It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Unless You Are Already Crying, and Then It Only Takes a Train And a Go-Cup.

I will explain this photo in a bit. (Yes, I am completely sober, for the moment.) First, we have some PAINTING to do!

To re-cap: This is the view of Claude Monet’s famous lily pond in his Water Garden in Giverny, France that our Dear Reader Jeanie photographed one fine September day:

Those red plants blooming in the foreground look to me to be some kind of celosia, which gives this away as a Fall scene. Yes, I am extremely proud of myself for knowing that celosia blooms in the early Autumn. Even more than that, I’m amazed that I even know what celosia are — but that’s what writing a garden book will do: it will turn a person who basically couldn’t give a crap about horticulture into someone who notices, and NAMES,  celosia in the foreground. So,  La-Di-Da for me!***

***see Comments below for my come-uppance.

Thank you, Jeanie, for letting me paint your view (we’re calling this The Jeanie Challenge), which after two weeks of blogging looks like this so far:

For Jeanie and all others who are painting along with moi, I want you all to rest assured that even if you follow me stroke by stroke, you will never be “copying” me. It’s like when we all learned how to write cursive (which I hear is something that nobody bothers to teach any more).

We were all shown the same standard forms, we all practiced copying the forms, but in the end our handwriting is uniquely ours:

BTW, from what I know about handwriting analysis, this is the writing of a pervert.

It’s the exact same thing with watercolor. Even if you use every single technique I use for this pic, your painting will be you, all you, as surely as your own handwriting is. SPEAKING of handwriting, handwriting is kind of how I solved the problem of what to do with the big blank right hand side of this picture:

I want to do something different for that big bank spot there, treat it in a way that will make it stand out against the background stuff that I’ve already painted. I thought about this problem a lot, and in the end I decided to draw it:

In that I use the same tool as I would if I’d handwritten this, that’s where the HANDWRITING connection comes in. Nice segue, eh?

As I sussed it, there are three distinct textures in that foreground bit. From top to bottom: long spikey stuff, big leafy stuff, and small grassy stuff, which I drew as you can see below:

So all I’m going to do here is paint those textures.

First, the grassy stuff, just a wash of light green with some dark green strokes:

Then the long spikes stuff — I really love doing this kind of brush stroke, but if you’re new to it, it pays to practice it before you put in down on your painting. It is actually harder than it looks to get that nice, elongated lozenge shape:

For the leafy texture in the middle, I’m going to smoosh my paint brush into my dark-green green . . .

. . . and then smoosh it into my light-green green:

And then I’m going to dab in some leafs (it’s a press and twist motion):

That’s what I call PAiNTiNG, people.

Stepping back to survey the work, I think the leafs look a little too same-y as the spikey stuff here:

So I’m going to use clear water on my brush to smudge the paint a bit:

That’s better:

Now it’s time to do those celosia plants in the foreground. They are a bizarre shade of red, so I’m going to mix a hot pink (Permanent Rose) with a deep, blood-red red (Red Purple, which cost $16.95 for this teeny little tube! But that’s what you have to pay to get a really good, rich, red.):

I experimented with the mix to see if I could match the color of Jeanie’s View, and I also had to practice painting these shapes, which are a bit weird:

I also wanted to see how the hot ink/purple red mix looked when it was painted over the green and blues that are already on the paper:

Thankfully, the pigment held its own. The hard part, as always, is to avoid making a pattern, to keep them looking as random as nature:

Note that I painted the celosia in light and dark shades of my hot pink/red purple mix.

Now that all the hard stuff is done, we can step back and congratulate ourselves for getting this far without ruining the pic. Yay for us!

And now for the fun bit:

You might know this, or not, but all the structures in Monet’s garden — the plant supports that give his flower garden its height, the shutters on his house, all the outdoor furniture, and all the bridges in his Water Garden — are painted the same rich, saturated green. It’s a very distinctive color, variously called “Apple Green” and “Monet Green”.

