A week in the life.

P1140492This is the painting-in-progress that I made to cheer myself up on a soul-killing icy snowy March day and we will get back to it later in this post.

But let’s start this week’s round-up with a picture of my Long Island backyard at the very instant that Winter became SPRING on March 20, 2013 at 7:02 am :


Yeah, I know. Big Whup. And 12 hours later, that Champagne-O-Meter looked like this:


Top Cat and I went to our usual beach spot on the north shore of the Long Island Sound to toast the first sun set of Spring:


It was snot-freezing cold and ear-achingly windy and we huddled next to the cement wall along the walkway above this beach, using it as a wind break while I took this photo to show where we’ll be picnicking in a mere 90 days to celebrate the Summer Solstice:


Yeah, Right. Like there’s any chance in this lifetime that I will park my butt on this bit of perma-frost. Too bad that photography can’t capture wind chill, or my incredulity that I will ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, be warm enough to go on a picnic on this frozen shore.

This dismal start to Spring put me in a Grey Gardens kind of mood, and what better way to indulge my taste for melancholy than an outing to find another Secret Gardens of Long Island:


In my researches for the long-lost gardens in Great Gatsby territory I dug up some info about the 200-year old Schmidlapp Estate in Oyster Bay (see above, main driveway). To readers from Cincinnati, the name Schmidlapp will be familiar as the rich banking family that still funds one of the first independent philanthropic foundations established in Ohio. This is their Long Island homestead, the 200-year old Rumpus House on their 28-acre estate that has been vacant and for sale for nearly a decade:


I peeped into the house and found these curtains (see below) in what looks like the dining room. Does anybody recognize these characters? They look familiar — some kind of pea-pod babies from an early 20th-century children’s book maybe?


The Schmidlapps are an old WASP family so their taste in homes is far less extravagant than the prevailing esthetic currently on display on Long Island (think mock-French chateau). This estate is one of the last, big parcels of land for sale in this exclusive enclave, known since the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald as The Gold Coast. It was originally priced at $35 million, but having gone unsold for eight years the asking price has been dropped to a mere $7 mill. The original Colonial house shows its WASPy heritage (think linoleum on the kitchen floor) so the opinion among realtors is that the when estate is eventually sold it will be broken up for redevelopment into 5-acre plots for mini-Sun Kings (that’s Louie the 14th of Versailles). I told Top Cat that we should get in on this bargain! I want me a ruin (to go with the the completely decadent 60s I intend to have, starting in 2016, so consider yourselves warned)!!

Anyhoo. I drove nine miles to get a first hand look at the estate, thinking that there MUST be a secret garden or two on the property:


Turns out that the Schmidlapps were not gardeners. I only found lots of bits of lawn surrounded by neglected woodsy bits (this is just one of those lawns — the place has acres and scary acres and creepy acres of this stuff):


And on the edge of one woodsy bit I came across this:


I kicked aside the dead leaves and uprooted some overgrown ivy:







Of course these are pet graves. The Schmidlapps are A-OK in my book and OMG OMG OMG now I REALLY want this place. So please, dear readers, if each of you would only buy a million copies (EACH) of my books I can get this done, merci mucho. However, if I hear that the place has been sold out from under me, would it be wrong of me to go in the dead of night and, uh, ahem, curate these headstones?

There happens to be a 4-acre corner of the Schmidlapp estate that is open to the public as the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden. I will have a lot to say about the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden (Most of it not snarky at all. Well, half of it is not snarky. After all, I must be true to the real me.) in my upcoming Damn Garden Book:


So, as long as I was traipsing around in the 28-acre neighborhood I stopped by the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden on this dreary March day and found that the care takers were — amazingly enough — clearing out the bamboo that grows along the perimeter:


This amazed me, and I don’t know why, because this is exactly what the keepers of the great bamboo groves in Japan are doing in March! WOW!! It’s like the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden is a REAL garden!!

BTW, this is a shot of the stunning bamboo forest of Arashiyama, Japan:


Do you see that thicket that forms the fencing? Well, get ready to kvell, dear readers, because I found this picture of one of the teeny tiny “doors” cut into that thicket fence:


It’s for local cats and foxes.

