This morning I woke up full of things to post on this blog. I had it all: advice, musings, even a joke or two. I was a regular genius.

Then came the dreaded login snafu. Forgot my password; reset it; failed to log in. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 3 times.


Clearly the password gods finally smiled with benevolence and opened the gates to my blog, but now I’m all sweaty and worn out and I have to move on to other deeds of the day. So I’m posting just a few crops of a painting I’m working on recently, with a small bit of advice.

I like to think of all the bits of my paintings as small abstracts that work together to make a whole portrait. I like the interest that it gives to the surface. Rather than making a smooth, flat wash for a large plane, I try to create texture within that plane by using edges, lost and found, and subtle value changes.



watercolor portrait

Beginning of watercolor portrait. I’ve worked up the eyes so that I have a dark value to work towards.

This is a portrait that I started for my demonstration at the Burlingame Art Society’s meeting Wednesday night. I had a lovely time; it’s so much fun to talk about how to build a painting. I had no idea! I really want to thank the Burlingame Art Society for giving me the opportunity to speak. They were a terrific group, full of talent, and questions, and interest. You can’t ask for better.

If you look at the bar across the top, you’ll see a new tab called Tutorials (<—-you can click on this link to take you there) that will take you to a the handout I gave to the society members. It lists my materials, and a little bit of my process. I hope it’s useful to you. Plus I’ll be adding links to any tutorials that I create on this blog. I hope they are helpful.

baby portrait

Close up of portrait showing details of face. I have a long way to go on this painting, adding delicate washes and careful color to capture the fresh, clean skin of the baby, moving slowly to retain the highlights while deepening the values in the darker shapes.


Kathleen and Vicky sketching before class

This week I am recovering from last weekend’s plein air-excesses at a Kathleen Dunphy workshop. Kathleen paints wonderful landscapes. I’ve admired them for a long time, and like most workshop attendees, I hoped she could transmit (directly into my head, thank you very much) a bit of the magic she uses to weave her paint-on-canvas spells.

But learning to paint isn’t as simple as sticking your head in a pensieve. Plein air skills are gained by—and you knew this already—long hours behind the brush, direct study, and hard hard work.

Plus, plein air painting is not a picnic in the park. The weather was hot. There were chiggers. There was wind. There was the siren-song of wineries that we had to ignore. The standing joke among workshop attendees: If painting is so relaxing, why am I so stressed?


Patty under her creation, the BestBrella. They really work well!

However, it wasn’t all stress. There was lots of learning. Here are 7 valuable lessons that came home with me.

1. Squint It helps you see the values.

2. Apply the paint thinly I never realized this. I am first and foremost a watercolorist; the gloppiness (and messiness) of oil paint has always confounded me. After half an hour in the field, my canvas, clothes, face, hands, and hair are smeared every color of mud. But Kathleen begins a painting by applying a thin layer of paint—it looks like she’s drawing a charcoal sketch—and only builds the paint thickness as she approaches the finish. Woah! Control!

3. Squint Because values!

4. Narrow down the range  Everything—value, chroma, and color—lives much closer together in space than I understood. When painting, it’s better to stay near to the center than migrate to the extremes (kind of like life, huh?). For practice I’m going to spend a lot of time mixing paint in the middle of the octave.

5. Squint That hill on the horizon is not that dark.

6. Oil paint is not watercolor paint  As a watercolorist, I work like a stone mason, carving my darker values from the lights. But oil painters work like potters, adding layers of lighter values on top of darker values.  It was a different way of thinking. My head was addled by trying to think like an oil painter. I had to imagine my painting in reverse, like an old film negative. I needed wine. But didn’t get any.

7. Pay attention to values Squint!


Landscape sketches (draw more, Kathleen said) and Juliana painting

This Wednesday, May 6, I’m giving a watercolor demonstration at the Burlingame Art Society. If you live in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll join me as I discuss my process of painting portraits in watercolor. You’ll see three new portraits that I’m currently creating, and I’ll talk about where I’m at with each portrait. Hope to see you there!

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Lions Hall
990 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame

StickmanWalkingYou drew them when you were a child: stick people that lept, danced, fought, or just stood around in the landscape of your childhood art. And if you learn how to draw them again, they’ll help you enormously when you are sketching in public places.


Things to look for when drawing a stick man

  • Angle for position Pay attention to the angle of the head, shoulders, and the hips. I often draw those lines first, lightly, to help me capture the pose. I also make quick lines for the angles of the feet so that I know how they are positioned and if I have time, I add the knees and elbows using little circles. Getting these landmarks down on paper will help you remember the position of your subject, even after they’ve moved. Everything after that becomes a connect-the-dots game.
  • Measure! Stick your pencil out and verify that your brain is really seeing what’s there. I can’t stress that enough. You don’t have to get too detailed; if you’re rapidly sketching kids on a soccer field, or people in a park, you don’t have time for a lot of measurements. I look for the vertical halfway point and mark that quickly so I can go on to the torso. When I draw the torso, I eyeball the center line so that I can get the right perspective.
  • Torso comes first My life drawing teacher, Rob Anderson, used to say, “if you can draw the torso correctly, you can hang the rest of the body from it.” I always try to get the torso and hips first; they are the structure. All the rest is decoration. If you add lobes to represent the rib cage, it can help you see the center line.
  • Draw cubicley Think of the upper body as a box with two lobes (the ribs). The tummy is a soft ball; how much of that do you see? The pelvis/hips can be a tube, although some people use a box for the hips. I like using a butterfly shaped tube because I can see how the ball of the tummy fits into the pelvis area.
  • Transparent thinking Try to imaging the shoulder blades on the back, which will give you the correct position of the arms. Draw your stickman as though he were a ghost so you can see your construction lines.




