How to Paint a Secret Garden

See you in Cannon Beach (Oregon) on May 7!

If I had not run out of chapters in my book Gardens of Awe and Folly  I would have taken the extra pages to give you all a tour of some of my favorite every day Secret Gardens, like the one my neighbor Joanne has in her back yard:

Joann's Secret Grden

This (above) is the entrance to the Secret Garden belonging to one of the most excellent Chilled Wine Cocktail On The Patio Hostesses I know.  Step into that wooden archway entrance gate (below) , and you are treated to a more complete view of the pathway that leads to Joanne’s hide-away around the corner (that you can’t see in this pic because it’s secret):


Well, it’s a GOOD THING I am an illustrator and in possession of an Artistic License so that when I take my pencil and draw this illustration, I can give you both of these views at once:


Next, I apply masking fluid with a tooth pick (because I need a really fine line):


To start, we have to lay in some sunlight, which I will let dry before I go to the ext step:


Since I’ll be working from the back to the front of this illustration, the next thing I do is lay in background foliage:


All I do is dab dab dab the lightest shades of green, quickly, while everything is still wet:


And now the plot thickens.


I’m putting in a light green wash on the left side here because as you saw in the reference photo, this is where all the shade is:


Dab dab dab in some nice rich greens, and then I’m done mapping out the brights and darks of this illustration:


BTW, I really like what happened up there, when I dab dab dabbed wet-in-wet and got some nice blotches that could very well stand as is and look totally convincing as foliage. But I don’t spend much time pondering this because I can’t wait to get a move-on because . . .

. . .I  LOVE THIS PART! This is the part where I add more detail to the background:


Oh, I love dab dab dabbing with my size-00 brush!


And now I start adding detail to the front-ground, over-painting the wash with dark leaf-shaped flicks of my 01 brush:


I paint bigger leaves with a fatter brush, whose size I don’t know:


And then I work the middle-ground:



Something tells me that I could stop here . . .


. . . I could stop here, call it DONE, and let those nice watercolor blotches do their job, but noooooooooo,  an evil little voice urges me to go on, put in some really really dark, dark background:


More is More is what that evil little voice is telling me:

Secret Garden

Time to get out the 00 brush again and make some tree branches out of all that brightness in the background:


Let’s take a look before we remove the masking fluid:


I hate to say it, but I’m starting to doubt that really dark background. And I’m getting a bad feeling about that bench and lantern. Where O Where is that voice that should be telling me  Quit While You’re Ahead?


But there is only silence as I plod on anyway and sure enough, I paint over those wonderful blotches that I liked so much:


And oh well, I guess it’s DONE:


WHAT WENT WRONG: Yeah, the lantern looks wonky, and the bench doesn’t make sense —  I made a bad choice when I included them in the pic. Also, I don’t “get” the wooden gateway either; it’s almost invisible, lost in the more and more of the foliage. Well, it’s a good thing that I work small, so the fix-up shouldn’t be all that hard.


This is it BEFORE:


And this is it AFTER:

Secret Garden

Hmmmmm, I dare say that, in the end, I saved this pic, and if you had not seen the BEFORE maybe you wouldn’t even notice the heavy-handed layer of paint on the left side. But alas, we are wise to the muddle and in our heart of hearts we all know that it was a better picture when it was “half” DONE.

My Dear Readers, this is what a bad day at the office looks like to me: I spend approx. 5 hours working on this picture, for a chapter that never makes it into the GoAaF, which even if such a chapter existed I would not (probably not, depends on how tired I am by deadline time) would not use this illustration for anyway.

Well, I don’t know what would you do after such a bad day at the office, but here’s what I do to end the day on a sweet note:


A little champagne, a blue jay feather, and the company of a cat — that’s all it takes to make it a perfect day in VivianWorld.

Have a great weekend, my Wonder Ones.


10 Comments, RSS

  1. The masking fluid done by you is always genius..I try and when I remove..I find the painting around uneven..never just right..practice..I shall practice..lovely spot back there:) Tchin!

  2. Kirra

    I think it’s because of your entertaining and educational commentary but I agree, I liked the painting when it was ‘half done’. But I also agree that if I only saw the end painting I would like it, as I like all your paintings!

    It’s really interesting to see you describe working from the back of the painting to the front, as a non painter this is kind of hard to get your head around how do you decide what to put at the back? And it what order?

    Good end to the day though, cheers!

  3. Adele Miller

    Oh darn! I’ll be in Canon Beach the week after you are…..what a shame.

    Love this post because it makes me feel okay about my “less in more” approach to my painting. Even though I embrace less is more because I reach a point where I get stuck and don’t know what to do! I applaud your bravery in forging ahead despite what the voice inside your head says, and admire your know-how about how to fix what doesn’t look right to you (emphasis on “to you”, because I thought it looked pretty great each step of the way).

  4. Casey

    Lucky Portland, lucky Seattle. And lucky Lickety! That picture of the two of you at the end of another informative and wise painting lesson is priceless.

    I agree with Kirra, take us a bit deeper into the Vivian process so I can see what you see that is, understand how to pick out what is background and what goes first. You have an artist’s eye and a scientist’s brain and it comes so easily to you, but I still have hope that I can be taught to see and think a bit harder if I could only watch you paint for hours on end.

    Enjoy Cannon Beach, hope there are friendly kitties there.

  5. FanGirl

    Vivian, I saw you speak at Wide World Travel and I am still laughing and pondering the many hilarious and wise words of wisdom you shared.

    A note to all your Dear Readers, if you have the chance to see Vivian Swift talk about life, and tennis, and art, and Triscuits YOU MUST GO! I drove a mere 6 miles but it would have been worth it if you were 60 miles away.

    Thank you, THANK YOU!

    • Patricia

      I’m rotten with envy. We had theater tickets that night so I missed the Seattle visit. Lucky for me, I was able to drop off my book for Vivian’s signature so I didn’t completely miss out. Julie at Wide World said Vivian was a wonderful speaker.
      Maybe next book…

  6. The wonky lantern didn’t bother me all that much but yeah, the bench is better gone and the lantern without the bench would be way wonky so nice save! Boy, those background lights and darks… I’m struggling with those now and now I think I should take my painting and begin again. It’s way woodsy and I haven’t graduated to excellent trees yet! I need to start practicing with masking fluid, too. I’ve held off on that till I started to feel better about the paint itself but you have to jump in sometime!

    Oh, I love our weekly painting time. Wish i could join you for a bad day at the office aftermath, but I’ll have my own here!

  7. Kirra

    FanGirl’s comment encouraging readers to go see Vivian live reminded me to look up the GardenChat interview. It was excellent!!! You are equally entertaining on video, like your blog, and I can only imagine more so live.

    If you can’t see Vivian on tour watch this ‘best of’ from the GardenChat interview:
    It worked fine for me here in Australia, though it is a bit out of time with the audio sometimes.

    Vivian you make it sound ‘easy’, it’s possible that I might pick up a pencil and try drawing some pictures myself one day soon…….


  8. ann

    Thank you for the tutorial. I always learn so much.

    I agree the finished product is your best.

    Loved the cat.

    Do you wonder if the cat wants to comfort you of just be fed?

    Anyway the day was saved!


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