To make this green stand out against all the other greens in Monet’s garden, I use an acrylic paint:

Since it is plastic, opaque, and thick, the acrylic paint has a totally different property than the watercolor, so it stands out even when I use it in a teeny tiny background detail :

I am editing out all the other people in Jeanie’s original photograph and I’m only painting two people on the bridge:

They are basically stick figures — but be sure to shade them and to give them some sort of gesture; I have one of my figures turing to the other one, to whisper sweet words: You were so right. Being here does take my mind off the fact that we have a low-class, smug, shit-for-brains president back home.

The last thing I have to do (as a painter of this scene) is tone down the “roses” in that weird arcade, which I do by painting over them in dark green:

Are we DONE?


I happen to like the way the colors and shapes of this composition pulls the eye all around this little pic. But, even so, that light background behind the bridge bothers me. Jeanie’s photograph is so wonderful because of the way she framed those figures on the bridge — although they are way back in the background, they are pushed forward (in the photo) because of the dramatic way they are seen against very, very dark foliage. I feel compelled to be honest to the view, and so I think I need to paint that in:


Well done. You’ve earned it: time to unscrew the lid off of your finest Pinto Grigio:

This is how we do it on the Long Island Rail Road.

It was cold and gray last Sunday as I waited for the 5:22 to Ronkonkoma (change at Jamaica for the Oyster Bay local). Penn Station was crowded and I’d spent all day out and about in Manhattan, wishing I’d worn a Winter coat instead of the short leather jacket I’d put on that morning in trust that the forecast of 62 degrees was not just someone’s fantasy that our long, long, long delayed Spring had finally arrived. I was chilled to the bone and I’d been crying earlier in the afternoon:

Spoiler: This movie is a good old fashioned treat jerker.

The grungier food stalls at Penn Station sell teeny bottles of wine for $5 each, but they can not let you take those bottles away with you. Probably because Madison Square Garden is right above the LIRR train tracks and nobody wants arm a bunch of pissed off  (or celebrating, it doesn’t matter) Knicks and Rangers fans with both alcohol and a sturdy glass projectile. So what they do is, they kindly pour your one, two, or three bottles of wine into a huge Coke go-cup, ask if you also want ice, snap a lid on it, and punch it with a straw.

It’s the Long Island commuter’s security blanket.

So I had a very happy journey home that cold and gray Sunday. Because it was the weekend, the train was full and the riders were much more voluble than the usual Mon-Fri crowd, which was very entertaining for me. Also, I was kind of drunk.

Overheard on the 5:22 to Ronkonkoma:

As passengers are walking down the aisle, finding seats:

I’m sick of the city.

You’re a meat person, right?

Leave the car where it’s parked, we’re never going to use it again.

And when we go to Dubai I’m gonna take you to Amsterdam for the weekend.

From seated passengers:

One 20-something girl to her friend, who is unwrapping an extra large chocolate bar: That’s, like, a thousand calories. Her friend: I can deal with it. 

Behind me, another 20-something girl starts to squeal to her friend (and I swear, this is exactly how the conversation went): What IS that? It’s on your bag! Give me five dollars so I can chew it! Other girl responds: How do you Google that?

Guy on his cell phone: Are we going to spend shabbat in LA? I hope not.

Older man to his wife: They can wear it for all I care, but I don’t have to look at it. Wife: They do things to their bodies to look that thin.

Random stuff that drifted through the general noise:

When we were kids I loved going out and doing stuff but now I’m a 22-year old guy and I like stay in and drink.

Fish and chips. With risotto.

Maine. I never think of Maine. Maine is the most boring state in the union. (I have to agree with that one.)

I liked the part where they went back in time. Did they have dinner? 

I was thinking, as I listened and took notes, that the LIRR is a goldmine of awesome non-sequiturs! I should write a book about the overheard conversations on the LIRR! I bet the LIRR would PAY me to be, like, their scribe! Like, their resident anthropologist! People would love this stuff! I should put it all in a book! Best seller! I should pitch this to the president of the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority]! The MTA would jump at the chance! 

