WIP, WIP-it Good.

WIP is the term that we procrastinators use when we discuss our “Work In Progress”.  Today’s post is going to be a long one because the more time I spend on my blog the less time I have to sit around cursing at my  blank sheet of WIP because the angels are not dictating their lyrical prose to me and I have to actually do all the excruciating work on my own and write the damn thing. Also, there will be a trip to the Met museum in NYC and some talk-back to all the wonderful Commentors from my post about the Barnes Foundation and bad art two weeks ago… so make a cup of tea, have a seat, and expect to mosey with me for the next ten or fifteen minutes.

About my WIP garden book, here are two photos of moi feeding koi (fat gold fish) last year at a Japanese Stroll Garden in my neck of the woods on the north shore of Long Island:


Koi are the greediest fish I’ve ever met. When they know there’s kibble to be had (official Japanese Stroll Garden kibble — I didn’t pitch bread crumbs in there) they will climb over each other and leap out onto the bank of the pond with their mouths wide open to gasp for a treat. I was enchanted.

What you can’t see in this photo montage set-up is that there is a fence in the background, behind the bamboo, that forms the western edge of this garden — I mention it because I’m using that fence as a prominent feature in my illustration WIP (below).

So, to begin, I make a few very faints guide-lines to show me where I’m going to put stuff in this landscape. My pencil lines have to be very light because I will be painting over them and I don’t want them to show through my watercolor — I hope you can see them here:


I’m mostly excited about doing the koi, which I sketch in like this:


Next, I put masking fluid over the troublesome areas:


Now, I have never painted a koi pond before, but I know I want a very watery, paint-y looking effect so I use my fattest brush and keep the surface very wet while I lay in various colors in a swirly motion:


I had to work very quickly here so I didn’t take photos, but I hope this close-up helps:


Now I put watercolor over the masking fluid for the first bunch of high grass that I have to paint:


Then I peel off the masking fluid and use my itty bittiest brush to paint each stalk of grass:


Yes, I’m using black paint for lots of contrast:


For the wall of bamboo in the background I want to let the paint do a lot of the work so I dab dark green paint over a wet wash of yellow, letting the bleeds describe the foliage:


I peel off the masking fluid on another bunch of high grass…


… and repeat what I did previously:


Then I peel off the last bits of masking fluid and I’m ready to finish the background details and fill in the last bit of foreground and start painting the FUN stuff!  Lily pads and FISHES!


Voila — here’s the finished picture with tea bag for size reference (perched where the garden book text for this illustration will go):


Again, here’s a look at the original inspiration, just to show you how interpretive my illustration is:


As you can see, you have to edit (or, interpret, as museum folks say these days) when you use reference pix — and isn’t it great the way these reference pix came together in a way that happily lent themselves to a composition were I had to have a blank area for text??  I love it when life and art work out this way.

Speaking of editing and interpreting…that’s what the Matisse show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is all about. The show is called Matisse, In Search of True Painting

This is a beautifully curated show (and I NEVER call ANY show “beautifully curated”).

You are not allowed to take photos in the galleries so keep in mind that I am hiding my camera in my pocket as I shoot these, to show you how finished Matisse paintings are hung alongside Matisse’s WIP sketches so you can see his thought process as he edits and experiments:


Oh,Beautiful Gallery Girl, I want to come back as you in my next life:


This is what attracted her attention:


Even the wall text in this exhibit was very well done — giving you dates and places of each painting (see two versions of a table-top still life below) without the usual long-winded editorializing, simply letting the viewer make her own interpretations and associations to form one’s own relationship with the art. I think that’s what Commentors Bobbi and Marguerite  and Chel were getting at in my post about the filthy over-mediated experience that is forced upon a viewer at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (see my post Eye of the Beholder).


To Commentors Vicki in Michigan, Gigi, Sandy R, Christine, and Jeannie who might be avoiding the Barnes because of my complaints about it, I must say that it’s not an entirely worthless experience (as long as you don’t get snookered into taking a docent tour) because at the very least it is interesting to see such a strong point of view in a private collection. I just happen to think that Dr. Barnes’s point of view is almost entirely wacky. Because, as Commentor 365 Dresses wrote, when you hoover up as much stuff as Dr. Barnes did on his purchasing sprees in the 1920s and ’30s, you’re bound to get lucky — but that hardly makes you a connoisseur.

Back at the Met, I wish I’d got a better shot of this guy’s sweater because it was fabulous:


Commentors Laura and Janet B. mentioned the documentary that was made about the Barnes Foundation about how the city of Philadelphia broke the tenets of Dr. Barnes’s will to move his collection from its private quarters in the Philadelphia suburbs to downtown Philadelphia, called Art of the Steal . I’ve seen it, and  I have to say that I can’t really get all that upset about it. So some millionaire’s will, made in snotty revenge  against the Philadelphia establishment, got betrayed by some half-assed social-climbing executor? Talk about having First World problems!

