Jan22_LandscapeJournalJan21_LandscapesThese are what my car-journal pages look like. The smaller rectangles are 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, and the vertical rectangles are whatever size my little heart desires.

We don’t travel much, so I don’t always remember what colors are in my little travel palette. It helps to make a little swatch palette before I begin (that’s why there are twelve color swatches all in a row on the page at top).

Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk

Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk

TravelWatercolorKitMy last post about painting in the car got a lot of interest. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve got my system down pretty well. This is my kit for painting while in the passenger seat.

  1. A Windsor Newton travel paint box. You want something small, something that will fit on your lap, or on the verso of your journal. I use an old Windsor Newton travel palette; unfortunately the little paint holders don’t come out of the box. This set came with Cotman Student Grade paints, which are okay as far as they go. Over the years I’ve used them up (or scraped them out) and filled the pans with higher grade paints in colors that I use more often. I wish it were easier to change out the paint. If I were to buy a new one, I’d buy an empty watercolor tin, and fill it with my own paints. Or something slightly larger: the Guerrilla Painter Backpacker Watercolor Palette. I’ve tried to make my own using old Altoid tins, but they’ve never worked quite like I thought they should.
  2. A Windsor Newton travel bag. You can still buy these, fully equipped, but you’ll pay through your pierced little nose. I bought mine at a deep-discount sale years ago when I had more money than sense. It’s great, but I think a quick trip to a few thrift stores might have yielded something almost as good at a fraction of the price.
  3. 6-inch ruler. It really comes in handy when you want to make boxes of a certain size, make straight lines, or scratch your back.
  4. Micron pen. For making notes, drawing cartoons, etc. I don’t use it that often, as it requires far too much looking down, which would make my stomach do the hootchy-kootchy in the car. Not a pretty site for heavage.
  5. Aquash watercolor brush. No, it’s not like painting with fine sable brushes, or even not-so-fine synthetic brushes, but it keeps the water contained in the handle until you squeeze the soft plastic. I’ve gotten pretty good at regulating the flow of water.
  6. Pencils. These are fancy art pencils. One is a 2h and the other is a 2b. I don’t do much drawing in the car, other than a few lines to mark the big shapes that I’m going to fill with paint. My favorite pencils for car painting are the Sakura Sumo Grip mechanical pencils, with big, soft .9 mm lead. But they’re the fiddler’s favorite pencils too, so they tend to—ahem—disappear.
  7. Pencil sharpener and kneaded eraser. I don’t really need these when I can find my the Sakura Sumo Grip, but, um, fiddlers…
  8. Eye dropper for filling the watercolor brush. Before I had the eyedropper, filling the brush was exciting, especially when the fiddler was navigating badly maintained state highways.
  9. Small container of water (that doesn’t leak). Coffee will work, in a pinch, if you don’t use sugar and cream, but your colors will suffer for it. Don’t use soft drinks.
  10. Spice jar. To store the eye dropper. This keeps the inside of your kit dry.
  11. A Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media soft cover journal. I love these. The paper takes watercolor really well, the binding really does lay flat as advertised, and the cover makes me feel like I’ve got a special book.
Distant water 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Distant water
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

This week I had to make a sojourn to the Bay Area. The fiddler likes to drive, so while the fiddler steered the infernal combustion machine, I painted.

I love passenger-seat painting. Give me a wide enough view and a straight enough road (I suffer from motion sickness), and I can paint for miles.

In the studio, it’s easy to get in that zone of hyper-focus where thought takes a backseat to conscious action. If you’re a painter, you know what I mean. Pick up some color with the brush, dab it on—ooo pretty—dab some more—ooo pretty pretty—dab, dab, dab—pretty pretty pretty—dab, no, wait, dang it, arggh! What have I done? If you don’t pause and move back, pretty soon you’ve created a muddy mess.

