What I Call Genius, Because I Can.

The big news this past week was the very very late Winter blizzard that threatened to ravage America, burying us east coast liberal snots in a thousand feet of snow. On the eve on the Great Snow Day of 2017, I set out my Champagne-O-Meter in the backyard:

Taffy prepped in his own way:

We heard the storm blow in around midnight, rattling all the windows with dire gusts of wind and sleet, and then dawn of the Great Snow Day of 2017 broke:

Top Cat lit a fire in the living room, all the kitties gathered ’round, we made pots of tea and loaves of toast and read our books and napped (I had a dream that I taught sign language to a cartoon octopus) and made more toast and tea. The snow kept falling, but it was mixed with icy rain, which was very heavy and compressed the previous layers of fluffy stuff so that the total accumulation was much less than anticipated, but had the density of concrete. At 3PM I fetched the Champagne-O-Meter from the backyard and lo, the bubbles were good and icy:

We went through 12 pounds of bird seed during this storm, trying to keep all our feathered friends well fueled to ride out this cold snap:

I also bought new straw to put in some additional layers of insulation in Steve’s cubby in the garage and he’s been curled up in it for the past three days:

But I’m not here just to bring you a weather report. I have a story to tell you, a story that is 33 years in the making, if my math is right. It starts in yon olden days of 1984.

When my sister Buffy went to see Monet’s garden in Giverny in May of 1984 she brought back the official souvenir book of the Foundation Claude Monet, which shows the gardens to be in a very skimpy state of restoration. Evidence this photo of the apple tree espaliers:

Her own photos of the garden include this great shot (below) of the apple trees in approx. their 4th year of growth:

I love these photos of the espaliers laid bare — by the time I got to see Monet’s garden for the first time in September of 1990 they had filled in quite a bit. I thought it was an OK garden back then because to me it was mostly a tourist attraction, not a garden experience.

In the book that I called Le Road Trip  (2012), I did not spend much literary or face time in the garden because, well, you can read about it on page 55.

And then came time (2012 – 2015) for me to do the book I called Gardens of Awe and Folly. I considered including Monet’s garden in the book because I really like those nifty apple tree espaliers that make a cute fence around a small lawn in the part of the garden called The Clos Normand (my favorite part of the garden). The question was, could I paint them?

This is my very first attempt at painting Monet’s apple tree fence, some time in the dark ages of 2012:

As anyone can see here, this pic stinks. But I give myself credit for seeing the painting of it all the way through to the end, the better to judge the craptitude of my talents, such as they were, at the time.

Being the Capricorn that I am, I am determined to get the hang of this bit of garden. My first idea to improve the chances of my painting a decent pic was to pull back my point of view, to back up from my close up of the espaliers:


BTW, This apple tree fence is the first thing you encounter in Monet’s garden after you buy your ticket and walk through his former painting studio — now gift shop — and through the door that leads you onto a short, narrow path into the garden. P.S.: There is only one Poplar tree in the background of this view in real life. Don’t ask my why I painted in 12 extra poplars, except that they are a whole lot of fun to paint and they are the trees that best communicate “FRANCE”.

Well. It was clear to me that I was getting no where, painting from my old tourist photos of Monet’s garden. There was nothing to do but for me to go back to Giverny and take another really good look at the place and think about it and photograph it specifically for painting references. So in May of 2013 that’s what I did.

And WOW. If you ever have the chance to see Monet’s garden in cherry blossom time, GO. In my experience, July and August are prime for the water garden and September is prime for the allee, but May is a whole other category of awesome in the whole rest of the garden. I got more out of that visit to Giverny than any of my several previous visits.

Back home, I took a look at my new reference photos  . . .

. . . and tried out my renewed painting prowess, starting with a quick “sketch”to see if I could paint the foliage of those apple trees:

Any way, in the end I did not include Monet’s garden in my garden book for several reasons: it was too big a subject for the scope of my book; I don’t really have a “take” on the place; and I couldn’t paint the damn apple trees, which are the things that I am most fond of in this garden.

