Mountains drawn in charcoal

Mountains drawn in charcoal


Sometimes I need to tear apart a subject and really understand what is going on with it before I can continue a project. There’s a view near my home that I’ve been trying to paint, to no avail.

I decided to strip it down to a simple charcoal study, which you see above, but before I could continue working on it, I needed to break it down even more.

Landscape contour drawign

Landscape contour drawing

A wireframe, or a contour study, helped me see the folds of the hills, and where the planes are catching and blocking light. I also realized that mountains and folds in fabric are built in the same way (I’ve realized this before, but you know, when you get older, one of the joys in  life is the endless repetition of epiphanies.)

Mountain painting

Gouache on paper
11″x 8.5″

Then I added gouache for some color. I love that the paint can be applied transparently—you can still see the marks of charcoal under those glazes—but the pigment can also be slathered on and moved around like oils. In fact, gouache seems to encompass characteristics of both watercolor and oils, depending on how much water you use. I’ve just begun using gouache, but I’m really liking it so far.

My friend Doreen L. Barton mentioned that she’d like to see a studio that was messier than hers.

You’re out of luck on this post Doreen, because I just cleaned my desk.

Yes, I did.

Artist desk

My desk, shortly after having been tidied

I know, it still looks cluttered. That’s why I decided to annotate it for you, dear readers. You’ll see why it’s nearly impossible for me to keep my desk looking like those spic-and-span-tastical desks you find on Apartment Therapy. (Sweet mother of dog, do artists work at these desks?)

My dad and I made this desk from 2 x 2s and a sheet of some kind of laminate material. It’s a great desk, but it is not magazine-worthy, like this fancy glass-topped creation from an artist studio in Mexico. (It’s probably cleaned by the maid every morning while the artist is drinking her café con leche and reading the Mexico City News. It’s pretty easy to have a clean desk when you have an obsessive-compulsive housekeeper that organizes your color pencils based on your current drawing. I had one of those when I lived in Mexico. She’s probably running 18 successful businesses right now while I’m…well, I don’t work in color pencil anymore. And I clean my own desk. Occasionally.)

Anyway, I did clean the desk-of-shame, and shucks, I’m proud of it. So here it is, a tour of my desk.

1. Old papers

I can’t stand to throw away paper, especially if only one side has been used. So I usually have a stack of lightly used paper on the corner of the desk for quick sketches, notes, and paper airplanes.

2. Wire, bits of old ideas, rusty pen nibs that I’m hoping I can de-rust

Why do I have this stuff on my desk? Why, oh, why? But where can I put it? I can’t throw it away; I might need it someday. Where you put wire so that you can find it when you need it? Dear reader, do you have a wire drawer? A rusty pen nib drawer?

3. Pruning shears

Borrowed from my mom for an illustration. Sorry Mom, I’ll return them soon.

4. Broken cup from Whittard of Chelsea

I bought this cup on my one-and-only trip to London, and I can’t stand to throw it away. There’s a toothbrush and a couple of Pigma Microns in it. I do have a drawer for Pigma Microns, but not a drawer for used toothbrushes I use for spraying paint.

5. Palette of paint

This is a gouache palette. Sometimes it’s a watercolor palette.

6. Jar of scissors

There are also pens and pencils, most of which I rarely use. The pens and pencils I use regularly live in drawers dedicated to them. I need more drawers.

7. Table top drafting board

This was given to me, thankfully, because they are frightfully expensive. You can get one here, but I’m warning you, the tilt is not nearly high enough to save your back. When I’m drawing a lot at the table, I have to stack books under the board, which makes the desk even more cluttered. I need a drafting table, but have you checked out how much those things cost? If you have an old one gathering dust in your garage, hey, give me a shout.

8. Container of water

To use #5. We used to eat a lot of Pavel’s yogurt, so I’m fully stocked with plastic water containers.

9. Rogue piece of paper

It says,

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” — Crowfoot’s last words, 1890

When you put a clean desk in that perspective, it doesn’t seem so important, now does it?


Sketch of Beppe Gambetta

Sketch of Beppe Gambetta while he played lightning fast flat-pick guitar licks.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing flat-pick guitar player Beppe Gambetta in concert. It was a small venue, and I was fortunate to sit right up front, thanks to friends who arrived early. I was so stunned by Mr. Gambetta’s playing that I couldn’t even think of drawing for the first half of the concert. But of course I had a sketch book (It was the 11″ x 14″ Cachet,  far too large for unobtrusive concert drawing. Reminder to self: bring something smaller to concerts.). I swallowed my sketching-in-public shame during the second half of the concert and drew (still amazed and enchanted) while Gambetta played.

You can’t draw musicians without drawing their hands, yet hands are so difficult to draw. And the hands of a musician are always moving (Gambetta’s left hand sometimes blurs against the neck of the guitar). But I’ve found that even a mass of lines can lead me to a better understanding of the subject. And when I draw something I have a better understanding of the whole thing, music included.

Sketch of hand

First sketch of guitar player’s left hand

The first time I drew Gambetta’s hand, I tried to record the position of the fingers and knuckles, and the angle of his hand as it wrapped around the neck of the guitar. I imagined the fingers as little boxes, with tops, bottoms, and sides, to help me figure out the planes of each digit.

But it’s not easy; since his hands are always moving, I had to devise a way to make a gesture drawing that was accurate. First, I listened a bit to understand the structure of the tune. Then I chose a chord that he made often. Since I could anticipate when he’d return to that chord, I was ready to draw when he got there, and I quickly sketched as he played with his hand in that position.


Sketch of hand

Second sketch of guitar player’s left hand

In my second attempt, I wanted to smooth out the lines and make the drawing less about boxes and more about fingers. I was also trying to figure out the position of his hand and how the fingers attached to it.

Sketch of hand

Final sketch of guitar player’s left hand

Later, I studied my sketches and made the drawing above. It’s neater, and shows each finger and the hand position as it wraps around the guitar. It doesn’t show the passion that Gambetta puts into his chord hand; the initial scribble at the top of the post does a better job at that. But this is work that needs to be done; it will eventually make my initial sketches better.

The more an artist learns about a subject, the more force they can bring to even little things like a quick sketch. It’s all about observing, paying close attention, and then attempting to show what you’re feeling with pen and paper, brush and paint. What better way to live a life?

And here are some YouTube videos of Beppe Gambetta.

Watercolor portrait

Watercolor portrait from 15-minute life pose at a life drawing session

The painting above was the result of a 15-minute pose at the local life drawing session. 15 minutes isn’t long time. Fruit flies live longer. All I could manage was a quick pencil sketch to capture the model’s likeness and a few brush strokes to remind myself of his overall skin tone (his local color). And one of those brushstrokes—the red stripe on the shadowed side of his cheek—was as awkward as a quarterback in toeshoes.

Oh well. Ted Nuttall once said in a class that sometimes he makes big mistakes just so he has a problem to solve. It keeps him from getting bored.

Watercolor portrait

Watercolor portrait after working on it at home for another 45-minutes.

I haven’t been painting much the last week. I’ve been busy with a few illustration commissions which I was doing in digital space, and haven’t been real-world painting. But Friday morning the call of the paintbox was too strong, that desire to sling pigment and water an unbearable pain in my heart. What could I do? I gave myself an hour behind the brush to play with this painting, setting the alarm for 45 minutes, which would give me 15 minutes to wrap it all up.

During that 45 minutes, the painting began to take shape. But even 45 minutes is not long enough for me to make thoughtful decisions about a painting. More bad brush strokes. Questionable color choices. And unstretched watercolor paper that warps under washes until it’s like painting on a wrinkled wet towel.

watercolor portrait

Watercolor portrait with dark gouache background and ultramarine blue shadows

When the alarm went off, it was time to dry the wrinkly paper with a blast of air from the blow dryer (I’ve heard some folks use a blow dryer to dry their hair. Curious, isn’t it?) and make a couple of large decisions that would finish (or ruin) the portrait.

A dark background of gouache helped ease the brilliance of the colors in the face, and a light wash of ultramarine watercolor over the shadowed side of the face helped unify the shapes and blur the weird red brush stroke that had stumbled across the cheek in the initial 15 minute painting. I had to restate the eye, which wandered a bit. Oh well, we all have a bit of a wandering eye at some point in our lives.

I’ve been asking my artist friends to participate in the Saturday Studio Time project, so I thought I’d better post my own thoughts about my personal studio too. Studios are so personal and private; I’m eternally grateful to the artists who have agreed to shed their natural inclination to shun publicity and offer a glimpse of their working spaces.

Artist studio

This is where I paint and draw. On the floor is a painter’s drop cloth. The lights are clamped to the bathroom door; someday I’ll get a light stand when I find the perfect thing. The easel belonged to the sister of a dear friend; she passed away, and he had no use for it, so he loaned it to me. It means so much to me to work on it.

What does your studio mean to you?
I’ve never before had a dedicated room for my studio; I’ve always worked in the living room of whatever small space I lived in. But with a recent move, I now have a room to myself, and it’s exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it makes me feel like a “real” artist. Terrifying because of the responsibility and expectations that are attached to having a dedicated space. I try to be very businesslike in the studio, as well as very creative.

Having a private space means I can allow myself  to work on projects that might be dumb. I can make mistakes. I don’t have to worry about anyone seeing them and commenting or judging. Work doesn’t have to be public before it’s ready. That’s incredibly freeing. Sometimes my mind feels like it’s spooling out into the universe and netting more ideas than I can possibly consume in a day, a week, or a lifetime. Every morning I get out of bed brimming with ideas, projects, and plans for the day.

Morning commute

This is my morning walk down a path to my studio

Where is your studio?
It’s at the bottom of the house, but since the house is on a hill, my window looks into trees.  It’s like being in a tree house, which about the most romantic thing in the world to me.

In the morning I leave the living space of the house and walk down a little path through cedars and sugar pines to get to the studio door under the house.  During that short walk, I make a transition from being at home to being at work. I’m able to set my intentions for the day during that brief time in the outdoors.

During the daylight hours I work really hard, but so far I don’t like being in the studio after darkness falls. It’s partly because we live in the country and the night is very dark. I often catastrophize about mountain lions hiding in the shadowy recesses under the deck, ready to leap out and eat me. I’m professional about it though. I stay and finish my work, because it’s got to be done. But at the end of my day, I often call my husband (his office is at the top of the house) and ask him to come walk me “home.”

What does your studio look like?
I have all sorts of plans to create a beautiful and fabulous space, but so far, working has taken precedence over decorating. Stuff is where it needs to be in order to get the job done. Sometimes I wonder why I am not the kind of person who absolutely requires a beautiful space in which to work; I think that I live in my head so much that I don’t often notice my surroundings. Except for the outdoors. I notice that.

For the most part, my studio is pretty messy, especially when I’m working on a project. Between projects I clean it a bit: collect the dirty coffee mugs and popcorn bowls, recycle scrap paper and printouts of projects, collect sketches and trial paintings and take them to the flat file, wipe up the drips of paint, sweep the floor.  I like working in a clean space. I just have trouble keeping the space clean.

Rolling kitchen cart with two drop-leaves.

Rolling kitchen-cart with two drop-leaves.

What’s the coolest, most helpful thing in your studio?
Last Christmas, my husband bought me a rolling kitchen-cart thingy at the local thrift shop. I love it. It’s the perfect height, so it has made my painting life less painful (before, I hunched over a folding tv-tray table). I can fit multiple palettes on the top of it, store my brushes and painting supplies in it, and roll it where I need it to be. I highly recommend something like it.

Also, I recently bought a light box for use in illustration. It makes transferring sketch ideas so much easier than tracing them on the window.

Light box

Light box with sketches of a current personal project


Studio tip?
My most useful tip, and one that I should heed more often is this one rule: No Facebook in the studio. I can waste way too much time looking at cute puppies and kitties or stressing over politics. I should be in my studio to work, not gander at the internets.

Watercolor of girl with car

The new car
11″ x 8″ watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

This was a commission I recently finished. Long ago I posted about beginning a watercolor painting (You can read the post here) by making small studies to find where you want to go with the work.

This painting was a commission from my Dad, and he wanted the house in the background; the photo was taken in my grandparent’s driveway, and my mom, my dad, and I  still long for that little home in the desert where we were all so happy. But young folk have to go out on their own, and in the reflected landscape in the windows I’ve tried to capture the limitless future that all young people feel they have.

The tiny black and white photo of my mom and her very first car has lived in my dad’s wallet for nearly 60 years. My parents often drift dreamily into rhapsodies about this car; I always ask, why’d you get rid of it? My mom shakes her head and says, “you know your father.” He just looks at his plate and grins. I’m awfully glad they kept each other. They are a wonderful model for a long term, romantic relationship.

These are the original studies.

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study

Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study

Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study

If you’ve got an old photo you’d like interpreted with watercolor, contact me at  mockingbirdatmidnight  at  and we’ll talk about a commission. They make wonderful gifts and remembrances. You won’t be sorry.

Collage of 30-in-30 paintings made with PicMonkey

Collage of 30-in-30 paintings made with PicMonkey

Today is the last of my 30-in-30 paintings as part of Leslie Saeta’s Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. I want to thank her for challenging the paint-o-sphere to take up brushes and post their results everyday of January. I also want to thank her for hosting all of us on her blog. It’s been fun; I’ve found some amazing and dedicated artists this way, and met some lovely people.

My goal at the start of January was to make 30 paintings strictly from life. I love the way that it made me see differently; made me see more clearly; and made color even more flavorful than it usually is to me. I’m excited to paint from life more often. I’m curious to see how it will affect my work from photos.

But just because it’s no longer February doesn’t mean that I’ve got to put down my brushes. Onward and upward! More eggs!




Watercolor portrait

15-minute portrait
Watercolor on really terrible paper

I began this painting in the life drawing session on Thursday. But since the models (us!) only posed for 10 to 15 minutes, I didn’t have time to A. Catch a good likeness and B. apply much paint. So I brought it home and played with it in my studio. I admit, I cheated a little bit. I started it on Thursday, but finished it today. (I didn’t have time to start a personal painting today, as commercial work fell in my lap, and you know how freelancing goes: work when you’ve got it and starve when you don’t.)

This is paper that, even though it wasn’t cheap (although not at the top of the food chain either),  is even more unsatisfactory than the really cheap stuff. I was sorely disappointed in this paper, and have never really used it for anything much at all. It looks like it should be a wonderful paper, but when you start applying washes, it gets very strange speckles all over it. And you can’t take any of the paint off; scrubbing gets you nowhere. I won’t tell you the brand in public (I don’t like to kiss and tell), but if you really want to know, I can tell you privately.

Maybe I haven’t learned how to coax the best from this paper. Eventually I guess I’ll learn as I still have a whole pad of it.


Saturday Studio Time is a new feature I hope appears regularly on this blog.  I am fascinated by the rooms where artists, writers, and musicians work; our spaces for creating art can be small or large, indoors or out, but they are intensely personal and private. I’m grateful to the artists who agree to share their creative spaces with us for this blog.

Painting by Doreen L. Barton

Self Portrait
© Doreen L. Barton
Pastels on paper

I met Doreen L. Barton when we studied at the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland. Our teacher at the time, Christian Fagerlund, talked a lot about the artist’s mark—the way the artist touches the paper with pencil, chalk, paint. That touch and what it builds is like a piece of the artist’s soul, and gives the work depth, integrity, and substance. Doreen’s marks are so thoughtful, so beautifully sensual and graceful that they infuse her work with deeper meaning than just being pictures on paper.  Take some time to visit her website, and you’ll see what I mean. I’m pleased that she agreed to talk about her studio with me.

Where is your studio space and what does it look like?
My studio is in our converted garage. We added insulated walls, windows and adjustable lighting. It doubles as studio/office space and measures approximately 10′ x 12′. I was lucky in that I was able to plan the space and storage. The walls are a dull white/grey, mat finish. I’d advise anyone to try to adjust reflective surfaces. This is important since the light bouncing off different surfaces (including your walls) in a room will affect how you perceive light values in the subject you’re drawing or painting, even when looking at reference photographs.

I also planned the placement of my easel and work surfaces so that I’m able to stand about 12′ plus away from my work on the easel. I have several methods of checking my work. Stepping away and viewing it from at least 10′ is one; at a distance I see the whole piece at once. The first thing I usually see is where the light and shadow values need adjusting. I also see where my measurements are off. If I’m working on a portrait, standing at a distance is for me the best way I can see if the likeness is coming together.

How does being in your studio make you feel?

There is a certain amount of serenity. I think that putting time and thought into my space has helped me feel committed. I wanted a space where I could get away from outside distractions, so it is an inner sanctum of sorts.  I think we experience so many different feelings as we work on our art. It’s important for me to be able to acknowledge my impulses and choices, where ever they may come from. There are many days I am not “in bliss” in my studio; it’s a place where I can push on through the misstep, the conundrum, and try the initially grueling technique or concept again and again. It’s where I decide to take a certain path, set a goal. At times I don’t realize I’m doing so until later.

Craftsman tool chest

This Craftsman tool chest doubles as storage and a tabouret.

Describe your set up.
My easel, drawing board, tool chest and table are set up on one side of the room. The majority of my studio furniture and equipment can be collapsed and stored when I’m not using it.

I’m organized in that I can find my materials quickly. Keeping up with clutter is another issue altogether.  The stuff in my storage shelves spills out like some kind of living organism. Reference materials, class notes, business records and the like are filed.  My systems have evolved and I’ve improved at keeping up with them, particularly after I got a business license.  Art books, (catalogs and technical reference) are also in the studio. I know some folks keep their art books away from potential spills and splatters.  Not me. I want to be able to just grab and search as I need.

Homasote bulletin board covered with muslin.

Homasote bulletin board covered with muslin.


What do you use for lighting?
I use daylight spectrum lighting, bulbs and track lighting.

What’s a favorite piece of furniture in your studio?
Some favorite items are my homasote tackboards.  These are large, about 3′ x 4′ each. I got them from the local lumber store.  I covered them with muslin (I think you could just paint them if you prefer) and mounted them on two walls from about 3′ off the floor to near the ceiling line.  I like to be able to pin up images, work-in-progress, references, you name it.  I love big post-able areas.


A sturdy easel is essential. The table next to the easel is a height adjustable hospital bed-table purchased online.


What’s the coolest, most helpful thing in your studio?
My easel. It’s the wood frame type. Very solid (doesn’t shimmy or rock), very sturdy and it can hold large boards. I know they’re not cheap, but I they’re worth the investment. I often work with my surface almost directly horizontal to the floor to minimize any tendency to distortion the image as I sketch it out. I love that my easel can hold my work securely in that position or at any angle.  It’s very adjustable and steady.

Another valuable item for me is a level to use for determining the vertical and horizontal position of the subject.  Especially helpful in live model drawing.

Give us a studio tip. What one thing you use in your studio helps you to make the art you see in your head?
My best tip takes practice: Setting time to work exclusively in the studio. I try for three to four 5-hour-days a week.  This is a target, frequently not obtainable. But I find the more time I shoot for, the more time I give myself.  Secondly, I keep a notebook/journal in my studio. Mine’s in book form. On one side of the book I write down project or artistic ideas, and on the other business or logistic notes, action items that I need to complete in conjunction with my art, or to help execute. Writing down ideas frees my mind to concentrate on my work


This is about half the collection of pastels that Doreen uses in her work



Figure drawing in watercolor

15-minute poses on cheap watercolor paper

Dear Reader, I originally thought to warn you about using crappy watercolor paper. If you’ve been studying watercolor for long, then I’m sure you’ve heard advice to use quality watercolor paper.

Before I got so snobbish about paper, I actually bought a pad of the cheap stuff. And people have given me pads over the years. So I’ve got quite a bit of it. I’ve never  used much of it because I got all highbrow early on in my watercolor journey. And it is hard to work with; badly sized, this paper sucks in the paint and leaves dull, lifeless washes that look sort of speckley. It buckles as soon as you add water, fights with me like mad racoon, and generally leaves me feeling like this pose.

But I’ve been using this cheap stuff for quick life-drawing warm ups, because then I don’t feel like I’m using up the precious resource of my luscious #300 Arches. And while the buckling, the disappearing paint, and the overall junkiness of this paper really frustrates me, in the end, I put in a lot of brush time on it, and work out a lot of solutions that I remember when I paint using the “good stuff”. So if you limit your painting experience because you’re  afraid to use up your fancy-schmancy, double-sized, extra-heavy oo-la-la papier, grab something cheap at your local art and craft store and get some mileage on your brush.

(Brushes, however? Get the best you can afford.)

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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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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