Green Hill 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Green Hill
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Painting landscape studies in the car (while someone else is driving—duh!) is a good way to break that kind of zen-zoned out paint daubing. You can’t focus for very long on one scene, because the scene changes minute-by-minute. So you have to make your decisions rapidly and correctly.

Fallow field 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Fallow field
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

All you have time to do in the car is decide on a quick composition, draw the big shapes, get the right color and value on the palette, and paint the shapes. I start with the sky first usually, the brightest and lightest shape. The jiggling of the car prohibits any attention to detail; it’s all about composition, color and shape.

I love these little watercolors. The challenge is to bring this freshness and life into larger studio paintings.

Winter trees 3" x 6" watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Winter trees
3″ x 6″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal


After all those eggs, it feels good to be painting something else besides eggs. Well, and eggs too.

Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting

Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting

This is how I start a drawing; by measuring the angles, horizontal lines, and vertical lines. It’s kind of like using a grid. For subjects that aren’t so man-made as this candle holder, I can often hold the grid and the lines in my head, but for this I needed to make sure that my horizontals were level (I tend to drift down when I draw horizontal lines), and that my verticals were really straight up and down. Before I start to paint, I’ll erase many of these lines, and lighten the rest. I’ll also erase lines that need to be soft edges, so that I don’t forget when I’m in the heat of applying pigment.

I’m not quite done with this drawing. There are a few area I want to perfect. But it’s pretty close. It’s been for this image that I’ve painted all those darn eggs.

Now I’m going to get to paint something else, and I’m eggs-cited.


I woke up this morning all fired up to paint another egg. After reading my friend’s email, and studying Jean Dobie’s book Making Color Sing and Exploring Color by Nita Leland, I had a plan.

Egg 5 Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Egg 5
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

1. Make sure the whole egg had tone Without paint on the paper, it’s hard to show the hotspot of the highlight.

2. Up planes are cool, down planes are warm I can see this on the egg in the shadow box. Now that I’m thinking to look for it. Funny how you can look and look and look at thing, and not really see it until it’s pointed out to you.


This little practice egg shows my plan perfectly. It took less than five minutes to make this.


3. Have a plan Cerulean blue would be the midtone on the top of the egg, with a dash of ultramarine blue at the part closest to me. An orange-yellow on the bottom of the lit side, and a grayed-down purple for the “bed-bug” line where the shaded side of the egg meets the lit side. And a nice pink color for the reflected light on the bottom of the shaded side.


4. Use grays to pop colors  Jean Dobie suggests mixing grays from complimentary colors to help pop the pure colors. I spent a lot of time thinking about grays, and about which grays should be adjacent to which colors.


5. Don’t over work  Yeah. Right.

What am I looking for with all these eggs? Last night I spent a lot of time thinking about where I’m going with this. I am looking for the freshness of these little splashes of color you see here, but with the depth of an old-master style still life. Is that even possible? I’m not sure, but evidently I will obsess about it until I figure it out.

Reader, how do you solve your obsessions?


Egg 4 Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Egg 4
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Dear reader, are you getting tired of eggs? I know I am.

But it’s not just eggs I’m painting, I’m trying to get the hang of painting a sphere. I have to admit, I’m frustrated. These eggs are not coming out like the pictures in my head. Today I emailed a friend of mine, Doreen Barton, who is a wonderful painter (really, go look at her work). She sent me a list of color temperature “rules” to think about and some suggestions; this one helped me the most:

But attack it another way – how would you “model” the form with pencil/graphite, i.e., the only area where you didn’t apply graphite would be the highlight?  In that case only the highlight could be white because you wanted the viewer not to understand that the egg is white, but to clearly see the form with all of its imperfections.  It’s another way of defining the light/shadow values.”

Funny how advice you’ve heard a million times takes further repetition to make you listen. That bit of advise—the only area where you didn’t apply graphite would be the highlight—freed me to put more tone on the lit side of the egg. I had to scrub and sand away some of the dark value, because I belatedly realized that my drawing, done in a hurry, was way off.

