Yet Another Reason To Wish I Were Australian.


Yes, we will be painting together later in this post (it’s very looooooong today, go get a cup of tea) but first OMG OMG OMG I have to tell you about my visit with Neil DeGrasse Tyson:


When Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not writing best selling books about astrophysics or dropping by The Daily Show to chat with Jon Stewart about cosmic stuff he is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s upper west side. I once went to a party and was in the same small room as Neil DeG. (he and I have the same literary agent, the great Betsy Lerner) and we smiled at each other over the hors d’ouvres buffet table but I was too star struck to say anything. I do have me a gigantic a crush on the awesome Neil DeG.


On Wednesday night Top Cat and I went to see Dr. Neil DeG. host the 14th Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the AMNH. The topic for the evening’s duscussion was The Existence of Nothing and Neil DeG. was moderating a five-person panel that consisted of a physicist (expert on “time loops” and time travel) and a physicist (expert on elementary particles) and a physicist (expert on string theory ) and a philosopher (with a mathematics degree from UVA with a special interest in large cardinals) and a guy who writes about science (expert on Zero and its twin, Infinity).


iPhone pix of Neil DeG. on the left with the panel on stage at the Lefrak Theater at the AMNH. I forget to bring my camera. I’m very stoopid.

During the ensuing give-and-take it turns out that every body on the panel had a working knowledge of general relativity, topology, Star Trek, Saturday Night Live skits from the ’70s, cosmology (observational and theoretical), dark matter, negative curvature, and the history of science. Since everyone eventually agreed that even in the empty vacuum of space on the edge of the universe there is something (the laws of physics, whether or not we know them, for one thing; energy is another) the real issue was whether nothingness as a theoretical construct was important, interesting, or meaningful to the future of science and/or mankind.


At least, that’s what I think the discussion was about. As I sat and listened to the whole thrilling two hour debate all I could really get  through my head was  Boy, I am stupid.


Me, trying to understand the difference between Cosmology and a Cosmo.

I think it’s because I spend too much time watching reality TV that I get the mistaken impression that I’m smart. For example, this week the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills went to Paris and it was so stupid that I felt like a genius compared to Kyle, shown here on her visit to the Pont des Arts:


I know and love the Pont des Arts. I put it in my book, Le Road Trip:


Imagine how freaking crazy it makes me to watch as Kyle and her husband put their padlock on the railings of the Pont des Arts, an idiotic custom that has begun since I was last there. Lovers put their initials on a cheap hardware store lock and they snap it onto the chain-link fence, trashing the look and feel of the place. It is nothing short of desecration and there was Kyle, oohing and ahhing over her lock — and then telling her husband that she hopes her kids will one day come and see their parents’ lock on “The Love Lock Bridge”. As if her crappy lock was now a permanent fixture in the City of Light. Yes, she’s that STUPID.  (A man from the Paris street cleaning department comes with bolt cutters every week and chops off the damn locks that tourists insist on putting up.) I believe that Kyle thinks the name of the bridge is actually The Love Lock Bridge, and I believe that she hasn’t got the curiosity to read a damn guide book to find out anything else about the bridge except for her damn lock.

On behalf of Americans with half a brain and a respect for the history and beauty of Paris, I apologize to the citizens and the street cleaners of the 6th arrondissement.

ONE  MORE digression before we get to the painting. P1140307

That’s Mrs. Cardinal in the foreground.

Yes, it snowed again this past week on the Isle of Long. It started to fall around 1 o’clock in the afternoon last Saturday.


After giving me the hairy eyeball, this guy turned and pointedly glared over his shoulder:


I know that look. That look means that there is a big fat furry pest too damn close to the bird feeder.

That’s Taffy, under the bird feeder, and this is his “Who, me?” look:


The flash captures the scene better:


And here I thought I was finished with the Champagne-O-Meter for the season. Ha!


I happened to be working on another Key West illustration, how ironic, when it began to snow.


This is a picture of a grove of Australian Pines on the beach at Key West. I find it very meditative to apply a lot of masking fluid and I would rather meditate on applying masking fluid than on the *@##! snow. For the big tree trunks in the foreground, BTW, I don’t use my customary toothpick — I use the end of one of my paint brushes (the end without the bristles):


If you are bored with these “Me Doing A Watercolor” demonstrations, feel free to skip to the end of this post. There’s another cat picture for you down there! But for those of you hanging in with me, this is how I put in the horizon of sea and the sky in the background:


Then I put in a wash of yellow (this is how you paint foliage that is back-lit):


While the yellow wash is still wet, I start dabbing in shades of green:


I like working in my chalky Grumbacher blue paint into the shadows here:


Sorry for that show of my injured finger tip. With the Winter making my skin so dry I have split a lot of my fingertips from all the typing I’ve been doing, writing the Damn Garden Book. These fingertip splits are very painful, like getting a new paper cut every time you tap the keyboard. Type-Writing is hard! Literally! Poor, poor, pitiful me! After I finished painting this picture I soaked gauze in Vitamin E oil and taped up my sore digits so they can heal overnight:


Taffy, on behalf of the world, shows me the amount of sympathy I am due. By the way, he is yawning, not gagging, altho gagging would also be an acceptable response.

So, back to the painting, where I’m laying in colors — wet-in-wet style…that is, I’m layering colors in a series of washes that overlap (using my fattest brushes):




More shades of green for foliage — this is the part I love:


So this is it so far:


It needs, now, some real dark bits:


Do you see where I’m going with this?


And now we put the masking fluid to good use!


After I’ve peeled off the masking fluid, I’m ready to get to the heart of this scene:


I’m going to leave some of the highlights on the left side of the tree trunks just plain blank white — I’m going to let the paper do the work:


But with other tree trunks, I’m going to go for a yellow-green highlight:


I think the mix of highlights gives texture to the lights and shadows of this scene:


And Done. I am in love with the Australian Pines in Key West (but, sadly, they come sans koala bears). I would love to have an Australian Pine grove in my backyard, and I wish there could be wild koalas romping in their poetic shadows. Did you know it was SUMMMER right now, Down Under?

Here on the shores of the Long Island Sound, it snowed again on Tuesday!!   Yay.   And Thursday!!   Yay.



This is not the footprint of a koala bear.


These are not the tracks of a koala bear either.

These are Canada geese tracks in the snow, but OMG OMG OMG I wish they were koala bear tracks in the sand.

I hope this post wasn’t too long today — and dear Monique and Whimsy2: I read your question from last week’s blog so next week I will show you how I trace onto watercolor paper. And you know what? I’m in such a good mood (still got those koalas on my mind, plus I’m sipping a G&T while I’m typing this) that whatever I paint for next week’s blog I will give away. Stay tuned.


29 Comments, RSS

  1. Gigi

    Well, its a good thing I did not pour a cup of tea to sip while I enjoyed the blog – I would have spewed mouthfuls! I laughed all the way through this post (except while reviewing the painting tutorial). I love the pictures of the irritated koala and the cranky cardinal. My gosh. Who wouldn’t want to be around Australians? Don’t you love people who make you smile just by the way they talk? An Australian fellow is in my speak-Italian-someday Saturday group. Now that is a fun combination to listen to… I’m about to meditate before retiring. This may not be the best night for it. I am going to have a darned hard time keeping the image of that koala and the rest of this funny blog from crowding in. Do you remember in Eat Pray Love how Liz Gilbert was frustrated during her meditation by her thoughts about how she would create and decorate a meditation room when she got home? It’ll be like that…except with koalas. Ohm.

    • Vivian

      I would like someone to tell me why us North Americans sound alike in one way and why the Antipodeans sound alike in another. And I want to learn how to do an Australian “No”. What they do to that “o” is magic. Know what I mean?


  2. Parisbreakfast

    So much to chew on here but I’m stuck on cosmology and what it has to do with cosmetics? Not even mentioned in this post either … Such a winding road you lead us down I sometimes get losta bit…still happ to see you have more than the three cats I met and still fascinated by your agility with the masking fluid.
    The sun is out in Paris and its supposed to go up to 55 today!
    I wish I could paint trees…

  3. janet bellusci

    your blog is one of the reasons i look forward to friday mornings!! and a good laugh before heading out to a dental cleaning appointment is greatly appreciated as well! so thank you again, and happy spring!

  4. Carol

    I would NEVER skip to the end. There’s too much good stuff along the way. Where else – but this blog – can one begin a Friday morning at work in the corporate sector (speaking of outer space) with thoughts of cosmology, space, Australia, koalas, climate change, art lessons AND AND AND cats!! FYI – we purchased a brand new 97″ cat bed for our living room. In some circles this is referred to as a sofa. Pumpkin hogs the WHOLE thing. I am hopeful that I will one day actually get to recline upon it. Happy Friday to you and Tom Cat and the gang!

  5. Christine

    Friday morning and my Swift fix:). Thanks for your thought-provoking and amusing sharing of the latest and greatest in your world. Still winter here in Pittsburgh, also. 16 degrees with a 6 degree windchill yesterday morning, on the way to work.
    How about a spray of forsythia for a joyful give away?

  6. So you did see our question? Great..:)
    I am not versed on any of the above subjects to comment .
    And I don’t have a cat..
    I had never heard of your Dr..(thank you)…never watch the Housewives..Cosmology? I went to Sephora for the first time this week with my daughter..(just kidding..not about the outing but cosmology.. I do know it’s not the correct word..:))
    I forget where I saw “un reportage” and they showed the one mentioned it shouldn’t be I know..I wouldn’t do that anyways..but good to know.
    We had way more snow than you..and I’m not bragging..
    Love the expression on your face..but poor fingers..not pleasant!Any miracle creams or soaks? One of our little ones is 3 and seeing a doctor today because the bottom of his feet are so cracked.. peeling..Oh I feel for him..yet he tells me :”I’m all better” you’re not..but I don’t say it..

    Thank you for the painting lesson..I used the mask this week for a quickie.Water..the sea..
    I bet you had a cup reading this too..or skipped:)
    How about a painting of a bunny.
    I like Fridays too..for a few minutes:)

  7. What a great post with so many different subjects. I also love Neil deGrasse Tyson – I usually see him on Jon Stewart’s. I also love his name – de Grasse – my mind goes back to the beautiful town of Grasse in Provence where so much perfume is produced. We have cardinals in our back yard but no snow, they look striking in the snow. We have cats but they are indoor – too many bird feeders out with a multitude of birds. As I write this large cardinal is looking at me from the dogwood tree (not in bloom yet.) When we were in Venice last October I saw a couple of bridges with locks – the idea is catching unfortunately. They have also been placed on the Luzhkov Bridge in Moscow, in Brussels, Kiev, Florence, etc. Your little cats certainly look comfy!

  8. Bunny

    What Les gendarmes should do (the French Police) if they catch any of the vandals with the locks, throw em off the damn bridge, and make them swim to Notre Dame, and back, underwater without taking a breath.
    Sacre Bleu.
    Very funny, and enlightening post today Vivian, I rather enjoyed the info about how famous and extrememly smart people spend their time and energy.
    Well done, as usual.

  9. Elaine

    Aquaphor works best for me in the “over 50” finger split challenge . I also keep a tube of plain chapstick in my pocket for emergencies. As always, enjoy the heck out of your stories and paint demo’s.

  10. first, i gotta tell you should be charging to read your blog, like wonderful book chapters, you are giving it away for free! and i thank you… second you spurred me onto my laptop to comment, i read mostly on my iphone and rarely plug into a computer these days, but when someone so willing shares at great lengths to entertain others, they deserve an acknowledgment to their creative, comedic and talented endeavors. besides i love cats…

    how often can you go from astrophysics, to the pondering of nothingness, to the question of god and plunk right down to kyle defacing the planet, fretting over the scorched earth, soaked bears, unusual snow gauges, overwrought and exhausted kitties, animal tracking, to good ole fashion art classes, AMAZING~ and let me just say i never say that word, its totally abused, i pride myself on not using trendy words, but frankly that’s the best adjective at the moment for me~

    the locks are in florence too, i remember reading it weighs down the bridges with all the additional weight, breaks and mars the metal. i too laughed at kyle thinking she created a permanent memorial for her family to visit for countless of generations like the pyramids. to bad they didn’t slap the 50 euro fine they imposed in italy. i read it was in a romantic novel and it started the trend in many places, i remember when stand by me came out, every time that movie played on tv some kids went out with a baseball bat bashing our mailbox… don’t tell me media has no power!

