Paintings of eggplant

Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

A freelance illustrator often has to scramble to find source material for illustration gigs that fall from the sky. My last task—drawing three kinds of garlic growing at the end of their life cycles—had me calling a friend on Nantucket and pleading with her to take photos of a winter-retarded stand of late-blooming hardneck garlic in her gardens.

The photos were helpful, but there’s nothing like drawing from life for accuracy and understanding. As I struggled to make visual sense from the distortion of photography, I realized that I need to create a library of plants drawn from life that I can use as guides for future jobs. But how? I don’t have room (or water) for a garden of my own, plus our little yard is a crossroads for every animal that lives in these mountains. (I haven’t seen any bears yet. But you know if I did, I’d  be frantically drawing them while they chased me down the hill.)

I realized I’d have to find a garden or a farm at which to draw.

And fortunately, I discovered a small one-day-a-week farmstand of ultra-local vegetables called the Outer Aisle Farmstand. The produce is so local that most of it is grown less then 5 miles away from the store on a small 2-acre farm in the mountains.

A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged in the loamy soil of Taylor Mountain Gardens, sketching a light purple Asian eggplant. Owners Christine and Eric Taylor had just given me a tour of their lovely slice of organic paradise, and introduced me to at least 4 kinds of eggplant growing in lush, thick rows.  Eggplant heaven.

A farm of this kind—small, intimate, and worked by humans who love the land—is a sort of a sacred space. The earth is so lovingly cared for, the plants grown so well, and everything is managed with respect and foresight, that the farm seems almost radiant. It’s an honor to be allowed to make portraits of their plants. Stay tuned.

Christine and Eric, along with partner/chef Jimmy own Outer Aisle Farm to Table Restaurant in Murphys, California. Try their summer barbecue on Thursday nights, or enjoy fine dining Friday and Saturday. They source everything themselves and feature only what’s in season. If you live too far away, you can try their eggplant recipes at home.

Paintings of eggplant

Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

FlyingI’ve never understood the mystery and aura of flight. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in an age when air travel was more of a chore than an adventure. Flying on a big ol’ jet airliner has always been just a drag: crowded, uncomfortable, smelly, and recently full of fear and long lines at security checkpoints.

So when I was invited by one of my dad’s work mates, Tom Reeves, to take a spin in his little Stinson Flying Station Wagon, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel.

“Don’t worry,” Tom said. “If you get scared, we can come right down.” Scared? Well, yes, I was, a little. The little blue plane seemed much smaller than the sky. But I thought, my mother had gone up in this plane, and she wasn’t scared. If my mother could do it, so could I.

We taxied down a nice smooth road and then took off from a grass runway. A grass runway! I’d never heard of that. Was it safe? Was grass level enough? Would the plane hit a gopher hole and crash? Good heavens! The nose of the Stinson rose into the air. I held my breath.

Then the green swale dropped below us and the land spread out into patterns of olive, brown, purple and gold. I thought my heart would explode. In every direction I looked I could see the horizon, while below us the earth scrolled out like an endless painting. The little blue plane hung faithfully in clear blue space and we were flying.

It took a while, but I was finally able to close my mouth. And then I laughed out loud.

I was flying.

Now I understand the lure of flight. And I can’t wait to figure out how to get back into the skies.

You can view Tom Reeve’s aerial photography at http://www.pbase.com/wbyonder.

Drawing of dad with baby

Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Dad with baby
Sigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

As I’ve grown more comfortable with my sketching abilities, I’ve begun to think about creating compositions rather than making isolated sketches. This comes from looking at other urban sketchers work; I admire the completeness of their drawings, the way they are like little stories rather than disparate elements on a page. I want sketchbook pages that look like  whole pictures rather than a spotty collection of scrawls.

But it’s taken me a while to get to this place, to exert control over my drawings rather than my drawings controlling me. But once I began trying to design my sketches, it’s like a whole new artistic world opened up to me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  • Establish the center of interest Of course, the focal point is almost always the figure that attracted my attention in the first place. I like to place that initial figure in an interesting position on the page, using the concept of the rule of thirds for an arbitrary placement of interest.
  • Start building a grouping around them People are always moving, so I have to be quick to capture multiple figures in a composition. But other things—tables, buildings, windows, chairs—don’t move much (if they did, I might be running for cover!). So I like to inanimate objects soon in the composition.
  • Let figures overlap Overlapping figures and objects help create depth. I make sure I’ve got the perspective of objects advancing or receding through space by measuring angles and size as carefully and as quickly as I can.
  • Don’t worry about detail I’ve had to give up my love of niggly little detail when sketching, so the people in the background don’t have developed eyes, noses, and mouths. It really doesn’t add anything to the sketch, and anyway, is hard to do on the fly. I’m looking for the big shapes.
  • Look for framing I find ways to frame my center of interest. Sometimes that’s easy. Maybe I can add a window, a wall, a square of some type behind them. Other times I look for ways that figures in the background can be manipulated to strengthen the center of interest.
  • Don’t give up too soon I keep working at my sketch, even if I think I’ve destroyed it. Even though I want my sketchbook pages to look like pictures, I realize that my sketchbook is also my place to play around, experiment, have some fun. I don’t have to show it to anyone if I don’t want to. My sketch book is my personal playground. I can run around in it however I want, pen screaming and my hand turning cartwheels, drawing like I’m swinging from the monkey bars and flying from the swings. It’s the fun that keeps me at it, and it’s the perseverance that builds skills.

