How To Paint Background Music.

My big sore nose still hurts. Not a lot, but enough to make me whiney and cranky. And then I was pulling out of my gym one morning last week and saw this:

According to a woman who was one car and two minutes ahead of me, the Lexus SUV didn’t stop to let the truck make the curve; the Lexus SUV driver saw the big truck turning towards her, but she just blew on her horn and rammed right into the undercarriage of the 18-wheeler. This is not unusual for Long Island Lexus people. Long Island Lexus people think they own the streets. However, I never thought that one would be stupid enough to play chicken with an 18-wheeler…but I guess I was wrong.

So that was one consolation for my nose woes: at least there was one other person who was having a worse day than I, and oh how sweet that it was a Lexus person!!

And then it rained for two days; and then we had a house guest for two days; and then we were really tired from having a house guest for two days, and then OMG it has been beastly cold here on the north shore of Long Island this past week. So, No, we have not trekked out to our favorite beach on the north shore of Long Island yet this new year to glorify our drinking habits with a fancy Solstice theme, so, No, I don’t have any pictures of the sun set to show you.

But I can offer you a photo of the Breakfast Club at my house:

That’s my neighbor’s cat, Dennis, second from the left (above). The rest are all mine. I’m rich with cats.

It’s been so cold this week (20 degrees F) that I was fretting about my outdoor cat, Steve. So today I added two wind break/walls to Steve’s little nest under the holly tree by my front stoop, and I piled up lots of additional new straw so that when he steps into his nest, he sinks up to the tippy-top of his ear-tips into a nasty-hamock of cosy, insulated, all-natural fibers:

He seems happy here, and he’s got a cubby in the garage in case he ever wanted to curl up inside an insulated kitty house. But it still doesn’t seem right for a kitty to spend his days and dark, freezing nights outside, but Steve resists all my attempts to lure him indoors so I fret. Yes, I do. I fret.

I also fret about my “job”, which is to paint Claude Monet’s famous garden in Giverny, France. This (below) is the scene I want to paint, a part of Claude Monet’s famous garden in Giverny, France, called The Ladies’ Circle:

These photos are from my 2013 visit to the garden (not my 2015 visit), in May when the cherry trees were in bloom:

No wonder Monet never painted this part of the garden, and no wonder that I have never seen this part of the garden photographed for any of those grand coffee table books about the garden:

This part of Monet’s garden is impossible to portray as picturesque. It’s partly because of the lay of the land — a lawn bordered by flower beds on the sloping terrain — and partly because that huge Paulownia tree (which has a very ungraceful trunk):

I have tried, and tried, and tried agains and again, and failed each time, to paint this place as a Spring scene, so my new strategy has been to try to paint it in Summer, when the tree’s ungainliness will be partly hidden by foliage. I also changed my point of view.

The most crucial part of this painting is the background, which must indicate abundance and frothy greenery without getting specific. On my FOURTH try, I got this:

Ideally, the background blobs should sound something like a cool pop song from the olden days. Kind of glamorous, like Petula Clarke singing “Don’t Sleep in the Subway, Darling”. Or, from the ’80s: Everything But The Girl doing “Miss You”. Know what I mean?

My favorite way to create a background that doesn’t overwhelm the picture with information, yet still creates a bit of interest, is to let the watercolor bleed into thought-provoking shapes:

I just realized that my preferred background music (see above) is a sad song about rain. I might be kind of depressed.

That damn Paulownia tree is just too quirky for my tastes, but I have to report it as faithfully as I can since this is for a picture book about Monet’s garden. I just can’t re-invent the bits I don’t like:

I’m hoping that the right crop will bring this pic to life:

OK, painting the flowers was fun:

And then I painted in a little, but necessary, tree and ruined the pic. Still, it was one of the least crappy pictures I’ve painted of this impossible view:

Lower right, that’s how the wrong little tree ruined the pic.

So far, all my attempts at panting this maddening Ladies’ Circle look like this:

But I’m a Capricorn. I’m scrappy. I’m determined. I’m conceited, distrusting, and unimaginative (according to any Air, Water, or Fire sign). Capricorns are not cuddly people.

This pissant Ladies’ Circle will not defeat me.

I’m good for ONE MORE TRY.

Done. Maybe. But maybe not.

