How to create memories of loved ones with watercolor portraits

Charcoal portrait
Charcoal portrait from life

I am currently accepting portrait commissions. I’d love to create a memory for you of a loved one, an event, or an emotional time. See the gallery at the bottom of the post for some of my favorite portrait creations, then contact me at mockingbirdatmidnight_ at _gmail . com to find out how you can commission a watercolor portrait.

I love drawing portraits more than anything else. It’s odd that I would, as I’m not a gregarious person. As introverts go, I’m pretty high on the “I vant to be alone” scale.

But there is something about the human form, especially the human face, that is irresistible to me, and I love the connections that I make when I’m working on a portrait. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a subject when you’re drawing them, even when using a photograph instead of drawing from life.

Of course, it’s more fun to do the portrait from a real, live human being.

The best portraits come from just sitting down and letting the model talk. You can hear their stories, which are sometimes as interesting as the drawing itself.

Former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving shot a video of Andrew Wyeth painting his portrait. In it, Hoving is blabbing away while Wyeth chuckles, nods, and makes “I’m listening” noises, paintbrush moving the whole time. Hoving  said that Wyeth told him to talk during the two sessions during which he drew the portrait. Wyeth reportedly said, “I must have animation.”

You can see that video here. It’s not long, and it’s very amusing.

It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world when you manage to draw a portrait that captures not only the likeness of a person but something of their inner life as well.

In the best of portraits there’s a synergy between artist and model that flows as easily as liquid, and creates something as beautiful and memorable as a life expressed in pigment, water, and paper.

It’s not too early to start thinking about Mothers Day or Fathers Day!


30-in-30: How to sketch it now and paint it later



Near my house the pond had gone perilously dry until our recent rains. But El Niño has come to the rescue and filled it to overflowing. Last night on my walk, I noticed water rushing through the overflow ditch and into a spillway. It was a sweet scene in the afternoon light, with tree frogs singing, and the rays of sun streaking the water beyond. I whipped out my sketchbook to capture the mood with a pencil drawing.

Pencil sketch
Pencil sketch

Yes, I always carry a sketchbook and pencil, even on my walks. Doesn’t everyone?

My goal for this exercise was to draw enough information so that I could make a painting from it in my studio (where it’s warm and I have hot drinks and a restroom).

What information did I try to capture?

  • A rough idea of composition  I’ve been working on improving my compositions. In this sketch I was trying to see big shapes rather than worry about detail.
  • Areas of interest I liked the water line as it went from the organic shape of the ditch to the man-made hard lines of the cement weir. Then there’s that little corner in the left hand side where the water starts that I also found interesting.
  • Relative values of the whole scene  There was a simple, stark contrast between water and land, but on the cement weir the values grew trickier. I was also trying to think about how the light and dark values could lead the eye and create the illusion of water.

Although this was a quick sketch, it wasn’t quick enough. Suddenly it got very dark, and I realized that the sun had sunk behind the ridge. I was still a couple miles from home, night was falling, and mountain lions were about!

Clearly I made it home (and I wrestled, not with mountain lions, but with my lazy self  as I climbed the hill towards home) and this morning I painted the study at the top of this post, using information I gleaned from my pencil sketch.

For me, art is all about learning to see. It’s good practice to make these little black and white studies and try to paint them later. It sharpens observation skills, and hones the memory.

Plus, there’s a nice cuppa with milk and honey back at the studio.


Four artists, one life-drawing session

Last Thursday I hosted a drawing session at my house. It was so much fun that I can’t wait to host another one. It was a great group of artists, all confident in their own hand, and strong with their own vision. I’d like to show you some of their work.

Sue Smith
Drawing by Sue Smith

I could watch Sue Smith draw all day long. She has such a delicate touch of charcoal to paper, yet a strength of form and line; her hand moves like it’s dancing when she draws.

Sarah Switek
Drawing by Sarah Switek

Sarah is also a sculptor, and I think that her knowledge of all dimensions of a form gave this drawing substance even though it’s drawn primarily with an energetic line and just a little shading.

You can see her work here:


Drawing by George Durkee

I envy George’s ability to draw with such expressive marks. His drawings are always spare and minimal, but the lines are loose and free. And he makes it look so easy. Drat you, Geo (not really).

You can see his work, and his wonderful videos here:

Margaret Sloan
Drawing by Margaret Sloan

And mine…

AnimalScapes art show opens tomorrow!

Greenwood Side (Created for “Animalscapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills”
30″ x 24″ watercolor on Aquabord
© 2016 Margaret Sloan

I was fortunate to be selected, along with 54 other (excellent) artists and writers, to create a painting for a show called “AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills.” This show was a huge undertaking for the arts councils of our tri-county area, and it was with the generosity of many donors that it happened at all. As one of the artists, I’m very grateful.

Tomorrow (Saturday, January 16) is the first opening for the art show at Ironstone Winery in Murphys, California. The paintings, sculptures, and writings will be at Ironstone until February 15, then will move to Hotel Sutter in Sutter Creek (Feb. 17 – March 13), then will move once again to Black Oak Casino Hotel in Sonora (March 15 – April 3). If you are near, I hope you’ll attend, drink some wine and view (and maybe buy) some art. I think it will be worth it.

A couple of the organizers voiced their hopes that this large group show might help our area heal in some small way from last summer’s nightmare Butte Fire. I hope that it might, if art can help in that way.

Here’s the official press release: ““AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills” is a Tri-County Project of the Calaveras County Arts Council (CCAC), Tuolumne County Arts Alliance (TCAA), Amador County Arts Council (ACAC) and its 2 other major partners: Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. This project is partially funded by the California Arts Council (CAC) through a “Creative California Communities Grant” and the National Endowment for the Arts. The $23,200 CAC Grant is a “matching grant” dollar for dollar. There are also opportunities once more than half of the match has been made for in-kind donations.”