But my lack of ability to paint the apple tree espaliers in Monet’s garden has not stopped me from try, try, trying again and again. It’s my genius, you can say, that I don’t give up when I have a goal in mind. My goal was to paint those damn apple tree espaliers in Monet’s garden no matter how many ugly paintings it took.

So, last year, after my garden book was out and making its way in the world, I faced my nemesis once again. Here’s my first re-try:


There are three problems with this scene, two of which are evident in the ref photo. One is that the view takes in a part of the garden that is called “The Paintbox” [to the right], which has seven tall, H-shaped trellises over head: they must be dealt with, somehow, in the background.

Two: There’s a Copper Beech (in French: hetre pourpre] in the way-back, a tree that was planted by Monet himself and as such, is something that must be acknowledged, even though I personally dislike purple-leafed trees and think Monet’s Copper Beech is a very dissonant note when you’re trying to paint the harmony of this view.

Lastly, the property itself is on a slant — you’re actually looking slightly downhill when you are looking at the garden from this direction. Here’s another photo from the apple tree lawn to give you an idea of that:

I’m just noting that the perspective makes this little lawn a little tricky to paint.

On my second attempt at a full-page painting of this scene, here is how I tried to deal with the H-shaped trellises in The Paintbox:


Next, I tried to go all Impressionistic re: those trellises and I pretended that that annoying red Copper Beech in the background wasn’t there:


One last try:

I almost thought I had it here, but . . . Nope.

So I put it away and Spring became Summer, and then Fall, and then Winter, and etc.

Last month I took another stab at painting this corner of Monet’s garden, starting with a whole new point of view. I am painting the same corner of the apple tree lawn, but I’m putting myself further back, that is, standing right at the entrance to the garden. I started with a little watercolor “sketch” of my new parameters:

I elaborated it:


I know I am reeeeeeeeeeal close to getting it right, I can feel it. I can also see, now that I’ve done the entire scene, that I’ve chosen a very visually crowded POV so editing out details is going to be crucial. I’m going to have to try a new way of keeping in detail without overloading the color scheme.

So, I head back to the drawing board with my brilliant, new scheme. I’m going to add a new element into this scene that I hope will clarify the view: very bold pencil lines. Here’s my first try:


I made the mistake of drawing the foreground first, before doing the background wash. Then I did the background wash and it was bad bad bad from the get-go. So I start over:


This (above) is me trying to convince myself that a bad background wash will work out if I keep painting. I wasted too much time before I ditched this. Let that be a lesson.

So I start over:


I knew that background wash was a failure, but I took the opportunity of this failure to test some ideas I have about where the darks and lights in this pic should go and how to incorporate my pencil drawing into the watercolor, so I kept painting — not to rescue a bad pic, but to act out on some hunches. This was not a waste of time, even though it did not result in a good pic.

On the next start-over, I thought I’d do the wash first and then, if it worked, I’d do the drawing on top of it:


But I’m getting there.

And on my next attempt, I got it !

And here’s the finished pic, DONE:

I am in love with that background wash. It still needs a few tweaks, and I might  take another look at this in a month or so and hate it, but for now, I am happy with the story that this pic tells about walking into Monet’s garden in Giverny on a sunny Spring day.

In fact, I was so hopped up about “solving” this vexing problem of Monet’s garden that on the same sunny day I entered this pic, turned right when I got to the fork in the path, walked to the other side of the lawn, turned around, and painted this:

OK, I had to paint this twice (in one week) to get it right, but twice (in one week) is a lot better than 13 times over four years.

For me, painting is a lot like writing. The first draft always stinks, always always always. But you stick with it. The next draft might still stink, but at least you know how it stinks and you have some ideas on what needs to be changed to to make it work. The next re-write gets a tiny bit better, but it stinks in its own, new, way; then the next re-write gives you hints that you’re on the right path. So you keep re-writing, re-vising, sharpening your pencils, trying new tricks, honing in on what works and what doesn’t. Finally, you have something that isn’t perfect, mind you, but comes as close as possible to the vision that you have in your head. So you back off and move on to the next, bigger, harder thing that you have to write. And, yes, when it comes to my books, it usually takes at least 13 drafts over four years to get it close to what I want the damn thing to be.