Happy sketching!

Sketching at the Farmer's market Nap time Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Nap time
Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

It’s not quite urban sketching, but our local farmer’s market is in a town, and the market is big enough that there are plenty of peaches, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers for everyone. And plenty of people for me to sketch as I slouch over my sketchbook, hiding next to the fiddler as he plays Shove the Pig’s Foot a little Further into the Fire (the naming of American old time tunes is a mystery to me).

drawing of little boy

Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Little boy with hat
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Kids are the best to sketch, as they stick around a long time to listen to the music, maybe dance a little, schmooze with the musicians, snack on strawberries. And the parents are only too happy to hang out in the shade of the big oak tree, chatting with other moms and dads, drinking a smoothie, and admiring their offspring.

Drawing of kids' faces

Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Kids’ faces
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Which they should, as all children are absolutely beautiful and so new they’re translucent. Young things are a marvel.

Drawing the shifting tides of humanity isn’t easy. They just won’t stand still!  But it’s one of my very favorite things to do. I watch closely; people will often adopt a standard position—a tilt of the head, the cocking of a hip, a graceful touch of a hand to the face—that is part of their likeness. They may deviate from that position, but they eventually return to it, as it’s where they’re most comfortable.

My job as a sketcher is to watch for these attitudes, as well as see (and here I mean see closely) the shape and angle of head and facial features, body posture and type, and then remember it all, so I can translate what I see into drawings in my sketchbook. Drawing is, after all, a memory game, and the more we develop our memory, the better our drawing becomes.

Class alert: August 13th I’m teaching a class on drawing the portrait from a live model at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, starting at 9:30 sharp. If you live nearby, I hope you can make it.

For your listening pleasure:

Charcoal portrait from life with photo assist.

Charcoal portrait of J.

July 29th  and August 13th I’m teaching classes on drawing the portrait from a live model at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, starting at 9:30 sharp. If you live nearby, I hope you can make it.

Making portraits from life is a hard task, but it’s about my favorite thing to do. Why? Because I love to hear the sitter’s stories, and I love to get to know them. The subject in the portrait above is a new friend, and I found this session to be wonderfully interesting and relaxed.

I admit that I cheated a bit. I took a couple of photos, and when I got home, I spent a bit more time on this portrait, cleaning up the eyes, and developing the form a bit more. It’s a better drawing; the photo gave me a fixed pose, without a lot of wiggling from the subject, but without the initial 2-3 hours of drawing her from life, it would have been a very different picture, and not nearly as much of a likeness. It really helps to get to know your subject when you draw or paint them.

BoyatContra

Sketch of young boy, graphite with watercolor. Stillman & Birn Beta Series

I was sketching at a contra dance Saturday night. I was on stage, playing whistle and sketching during tunes I didn’t know. Normally at these things, I sketch the other musicians, as the dancers are moving too fast for all but the most brief gesture drawing, but a boy was sitting on the sidelines of the dance watching the figures. Being still. In good light.

Since I was flanked by fiddlers and behind a guitar player, I felt like I was not really noticeable. And the kid seemed to be engrossed with watching the dancers. So I began drawing.

Suddenly he whipped his head around and glared right at me, watching me watch him. It’s funny how sometimes we can feel people looking at us from across even a crowded large room, and we seem to be especially sensitive to the direct stare of the surreptitious portrait artist.

I nearly always have a sketchbook with me, and most of my friends, and the people at musical gatherings have grown used to my scratchings. But not this subject; he glared for a while longer, then got up and moved out of my line of sight, and so I was not able to get any kind of likeness, merely a sweet drawing. Oh well, sometimes that’s enough.

BoyatContra_Detail

Detail of sketch

ColoringBookSketch1As I wrote yesterday, I lost my sketchbook while hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area in Nevada. I think I put it down either in the bathroom or the visitors center.

Yes, I did ask at the lost and found. In fact, I filed a lost report with the administrative offices. Keep your eyes open; I really would like to have that sketchbook again.

I admit, I was quite upset about losing this little book that was half-filled with good and bad sketches. A sketchbook is intensely personal, although I don’t write a lot of personal stuff in it. Still, it’s a record of my life—sketches I’d made at my granddaughter’s first birthday party; a painting of my mother; people I meet and places I go—as well as a place where I can work out ideas for projects.

Besides,  I was not there in the stinkin’ hot desert sweating like an old mule to hike (as was my friend, who is oh-just-slightly crazy), but to sketch. I was there to draw the beautiful rocks and mountains in that canyon, dammit.