Like I said, I was a bit pie-eyed. A mere two sheets to the wind. Slightly hammered. Definitely lit.

 This project is now filed away with all my many, many, many other Bad Ideas.

Have a great weekend, my Dear Readers. I hope that all your wine is fine, all your ideas are good, and that all your bad ideas are only momentary.

20 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan May 5, 2017 @ 5:48 am

    Well you are awful Vivian, I shall keep my own handwriting under wraps! Oh yes conversations on the train are something else aren’t they? I think a book would sell well… I am still not sure what the decanting of wine out of the bottle and into a plastic cup achieves, unless the staff are worried the tiny bottles would be used as weapons. Looking forward to seeing Their Finest, love Bill Nighy.

    • Vivian May 5, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

      You’re right, Megan, that I could have used a less judgy word than “pervert” but the signs of, shall we say, “strangeness”, are lit up as if in neon in that handwriting sample. The lower zone, where the letters f,g,j,p,and y dip below the base line, is called by graphologists “the pervert zone” : Extreme deviation in the formation of lower zone letters reflects perversion in the writer’s sexual imagination. Additionally, the way that this writer forms that final “y” of “Sincerely” is called “the felon’s claw” and is a huge and rather dangerous red flag that the writer has morally devious tendencies which (like the sexual hints given in the formation of lower-zone letters) can be quantified by other character traits that appear in the handwriting.

      This handwriting sample was written by a woman who was later analysed on YouTube, which I watched after reading your Comment. I was wrong about the celosia, after all, maybe I’d got this handwriting all wrong. But the graphologist specifically calls her handwriting “weird”, and asks about the writer’s sexual history and fetishes for as much info as the write cares to divulge. (I mean, it’s clear that the writer is into some sort of, let’s say “colorful” sexual activity.) The upshot is that yes, the writer has been married 5 times, and is into “experimental” sex that she wishes to keep secret. Also, prompted by clues that the graphologist picked up on in her handwriting, she admitted that yes, she is terribly guilty about the sex.

      Why people wish to expose themselves this way on the internets baffles me, but hey — it didn’t take much effort on my part to find it. I was only looking for a handwriting sample that looked non-standard to illustrate my point about the individuality of all our hand-made stuff, and this jumped out at me.

      About 15 years ago I had my handwriting analyzed by a professional graphologist, so I have been on the receiving end of this stuff. I was convinced of the rightness of handwriting analysis back in the late 1980s when I was working at Cartier; it was right after lie detector tests for employment purposes was outlawed in the US and I had to put together a proposal for the New York HQ about handwriting analysis as a reliable alternative to the polygraph. (Firms like Cartier, naturally, that make very expensive pocket-sized products, want to steer clear of dishonest job applicants.)Turns out that handwriting analysis had been used in the European branches for decades. I was sold on it, but it was not implemented during my tenure there.

  2. Elizabeth May 5, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    I think the plant looks like ASTILBE – spring…. but may well be celosia….will have to look it up.

    You went on a trip on the Long Island Rail Road?
    You weren’t merely marooned in the tunnels – or stranded without power at Cold Spring Harbor?
    What gems you overheard 0 I’m generally reading and in a fury….
    I used to say the LIRR was sort of OK…hmmm it’s got worse and worse.
    And you were in the city without visiting me!
    Pity I don’t drink.
    Your watercolor is splendid.

  3. Elizabeth May 5, 2017 @ 7:50 am

    ps I have a photo of me and Richard E. Grant at a party in Marrakesh circa 2007! what cells I have met!

  4. Elizabeth May 5, 2017 @ 7:50 am

    celebs…..damn auto correct

  5. Barbara Marie Lee May 5, 2017 @ 8:16 am

    Not to nitpick, but I just HAVE to set the record straight. That red plant is astilbe (a perennial), not celosia (an annual). If you Google the two, you will see a marked difference. There are many varieties of astilbe with wide variation in their season of bloom–generally the dark reds bloom in late summer. The yellow flower in among the red astilbe is a daylily (Hemerocallis), also a perennial with many, many varieties that give the genus a wide range of bloom times. Sorry, had to say it.

  6. Anonymous May 5, 2017 @ 9:01 am

    I wasn’t going to say ASTILBE..I was biting my tongue lol..but now that it’s out in the’s Astilbe:)
    I have white and pinks..:)
    Seems some of us are just :Have to Sayers”:)
    Why are we like that?
    I love handwriting and I still have the envelope my original VS came in and I love looking at it .
    Anything w/ Bill Nighy♥ seeing Jeanie’s Monet a la Vivian..

    and we are just plain lucky we cannot hear what everyone is THINKING.

    The weekend is upon us..

    10 more days of rain in our flooded area..geesh.

    • Barbara Marie Lee May 5, 2017 @ 11:32 am

      Why are we like that, you ask? In my case it’s a degree in Horticulture. Alas, a cross I struggle, and frequently fail, to bear with grace and dignity. 🙂

      • Monique May 5, 2017 @ 11:49 am

        Hi Barbara! In retrospect I think horticulture would have been my cup of tea..

        however..I don’t have that degree and yet was biting my tongue..personality trait..not my best;)

        • Vivian May 5, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

          To Barbara and Monique and Elizabeth:
          THANK YOU! XXOO!! I am happier than you know that you have informed me of the real identity of that flower, or plant (I don’t think the astilbe is actually a posie). Please DO NOT feel as if you have in any way been too smarty pants — I would rather know if I am wrong because, being a Capricorn, I value truth and true info more than I do my own ego and in this case (horticulture) I have ZERO ego. I know that I am a dunce when it comes to greenery and believe me, I am fine with that. Now that it seems that everybody but me knows the difference between an stile and a celosia, I am pretty proud of myself for having such smart Dear Readers so even when I’m wrong, it’s a WIN for me. YAY!

  7. Monique May 5, 2017 @ 9:02 am

    That would be me above..I skip over the identification part and go straight to talking..

  8. Carey May 5, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    Love the final painting. LOVE IT. But I think I would not ruin my visit to Monet’s garden by mentioning the name that causes me to metaphorically throw up every time I hear it said. So maybe that guy is telling his friend on the bridge something about how excited he is to be in a Vivian Swift illustration!

    That was fun! the painting and the eavesdropping I mean. Overhearing is a talent which you certainly have. And I don’t think you are awful, I think you are gifted and funny, but I would like to know the whole analysis of that girl’s handwriting; it looks strange to me.

  9. Kirra May 5, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    Congratulations on such a great painting! Interesting to see the acrylic paint effect with the watercolours. Things always seem better when you’re in France, probably because I’m always on holiday when I there.

    Personally I love the overheard train conversations……. 😉

  10. Deborah Hatt May 5, 2017 @ 11:08 am

    Once again, dear Vivian, thank you thank you for the step by step tutorial. I LOVE the finished piece. Bravo, my dear!

    I won’t ask about the tears you mentioned, since you kept their reason private. But please know, my friend, it does matter to me that you cried, and I hope whatever initiated your tears was not a large woe, but only a momentary sorrow. Being the country bumpkin I am, and a profound lover of quietness and daily stretches of solitude, the mere thought of taking a crowded train into an urban area would make me close to tears, all by itself. But, I know, being the world-savvy super-traveler you are, you perhaps even find comfort in the beehive of urban-ness. Regardless, I hope all is well with you now. Your tears matter, and not just to me.

    I wait with anticipation to discover your next watercolor challenge. It is a lovely time of year for seeing loveliness right outside our own back doors. Like you New Yorkers, we Michiganders have had cold, rainy, windy yucky March-like weather for days on end, and no change in the immediate forecast. The upside of all this? … my lilacs have lasted twice as long and are still going strong, as well as the redbuds and candytuft. I suspect we will soon be cutoff from our usual route to town, when the creek rises above the bridge just north of our property. This happens a couple times a year, and is nothing to get upset about – as long as someone doesn’t fail to see the flood in the night and is swept off into the wheat field, where the flood waters create a vast lake. Country life does have its moments.