I know! I know! That is so awesomely  cute I want go buy me a ton of Hello Kitty crap!!!

And now, we have a painting (see: cheering up watercolor at the top of this week’s post) to give away!!!


For Jeanie and others who have asked what kind of paints I use, this photo is for you. On the left are my newest paints, tubes of Windsor Newton and pans of Cotman paints;  on the right are the Grumbacher paints I’ve been using for 10 years (no, those are not 10-year-old Grumbacher paints — I go through them at the rate of one set every year or so — see the shiny new set ready for defilement):


The Grumbacher paints are cheap and, for me, easy to use so that’s why I stuck with them for so long before I was alerted (by my new friend Carol Gillot, the artist at the blog ParisBreafasts) that I should up-grade my equipment. Her advise came just in time for my Damn Garden Book, as you can see below (the Windsor Newton painting is on the left, the Grumbacher on the right):


It took a little getting used to but the Windsor Newton colors are so much better for garden painting. I still use the Grumbacher though, for when I need a chalky, muted tone (I really like the Grumbacher Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue). I buy my paints in person from Blick Art Materials but their on-line selection is great too.

Now, to answer those kind readers who asked, when it comes to tracing a line drawing onto watercolor paper, my first choice is good old solar power. On a south-facing window on a sunny day I simply tape watercolor paper over my drawing  like so:


However, if it is too overcast for tracing this way, I will use my light box, pictured below on my desk:


I like the light I get from my south-facing windows, which is the exact same light that makes using a light box impossible.

There’s a little tube of fluorescent light inside the box so when you turn it on goes like this:


A light box costs around $20 and is handy as a back-up on a rainy day  — it’s also very useful if you are one of the lucky artists who can paint at night under artificial light. I can not do that — I need daylight to see the colors of my paints, but I’ve talked to other artists who are very comfortable painting after dark. I wish I were one of them.

Now here’s today’s watercolor exhibit!

First the masking fluid:


Let dry, then paint:







Remove masking fluid:


Paint fleurs:


Tea bag for scale:


Better yet, a Triscuit:


For the international readers of this blog I must explain that a Triscuit is a flavorful, baked, whole wheat hors d’ouvre-sized snack cracker made by Nabisco:


If you’ve been to one of my in-person book events (and I know who you are, Commentors) you’ve heard me encourage every beginner painter to paint Triscuits  (my word for the many miniature landscape paintings that litter my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam)– because you can get a lot of information in a Trisuit and not risk a whole lot of paper or paint. My 2011 holiday card was a panel of Triscuits:


Lately I’ve gotten out of the habit of painting Triscuits and I have missed them so much that when I was a bit blue this past week I painted a the Triscuit you see above not just because it’s a flowery garden path but because I find Triscuit-painting to be very soothing. Try it! You might like it too!

And if there’s a reader out there who would like to receive my Vision of Summer Triscuit…


…please leave a Comment and I will have Top Cat take responsibility for choosing the winner at Top Cat random. But special first-come dibs to anyone who can identify those weird pea-pod babies on the drapes in the Schmidlapp’s dining room (see above). That’s still really bugging me.

Have a great weekend! But if you are basking in vernal sunshine please don’t rub it in.


31 Comments, RSS

  1. Parisbreakfast

    Gee…so much to comment on today…
    1st is that an early Easter egg to the left of the Champers bottle? Looks it to,me in Easter egg infested Paris or I could be seeing things.
    I was just researching Jimma Puddle Duck in Wickipedia since I’ve been painting so many puddles of late. Her story is quite a sad one…nevermind. So many twists and turns today at VS I’m a tad lost in the Stroll garden perhaps.. You have me looking for CATS all over Paris in any form whatsoever. Love the tiny cat tombstones and the names…and Love the abstract mess of your paint beginnings as Turner would call them. Well I’m wandering I fear and I must wander out to the pool soon. Siri says its only 28 degrees out there so Spring is eluding us as well over here. Btw that was supposed to be abstractNESS not abstract MESS but Apple will have it’s way like it or not. This comment makes no sense…I’ll return later hopefully more cognicent(sp)
    Cheers Carolg in Paris