I ask you: How can you go to the Met to see Matisse, in Search of True Painting without taking a quick trot through its other galleries?  You can easily avoid Renoir and Cezanne to wander in  rooms full of Van Gogh!


See this girl, taking shots of the art with her iPad:


I have to learn how to do this!  And OMG OMG — the Monets!


In this one corner you have about $170 million worth of excerpts Monet’s most famous serieses (plural series), from left to right: The Houses of Parliament in London, Rouen Cathedral, Haystacks in Normandy, and Poplars in Giverny. I do not know why they are not in their chronological order, which would be Haystacks, Poplars, Rouen Cathedral, London, BTW. And of course there are lots o’ water lilies:


Thank you, other Beautiful Gallery Girl, for wearing your Monet Water Lily-matching outfit:


And since I’ll be spending a few days in Giverny this Spring, I’ll need to steal study Monet’s own garden-painting techniques:


And for Commentor Kate, who didn’t want us to throw Renoir under the bus, there’s this — his “masterpiece” from the Musee d’Orsay:


I don’t know…I think it’ll take more than that to change my opinion, or the mind of Commentors Monique, Sandy R, and Joan. I don’t know…it’s awfully busy and froofy, I think. There’s an issue here that I’ve heard referred to on Project Runway, and it’s called “taste level”. I just don’t think Renoir had good taste. Right? Wrong? But I promise you, Kate, that I will go see it when I am in Paris and let you know if it does, face to face, what the magician Penn Gillette says great art should do: Make me a different person.  For Commentor Sally, I’ll also look up that Hanged Man by Cezanne whilst I’m there, see if that does the other thing that great art is supposed to do…challenge one’s map of reality.

Thank you, Commentor Tracey, for the tip about the up-coming show at the Brooklyn Museum this Spring about the watercolors of John Singer Sargent — I seem to be on a whole new kick lately where I actually leave the house once and a while (see above). Next stop, Brooklyn!

And now, I want to show you what I skipped over at the beginning of this blog post, when I painted my koi pond. Here’s a quick step-by-step re-creation of how I did it, in case you’re curious:


I started with a dab of blue from my chalky Grumbacher paints before I switched to my grown-up Windsor Newton watercolors (sometimes I like the paleness of the Grumbacher paints):


The secret is to keep everything constantly wet wet wet:


After adding a bit more Grumbacher blue…


I dip into the Windsor Newton cobalt for real depth:




Drying off the brush like this …


…lets you go back and pick up paint, to create highlights where necessary:


Now going in with lots and lots of blue and green on the brush:


Just let the paint and the water do what it wants to do. Let it sit there, and air-dry. It’s all that air-drying that is the reason why it took me three hours to paint my koi pond illustration (at the top of this post). You can’t hurry this step of the process:


And then I paint in the koi/gold fish and I sign it:


If you think it would be helpful to see this little dab up close I will gladly give this away to whoever is interested. If by chance there is more than one of you dear readers who want to get up-close and personal with my koi, I will gather your names and let Top Cat choose one at random. Just leave a Comment below (sorry; I have to close the Comments after five days) to let me know if you’d like me to send you this koi pond — or just drop a note to let me know that I haven’t bored you to death with this loooooong post.

Next week I promise I won’t rant on and on and on and on and on….




28 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan

    I love your koi, they look fabulous, I think you are very talented, you really captured the essence of the pond. Thank you for the chance to win. I am looking forward to the cat picture next post. Love Matisse and his cat!

  2. Tracey

    Saw the Matisse this past weekend with a friend. The blue oneof the fish by the window was our favorite painting. Also liked the red painting in the last room (the one of the little cafe table).

    I loved the pond painting, especially the bamboo. I never knew that there was a Japanese Stroll Garden on Long Island. You should stop by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (next to the museum) to expand your garden paintings. While the Japanese garden is not as nice as the one you painted, it has cool visiting birds and turtles.

    You’ve made me determined never to visit the Barnes.