On second thought, definitely not. Which comes as a surprise to me, since I only loaded up all these pix because I thought I’d got it, finally. So this is an unexpected twist to today’s blog. I hate when that happens.

I had a short discussion the other day, with Top Cat, about New Year’s Resolutions for 2018.  TC doesn’t want to make any, and that’s fine; we usually don’t bother. But we were very stick-in-the-muddish this year and we want to travel more in 2018 so we sat in silence, each of us trying to think of a place we really wanted to go to. Then we had a few more glasses of wine and I got a brilliant idea about what I should do with my life, and I jotted it down, and the next day I checked my scribbles and the message I had for myself for what to do in 2018 was this:

Hang out with owls.

Yeah. I’m going to see if I can make that happen.

Happy New Year to all you Dear Readers, whether it’s a Summer eve or a Winter one — I hope it’s the first day of a spectacular year, feathers and all.

P.S. I think I’m going to take one more stab at the Ladies’ Circle. Any suggestions?

26 Comments, RSS

  1. Yeah, I can see why that doesn’t show up in books. It looks like one of those spots where you say, “I guess you had to be there.” Quiet and lovely but nothing to really be much of a focal point except an empty circle with empty benches. That’s a toughie!

    That said, I hope when you revisit this (and us) and you fix what was DEFINITELY not done, that you share what you thought needed to be fixed from the last one. I can see all the progressions and they all make sense but I thought that last was pretty darned terrific so I’ll be curious to see what needed to be fixed.

    AND, that is one reason why you inspire and have changed how I work — doing it till it’s right. Well, right for me. Even if it takes a lot of times. Best lesson ever.

    Love your breakfast club. Steve’s situation reminds me of when Gypsy came to live with me. He was outdoors and it kept getting colder and colder so he got a little house with a light bulb that plugged in; then the opossum moved in so we moved the house (and Gypsy) to the garage. And then pretty soon he was inside.

    Happy New Year. I’m thinking that the champagnometer is going to be pretty chilled this weekend. I know it would be here!

    • Vivian

      The problem with the last iteration is that the benches look cartoon-y. And the overall tone of the picture (that is, the color value) is too dark. I wish I could paint with a feather-light touch and, if it’s not too much too ask, some of the brio of John Singer Sargent. His watercolors are so effortless looking; he leaves so much white paper showing through. He is a genius at knowing what NOT to paint and I have to ease up like him. Basically, I want to use half the amount of paint, which is difficult to quantify; it’s more a matter of knowing it when I feel it.

      Steve has a cubby in the garage, but he prefers the porch. Probably because he’s got more than one exit (the cubby is a one-way in/same way out situation). I HOPE our neighborhood possum has taken up residence in the cubby, because it is an excellent cold weather refuge.

  2. Megan

    Oh cats! Marvellous. Steve looks rather happy. Love the breakfast club. Happy New Year. Oh and I am a bit over entitled people, poor bloody truck drivers just trying to do their job and they have to contend with inconsiderate car drivers. Hope the truckie didn’t get any grief from the cops or his boss, fingers crossed.

    • Vivian

      The SUV driver was a SHE, and to tell you the truth the truck driver did cross over into her lane when he cut the corner…but still, she saw him coming and could have hit the brakes. When the police showed up, one of the cops got in the car and backed it away from the undercarriage (something that the female driver had been too freaked out to do) and surprisingly, there was only minor damage to the front quarter panel. So maybe the truck driver got a break, and from now on should aim only for Lexus SUVs.

  3. Kirra

    Thanks for writing the blog even though you’re feeling crappy about your nose (who wouldn’t be) and tired from visitors. That Lexus got what was coming, who would be dumb enough to take on a massive truck?!?

    You are rich in cats! I am poor in cats, I have zero cats. I think your final painting of Monet’s Ladies Circle was really good, I also liked seeing the other paintings and admire your persistence in painting the same thing lots.

    I was telling a friend today about your great books and lent her When Wanderers Cease to Roam. I think she’ll love it! Hard to choose which one to give her to read first though.

    I have to say spending time with owls sounds rather adventerous! I imagine you have to go out at night, maybe have night vision goggles? (My dad is a very keen bird watcher and travels Australia looking for birds, but I haven’t heard any stories of birds at night.)