30-in-30: Painting a snowstorm, take 2

Snowstorm study
8″ x 8″ watercolor on Fluid hot press paper

This morning I spent some time with the snowstorm photo, improving the composition (left out the deer), working hard to keep my values correct, and having some fun.

I’m working on a large portrait that’s been taking up my time. 12 hours into this picture and I just started painting today. You can see process shots on Instagram @margaret.sloan.

30-in-30: Figure drawing and composition


Charcoal sketch
2-minute sketch
Charcoal pencil on paper

I didn’t paint today. Instead I hosted a small life drawing group at my house and drew all morning long. We didn’t have a model, so we took turns sitting for others to sketch.

My goal as I began this session was to think seriously about the composition as I drew. My normal approach is one of frantic activity: scratching the pencil over the paper trying to capture the pose or a likeness. I can usually do that, but not much else. Today I wanted to make pictures. This is how I approached it.

  • Include other elements in the scene. Furniture helps place the figure in space, and simple vertical lines act as a framing device. Since we were doing this at my home, there was thankfully more to draw than just a body on a model stand.
5-minute sketch
5-minute sketch
  • Started with a frame. After I drew a rectangle, I forced my figure into that space. I paid particular attention to the relationships between figure and frame, attempting to make pleasing shapes and still stay true to the accuracy of the figure.
Figure sketch
10-minute sketches
  • Give shapes good relations. How a shape interlocks with another shape, or how it contrasts, makes a drawing more interesting. Some shape interplay is a no-brainer: a curve next to a straight line is almost always a tasty combination.


Standing woman
15-minute pose
  • Think in the abstract, draw realistically. Instead of drawing “a leg”, I tried to draw the lines and curves that made a shape that telegraphed “leg.” I aimed to make drawings of pleasing/interesting shapes that just happened to look like a human figure.

One of my goals in the upcoming year is to improve my skills in composition. These are some of the books I’m plowing my way through:

Andrew Loomis’ Creative Illustration
Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting
Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color

I also hope to find the time to follow along with Paul Foxton’s Creative Triggers website (once I find my password!), a community based study of composition based on Dow’s book. It’s a valuable site; Paul is a fine painter, and has created lots of good exercises to hone your composition skills. I think it’s well worth the subscription price.

30-in-30: Painting a snow storm

snow storm
White out study
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# block paper

A recent photo of a white-out blizzard in the East posted by my cousin intrigued me. A study in values, it called out to me to be painted. Permission to use her photo was granted and here you can see the first pass of the results. (Although deer do roam her property, this little doe is from my own head.)

I love snow. Granted, until this year I’ve never lived where there’s been too much (meaning any) snow, but I live in the mountains now, and this December we had a couple unusually heavy snowstorms. I was too busy to do any plein air painting while there was snow on the ground, but there’s a snow storm promised for next week, so I’m hoping…

The hardest thing for me was keeping my values light. I normally paint with a pretty heavily loaded brush. I also realize that I want to mess with the composition a bit. And it really didn’t turn out the way I saw it in my head, so I think it deserves a couple more attempts, with more time in the planning.

pencil drawing
Pencil study for White Out

30-in-30: Watercolor selfie

Self portrait 8" x 10" watercolor on Arches 140# hot press
Self portrait
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# hot press

This is pretty much what I look like, dear readers, although I might have smoothed out the bags under my eyes, and neglected to paint the complete truth about hair color. I come from a red-face family, and my cheeks are often nearly that crimson, although in this painting they might have been exaggerated just a bit by the new tube of Daniel Smith quinacridone rose. Awesome color. I’m afraid to do a light test on it…

I love to draw, almost more than anything else (except maybe eat), but I spent all this morning with a pencil in my hand, and by this afternoon, I was just tired of it. This little painting was done with only two pencil marks, one to mark the top of the head and one to mark the angle of the chin. Everything else was by brush alone.

And after 2 weeks of arguing with Aquabord, I decided to do my daily painting on PAPER! Although it wasn’t my beloved 300# hot press, it was still Arches, cotton rag torn out of a block. Ah, back home again.

Although I tried to limit myself to 1 hour, when the ringer went off, I had to mess with it just a half hour more to bring it into some sort of completion.


30-in-30: Painting in pink

Watercolor on 6″ x 6″ Aquabord

I’ve been wanting to paint this image for a while. I snapped this photo at Columbia Historic State Park last year.

It reminds me of two of my cousins. I’m not going to say they were sweet little girls, although they were. But they were also holy terrors, and a super amount of fun to visit.

30-in-30: Making a nice painting from a bad photo

Watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Coming clean here: For the last couple days I’ve been painting like crazy to finish a painting for the art show Animalscapes (More about this show in another blog post). Up against the deadline? Yep.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been painting my 30 paintings in 30 days. Just not blogging about them.

Two days ago I painted the tiny study you see at the top of this post. I painted while the fiddler drove. The painting is just a small block of color in my sketchbook of a photo I took at Christmas. The photo is dreadful; I think I dropped the camera and accidentally snapped the picture. But there was something about it that intrigued me. Maybe it’s the angles of the large green carpeted space.

In a class taught by one of my favorite artists, Felicia Forte, I learned to look at these blurry, awkward photos in a different way. Can they be cropped to create an interesting composition? Are there interesting shape or color combinations? Is there something of use?

There is something in the original photo that makes me want to keep playing with this image, and give it a bit more time.

The only baby at Christmas
Watercolor sketch on 9″ x 12″ Ampersand Aquabord