  3. janet bellusci

    i completely enjoyed TWO cups of coffee to your wonderful, lengthy morning posting. as always, i adore watching your WIP, and now a chance to WIN an original vivian swift makes it a grand friday morning indeed!

    back to the idiosyncrasies of wealthy art collecting people who insist their art collection be kept in tact after their death: do you know of ISABELLA STEWART GARDINER? if not, that’s worthy of another road trip ~ this time, to boston. her eccentricities were life long, her collection varied, her museum worth a visit. equally enjoyable, the biography of her life, called MRS. JACK (by Louise Hall Tharp). of course, your point of “first world problems” is well made. but back in that more “innocent” period, she, like dr. barnes, wanted people to be EXPOSED to their idea of great art.

    and MATISSE ~ the dude knew color. my favorite of his paintings is THE RED ROOM. his repetition of shapes in this swirl of colors is incredible! http://tinyurl.com/at85efa

  4. Carol

    Pumpkin and I would be THRILLED to add this beautiful koi picture to the Vivian Swift art gallery in our dining room. Thank you for the art posts. I am sitting here at work and I have a ton of things to do, and my son is coming tonight and he just got engaged and we are meeting her folks this weekend, and my mother-in-law isn’t doing well. And I bring up your Friday posts and they transport me to how beautiful and interesting life REALLY IS – it’s paintings, books, shows, fish, cats, cups of tea and champagne o’meters!!

  5. Deborah

    I swear to dog this post makes me want to go out and buy masking fluid and Windsor Newton paints — even though I don’t paint (I was traum-o-tized by my 8th grade art teacher, getting a D on my vanishing point drawing). I could try painting the 2 goldfish in our pond. I love photographing them under the ice when the pond freezes over.

    The Matisses gave me a flashback to when I first met my husband: he had a Matisse poster with gold fish (not sure if it was the Gold Fish one).

    Have fun with winter storm Q!

  6. Susie

    Yes please, I would LOVE to have your goldfish pond ‘dab’, because it would be helpful AND because it’s an original Vivian Swift.

    I had a cup of tea for today’s post and had some laughs, learned new stuff and you gave me lots of things I now have to go look up to learn more about them.

    I once tried taking a sneaky picture in a “no photographs” art gallery. The flash went off! And I had an armed guard at my side within seconds. Surprisingly, I wasn’t thrown out or had my camera taken away, the guy just gave me a warning. Scared the daylights out of me, tho’.
    So I have to study your finesse and try again.

    Thank you for so many lessons!

  7. Mary

    Long blog? O dear, no.
    I enjoy every minute of what you have to say and show us. There are Poi swimming in 2 places of the retirement place I live in, and the ones outside do not move much under the ice, but they manage to survive every year even tho I feel sorry for them.
    The other pond in indoors, but kept at very low temperatures. They are beautiful, and have huge mouths. We are told NOT to feed them in winter.
    Interesting thoughts you have for the paintings you show us. I like your style, Vivian.

  8. Patricia

    i’m just about to leave the house to go get a screw inset in my jaw (the implant thing) and a lovely painting of koi would brighten my recovery.
    I did not know koi would survive under ice … thank you Mary! I’ve always pictured them as tropical (okay, I know they swim in streams in Japan, but they look darn delicate!)

  9. Joan

    Being that I live in the art wasteland of the west, I’d love to have the koi painting by Vivian Swift.

    We have neither gardens nor art museums in Sin City. As close as we get to a museum is the Mob Museum downtown in the former Post Office, thanks to our former mayor, Oscar Goodman…otherwise we wouldn’t have a museum of any kind. HA!

  10. Janine Huisjen

    I love your step-by-step painting tutorials, especially the way you show how masking fluids work, and how the work comes alive. I’d be very happy to have your koi painting!

  11. Thanks for sharing your techniques:-)
    WIP must be coming along great.
    Everything looks wonderful to me.
    Lucky you and Spring in Paris..And seeing Bear there.Along with Monet’s gardens…

  12. Janet

    Vivian, what I especially like about this post is the gallery tour, the art lesson, your strong opinions, and your nod to commentors. You are always interesting, and I always leave your blog knowing more than I did beforehand. Pls put my name in the koi pond drawing. In Austin, I’ve known of several people who had koi in the morning and by evening blue herons had dined on them and left only empty ponds behind. That’s why my pond is stocked with gold fish that cost 12 for a dollar; about 8 have survived for several years (or maybe it’s just their offspring).

  13. Gigi

    I’ve read that some viewers go right to your posts first thing in the morning,but I made a happy discovery. I was up late on Thursday night, so over a cup of hot cocoa before sleeping, I decided to look at *old* art journal posts. In my nearly-nodded-off stage, it didn’t occur to me that the Friday *morning* post would be there on Thursday night – just like old-style newspapers, Vivian gets her digital press working in time to greet the morning readers.

    So, what an absolute delight! I got to read *news* Thursday night and Friday night. Hazzah!

    I so love the WIP blogs. I get so inspired that I get out my paints and papers, put them on my desk, and walk by and smile at them all day long. Someday soon, I shall actually paint with them. Right now, I am rehearsing the lessons in my mind. Really. Just like a baseball pro batter picturing the ball going over the fence, eh.

    I like the pre-essense painting by Matisse of the blue table and the Conciergerie glowing outside the window. Haven’t you seen evening light make a hillside or a building elevation glow like this?

  14. Jeannie

    I love Matisse. I am always wowed by his paper cuts. Thanks for the step by steps on the koi pond. I struggle with working wet into wet, or whatever it is called. I tend to end up with a mess or mud. 🙂 Thanks again for the museum tour. I too live in the cultural wasteland. We do having leaking tanks from the Cold War! Are the snow meters ready for the weekend? Have a good one!

  15. Laura

    PICK ME PICK ME! I would love to acquire an original Swift. I promise to let my visitors independenlty view the Swift free of docents and headsets.

    Deborah – I am always distressed to hear stories of past art teachers that have shut down a person’s motivation and confidence to create. Art teachers can do better than that! (I am one.) Please try again. Create something for yourself and no one else.

  16. Matisse and Diebenkorn, oh yeah! Love those beautiful rich surfaces, the scrubbed shades of blue are so wonderful! Would love to have a chance at the wee koi pond painting – feeling greedy though since I already have a Vivian Swift original – but, you know, I would love another to tuck inside the first edition of The Damn Garden Book that I shall be purchasing whenever it sees the light of day!

    The Devo reference made me smile…

    Yes, Deborah, get a paint set, or even just a pencil and some paper, and give it a go – it’s never ever too late – truly!

  17. Patricia

    Deborah, all you need to learn how to draw is a good pencil, paper and a really good eraser. I erase most of what I put on paper. I kind of mosey around what I’m drawing and eventually, remove all the bits that aren’t working. Sometimes I erase back to clean paper. Just keep at it; try drawing your coffee cup every morning till you get it right or are totally bored. Drawing is all about erasing so get out there and make a bunch of mistakes.

  18. Gigi

    Patricia and I went to the same art school. I sat in the back of the room, and thought I was illustrating existentialism when I erased back to clean paper. (This comment would probably make Vivian’s husband twitch – doubtless, I’ve got it wrong.)

    Patricia, can you see us starting an en plein air sketching group? Oh, the comments we’d garner. But who cares. Anyway, I think our technique is borrowed from great sculptors everywhere. You know what they say: a sculptor just takes out everything that isn’t *it* [whatever *it* is that they are in the midst of creating].

    I just like your comment so much! And I, too, have a really big *good* eraser.

  19. Parisbreakfast

    Very interesting show the Matisse…very eclectic and personalized
    Of course I love seeing yr process and I see a lot of Hockney here meant in the best possible way..I wish I could be influenced by him…
    Your fluid paintings inspire and make me want to stay home and paint instead of running to the marche and then t he pool and a pastry tasting in the afternoon…
    I’ll come back for another shot of watercolor inspiration soon!
    Big Merci!!

  20. Hello — and thank you! I am struggling with trying to improve my drawing and painting and the tips you have shared here really are useful and ones I will have to play with! I also appreciated the teabag for scale and you have more of my admiration because of the size.

    So very glad to have discovered this space as I read through your book. And also smiled in sharing a Matisse appreciation. There was recently a splendid Matisse/Picasso exhibit in Detroit and oh, the color and freedom!

    And like all who have commented, I, too, would be delighted to be the winner of your pond watercolor!

  21. Patricia

    Gigi, that image of sculptors removing everything that isn’t it was exactly what I was thinking about! And I loved your idea of a plein air sketching group.
    The most valuable thing you get from trying to draw or paint is learning how to see. I may never get very far as an artist but I’m learning how to really see.

  22. Cheryl Carr

    I would love the koi pond piece as an example of your stellar masking techniques. And here I am, just trying to keep my masking fluid from getting gummy!

  23. Michelle McDermott

    I love your koi pond – it reminds me of the one my father had. You are so right about their feeding behavior! My 5 year old son went to feed dad’s koi and one of those suckers jumped clear out of the pond and nearly got his fingers. My son (16 now) has a thing about goldfish to this day.
    Lovely work – thanks for the chance to win!

    Lake Stevens, WA

  24. Gardeningbren

    What a pleasure to read this today. It transported me to the Met and inspires me to watercolor more often. In fact, if I were to be so lucky to be chosen to receive the Koi Pond painting, it would be cherished beyond words and inspire me further.

    I’ve watched all your tutorials and have learned so much. Thank you, and thank you for today’s conversation. Bren

  25. Deborah

    I don’t always come back and read comments posted after I’ve read Vivian’s blog, but I’m glad I did today because A) I’ve been chuckling to myself all day at the thought of a big giant eraser, and B) I actually did buy myself a set of Windsor Newton paints (using the 50% off Michael’s coupon). The masking fluid will have to wait until next week’s coupon.

  26. I love your work and your past books and have your name on my studio wall as inspiration. Thanks for the chance to win a koi pool. I’m not Coy!
    Stay inspired! tilly

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