  2. Jeannie

    Time to buy lottery tickets! That estate would be heavenly and yes, I would leave the drapes up. They remind me of Betsy Guttman or Jessie Wilcox Smith – that era. That got me all Beatrix Potter and low and behold, there is the Handsome Gentleman! Thanks for the info on your paints. Amazing difference between the brands. Your eyesight must be fantastic to paint Triscuits! I’d have my nose in my paint to paint that small. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend. (It is supposed to be 70 here in the great NW. It will be short lived, so I don’t think it calls for shaving the legs and getting out the shorts.)

  3. Denise

    Hi Vivian, you’ll be eggcited (sorry, can’t help myself, it’s Easter!) to know that those cute characters on the curtains are illustrations by an Australian, May Gibbs who wrote a series of books about gum blossom babies called “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” The first book was published in 1918. They are gorgeous books and much beloved of Australian children. It’s a sign, I tell you, you simply must buy that amazing old house, and when you do, I’m inviting myself to come and stay! Hope the Spring gets warmer. Our warm sunny days are becoming shorter, cooler and cloudier as summer bids a lingering farewell.

  4. Bev Scott

    The curtain characters are Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, gumnut babies (inspired by Australian Eucalyptus trees) and created by May Gibbs, one of our most famous children’s authors and illustrators, in the early 20th century – and beloved by Aussie kids. I’d love to know how they ended up on curtains NY.

  5. Sally

    Vivian, I am truly impressed that you can get all that detail into triscuitspace. Have you tried the flavored Triscuits yet? They may inspire you for exotic gardens. I am all ears (pointy) for your fox story–the resurrection of that mired crittur is just a lovely photo sequence. Let me recommend the movie about Beatrix Potter, “Miss Potter,” the only movie I can think of that starts (nearly starts) with someone painting a watercolor!

  6. Megan Hyatt

    Hi, The curtains have May Gibbs characters on them, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, see this website to find out all about May Gibbs who was English but lived most of her life in Australia and did the most wonderful illustrations. http://www.nutcote.org/ Love the little fox and the tiny cat door. I have just purchased two of your books, I do hope that you will be able to purchase your new place. I too think the gravestones are very touching and show the love these people had for their wonderful pets. Thanks for the great blog posting.

  7. I love that painting:)

    J’aime cette aquarelle..

    I also find all the little stones endearing..what an act of love:)

    And the wee door..
    Those are things that charm me..
    I hope you get that place..so far I have 4 of your books.. 3 of the same..2 as gifts..and another is mine..plus another..just mine.
    So I may have contributed for one sapling on a property:)
    I loved the Beatrix Potter movie Sally..I have a mini collection of her books..they too charm me.
    Thanks for telling us who the little characters are on the curtains Megan and Denise.

    I still have a hard time tracing on watercolor even tough a very nice person recommended one to me.
    Happy Easter..our hunt will be on snow this year..

  8. Deborah

    I’ll help you rescue those headstones, if it ever comes to that. You know I will. I might not even wait for you 😉 But I think that estate is yours. I only hope you’ll open it to the public occasionally.

    That door! That just made my week/month. I have a small patch of bamboo that spontaneously appeared in my back yard. I didn’t plant it, and none of my neighbors have any bamboo. Very Mysterious.

    Thanks for an extra special blog. I really needed it.

  9. That fox… oh… poor baby!

    I love your blog posts so much. They brighten my week. Fridays are NOT my favorite so having something to look forward to every week makes up for it.

  10. Oh Beatrix Potter. “The Tailor of Gloucester” is one of my favorite books of all time… no more twist…

    I am loving all of your recent watercolor tutorials – thanks for taking the time to photograph the paintings in progress.

  11. Susie

    Okay, there is no way to express how much I look forward to your blog every week. I grab a cuppa and sit and savor every bit, it’s my weekly on-line treat to myself, I think it’s waaay better than chocolate. Very close to having many cats around me purring, very close.

    Now here’s a fan trying to take an ounce of your flesh…..sometime maybe would you show us your ‘upstairs workroom’…. is that what you call it? See where your magic happens?

    Always, thank you for it all.

  12. you may have been chilled to the bone on the equinox, but your champagne toast looks very heartwarming~ such a prefect photo, at least you had a barrier to brace against, life is still good 😉

    i read your post at 2 am, i was awakened and what else to do in the middle of the night then grab my cell phone and check out the soon to be defunct reader. you were the sole poster at that hour, but your content would win hands down to dozens of other posts to follow after you. i know its a damn garden book to you, but gardens are my passion so i am keenly in tune to your postings. thank heavens you are not doing a book on tv shows, or sports or politics, or, or, or, but you have chosen my true passion in life, a world surrounded by green and color filled beauty.

    yes, your curtains do look familiar indeed, it conjures up old english feeling in my youth… i have never forgotten the pet cemetery in powerscourt ireland, they had a plot for their cow. i didn’t know it at the time but that was fergies mothers family home.

    i have never seen even a photo of a bamboo forest, who knew something so invasive in our california gardens could be so gorgeous!

    thank heavens that mummified creature you shared has a happy ending… we have foxes at both of our homes, at the beach i see them every night on my deck. its a family of 5, they come out at dusk to hunt the voles. they play and tumble, wrestle just like cats, chase each other. i have a bird feeder mounted up 5′ high, they can jump up to the platform, incredible creatures. at home they drink from my fountain on my deck and share the cat bowl with my feral cats. they steal stale loaves of rock hard bread for the deer too. i kinda live like the disney channel, when i turn on the lights at night i see raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, skunks and feral cats all singing kumbaya, arms linked and legs kicking high.

    i got your beatrix homage, i have done a wee bunny post or two over the years to that charming book myself, its easter, how could we not think of her 🙂

    you can tell top cat to put me in the running for your vision of summer, i couldn’t decode the dna to the frog babies, but you did take me back to kinder, gentler visions in my head, i can so clearly see that frog frock too. i think you should buy the house just for the fabric alone. i am enchanted with the mere thought that a triscuit can transport us to summer, such magical powers you possess in the palm of you hand.

    thanks for another romp through your week, you never disappoint, happy easter to you and the fur factory~

  13. Patricia

    My guess would have been ‘The waterbabies’ by Jessie Wilcox Smith (faintly remembered from childhood). But thanks to your Aussie readers you’ve got the correct answer! Regarding Beatrix Potter’s lovely stories, Susan Wittig Albert has written a series of mysteries set at Beatrix Potter’s lake country farm, http://www.cottagetales.com/books/index.shtml,
    and one story continues the affairs of Jeminina Puddle Duck and the handsome gentleman with a curious twist in ‘The Tale of Hawthorn House.’
    Continuing to natter on, loved the tiny fox/cat door. When my neighbor rebuilt his fence, I asked him to leave a cat sized hole so his cat and mine (who were best feline buddies) could visit back and forth. Years later, every cat in the nighborhood detours thru our yard just to use the cat hole … and raccoons as well.
    Yes, please put me in for the lovely triscuit painting….please!

  14. Cheryl Carr

    I would love to own the “sumer triscut”!
    So glad to hear that I am not the only one who enjoyed the “Miss Potter” movie. I agree that it was a bit of a thrill to see a movie open with a watercolorist painting. You may also enjoy the biography of Miss Potter’s life. Can’t recall the author at this moment.
    Also, Vivian, thank you for the reference to the “bamboo fence”. I visited the Biltmore estate in Ashville this past October and came away puzzled by all of the bamboo that surrounds the property. Now I understand.
    A blessed spring season all!

  15. janet bellusci

    i would LOVE to add this painting to the farmhouse walls. it is so dear and WEE. like those pea pod babies. like your other readers, i, too, would keep those damned curtains. they’re adorable, like mr. fox.

