painting of church

A watercolor done many years ago of a half-built church

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere lately because we are in the process of moving (or thinking about moving, or taking about moving. We are not fast people. We move slowly).

Part of the process of moving is, of course, going through years of accumulated detritus, sifting out what to keep and what to save. It’s a little like an archeological dig, exposing layers of life that have been buried in boxes for nearly 2 decades.

The painting that heads this blog was done when, many years and lives ago, and sweating in tropical heat, I was just discovering that I needed to be a painter. I had always drawn, painted, created, but I was also attempting a writing career in those days. I was carving my time into chunks so that I could do both— write and paint—plus upkeep our lives in a foreign land.

I happened to read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. In it she describes making a pen drawing of the view she had through her window. Then one day she shut the blinds.

“Then, by lamplight, I taped my drawing to the closed blind. There, on the drawing, was the window’s view….If I wanted a sense of the world, I could look at the stylized outline drawing. If I had possessed the skill, I would have painted, directly on the slats of the lower blind, in meticulous color, a tromp l’oil mural view of all that the blinds hid. Instead, I wrote it.”

This passage was a watershed moment. I realized that by focusing on writing, I was penciling the wrong paper; I needed to paint, and to paint realistically, because I needed to see the world. I needed that connection of observing the world closely, granularly, carefully. I needed to create the picture in the window, not write it.  Painting was where my stories could live.

Need is such a weak word to describe the yearning, the almost sick-with-desire crush I felt for painting, that I feel even now. I still write (yeah, this blog), and I enjoy the (rare) feel of stones falling clop-clop-clop when I craft a particularly elegant sentence. But my true love, that moves with me from place to place, after nearly 20 years?

Brush and paint.

Watercolor painting

One of my first landscape paintings done from a sketch I’d made onsite.


Here’s a little tutorial.

There is a little school near our house where they often have events, complete with performances for the kids. One day they had dancers in full feathered Aztec regalia rattling their cowrie-shelled legs and swirling burning incense over the playground.

So dramatic! And I caught a beautiful image of a woman dancer that I really wanted to paint.

You might remember this was one of my initial color studies:

Study for painting 3" x 5" watercolor painting This study is for a drawing I'm working on. Six hours into the drawing and I feel like it's just starting to emerge from a mush of pencil scratchings. But I dreamed the colors, and couldn't wait to get them onto paper.

Study for painting
3″ x 5″ watercolor painting
This study is for a drawing I’m working on. Six hours into the drawing and I feel like it’s just starting to emerge from a mush of pencil scratchings. But I dreamed the colors, and couldn’t wait to get them onto paper.

This was the finished detailed drawing. How many hours in this drawing? I’m not sure I could tell you. Time folds when I’m concentrating.

pencil drawing

Pencil drawing for watercolor painting

I paint on Arches 300# paper, a stiff, cardboard like stock, so I don’t have to stretch it. I use push pins to hold it to a board. Sometimes it curls while painting, but I can flatten it after I’m done.

pencil drawing

Close up of pencil drawing

As I draw, I’m not only trying to find the likeness, but I’m also thinking about the painting. Watercolor (the way I paint) takes planning, and the underdrawing is my page of notes. Where will I use lost edges? Hard edges? And those difficult in-between edges that can often describe form so beautifully? How will I apply the paint? What brush strokes will I use?

When I finally believe I’m happy with the drawing (I always reach that point too soon. I’ve got to learn to keep working even after I think I’m finished.), I start adding light washes.

beginning painting

Light washes over pencil drawing

The first light washes establish the color temperature of my painting as well as the values. I like a lot of pigment on my paper, so I know that I’m going to cover  much of these beginning strokes with more paint. But these light washes are the  foundation onto which I build ever-deepening color. After this, it’s all about layering.

Painting of Aztec dancer

Little Pink Skull (unfinished)
Watercolor on Arches 300# paper
© Margaret Sloan 2014

I’m sorry that I got caught up in painting and didn’t make more process photos. This is unfinished; I am still working out the feathers in the head dress, and feel like I need to go a little deeper in value on parts of her face. Plus all the fiddly bits of the costume need to be fiddled with.

As careful as I was to get my drawing right, I still ended up glossing over complicated passages like the feathers in her headdress. Small drawing mistakes and fuzzy thinking magnify when you add paint, and I’ve had to scrub out those darn feathers a couple times to get the values and shapes to fall where I want them. I’m still messing with them.

When I’m finished, I’ll have a little dance of my own!




Drawing of Doughmore Beach

Doughmore Beach
Color pencil on Canson Mi-Tientes
© 1999 Margaret Sloan

I recently stumbled over an old pencil drawing of Doughmore (pronounced sort of like: Dowt-more) Beach in Doonbeg, County Clare, Ireland. I once spent a summer there, learning tunes and being a fool. I sang to this beach often, and loved it beyond reason. I’ve never been able to return.

You can click on the image and make it bigger.

I’ve been known to paint a single image many times, trying to “get it right.” (The painting “Trim the Velvet” I painted at least 12 times before I was happy with the results.)

I’ve been working an image of a friend’s wife for a year. It’s eluded me, partly because the original photograph was taken with the sun overhead. A no-no; yes, I’m aware of that. But her eyelashes cast a shadow on her cheek, delicate and curved. Her hair was wisping in a light breeze. Her name is Margaret (yes, my name too!), which, according to coffee cup research, means “pearl of the sea.” The photo, although taken on the front steps of a local church, somehow made me think of the ocean, so I decided to place her on a beach.

This first painting was a color sketch, to play around with the palette and composition. The sketch looks fresh, with nice, clear colors (my favorite part is the blue and green in the shadowed side of her face) and easy brush strokes, but it was just a very quick drawing.

watercolor painting

Sketch for “Margaret”
Watercolor on paper


This is the second version, a small painting: only 8.5″ x 11″. Whatever it was that had caught my attention eluded me in this painting, although in retrospect, I like the placement of the horizon the best in this version.

watercolor painting

Margaret 1
8.5″ x 11″ Watercolor on Arches #300
© Margaret Sloan 2014


This is the current painting, larger, with more finish. From the beginning the drawing was off, asI didn’t take a lot of time with it. (I grabbed it off the drawing board to take to Open Studios so I could paint while I hung out in my booth.) That little bit of wonkiness in the drawing magnified to large proportions when I started adding paint, and I had to repaint the eyes—a couple times—before they looked like eyes that belonged together on the same face. (Lots of gentle scrubbing with an ancient Series Seven sable removed the eyes.) Note to self: Nail the drawing before applying paint.

Watercolor Painting

Margaret M.
11″ x 14″ Watercolor on Arches 300#
© Margaret Sloan 2014

I think I’ll let this last one sit in the flat file for a while, then take it out and see what can be done. Or I might repaint it again someday!


I’m interested to know what you think. Let me know in the comments field.

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin duck study
11″ x 8″ watercolor on Arches 300#
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I spent some time at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo watching and drawing the two male Mandarin ducks as they circled each other, flashing their neck feathers and generally trying to be big duck on campus. They are very fancy, decorative birds when they’re in their spring flush.

In painting this, I tried to make every passage have more than one color, as well as making every passage its own little abstract painting. Some areas were more successful than others.

Mandarin duck

Close-up of Mandarin duck study
11″ x 8″ watercolor on Arches 300#
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

The problem with drawing them is that they have very oddly shaped heads. I can’t quite wrap my brain around the shape. To all my birdish friends out there, does anyone have a pet Mandarin that I could study up close? Is that oddly shaped head just feathers, or is the cranium actually wedge-shaped?

Cedar Waxwing on Privet 5" x7" watercolor on Arches #300 © 2014 Margaret Sloan

Cedar Waxwing on Privet
5″ x 7″ watercolor on Arches #300
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

Last year a flock of Cedar Waxwings stripped the privet tree of its blueberries. (I wrote about it here.) This year? Not so many birds, but enough that I could watch them and admire their beauty.


A candle for Rob Watercolor on #300 Arches © 2014 Margaret Sloan

A Candle for Rob
Watercolor on #300 Arches
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

This weekend one of my best and favorite teachers, Rob Anderson, passed away. I can’t begin to describe the sadness I feel for losing his presence to the world.

I met Rob nearly a decade ago, when, starving for the knowledge of how to draw stuff-that-looks-like-stuff, I began a serious study of life drawing at the Atelier School of Classical Realism. For 4 years, every other Saturday except during summer, Rob taught us how to visually describe the human body. I learned, slowly at first, then in leaps and bounds. Those days were long, exhausting, and exhilarating.

I couldn’t have had a better teacher in that time and place. Rob was kind, patient, and careful, yet could kick butt when he thought you were slacking. He showed me how to slow down; look closely; and really observe what I was drawing. He imparted his love of portraits. He taught me that drawing class isn’t a competition; we’re all just where we need to be.

And it wasn’t just drawing skills he gave me. Oddly, I also came away from that period of study with something else: more confidence. An assurance that traveled with me from the easel into other areas of my life. I’m grateful to him for those value-added skills.

I once told him that nearly every time I pick up a pencil or a brush, I hear him behind me, saying, “Did you measure the width of that leg? What about the angle of that arm as it supports the head? Are your proportions accurate? Is that really what you’re seeing, or are you making it up?”  And the weekly exhortation: “Go Darker!”

He arched his eyebrow when I told him that and he said, “Well, do you listen?”

Yes, I do listen. I haven’t seen Rob in a few years, yet I still hear his voice. I wish that I could have studied with him once more, but I think he left me with a lot that I’m only yet beginning to internalize. I’ll miss him, but I’ve got  his lessons in my head and hands.

Dear Readers, if there’s someone you want to connect with, to study with, to learn from, to mentor, be friends with: do it now. You know why.

To see some of Rob’s beautiful work:

All smiley at Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of the roses in the "Desert Rat" painting.

All smiley, pre-exhaustion, at the first day of Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of roses in the “Desert Rat” painting.

It’s been a week and I’m just about recovered from Open Studios.  Months of hard work and the two weekends of display left me limp and worn out, and reduced my apartment a dust-rimed wreck. Yesterday I de-cluttered, dusted and vacuumed; wiped down the kitchen cabinets and mopped the floor; then set up my easel, and started painting a portrait in the slow, thoughtful way I prefer to work (rather than slam-painting that I wrote about here.) And in the evening, I watched a movie (a bad one, but hey, two hours of not working!).

I’m still processing Open Studios, and I expect I’ll post more than one blog about the experience. I’ll put it under the category “Silicon Valley Open Studios,” so that it’s easy to find, should you be curious about what I learned.

One thing I can tell you right now: I should have swallowed my initial fear at doing open studios, a fear that paralyzed me. I should have painted more, and painted more sooner. I should have been better prepared. I should have done this, I should have done that.

But as my grandfather used to say, “should-a, would-a, could-a doesn’t get the house built.” I’ll know better next time. And now I’m off to (slowly and thoughtfully) sling around some paint.

Today I will be exhibiting from 11 to 5 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024. I have many new paintings this week (I’ve been working all week!). 

Hope to see you there.

Here’s a map:


Open studios location

Open studios location

Today you’ll be able to visit the 5 artists profiled at Mockingbirds at midnight. I do hope you’ll come let us delight you with our offerings!

The last artist interview for Silicon Valley Open Studios is with Karen Olsen. Karen paints beautiful landscapes in oil and watercolor, and her career in graphic design is evident in the strong designs and bold shapes she uses for her paintings.

Late Light at Grand Canyon Watercolor © 2014 Karen Olsen

Late Light at Grand Canyon
18″ x 24″ watercolor on Arches
© 2014 Karen Olsen

Describe your artistic journey
I was one of those kids who drew from the time I could hold a pencil, but my mother, who was very talented but had an unfortunate career path as an artist, encouraged me to pursue anything except art.  In my early twenties, I learned to paint in watercolor, and I dabbled in it between feedings of my newborn daughter, but still with little serious intent.  My life took an unexpected turn after that, and I was on my own, needing to make a living.  I eventually landed in the graphic design field, and for 25 years I have made my living in it.  Another life surprise recently brought me back to painting, and I now consider that I have a dual career as both designer and fine artist.

Where has art taken you in life?
I think my previous answer covers this…

Gnarled Tree at Canyon Rim Watercolor © 2014 Karen Olsen

Gnarled Tree at Canyon Rim
12″ x 16″ watercolor on Arches
© 2014 Karen Olsen

What do you think about when you begin painting?
First thought: “I wonder whether I can pull this one off??!!”

Yes, that’s sort of a joke.  But in a way it’s not at all.  Each blank sheet of paper or canvas is the beginning of a new adventure.  I may be trying a new brush, a new color, a new technique I want to experiment with, or a type of subject I haven’t done before.  Or maybe a subject I’ve done but want to see if I do better.  If it’s plein air, it’s new and unknown every single time!  Weather, changing light, curious onlookers, even bugs make for interesting challenges when painting outdoors.  So…to answer the question—I try to assess the environment I’m in and what I want to achieve, then try to figure out how to go about it.

Runner at Papohaku Beach, Molokai Oil © 2014 Karen Olsen

Runner at Papohaku Beach, Molokai
32″ x 40″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Karen Olsen

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?
Gee, I guess I’d have to select one of my Hawaiian or Grand Canyon subjects.  They are my favorites because of the joyful personal experiences that went into their creation, and which I hope are passed along through the eyes and into the hearts of the people who see them.

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?
This isn’t an easy one.  I’ll let you pick…I can’t.  :-)

to Anders Zorn: “Your stunningly beautiful watercolor painting Sommarnöje (Summer pleasure) is so evocative, and so…well…Swedish!  It’s one of my favorites.  How long did it take you to make it?”

to Monet and friends I’d ask: “Hey, can I come out and paint with you guys one of these days?  I’ll bring a picnic…”

to Georgia O’Keeffe I probably wouldn’t ask anything.  I’d just tell her, “I could look at these paintings forever…except after a while, they make me DIZZY!”

and to Leonardo: “Who is that lady?”

You can see more of Karen’s work at

Karen Olsen will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024 and May 17-18 at  247 Velarde, Mountain View.

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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