Abstract 1

Abstract 1

Last week I lived beyond cell phone and internet reach as I  attended a week long workshop taught by watercolorist Ted Nuttall. As I expected, I learned so much (yes, the back of my head blew off a couple times!). Let me share just a few of the most important concepts I took away from this wonderful experience..

1. Slow down. No, I mean s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. I spent a lot of time thinking about my next brush stroke. Where should it go? What color should it be? How would it react with the other colors already on the paper? When I finally acted, it was with intention rather than panicked splashiness.

Abstract 2

Abstract 2

2. Think abstractly. This was probably the single most important concept I tried to internalize. I’ve been unhappy with my work lately, finding it a bit flat, and lacking the broken color and fine edges that make my head ring with internal music. By concentrating on making each small passage its own tiny abstract painting, (that of course, relates to the whole image) I was able to add interest and visual variety to otherwise flat passages.

Abstract 3

Abstract 3

3. Think color. I tend to get stuck in one single color: orangey-red flesh tone. But that’s not what a person looks like. Skin tones are made up of many different hues and chromas. By varying color, saturation, and value, the painting is not only more exciting, but more like life. So I went (a little) crazy with color, using combinations I don’t normally choose.

Abstract 4

Abstract 4

4. Be uncomfortable. I made a decision that every brush stroke I put down would make me uncomfortable. I not only walked a watercolor tight rope, but I bounced a bit on the artistic high wire.  Sometimes my brushstrokes set me teetering and wheeling, but after a bit of nail biting (and whining), I regained my balance and continued  painting. You know what? Those seemingly near disasters turned out to be the best parts of the painting.

My workshop painting is still not quite finished, so I’ll not post it yet, but I’ve cropped a few of the tiny abstract paintings that make up the whole. I find them quite lovely all by themselves.

This week I’m off to a Ted Nuttall workshop at Kowana Valley Folk School. The last time I attended one of his workshops, it was a sea change for me. I know I shouldn’t apply expectations, but I’m hoping for another big jump during this workshop. We shall see.

I like to have goals, though. They focus me and keep me from straying off along a thousand different paths. I’ve been thinking a lot about my goals for this workshop.

  1. There is tightness—a constriction—about my work that I’d like to loosen. It’s the seeming freedom in Ted’s work that I admire, although he told us at the last workshop that every dib and daub of paint is placed carefully and deliberately. But I think it must be a freedom in his way of thinking that allows for those spot-on “sloppy dots.”
  2. I also admire his color sensibility, and although I’m not sure how someone can teach that in a week, I’m hoping to gain some insights.

I know that I need to keep myself open to whatever knowledge blows my way. Sometimes it’s the errant zephyrs of knowledge that make the most impact. But I’m going to try to follow my path as best I can.


In May I’ll be exhibiting with other artists at two locations in Silicon Valley Open Studios. I’d like to introduce you, dear readers, to some of the other artists who will be showing their work, so I’ll be writing a series of posts in the weeks leading up to Open Studios..

The first artist I’d like to introduce you to is Elyse Dunnahoo. Elyse paints representationally, making beautiful images that portray her feelings about the subject she paints. I love her images for their softness and  the calmness they reflect.

Describe your artistic journey

I owned my own business, designing and manufacturing women’s cycling apparel. The business was successful, but took most of my time to manage and design the product. My husband also had a business and business partner. We had two (twins) young children. Our time was spread out too thinly, so it was decided to sell my business. I began studying classical realism (representational art) while at home with my kids. I took as many workshops and classes that I could afford and time would allow. I was extremely fortunate to study with Ted Jacobs and Tony Ryder. I copied master drawings and cast statues. I practiced drawing as often as possible, from portrait to life to still life.

Where has art taken you in life?

I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Paris, France. I studied in Paris for 6 weeks, drawing in the Louvre.

What do you think about when you begin painting?

How beautiful the still life is, lit by the North light- tender, softly blanketing the subject, and striking in appearance in its quiet beauty. My thinking, my goal, from beginning to end, is working to portray the light as I have described it.

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

One of my favorite paintings is  The Creamery. This is one of my first paintings using the Flemish method of indirect painting. I admire insects and have a small collection of butterflies, beetles, and wasps. The butterfly in this painting is from my collection. The North light exuding calm and quiet is rendered so.

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

Andrew Wyeth. Describe in detail your painting technique, the lighting in your studio, your color palette.

You can see more of Elyse’s work at www.elysedunnahoo.com

Elyse Dunnahoo will be exhibiting on May 3-4  at 1191 Sherman Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025

“Sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down.” –Ray Bradbury

In less than a month, I’ll be selling my paintings and prints at Silicon Valley Open Studios. I’ve been preparing. I’ve been painting. I’ve been printing. I think I have a nice body of work to show. Everybody in my life, from the fiddler to my day-job boss and colleagues, has been excited and supportive.

And yet…

The first day of Open Studios, May 3, is my own personal “Follow your Fear Day.”

There are days when I’m nearly paralyzed by fear of the Open Studios experience. Fear of selling my work, fear of meeting the public, fear of competing with other artists.

There’s nothing new about these fears nor are they my fears alone. The Skinny Artist has a post that does a good job describing the 5 fears that can destroy an artist, and I have to admit, I suffer from all of them.

What, exactly am I afraid of? Well, it’s sort of a nebulous, nameless fear that involves people sneering at me, total failure, and a recurring nightmare of showing up at prom in curlers and pajamas. So let me break these things down and try to dispel them, if not for you, than at least for me.

Failure is a state of mind

Michael Jordan famously said, “I accept failure…I can’t accept not trying.” But my wonderful fiddler puts it another way:

“There are no failures, only experiments for gathering data in order to learn.”

I can do that. I like science, and although I’m not a scientist, I appreciate the scientific method. So I’m trying to be a dispassionate observer as I work towards May 3. I tell myself, I’m simply gathering data. I’m taking notes on the whole process of setting up a tent, sitting with my work displayed, and meeting people. Watching people’s reactions, learning from other artists, practicing my talking skills.  Since, like many artists, I’m shy, meeting and greeting people is the hardest thing for me to do. What will people think?

Who cares what other people think?

Let’s be real here. I do. You do. We all care what our fellow humans think about us; it’s part of the pack mentality. We want to be accepted into the tribe because that’s where our safety rests. And if we don’t belong to the troupe we see coming over the hill,, well, that group of folks may be hostile.

Except I know that most people aren’t hostile. Most people wish others well. And I’m not sure I should care about the ones who don’t wish me well.

Art is a personal choice, and people may not like what I do. That’s fine. That’s got to be fine, because I only can paint like Margaret Sloan (me!) paints. And wherever I am in my particular artistic journey, that’s where I am.

“And then I discovered I was at the dance wearing my pajamas!”

Yes, I’m afraid of forgetting something, of being caught out, of looking stupid. A friend once said to me, “Don’t be afraid of the future. Be prepared for it.” And so I’m spending all my free time getting ready for Open Studios. And when I have those embarrassing dreams, well they’re my dreams; I’m dream-hiring the band Pink Martini to play  “Tempo Perdido” while I shake it like there’s no tomorrow. Because damn it, I look pretty good in my pajamas.

Business cards

Three of my beautiful business cards. They are really like little frameable prints. The words are on the back.

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks because I’ve been getting ready for Silicon Valley Open Studios this year. I haven’t exhibited my artwork in a booth at a public event in, oh, I don’t like to say how many years, so I’m riding on a little hyperdrive of nerves.

I’ve been painting and planning, and panicking; it’s a big job! I’ve been making prints, framing paintings, and I’ve just had more Moo Cards printed. I really think they’re one of the best, (if not one of the most expensive) online printers. You get what you pay for.

Let me say that my day job is in the business of print, and I’ve been trained by some of the most obsessive compulsive perfectionists you’d ever hope to meet. People with eyes of eagles; they can tell if a 5 pt. period (full stop for you Brits) is italic or roman. I’m not saying that I have that kind of eye (I can barely see a 5 pt. period, let alone its slantiness), but I’m pickier about print than the average person (It’s my job!), and I have been impressed with Moo Cards. If you’d like to try them, you can use my code: http://www.moo.com/share/5b9z6n

You’ll get %10 off your first order, and (full disclosure here) I’ll get some kind of credit since I referred you. So if you’re looking for new cards, you might want to give Moo a try.

Frustrated artist

Portrait of the artist seeking perfection
Watercolor on Yupo

Blogger Drew at the Skinny Artist recently posted about the perils and paralysis of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that keeps painters from painting, writers from writing, and musicians from musicking. You probably have felt it: the need to make sure everything is just so before beginning, working on, or finishing a piece of work. It can be a problem for creatives. It can keep us from accomplishing our goals, telling our stories, meeting deadlines, and making our dreams come true.

I know, I know, it’s hard to let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. I work at freeing myself from it constantly. But it’s possible to break those chains. Here 8 simple bullet point items that work for me.