Any day now I will be starting in on my first crappy draft of the next book I want to write and NO, I will NOT be flaunting the variously crappy incarnations of the text. You’re welcome.

Stay warm wherever you are, and if wherever you are is in those delightful climes of the antipodal Summer, then stay cool and put out a water bowl for thirsty koala bears.

And oh, yeah: der Drumpf is still a horseshitting pile of pus.


14 Comments, RSS

  1. Kirra March 17, 2017 @ 3:02 am

    Champagne-o-meter! Yeah! Taffy seems happy too. Hope you have survived the storm okay Vivian and anyone else.

    It’s very interesting to see those older photos of Monet’s garden, though I haven’t been there myself yet you do have ideas from his famous paintings etc. I think all your ‘failed’ paintings are good but you’re right the final one IS genius!

    Bon weekend everyone, I’ll be off enjoying the warmth and sunshine. Rest assured I will be jealous of you all when it’s the northern summer.

  2. Carey March 17, 2017 @ 9:20 am

    The genius is having a clear vision in the first place and doing waterer it takes to get there. It’s the vision thing that separates a true artist from a hacker. What a miracle it is to watch you “get there”.

    I’ve been to Giverny and it was overwhelming so its clarifying to see it through your eyes. I would never have the nerve to paint it but now I want to look back at my pictures and wonder What Would Vivian Do here, and here, and here.

    Taffy must be a whole lot tougher than he looks if he takes dirt baths in the snow. Love the view of his little rabbit foots. he looks like he’s having a great time, trust cats to know were the fun is.

  3. Monique March 17, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    There are many takes I like that you didn’t..I too love espaliers..you are a trooper..my mom was a Capricorn..I told you that..and she was like you for this..
    I love the word “craptitude”
    Yay..a new book:)
    You will keep us guessing:)

  4. Linda @ A La Carte March 17, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    You do drink the champagne right? I mean all that snow must be ‘cheered’! I love all of your attempts and they all look fabulous to me but I do think we are our own worst critics. Glad you finally painted one that pleased you. I have only been to Paris once and it was a dream of a lifetime. Doubt I’ll ever get there again but oh if I could I would! Hugs.

  5. Christine March 17, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    The NEXT BOOK YOU WANT TO WRITE!! Yay! Yay! Yay! Can’t wait…please share the evolving with us? I love being a part of the creative process.

    I call that first stage of whatever I am writing “getting something down.” If you don’t get something down, how can you edit and improve it? And then there’s that tricky part of knowing when to stop editing and improving, because you’ve over processed it…hard to know when to let go.

    I know it will drive your nuts, but please proceed with courage and enthusiasm…your fans are here with you, cheering you on! Write! Paint! Share! Go forth in awe and folly!

  6. Anonymous March 17, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

    Over in a parallel universe, arghink, Jenny Crusie has posted the four drafts it took her to get to the current Truck Draft of a couples chapters into her book. Truck Draft is the one if she gets hit by a truck on the way to drop the mss in the corner mailbox her editor can do something with it. The fifth draft is marvelously tough and tight and purposeful, sort of like the evolution of your chosen viewpoint of Monet’s Garden. I too have roamed the garden when it was unpeopled, and it is very much as you show it. Your watercolor takes me right back. Even though I live in warm SoCal where the orange poppies and my old roses are out, I need Monet’s Garden now more than ever. Thank you for taking me there, away from all that is pus. I mean, cutting Meals on Wheels?

  7. Deborah Hatt March 17, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

    Your determination and multitudinous attempts to meet your own Gold Standard are an inspiration, dear Vivian. I am not near as patient or persistent, at least not these days. The older I get, the more impatient I become with myself, and I then very rapidly descend into discouragement with the whole shebang and stash my failures away into a deep drawer in an unused room. I suspect the winter doldrums are upon me. Thank Goodness, Spring is at the very threshold of bursting forth. My, how much I LOVE it when this old Earth steps over the Vernal Equinox! Hope springs eternal!

    I love, love, love your candid descriptions of your personal struggles with “getting things just right.” I am never really happy with my own paintings. I suppose this is true of most of us who are involved in the arts. Whether it’s writing a poem/ narrative, playing Chopin, or painting a picture of Monet’s Gardens, perfection is completely subjective. Hence the old adage: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” For instance, I thought several of your paintings were very nice, but you, obviously, kept thinking “Nope. Nope. Nope.”
    But, you know what? … in the end, I agree with your verdict, because I admire your final version the most. I especially am in awe of the tiny little “bloom” you used SO effectively in that background wash!! Amazing! Bravo, my friend!

    I love all the painting you are up to these days … And I also enjoy some of your more “toast” sized pieces! Bravo, Bravo for all your excellent work, and for your detailed (and entertaining) descriptions of your process! I love it all!

    Happy Trails this week, Vivian, as you celebrate our trek over that giant equinox in the heavens. It won’t be long before we are all back, sitting in our gardens and back yards, basking and drinking iced tea in tall, dripping glasses. Hooray!!

  8. Megan March 18, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

    Congratulations on the new project, can’t wait to hear about it in detail. Taffy is just gorgeous. Glad to hear you all survived the storm. Autumn has arrived in Aus and it is raining like billyo I’m quite pleased however to be difficult it would be nice if we didn’t get a years worth of rain all in a week. No snow yet. Loved the paintings and the walk around Giverny.

  9. deb mattin March 19, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

    “Craptitude” – sounds so much classier than “crap” and laugh-out-loud funny!

    While not comparing my feeble artistic forayst to your real art, I understand the persistence needed to make things, if not perfect, at least not over-flowing with craptitude (in my case – you get perfection!). I teeter on the edge – do I keep going and try to get it right or just scrap the whole mess.

    And yes, sadly, Captain Marmalade is still our leader. I’ve taken to watching more YouTube videos and less news. My desire to stay informed conflicts with my desire to remain sane.

  10. Elizabeth March 20, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    So thrilling you have a book to plot!
    Maybe we will emerge from all this luncacy!

  11. jeanie March 20, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    I think you buried the lead! I’m just thrilled that you have a new book in store. I remember those posts after the last was said and done… not knowing what might be the next (I still live in hope Monet will be featured but somehow I think you have so very much more to say!). That’s great news, Vivian, and I will look forward to going on the journey with you (even if it is a stinky draft!).

    Second, I just love how you keep doing over and over. That inspires me because I never used to do that. Maybe my attention span is too short or because it really isn’t my skill, just something I love, I want to move onto the next. But you have inspired me to persist and not settle. Not to be afraid to share the early versions (aka the bad stuff) in the quest to reach the best it can be for me, right now, at this time.

    So very glad you survived the blizzard and enjoyed the champagne! And a extra special pat on the head to sweet Taffy and her dirt bath! Today is the first day of spring — what a lot of flowers we have to anticipate!

  12. Becky March 21, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    I love how Taffy was preparing for the storm. So sweet.
    It was fascinating to watch how you went through the process to arrive at the final painting. I am having a rough time with my paintings and have thrown out quite a few attempts. I know they are all learning experiences so I keep plugging away. Our conservatory in Pgh. Had a gorgeous display of flowers based on the bridge and surrounding flowers in Monet’s garden. I took lots of photos but haven’t had the nerve to attempt a painting. After I watched your work I am going to give it a try. Thanks for the inspiration.
    After all the crap regarding the groper in chief, I think your defining words of him were too gracious.

  13. Marilyn March 21, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

    What a cute golden kittie. I love that you stuck with it and finally achieved what you liked. A very good lesson. Also loved your last comment. Thanks! It gave me a smile.

  14. Beth March 22, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

    Words we’ve been waiting to hear: “The next book…” Yay!

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