I looked at the visitor center for some kind of sketch book, or even just a notebook with lined paper, but all they had were tee shirts, desert kitsch, and expensive books about flowers you might see in Nevada were it not 104 degrees in the shade and in the middle of a drought. But I found this little book:

yhst-137970348157658_2374_637844980It’s a nice coloring book, with good information about cactus. There were some blank spaces. It didn’t have clay coated paper, so it would work (sort of) with watercolor. And it was inexpensive.

While my friend courted heat exhaustion on the park trails, I collapsed in the shade of a gigantic rock and disgorged my painting kit. Painting in a coloring book was not the same satisfying experience as painting in my Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook, but it was interesting to attempt to incorporate the artwork in the book into my paintings. I recorded some of the landscape. And it satisfied that awful craving to paint.

Finally my friend crawled off the desert, having decided that it was too hot for even her lizard-lady blood, and we drove around in the air conditioned truck as the sun sank and the hills glowed in the heat.

ColoringBookSketch2

Last week I was hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (an amazingly beautiful area) near Las Vegas, and lost my half-filled sketchbook. I’m placing my trust in the power of the internet and hoping that by announcing it enough times in enough places, I can bring it home to me.

The images below were scans from the sketchbook; it also had drawings of my grandaughter’s first birthday party, a painting of my mom, and ideas for future work, all images I didn’t record. I sure would like to have it returned. If you’ve got it, please contact me!

Day_of_Sketching

Lots of life drawing. Drawings on the back of the paper too.

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Yesterday I wrote of the need for the teacher to practice the beginner’s mind. Today I want to talk about that childlike inquisitiveness as a student.

By student, I mean that we should all be learning constantly, and especially when practicing art. But it’s easy when creating art to fall into habit, to be mindless, bored, resistant, or just lazy. Or to be so driven by results that we forget that the process is where we make progress.

I practice figure drawing a lot. I draw from internet sources like the Croquis Cafe, life drawing sessions, and real life. And I consider accuracy to the form to be important.

I usually draw with line, or block in my figures, then progress to value to build the form. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a recent discussion with a student who wanted to draw the figure as if it were a painting—using only values and no line—made me start thinking about other ways to create a figure. As I said yesterday, I need to get out of tunnels I’m stuck in; they’re dank and sloggy, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. So I decided to force myself to adopt a different kind of process for drawing the figure.

Gesture_2_minute_Line

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

The drawing above is how I normally approach life drawing. I like to make sure everything on the contour is accurate before I begin describing form shapes.

GraphiteSketch_Line

15-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I usually make a contour drawing describing the shapes of the form and cast shadows, then fill in the values. This is my classical realism tunnel; thanks Bargue plates.

Drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

So I decided to change things up. Instead of a charcoal pencil, I used a block of charcoal, and tried really hard not to let myself devolve into line, but instead, draw the figure using broad strokes to create shapes that described the form, without the benefit of line and pre-planning. Something different happened here, although I was unable to complete the entire figure in 2 minute gesture poses.

CharcoalSketch_Shape

20-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I tried a longer pose, still trying to limit myself to shape only, carving out the form with an eraser when needed. You can see that some lines snuck in to the drawing, despite my best intentions. However, this one has a different life to it than the other (although it’s very hard to manage proportions with this method).

My point is not that I drew better or worse using either style. My point is that, as an artist, taking a beginner’s mind attitude when I work leads to new discoveries. I don’t get so bound up in what I know, or the need to have a successful drawing. The outcome for my own personal projects (illustration work-for-hire is another story) is not as important as the process.

Dear reader, next time you’re creating art, do something you’ve not done before, or that you don’t like to do. Do something that makes you feel silly: Dance while you draw. Paint with a leaf and a feather, or even a rock. Be happy and light-hearted, focused as well as scattered, and learn something new!

Watercolor of laughing baby

Noah
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”—Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A friend (and fabulous painter/film maker) George Durkee recently introduced me to the concept of beginner’s mind. It’s the idea that you need to keep a child’s mind—open, curious, and free of expectations—when studying. The attitude that you should attack your studies as if you are not an expert, even if you are studying at an advanced level.

I’ve only recently begun to teach life drawing, transmitting the knowledge of figure and form I received from my teacher, Rob Anderson (you can see his work here, but sadly, he has left us for that studio beyond this world), and I sometimes struggle to explain my methods.

So when George mentioned the beginner’s-mind attitude, and I thought about it a little, I realized that it doesn’t apply only to student, but to teacher as well.

When I’m talking to a student, sometimes my brain descends into a mental tunnel, where the concept I’m trying to explain becomes a mere whisper of what I want to teach. That faint echo is only slightly audible over the noise of my own pedantically droning voice and blathering insecurities.  Over all that racket, of course I have trouble hearing the student.

But the students are my real focus, are they not? And if they ask a question, or encounter difficulty in figuring out overlapping forms, proportions, or lines of action, then I need to figure out how to answer them with my own beginner’s mind. To find a different way to explain, or give them another tool for translating the human form to a 2-dimensional drawing. And to do that, I need to stop and open my mind up to other possibilities.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a sharp left turn when I’ve been so focused on trudging through a tunnel, but I’m learning (slowly) that it’s best to surrender to the dog-leg and play on lit like a child so that it leads me to the open air.

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.

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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.

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