1. Just start. Fear of failure can derail my creative train before it ever gets out of the station. But come on. It’s art, not mass transportation; if I go off the artistic tracks, nobody dies. Truly. So I chug ahead by doing something. Anything. I copy a Bargue plate; study how to draw a particular body part (right now I’m doing knees); make some color charts; even—when I’m least inspired—drag a brush or pen across a piece of paper just to make some marks. It often sparks an idea and stokes that creative choo-choo.
2. Do a lot of work. Everyday. With plenty of work going on, I don’t end up hunched over one painting hissing “my precioussss”. I’ve got other fish to fry. If a particular painting isn’t working, I move on to something else for a while.
3. Make a mistake early in the process. I work in watercolor, and we all know how hard it can be to correct an errant  . Rather than live in fear that I’ll ruin my perfect piece, I often deliberately make a mistake, just to get it over with so I can paint in peace.
4. Forge ahead and find those mistakes. As an artist, I’m an explorer. I’m seeking the fountain of eternal personal vision, but along the way I’m sure get stuck in the bog of bad brushstrokes, or lost in the desert of dumb ideas. My job is to find those places too; while slogging through them, I’m also mapping them. Who knows? There might be something there I’ll need in the future.
5. When the inner critic starts blathering, change the station. Sometimes there’s a reason to listen to that gremlin, but usually there’s not. When mine starts to cackle in glee at a mistake, I shut him out by thinking of my past teachers, and imagining that they’re standing at my shoulder helping me out of a sticky situation (fortunately I’ve only ever had wonderful, supportive teachers).
6. Let it go. Take a breath. Turn the work to the wall. Go eat some cookies. When you come back to the work, you might discover the fix for any mistakes that have been bugging you. Or you might just discover that you are, in fact, finished, and ready to take what you’ve learned from this work on to the next.
7. Embrace rejection. I once asked a magazine editor friend how she dealt with the constant rejection of her ideas at story meetings. She laughed. “Ideas are cheap. I come up with a hundred of them everyday. Most of them get rejected; I don’t take it personally.” So, go back to #2 in this list. Or move on to #8.
8. Did I say work? Yeah. Work some more. Sleep. Then get back to work. Over the years I’ve noticed that many of the successful artists I admire don’t really have time for existential angst over perfectionism. They don’t have time to, well, spend a lot of time obsessing. Painters pick up the brush and paint; writers sit down at the computer and write. My fiddler takes up his fiddle and plays. There might be angst contained in the process, and they always try to do their best, but the work? It gets done.

**Disclaimer: Understand that I’m just whistling in the dark here. But the thin tune I’m singing can bolster my courage and gumption to get over that fear of failure. Because really, the game may be a foot, but still, it’s all in the mind. 

Get to work.

Portraits are among my most favorite thing to paint. I can give you many of my own words as to why, but for one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever read about portraiture, I’m sending you over to painter and blogger Keven McEvoy’s latest post, A flowery band to bind us to earth.  (Click on the link to the left to take you there.)

So get your cup of tea (and probably a handkerchief to blot up any tears) and go visiting.

clarinet player

Klezmer musician sketch
8.5″ x 12″
Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I tend to paint slowly. I spend hours getting the drawing right before I move to color. Then I paint deliberately, thinking about each stroke. Sometimes I think too much,  standing in front of the easel, brush in hand, looking and daubing.

Eventually I start feeling trapped, like some old hen pecking away in a chicken coop. I’m afraid to move from my comfort zone because I’ve got too much invested in a particular painting. Yet, with no forays out of the barnyard into the woods, well, where is the exploration? Where is the learning? Where is the joy? All I’m doing is laying eggs.

But I want to fly.

Perversely, sometimes limits can free an artist from gravity. Rather than spend hours on a painting, I decided to give myself some parameters: half hour for the drawing and an hour for the painting. I wanted to see what I could accomplish in a short period of time.

What a great exercise! It forced me to think in terms of big shapes, clear color and correct value. I let go of trying to have a “finished” product and made choices quickly. And I was quite surprised at how instinctive painting has become.

Most valuable tool in this exercise: The kitchen timer.

This is the finished version of the happy baby that started out as zombie baby.  I don’t know why babies make people so happy, but they do. Anyway, when they’re smiling and laughing, they make me happy. This painting  tickles me, and I hope it starts your week off with a smile.

Watercolor of laughing baby

Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I wish the best for this little guy, the newest member of the fiddler’s clan, and I look forward to seeing him grow up.

Painting is not all flow and happy splashing. There’s a fair amount of angst as well. Tears. Ranting. Tantrums sometimes ensue.

Especially when, after hours of work, the painting looks like this:

beginning of baby painting

Early photo of baby painting

I start to get a little nervous. Happy Baby now looks like  Zombie Baby (my apologies to babies and zombies everywhere.) But as someone once said, painting is an act of controlled panic.

My portrait teacher, Rob Anderson, taught me to put the eyes into a portrait last, or at least later, so that they don’t distract you from the rest of the face. I generally try to abide by that; I find that as I work on the surrounding face, I sometimes have to redraw the eyes a bit. But there comes a point when the lack of eyes is more distracting than not having eyes.

Even after more work and adding eyes, this painting still disturbs. My blood pressure and frustration level are rising.

beginning of baby painting

Beginning of painting, with eyes added

But when I finally put in the eyes, the painting began to lose some of the creep factor. But not all. I’m really getting worried that time, my most precious resource, has been frittered on a loser painting. I’m babbling and ranting at this point.

My fiddler, the best coach I have, said, “be quiet and forge ahead. If it’s ruined now, you’re not going to make it worse.”

So, after a few more hours of painting and public radio, my blood cortisol level has gone down as the painting begins to take shape.

baby painting

Unfinished watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© Margaret Sloan 2014

There are still some things I’m unhappy about, like the yellow I just added to the face (the yellow is exaggerated by the photo, but not by much), but I’m not so worried about that. A cooler color layered transparently over that bright yellow will soften it, and the brightness will glow through the coolness.

Next: Finishing up.

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.

Link to Margaret Sloan Etsy shop

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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