Once you have the stickman posed correctly, you can start adding flesh to him. In the figure below, I drew him in black ink, then built his form up using blue lines. When I’m sketching in the field, I draw the construction lines lightly, and often don’t erase them when I’m finished because they can make the figure more solid and dimensional. They are also great for later reference when I’m trying to construct a new drawing, because all this public sketching, besides being fun, is fodder for future work. Stickmanslouching

Drawing exercise Get thee to a public place and draw the people in it. Concentrate on drawing only stickmen. Afterwards at home, draw other stickmen (from your imagination) interacting with the first drawings. Challenge yourself by drawing them in overlapping positions, some farther away, some closer to the picture plane. Then let me know how it goes. I’d love to see your drawing.

This is an experiment using a failed watercolor portrait from a life drawing session. I recently watched Don Peterson's video on how he does his remarkable paintings. He uses Elemer's glue! So I gave it a shot, as well as using some mastic to block out areas of the painting. I am not sure how I feel about this technique, nor how long it will last, but it does make the colors nice and rich. Mr. Peterson gets an almost glossy look to his paintings, and the colors glow like jewels. I will have to experiment with this more.

This is an experiment using a failed watercolor portrait from a life drawing session. I recently watched Dan Peterson’s video on how he does his remarkable paintings. He uses Elmer’s glue! So I gave it a shot, as well as using some mastic to block out areas of the painting. I am not sure how I feel about this technique, nor how long it will last, but it does make the colors nice and rich. Mr. Peterson gets an almost glossy look to his paintings, and the colors glow like jewels. I will have to experiment

Saturday I went to a studio sale for an artist that I just recently met. But in that way we sometimes have,  I feel like I’ve known him for a very long time. Perhaps he is just that kind of a person, the type of person people connect to easily. Perhaps. Some people are that way.

The gallery was full of his beautiful landscapes, a body of work that encompassed years. He is clearing out his studio, and ready to embark on a new project involving travel, video, and painting, as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to the vast wheat fields of Middle-America. If he’ll agree to share, I’ll try to write about it on my blog.

He’s been a professional painter for a long time. He took a different flight path for his life than I did, and decided he needed to paint when I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. But his life, like everyone’s life, is still changing and evolving. I couldn’t help but feel sad for the beautiful paintings that he said he was going to burn if they didn’t go to good homes. A big pyre, he said, that he’ll video tape as part of his next project. An incineration perhaps, of earlier chapters of his life, in order to reinvent himself like a firebird.

I looked longingly at the paintings, sadly totting up my finances to figure a way to own one of his works. “Which do you like?” he asked. I pointed out two that I loved, for reasons of my own. “How much?” I said.

He quietly and sweetly gifted them to me.

I’m sure we’ve met before.

This post is in response to a prompt from WordPress University Writing 101: A Room with a View





Which old witch

Old Witch Old Witch
Pencil drawing on typing paper

The very first record I ever owned was Under the Lollipop Tree by Burl Ives. Don’t judge me; it was a smash hit for second graders.

I was crazy about all the songs and I can still sing most of them, but the one that I love to sing to make The Fiddler laugh is “Old Witch Old Witch.” I blame Burl Ives (and my father, with his bluegrass and hillbilly music) for tuning my tastes to folk music, a temperament I’ve never outgrown.

Longer Boats Pencil on typing paper

Longer Boats
Pencil on typing paper

In the 1970s I discovered Cat Stevens, enraging my father by dismissing his music and falling in love with scruffy troubadors in tie-dye everything. I used to sing “Longer Boats” at the top of my lungs with my best friend, Emily Boltz, harmony and all. I can still sing all the songs from Tea for the Tillerman, and those old vids of a young Cat still make me weak at the knees.

Those longer boats, whatever the heck they were (he once said the song was about flying saucers), were coming to win us, and the song encompasses my young adulthood. My generation grew up believing in things. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 1001 Arabian Nights. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. The Weekly World News. Aliens were possible. Everything was possible. Music, like the skies, was blue and wide open.

Painting of Fiddler

Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press

These days the sky has gotten a lot smaller and the horizons are empty of flying carpets and saucers. Jinnis and aliens got waylaid by the internets. Burl Ives sounds hopelessly square and Cat—now Yusuf—is a grandpa. But music remains the same.