    Happy Trails this week, dear Vivian. You are greatly loved.

    • Vivian May 5, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

      Dear Deborah: I guess I should have mentioned that I was only crying because I went to see that movie, Their Finest, which is a one-hankie story of love and loss in WWII England. And that everyone in the movie smokes and when they kiss all I can think is “Yeccccchhhhh.” Remember the old saying that Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray? Yeeeeeecccchhhhhhhh.

  11. Patricia May 5, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

    It makes the post that much funnier that the plant was proudly mis-identified by Vivian. Shows you what kind of gardener I am that I didn’t even NOTICE you were wrong. I was about to claim I used to know this kind of stuff, but really, I didn’t. I picked out plants by “pretty” and “prettier”.

    And your painting was pretty indeed. Even when you showed me step by step, it doesn’t destroy the magic of the final effect.I’m going to Monet’s garden next week. And when I’m standing on the bridge, I won’t be spoiling the moment thinking about Pres. Trumpet.

  12. deb mattin May 5, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

    Another snort-the-coffee-out-the-nose moment- the fake conversation on the bridge about our shit-for-brains president. He almost wants to make one jump off the bridge, but doubt the water is deep enough there to do the trick.

    Love your painting – and until I get to the “DONE”, I forget how small it is. So much lovely detail packed into such a small piece.

    Love the to-go cup for the train. We do that for the beach that says “no alcohol”- like that’s ever going to happen.

    Have a good weekend – another GD rainy, crappy one!!

  13. Vicki Abbott May 5, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

    Thanks for the painting lesson. And explaining the difference between watercolors and acrylics. Painting with petrochemicals, yes! And thanks for the little dig at 45. I’ll NEVER call him anything but that. If I could only not think about him at all, sigh. Umm…treat jerker?

  14. jeanie May 6, 2017 @ 7:53 am

    Oh Vivian, that looks so much better than the original photo — and my two earlier pre-Vivian attempts. Hoping today to tackle the Vivian method and see if I can use your very helpful techniques to make it more vibrant and alive as you have here. It’s smashing. (And those tiny people. I have issues making tiny people — they look like — well, I don’t know what they look like, but not people.)

    I really appreciate the step-by-step. I know that takes forever today and I can’t imagine the number of ready put into this series of posts, between painting, stopping to photograph, uploading and editing, then actually writing the post and inserting the photos. Hats off. I’ve printed out every instruction and it looks like a book. Which brings me to — a book. In this wealth of posts you already have one close to written if you ever decide to do it!

    Actually, two. I love the LIRR concept. Illustrated with your paintings of sites you pass by. (Or are you in a tunnel the whole time… well, that might be easy to draw). Go cups and back packs and all sorts of very odd people-listening things. I have to say, you heard some good ones! Of course, you might be like Charlie and never return (was that Charlie? I think it was the MTA… who knows. Well, I’d buy it!

    Two other quickies — “Their Finest” — must see. England in WWII is my period of interest. Actually, WWII anywhere. And the photo was taken in early June (2009). I don’t know my astilbe from my celosia — I just know it was spring and everywhere! And finally, the rainy, cold, unseasonable Michigan factor send good wishes your way that the weather gets better than ours has been for the past week. If it wasn’t for all the brightness here, I would have been pretty depressed! And thank you again for taking on the challenge! I love it!

  15. Ariane May 17, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    What a lovely painting Vivian. Félicitations. I really love it, especially the rendering of the water.
    Your use of the acrylic green is brilliant. And it works!
    About the photo, this is June at Giverny, or maybe the first days of July. It was taken before the poplar grove was chopped down, which produces the very dark green effect in the background. The surroundings are much lighter by now.
    The lozenge leaves on the island are Thalias, closer to us the elongated ones are flag irises, and just next to the astilbes the two colored leaves are hostas.

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