    as a garden girl i want to thank you for your gorgeous recreations of nature, i so get your feel of the earth as you paint, you do exquisite work, and to think you are a comedian at heart too is quite refreshing 🙂 i hope you enjoyed your spring solstice by the sea, for the record my west coast is as cold as you, and especially freezing all summer in thick wet cold fog, plus i think the jet stream hovers at ground level here 6 months of the year, full force gale winds, icy bitter, 3g flapping jowls kind of wind, so not much different from your winter…

    thanks for such informative, creative, entertaining and pondering posts, its delightful you share YOU~

    • Vivian

      I LOVE it: I want a posse of Garden Girls. I am going to grab that domaine name right now.

      and thank you for the tip about that romance novel — I thought I read that the “love lock” trend started in China but I will track down your reference.

      Fun Fact: Vivian Swift was the name of a heroine in a romance novel of the 1990s. She led a band of thieves in 16th century London. I will have to show you the cover in next Friday’s blog. It’s MOI to a T.

  11. I do so look forward to every post! The champagne o meter is priceless! I think I’ve convinced my husband to retire the yardstick. Here in coastal Rhode Island we too are suffering through this odd Spring season. And yes I too now want a koala..Thank you for sharing your fabulous watercolor skills!

  12. Oh, dear, yawny Taffy so reminds me of the late Marmelade Gypsy. How beautiful!

    And I confess, I’m one of those “lock” people — Don’t be too hard on us! I’m under no illusion about their lifespan — I know they take them off fairly regularly and there’s probably some massive lock stockpile somewhere near Paris. Couldn’t resist. Even though we knew we’d be lucky if it lasted a week or two, we had to do it. And I sort of think it adds to the funky and diverse charm of Paris. Plenty of bridges without them if it’s not one’s cup of tea. I suspect by now they’ve figured out how often they musst purge them to prevent too much damage to the bridge. I hope so.

    Thanks for another great and useful painting lesson. This one leads me to ask — what type of water colors do you use? Tube (my guess)? Liquid like Dr. Martin? I doubt pan, but maybe? Just curious — your control is magnificent, especially with those wee canvases.

    Neil DeGT — I had the great pleasure of hearing him and then meeting him at a PBS meeting a number of years ago. Charming as all get out — and he knows how to deliver! I’m not sure I could have pulled out too much from a talk to people who actually understand science, but I was pretty enthralled just listening to his voice!

    Oh, what a nice visit to start the weekend!

  13. Karen

    Hi Vivian, I’m an Aussie living in Melbourne. We’ve recently had two heatwaves and it can get above 40 degrees Celsius here. Koalas are beautiful animals and they actually growl. We do have a lot of bush fires and I’m always fearful for our native animals.
    Thank you for sharing your watercolors with us, I learn so much from you!

  14. A wonderful post.
    Such a good quote about SCIENCE.
    I never tire of going nuts when I encounter people who deny science.
    Your painting is astoundingly lovely and reminds me so much of when lived there.
    Buster liked the photos of the cats.

    You really should avoid REAL HOUSEWIVES of Commack or wherever.
    I think they wear high heels.
    Have not been to Paris FOR EVER, but need to go. I promise not to take a lock.
    Do you ever come in to NYC.
    Maybe we could drink tea or something stronger.

  15. Jeannie

    I loved your version of the Neil discussion panel. The saying at our home is “jeannie has left the room”. It is those moments when I am numb with boredom (i.e. a really bad movie or golf), my eyes glaze over and hubby knows that my body is present, but the rest of me is in Australia with a Koala in a gum tree. 🙂 Your painting is wonderful. I am in such awe of the tree trunks and their shadows. Gorgeous! The felines in your household went to the same obedience school as mine. “I am just looking at the color variation in the towhee. I’d never think of harming a bird”. Yea, right, and Michelle Backman has a PHD in logical thought! Have a wonderful week and I hope this is the last of the Champagne o Meter. Seems like time for gin and tonics on the deck to me.

  16. Well, I’m snowed in here in Colorado (who knew that even happened here? I thought they were uber snow handlers). Therefore, I’m not loving the cold white stuff right now. Even so, I vote for you to create a champagne-o-meter for the give-away painting!

    Second choice: A koala napping in a tree? A cat napping in a chair? Obviously, given their predilection for napping, both koalas and cats are highly evolved creatures. My cat taught me how to nap.

    Love your work – interesting, high-quality, cat-centric with just the right amount of sass. I so wish _The New Yorker_ would have you write/paint for them. That alone would be worth a subscription!

  17. Eileen

    Thank you so much; I look forward to your post each week.
    Whenever I hear or read something about cosmology it always seems as if understanding is just beyond my reach. It’s as if I’m missing a section of brain that comprehends abstract science. So, I will think about more mundane things. I used to have a terrible, painful problem with cracked fingertips and raw skin. To heal the fingers fast, I lathered vaseline on them and taped baggies over them. It sounds ridiculous but it really worked. Once the skin was healed I used Neutragena unscented hand cream every day, usually twice. Usining the hand ream I have never had the cracks or splits again, and my hands are busy and often washed. It might work for you too.
    What about painting the cardinal in the forsythia? I would love to win it to add to my collection (books and cat picture)!

  18. Laura

    The high contrast of the backlit trees is elegant. I love the abstraction that backlight and low angled light can make of an otherwise gentle landscape. Very exciting.

    I, too, suffer from cracked fingertips and have been since my 20’s. I am always open to try new combinations of lotions, creams, petroleum jellys, etc. I’ve been using corn huskers lotion by day and wearing thin cotton gloves over a generous application of Bag Balm at night. A neighbor sold me a Mary Kay 3-product system, which is effective as a preventative, but not a cure. Readers – what else have you tried? I’m looking for a silver bullet for winter cracked fingers? Perhaps scientists can explore this problem that is right at our fingertips?

  19. Laura

    Painting suggestion – pussy willow!
    Early spring bloom
    Cat-referenced name
    Masking fluid practice
    What’s not to like about pussywillow? Their little silver beads are like pearls on red stems.

  20. Enjoyed the tutorial on painting trees and using masking fluid. You make it look easy altho I know it isn’t. I heard they have a warrant out for the arrest of punxsutawney Phil for fraud.. coming out saying winter was to be over early this year..:)Fun post as usual.

  21. Judy Jennings

    This post reminded me today that years ago, before email, when I wrote lots of letters, I signed them, “Fat cats like cozy corners.” Seeing all of your cats napping brought it home to me that a cat is what I’d most like to be, if I could always live in a home like yours with the comfy chairs, sunny windowsills, warm fires and soft blankets to curl up in. That’s my idea of bliss.
    Your painting today was perfect–I’ve never understood how to get that bright, backlit look. Do you hate how hard you work and struggle with getting the effect right, but make it look SO EASY that we think we could do that, too? Oh, sure we could. No trouble. Ha!

  22. Christine

    Another snowy morning.
    A wise woman once wrote:
    “When life gives you March: make tea.”
    Thought of you this morning, too, when I heard the snowplows and the birds singing.

  23. Deb mattin

    Whooee, this was a fun read! I love Neil DGT. I confess to only knowing about him through The Daily Show where he more than holds his own with Jon Stewart. mr. DGT is one of those really smart people who can talk about science stuff and make it understandable – at least not leave us slack- jawed all the time. Plus, he’s funny, a pretty snazzy dresser and funny. I laughed out loud at your “dazed and confused” picture!!

    Luckily there are enough of the not-smart folks around so we can feel superior now and then. Just tonight I was telling my husband that it’s not hard to look like a freakin’ genius at work!!

    Asalways, love your painting tutorials.

  24. Jen

    Vivian, do you realize that your tutorials crack me up? I tried to do watercolor painting ages ago Ha! It did give me a huge appreciation for the skill involved, that’s for sure. So I look at your tutorials and I’m like, yeah, sure…that all makes sense,masking fluid, laying down colors over wetness to get a nice natural flow of colors..okay, greens, yellows, browns…sure nature-y stuff. I get it, paint and water on paper. Cool. Then suddenly you do some kind of secret Jedi tricks with your paints and brushes and the whole scene comes to life in a few fell swoops, bam, bam, bam and it feels like a living forest and I’m standing in it going, “Now how the hell did Vivian get me here?”

    Seriously – it’s like magic to me. Thanks for showing us your magic.

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