    Happy New Year everyone! My champagne will be coming from the fridge.

    • Vivian

      You might be poor in cats but I hear you’re a zillionaire in koalas. When it comes to hanging out with owls, I was thinking more along the lines of a wildlife rehab center. But you know, maybe joining a bird watching group would be ore transformative. Thank you for the tip!

      I hope your friend likes When Wanderers Cease to Roam. I’m still so happy that that book is still out in the world.

  4. Casey

    OMG, I saw the first photo and thought you’d got a DoG. Is getting a new pup on the To Do list?

    I appreciated Jeanie’s comment on the impossibilities of that Ladies’ Circle and like her I am awed at how dogged you are about getting it right. Is that because you are also writer and more accustomed to re-writes? I always thought that painters just painted, the way that marathoners just run (you never see a marathoner stop herself at the one-mile mark, saying, Wait, I have to go back, I don’t like the pace. ha ha.).

    I liked the last painting, too, but I am looking forward to seeng what it look like when it’s RIGHT. I appreciate that you care so much.

    Oh, that Steve. I hope he’ll find his way into the warmth of the herd soon.

    Happy New Year, Vivian, and all my fellow Dear Readers. Whew. Never thought we’d make it to 2018 in one piece.

    • Vivian

      Oh lordy, yes, I re-write even more than I re-paint. But the thing about writing is, it takes much less time to know when you’ve gone down the wrong path. I do’t know it about a picture until I’ve invested too man-hours into it. Well, actually, sometimes I know I’ve screwed up by the first few brush strokes, but more often it takes me several hundred stories before I know I’m a goner. I would say my job is tough, but then I remember that it’s not like I’m a firefighter, or a sanitation worker, or a cop, or waitress, etc. THOSE guys ave really hard jobs.

  5. Funny but I don’t even remember the Ladie’s Circle in Monet’s garden. I love your attempts and know you will get it in the end. Laughed at that Lexus driver. One crazy driver for sure. And yes, I would fret with one kittie outdoors too. He seems to like that bed you made for him though. Happy New Year to you!

    • Vivian

      I know! About the Ladies’ Circle: you will never see it photographed in guides, and yet when you’re there, it’s a very beguiling space. But it’s a real bugger to paint.

  6. It is a well-known fact around here that when I’m out walking with my two little boys (and training them to walk on city sidewalks, which I, a rural type, had to learn as an adult and now feel quite good at) and crossing roads that I often say things like, “Boys, the car coming is a BMW. Beemer drivers never stop for pedestrians, even if you’re in the right, so just let them pass.”
    Apologies to any BMW drivers who may be here. But I do a LOT of walking and the “Beemers drivers don’t take pedestrians into account” rule really seems to hold. They must be our own brand of Long Island Lexusers.

    My hopes for 2018 for you, dear Vivian, include your nose feeling better and more temperate temps (we’re looking at highs in the 3-5 range here for the weekend, so your post made me feel quite hardy, except not really, since I’m mainly just not poking my nose outside the door). Also may all your paintings work out exactly the way you want them to!

    • Vivian

      Until you have one that is bandaged up, you never notice how often you tend to smack your own nose. Pulling on a T-shirt, drying my hair with a towel, brushing my bangs off my forehead — is it just me, or do you too seem to have a nose that gets in the way when your hands are flapping all over the place?

  7. The healing process is tough. Hopefully, each day the pain is less and soon eliminated. The cold weather is truly brutal. The Breakfast Club at the Swift home looks adorable. Also, Steve seems happy in his nest of fresh hay. Even better, he has the option to go inside. Entitled drivers are the worst. The Lexus driver will see her insurance rates hit the roof! Looking forward to seeing your finished painting. Stay warm.

    • Vivian

      I WISH Steve would come inside! But oooooh, he’s too much of a ramblin’ man and insists on hanging out in the elements. he drives me crazy.

  8. Carol

    You are, indeed, rich in cats! I like the last painting, but if you are going to paint it again then try not to have the tree in the exact center. It can divide the picture in half. You can also leave it where it is but extend the flowers to the right of the tree instead of stopping them at the trunk.
    I do love your style of watercolor!

    • Vivian

      Right: it does divide the picture in half! I didn’t notice that before. I am too focused on that damn tree because when you see it in person it’s a really nice tree, but like some people, it’s just not that photogenic.

  9. Hanging out with owls is difficult. And rewarding. You never see them till you are seeing them, unless there’s one with predictable habits and a local person tells you where to look — and I mean tells you _exactly_ where to look. You might get lucky though — there’s an irruption of snowy owls in eastern and northern parts of the country now, and maybe one will visit your area — I think they were in Long Island on a previous irruption. And yes, that’s the right word for it when the snowy owls expand their usual Canadian range. You probably know all this already, but I don’t remember if you are an avid birdwatcher.

    When we go on birdwatching expeditions, we just maintain high hopes that an owl will be hanging out somewhere that our guide takes us. We’ve missed lots of owls, too. Persistence helps, so your approach to painting probably means you’ll be good at hanging out with owls and I hope you decide to paint them when you have hung out — maybe you have already done it. (My favorite owl this year was in Patagonia.)

    Have a great year in 2018 with no more nose.

    best… mae at

    • Vivian

      Best eight word construction I’ve ever read: My favorite owl this year was in Patagonia. WOW!! For my 50th birthday, Top Cat took me to Chincoteague Island in Virginia, to see wild horses. It was January and freezing cold and the place was desolate (no tourists) and we had a fantastic time…and we saw a little owl, perched in some brush. At first, we couldn’t believe our luck, and the longer we looked at him, the more amazing it became. What a great birthday memory.

  10. Adrienne

    I think you caught it in the last painting! Nothing fights with any other part of it. I think it’s the most successful. Oh – and so sorry about your nose… But think about how really crappy you’d feel if you got to it much later. Hoping it will heal soon and wishing you all the best in the new year.

    • Vivian

      I appreciate your feedback, Adrienne. What you can’t see is how imperfectly this pic resembles the ideal picture I have in my head, which is painted by unicorns using sparkly magic paint that shimmers with warm breezes and the scent of incense and myrrh. THAT’s the picture I want to paint!

    • Vivian

      Hmmmm…that’s not a bad idea…people on the benches. And if I have them walking along the flower beds, it might be a good way to stage this pic. I can use them to hide awkward angles, if I’m smart about it, but I’m not very smart.

  11. I also thought that your family had grown by one DoG. As noses go, this was an interesting nose picture to consider. I hope your tender nose is healing well and will soon be just another “sensor” in the background of your remarkable life.

    Perhaps you could do a Solstice – New Year event on the beach redux…once the weather becomes a bit more hospitable. I’m certainly willing to toast that.

    How I love being able to see your tenacity in action as you work on the Monet Ladies Circle painting. Did you know that, under the right (read: post New Year’s Eve) conditions that “pissant” at first looks like an obscure French term. I think this is on par with “spending time with owls.” (I once wrote a few lines of poetry while falling asleep at my computer – it was not at all Jungian, which was a considerable disappointment.)

    Thanks for taking extra good care of Steve. I’ve never met this maverick but I sure do think of him.

    Do have spectacular days in this introduction to a new year! We’ll all look for ways to make this year wonderfully different from last year (I am exercising considerable restraint here) in all ways political. Do you hear the drums of restless Democrats beating in the not-too-far distance?

    • Vivian

      Ha ha — pissant does indeed look French! I’m sure it’s a past participle of a rude verb that I’ve never had the occasion to use in conversation (I’ll look that up as soon as I finish our “chat” here). When I am not obsessing about my nose, I’m preoccupied with the condition of Steve. I really have very little else on my brain. I’m wonderfully focused on my own unhappiness that way.

  12. Laura

    Solving the “Ladies Circle” may involve working through the “rule of thirds”. Get that Paulonia tree out of the dead middle. Either raise or lower your POV to see what happens. Maybe change the POV from within the circle, not outside of it.
    Happy New Year to you!

  13. Christine

    Sorry to hear about your nose trauma:(. The word “procedure” sounds so innocent and is really a world of pain and anguish, invasion and mortification.

    Loved the kitty photos…too cold outside these weeks in the Northeast for outside kitties! Steve!

    It sound like you are trying to paint how you feel when you are in that space with the benches…not how it looks. No clue how to do that.

    Happy new (nose) year.

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