I also pulled out a stack of blue paints that I’ve had in a drawer. I’ve been using Ted Nuttall’s palette since last March, and I finally realized that it was too high key for what I wanted.

Color chart

Color chart

This batch of blues has pthalo blue (top left) and my favorite dark blue, Maya dark blue (bottom middle) from Daniel Smith, the two colors I went to for this egg. It’s beginning to look like what I’m after, but it’s still not there. You know what that means.

Another egg.

Milk Creamer and Eggs Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Creamer and Eggs
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

I’m still painting eggs this January, but I decided to add another element.

I know I’m not handling these white subjects in a traditional watercolor fashion that’s light and delicate and high-key. I’m trying to find a way to make a low-key painting with watercolor because A. The high-contrast Dutch and Flemish genre style master paintings (think Vermeer and Rembrandt) set my brain on fire, and B. I’m trying to push my watercolors to be more.

I like the work in the pitcher spout and the eggs.

Milk Creamer and Eggs (close up)

Milk Creamer and Eggs (close up)

But there’s still not enough contrast between the pitcher and the background. So after I scanned this painting, I went back for a quick, devil-may-care splash at the easel. What the heck. I wasn’t happy with the painting anyway.

Milk Creamer and Eggs (State 2) Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Milk Creamer and Eggs (State 2)
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

After washing the background with several layer of ultramarine blue, terra rosa, and some dark greeny-blue that has no name in my palette,  the contrast is working better. And now I’m starting to get a more textured background, which I also like. I’ve sanded the background twice with a rough grit sand paper, and applied multiple layers of paint, but it wasn’t until I started to put more paint on the paper that things started happening.

Sometimes it pays to have courage with watercolor.

This is part of a series exploring one 1-hour painting (nearly) every day in January as part of Leslie Saeta’s series, Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. To see my experience with the entire series, click on the category, 30 in 30, at right.

Egg 3 Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Egg 3
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Yes, it’s another egg. I guess you could say I have a series of eggs now. It’s a good exercise to paint an egg. I’ll probably paint more of them.

This was a business day for me, so I really only had an hour to paint this egg. I wanted to see if I could paint something like Egg 2, only paint it in a shorter amount of time.

Today was the life drawing session (Yay!) at Town Hall Arts Galerie Copper in Copperopolis. It’s a nice small-town art store with a gallery and a studio for art classes. Our models there have been very good, especially considering we are in such a remote area. If you live in Calaveras County, you should check out their classes, as well as their art supplies and gallery full of locally produced art. Maybe I’ll see you there!

I met a friend at the figure drawing session in Copperopolis; she hadn’t done much figure drawing, and since it’s hard to shut me up when it comes to drawing, I volunteered to coach her through the session. After the session I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d teach figure drawing if I were ever able to get a class together. I thought that on the blog I’d pass along a few tips to help make your figure drawing (heck, all your drawing) more accurate, and hopefully less frustrating and more fun.


Standing figure Watercolor on Biggie watercolor paper

Standing figure: 15-minute pose
Watercolor on Biggie watercolor paper


Yes, I know it’s awkward to stick your out your hand and sight down you arm to your pencil. It’s like you think you’re some kind of *ahem* artist or something. But trust me on this, your drawing will be more accurate, and it will come together more quickly once you get the hang of measuring and comparing length and width, and calculating angles. In the example above you can see some of my block-in lines. Those angles help with the placement of not just all the body parts, but the placement of the figure in space as well.

Sadie Valerie in San Francisco has a great video demonstration (click here) about using angles to block in shapes.

It’s hard to draw accurate proportions, but if you compare the length, width, and height of all the different parts of the figure (okay, use that part if you must) it will help keep your drawing under control.

I know there are good artists who don’t measure, and you know what? Good for them. I measure. Lots of artists measure. And the the more you measure, ultimately the less often you’ll need to measure as you develop and train your eye and hand.

Leave the extremities for later

Reclining figure watercolor and graphite on #300 Arches hot press

Reclining figure: 15-minute pose
watercolor and graphite on #300 Arches hot press

Hands and feet are hard to draw, so leave them for later, or for a longer session. Concentrate on drawing the torso before you start detailing the hands and feet. If you get the gesture and pose of the torso on your paper, often the viewer will fill in the hands and feet with their mind. After all, we know they’re supposed to be there.

Think in terms of shape, not line

Figure  Watercolor on #140 Arches paper

Figure: 10-minute pose
Watercolor on #140 Arches paper

Squint to see the large masses of shadow and light and draw those shapes. They describe form, and when you hit those shapes correctly, BAM! Your image will pop. Check the angles, measure those shapes. And sometimes it helps to divorce your mind from the object you’re drawing and ask yourself, what does that shape look like by itself? Maybe it looks like Michigan, or a gorilla, or a sloth sleeping upside down. Draw that shape.

My working method for these watercolors

Since I’m working on the Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days project, I took my watercolors with me for this session. For these poses I drew the figure first with pencil, making sure that I had correct shapes for the shadows. After so many life sessions, I have a sort of inner clock that alerts me to the time left for a particular pose, so I’m able to put down my pencil and pick up the paintbrush with enough time to lay in a few blocks of color.  Then I go home and fiddle with them some more, trying to remember the pose and the way the light fell across the form.

When I finished with my post yesterday, I found my Thomas Aquinas Daly book, Painting Nature’s Quiet Places (it was still packed away from our summertime move). I studied it deep into the night, revisiting his spare words and beautiful paintings. (And I must mention the wonderful smell of this book. I don’t know why it smells so good: like fresh ink, plaster, paper; that odor has become part of the way I perceive his work. I want my paintings to smell like this book.)

Today, while his work was still ricocheting around my brain, I decided to paint another egg, using a limited palette that was more subdued than the bright colors I usually use (a hold over from Ted Nuttall and Steve Curl, two big influences on my watercolor painting).

Again I worked far to long on this painting, using more time than I really have, but I was searching for something.

Egg 2 (First state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Egg 2 (First state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

The first time I thought I was “finished” (after two hours) I really wasn’t, but I didn’t realize that until I scanned the painting and saw the thumbnail. Kind of blah.

One of the big strengths of Daly’s paintings is his exquisite sense of composition. I realized that I had just been painting an egg, not a picture. So I tried to find some composition in what I’d started.

Egg 2 (Second state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Egg 2 (Second state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

I painted some more, trying to build up values and saturation. I strengthened the composition by adding more value and creating stronger, more interesting shapes, and I increased the value in the darks. It helped, but still, as you can see in the second scan, no cigar.

Egg 2 (Third state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Egg 2 (Third state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

This is the third pass I made at this painting. (Ah, making a pass is such a loaded phrase, isn’t it? So redolent of the kind of heated desire that keeps an artist working in the midst of frustration.) When I started painting this morning, I decided that I would skip my go-to color, ultramarine blue. But in the end I found that I needed that particular shade of reddish blue to push the background behind the egg, as well as help me define the shapes better. I also realized that it needed more saturated colors to bring it out of its monochromatic doldrums, so I added that glow of cerulean blue and a red splotch on the egg itself (remember, warm colors, if they’re the right value, come forward). It’s better, and I’ve learned many lessons.

Daly says, “My purest creative energy comes to fruition in the puddles, flecks, and patches of paint on the paper’s surface rather than in what they represent. The internal dynamics of watercolor as a medium and the rich, sensual surfaces that can be created with it are the very qualities the keep me enthused abut my work.”


Lead bird on this blog

Painting and drawing and playing tunes are the things that make life real, They are what makes my life matter. These, and berry pie.

Small songs

Sketchbook Challenge


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.

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