  16. As usual, congrats on the great blog. Always tres interesant, (check the spelling on my high school french, is there a spellchecker available now, when I need it? hello?)
    Love to read the tidbits of info I would never let my mind wander to, so thank you.
    I will gladly throw in a mil or two for the estate, if we can keep it in the family. Anyone else out there got deep pockets? We could donate it to a conservency.
    Nadine, we miss you.

  17. Bravo for a delightful blog post – meandering, interesting, surprising. It makes Fridays a treat. The book that Cheryl was trying to recall is: “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature” by Linda Lear. A great read.

    The illustrated curtains made me think of Kate Greenaway’s work. And that reminds of another book I enjoyed titled “The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love” by Alice Carter about the lives and collaborations of Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley.

    All best from Gitana in Seattle (where the cherry trees are in full bloom).

  18. Gigi

    I’d be healthier if I had better follow through with my *slow food* intentions. But I’ve become rather good at the *slow read.* I am gliding through that Damn French Book just a few pages at a time. It’s rather like having a gourmet chocolate bar hidden away somewhere – and the restraint needed when at last I am alone with my treat makes me feel righteous, warranted or not. Four little squares of chocolate sweetness, four pages of Swiftness. Sometimes, together (I try not to leave smears on the pages.) So, tonight I come across this: *Steinbeck drove from his home on Long Island to properly begin his journey in Maine, for design reasons.* This is an absolute hoot! Who else could portray the winsome rigidity of a beloved author in this way?

    In the wee hours of the morning, as I finished my required writing (I believe I crossed paths with Jain in my wanderings), I turned to my closet blog. I was, alas, too tired to write another word. So, always, there is the opportunity to read the blog again, as I am doing this evening. And the funny thing is that the Friday readers will not likely see this at all – it is 12:55 p.m. where I am. So, I’ll just say: I love the painting and the way you show us how to work the magic. I love that you paint with both Grumbacher and Windsor Newton – the effects are certainly different, but who could choose. It’d be like, who do we keep – the tabby or the gray? You just can’t.I LOVE the fox! I so warmed to the idea of someone who would create beautiful headstones for cherished pets. I adore the chillin’ champagne and the chilly toast with icy glasses under cold noses. I adore Beatrix Potter and think often of touring her house in the Lake Country, and of the movie that revealed her spirit and drive. PLUS, now I have a fun new inspiration – gumnut babies. Who would ever have guessed that they might be like the American story of the Borrowers or the old Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy books with fairies depicted in the illustrations. Rich, rich, rich, fun, and funny. That is how I think of the blogs you gift us with. Thank you once more. Say *Goodnight, Gigi.*

  19. Those curtains are amazing and I can really appreciate people with pet headstones. I thought buying a million of your books for the cause seemed like a good idea.. but i’m not sure i can pay in patterned socks and pet fur (two of the things I have the most of). Thanks for the great post, it’s probably my most favourite thing to read with a cup of tea- and it always inspires a nice watercolor afternoon! (I’m a user of the Sakura 24 travel pack since I can paint while watching tv in my pjs). Looking forward to next Friday- and it will warm up soon! (Probably). (Maybe). (Hopefully). (Sigh).

    -Michelle from Canada

  20. Karen

    Hi Vivian, as an Aussie I’m proud to say that the artist of the Gumnut babies on the eucalyptus leaves is May Gibbs. She wrote a series of books called ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ in 1918. I would love to win the Triscuit!! I’m also a big Beatrix Potter fan and collect her books. Hope you enjoyed the Champagne-O-Meter !!

  21. Bonnie

    Love your blog. You inspired me to dust off my paintbrushes this past year as my family’s been going through a pretty sucky time. Watercolor, yoga and walking my Brittany in the park every day – and a glass of Pinot noir every now and then (on an Anderson Valley kick for now) – gets me through. Oh – love Beatix Potter, blah, blah, blah. I’m sure there is someone with a better response who deserves your neato little triscuit painting.

    Thanks for your blog – I follow Paris Breakfast too. You both have a great gift of gab! You guys always make me smile! Merci!