With age I’ve grown less musically exclusive; I listen to nearly everything. My father’s old time and hillbilly twang is in heavy rotation with traditional Irish music, Billie Holiday, and Glen Miller. I’ve even got a Doris Day album that I love. Choosing a favorite song would be like choosing a favorite child. But I’ll leave you with “Elzic’s Farewell,” played on the claw hammer banjo. You can’t go wrong with that.


Girl reading by fireplace

We create rooms from our dreams. This is an image from an old post. To see the whole post, click here.

I often dream of plein air-painting trips to exotic lands. Tracing the curve of the Amur River through Mongolia. Filling the pages of a worn watercolor journal with sketches of women in cerulean blue saris or rippling grass-green áo dàis. Painting the song of a skylark as it ripples across blue Irish skies and the howl of a monkey crashing through deep Guatemalan jungles.

Those are my dreams. I would have gladly traveled like that when I was young, a happy vagabond artist sleeping in hostels and riding on trains (and I did, some, but without the artistic skill and drive—or money—of middle age).

But would I do it these days?  I am not so sure, especially when the sun warms my studio, or I curl up in our den with a book. Andrew Loomis’ Creative Illustration would be awfully heavy to carry in a back pack.

But sometimes ultramarine blue and viridian green precipitates onto the paper and glimmers like the ocean. Those are days I long to be on a cargo ship headed to Greece.

This post is in response to a prompt from WordPress University Writing 101: A Room with a View

Every month the interwebs crackle with bloggers answering challenges—painting a day; photo a day; poem a day; recipe a day, a workout a day, et cetera. I don’t normally participate in these—they’re a lot of work—but every so often I stumble across one that I like. The most recent was the Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days from Leslie Saeta. It was fun, but at the end of the month I felt like a horse that had been, as my best friend is fond of saying, “rode hard and put away wet”.


I’d busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. But my favorite challenge—well, not really a challenge, but more like a personal project —is Roz Stendahl’s International Fake Journal Month. Roz isn’t about making you work like a dog. This project is so low-key and so much fun that it makes it easy to join. If you’ve got a sketchbook and 15 to 20 minutes a day, you can do it. As it indicates, you’ll be keeping a fake journal. You get to be someone else in your journal. It’s a lot of fun.

BloggingUThis month I also got caught up in the WordPress “class” Writing101. Everyday there’s a prompt with a twist. My personal challenge is to write to the prompts in a way that fits the subject matter, tenor and tone of Mockingbirdsatmidnight.com. That is, how do I write about art and music using the prompts from the Happiness Engineers? Will I be able to add an illustration? I don’t know if I’ll make it everyday, but it will be fun to try.

That’s what I’m doing in April. What are you doing?


Pastel drawing

Pastel and charcoal on Canson paper

I’ve long been a fan of historical reenactments. I love costumes—hats, hoops, bonnets, boots, holsters, buttons, bows, and frippery from another age—and a park full of people wearing them makes my pencil hand itch to draw.

Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills offers all of those things when the volunteer docents are out in full force. Since I’ve been longing to sketch people in costumes, I dragged an artist friend along for company, fun, and moral support, and we went drawing for a day during their big birthday celebration. (They had speeches! They served cake!)

Charcoal drawing of speechifying

The two ladies at the top of this post sat and knitted gracefully while we drew. I went full-on artiste-geekazoid mode and set my easel up in the gutter (I need the canvas to be vertical as my new-fangled specs distort my drawings if I don’t look at the paper head on. Wish I could see without the blasted things.) I even dragged out long neglected pastel pencils.

According to a friend who volunteers at the park, everything they wear is as accurate as possible. “We’re dressed from the skin out,” she says. Scandalous to tell me, but when I ask to see her petticoat, she proudly showed off her corded underskirt. “They didn’t have hoops in 1850, so they used strips of cords around their petticoats.” (Make a corded petticoat here: http://www.historicallydressed.com/research/cordedpetticoats.html)


Clothes from the 19th century are so flattering, and best of all, they need curvy girls who can adequately fill out corsets and stays. (Ladies, when an artist tells you that you are beautiful, don’t tell us you’re not. Smile and nod graciously. We’re artists. We know what’s beautiful.)


The docents at Columbia often have characters to go with their costumes. Isaac Dinwiddie posed for us a good long time. When you look like this, you really need to have your portrait drawn.


All the charcoal drawings were done on an ancient pad of Strathmore Charcoal paper, Pad. No. 460-1. It’s fabulous paper, with a rough laid pattern that the charcoal loves, but it’s turning buff colored from age. I haven’t played with the sketches in the studio, and I’ve left the scans the way they are because I like the color of the paper.


Lead bird on this blog

Painting and drawing and playing tunes are the things that make life real. I paint or draw or think about it everyday, and love sharing what I've discovered with you.

Small songs


A plea for civility

All work on this blog is copyrighted by Margaret Sloan. I don't steal from you. Please don't steal from me. If you'd like to use something you see here, please contact me. We can work it out.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 274 other followers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 274 other followers

%d bloggers like this: