every single morning..I admire all natural fresh faced friends like my Nancy..but my mom had her Revlon Red regardless of the day..I may not take after her for the lipstick..but I love my mascara and a touch of blush:)

    In my humble opinion..this is Vivian’s Swift’s blog and she does not censor her words..everyone is different.
    Some things surprise me..because I am a really sensitive person..but it is disarming and interesting to see someone speak what she is thinking.
    Like some of the TV shows surprise..and sometimes shock me ..I still watch 99% of the time.

    I have censored everything,mostly..all my life..
    I read her fresh face..and respect her opinion.
    Freedom of speech.
    This is her house:)
    None of my business.
    And I have seen such kindness..

    Just yesterday my daughter and I were saying..if it’s not nice don’t say it..but that’s us..everyone is different.
    I am 62 and thank God I have daughters that sometimes tell me what suits me.
    My hair is much longer than it should be.I am keeping it..grateful that that is still working:)

    If ever I meet Vivian..and she says :” I like that top”..well I would believe her:)

    To judge Vivian’s character on an opinion..on a post..not sure about that..especially publicly….
    Class Vivian to publish.
    Michele..Vivian is nice..I have a Christmas card from her:)
    We all have something.
    No harm meant in any of my above’s just been sitting with me..
    a blog is work..let’s applaud the hard work..sharing etc and our different personalities.:)

  14. Carol March 13, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    Love my Gardens of Awe and Folly! It looks just lovely sitting with it’s sibling books. A row Of Vivian Swift! Btw, I thought the same thing about Ms.Beavan. Helen Mirren is fabulous!

  15. Margie March 15, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    Dear Vivian,

    I just finished reading your most delightful, charming, informative, humorous “Gardens of Awe and Folly”. When something touches me, be it art (yes) words (yes), I feel the need to reach out and say so. Well, here I am hoping these words reach you. I just adored your book, your illustrations, your words. I hope you are well and considering another book.

    Cheers, Margie

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