  22. I’m slow to comment so others have beaten me to it, but I concur, those are gumnut babies. Yet another reason to wish you were Australian. I would buy a million copies of your book but sadly I’m saving up my coins so I can buy that old estate out from under you. What a find! The pet cemetary was the icing on the cake so to speak – is that horridly morbid of me? but the headstones really are beyond priceless.

  23. Joan

    Great blog post even though you are miserably cold and in need of some real greenery and flowers. I hate to rub it in, but here the wild west the temps are 8-10 degrees above normal, everything is in bloom (you oughtta see my Lady Banks rose along the fence…cascades of yellow teeny flowers)

    I’d love to have a hedge with a little pass thru for cats or foxies. That is just too sweet. And that poor bedraggled fox! When first I looked I thought it was a mummified cat! Yikes.

    Sorry your solstice was so frigid, but at least there’s an end to winter in sight.

    I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter, a childhood favorite. Her illustrations have charmed me for years. A bio on PBS about her life was very well done. I’d love to visit her property. Another childhood favorite of mine was Ann of Green Gables series whose home on PEI I would also love to visit.

    Please put my name in for the drawing of the “triscuit” It would look so lovely on my wall. I have just the place for it.

  24. Rachel

    Oh, so much to enjoy here. And were it not so pricy, I would want a copy of The Red Rose Girls. As a Delawarian, that was my part of the country. And do all of you also know Alison Uttley and the Little Gray Rabbit books? Another delightful presentation of country life in the Old Days. Very glad to learn of the Gumnut Babies, will inquire with my Australian friends. And I soooo wish we could indeed all have that property. bon Chance. Also Joyeaux Poisson d’avril.

  25. Alas, I don’t know the pea pod babies, but they are awfully cute and if there was a children’s book with them in it, the illustrations would rock! And yes, so does Beatrix! I loved the fox — so darned sweet looking (I know; they can be terrors, but I suspect Lizzie Cosette was a terror before her outdoor survival days were over, too.)

    Thanks for the info on the paints. I’ve done tons of small mixed media art, never painting. I think the triscuit idea is pretty darned brilliant, especially when you are learning. (And of course, I’d love to enter the drawing!)

    Cheers and happy April. It’s snowing here today. Last year it was 80. Go figure.

  26. Jan

    I’m SO loving your tutorials! I mean, I love reading your great stories too…but OH..those tutorials are so much fun. Wish I was there! 🙂

  27. Cheryl McLaughlin

    about 20 Easters ago, we took our 2 teens on a day trip to Cleveland – 2 hours away. the draw was a Picasso exhibit at the art museum. we enjoyed it a lot – but then noticed that on another floor of the museum there was a Beatrix Potter exhibit – not just of her work but life like structures like those you’d see in her books. we made the trip for Picasso but Potter made the trip for us! unexpected pleasures – SUCH pleasures.

  28. Cheryl Carr

    Vivian (and other reades who enjoy Paris drawings)..You may want to visit the blog of Ian Sidaway at http://iansidawaydrawing.blogspot.com

    He is amazing with just pen and ink in a Moleskine journal. Every so often drawings of Paris pop up on his blog. There are currently some there, but scroll back through his achieves for others.

  29. Deb mattin

    Holy guacamole! it’s hard to decide what I love most about this post. The Japanese bamboo forest is way cool and those tee-niney doors are so sweet!
    as are those little headstones-reminds me of some of the solemn pet funerals we had when the kids were little. we wrote the dearly departed’s name with a Sharpie on rocks-not so grand by a long shot.
    But the funniest part of this post is your tell-it-like-it-is writing-so refreshing when the temptation is to try to be oh so sophisticated. “Snot-freezing cold” is a pretty apt description of this god-awful weather we’re having.

    love the tiny paintings- so full of detail !!

  30. I am the current owner of the Carl Jacob Schmidlapp 1935 Dodge that he purchased new and was housed and maintained by his chauffeur, Frank, at Rumpus House from 1935 until his passing in 1960. It was then in the carriage house on blocks until 1985 when purchased from CJS’ grandson from his mother. The car remains in outstanding original condition. Anyone with memories or photos of this car at any time in its history? Thanks

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