Today I’ll be one of the painters-on-display at the Ironstone Concourse d’Elegance in Murphys, California. I’ve been nervous about this event, unsure of what I’ll find. I’m told that there will be thousands of people there; it will be very crowded.

So I’m taking my cue from Roz Stendahl, and packing the way she does for her state fair jaunts. I’ve torn down a sheet of #300 hot press watercolor paper into 8″ X 10″ cards; packed my backpack with watercolors, water can, and brushes; dressed my self in cargo pants (the kind with all the pockets), and comfy shoes; squirreled away some left over pizza for a snack. The only thing I don’t have that Roz recommends is the spiffy little stool, so I’ll have to stand. (Read here about the way Roz sketches at the Minnesota State Fair.)

But I’m also bringing my french easel, in case there is a space in which I can comfortably set up.

If you’re in attendance, look for me and stop by to say hello (I’ll be the the lady in the cargo pants and floppy hat, furiously sketching and splashing paint around—and nibbing on yesterdays pizza). If you hang around long enough, I’ll put you in one of my sketches!


Red Sun #2 Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Red Sun #2
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Thankfully I am not near enough to the flames of the Butte fire to see the actual flames. I hope I never am.

But I am able to see the sun, which has been pretty darn creepy. This afternoon it was rimmed in red and glowing yellow-orange.

The news is that while the fire is still chewing through forest, grassland, and brush like a starved one-eyed ogre, they’ve contained it—30% (whatever that means). Dear reader, if you’re a praying person, pray for rain for California. Do a rain dance, make a wish, direct your energy. We need some water!

And if you can, please donate to the Red Cross to help the victims of this and other horrible fires. I won’t give you a link; just search for the Red Cross so that you’re sure you’re giving to the right organization.

Red Sun Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Red Sun
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

The fire started on Wednesday, but the severity of it didn’t hit me until Friday afternoon when the sun turned red and the sky began raining ash.

The Butte fire is ravaging Calaveras county; we’ve been on advisory evacuation orders this whole weekend as the flames galloped towards us. Thanks to the nearly 5,000 firefighters, police officers, and other responders (and we are so unbelievably grateful to these brave people who risk their lives to save ours) the march of the fire is slowing. But it’s still moving, and we are in its path.

Fire Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Today I had to paint about this fire.  I can’t see the fire from where I live, but I’ve seen so many photos, so many videos, and my nightmares are inscribed across my mind. I needed to unpack my fears of losing my own home if the firefighters can’t hold the line. I needed to process my sadness for my friends who have lost their homes. And I wanted to try to capture the energy and savagery of this beast that is consuming California.

And I want to be of some use. I can’t help directly. I can’t go bulldoze firebreaks and cut brush, but I can bring this to your attention, dear readers. If you are able, please donate to the Red Cross to help the fire victims across the West. We are burning, burning. So many have lost their homes, their possessions, their businesses and livelihoods. Help if you can.




Guitar player

Guitar player at the Farmers Market
Pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta Series Sketchbook

I had great fund making this sketch. Musicians stay in one position long enough that it’s possible to capture their images—but unfortunately, not their music—in the sketchbook.


Yes, it’s time again for another 30 paintings in 30 days. I’m a little late for this one, and am playing catch up.

30 Paintings in 30 Days is hosted by Leslie Saeta at http://lesliesaeta.blogspot.com/. It’s fun to look at other artists’ work. The last time I participated, I made a couple new internet friends, and that was the best part.

However, the last time I participated, I felt the need to write buckets about what I was doing. This month I’m a bit too busy, so I will try to contain myself.


Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Field sketch of the Camalay tomato
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Two weeks ago I spent the hot summer morning sketching amazing tomatoes at Taylor Mountain Gardens, the farm that supplies much of the fresh produce found at the Outer Aisle Farmstand and  Restaurant in Murphys, California. (Read about why I am drawing at this farm here.)

Owner Eric Taylor was understandably proud as he showed me the rows of these magnificent tomato plants, as well grown as everything else on this farm. The vines were big healthy mounds bearing nearly perfect classic tomatoes from pearly green unripe knobs to glowing summer-red fruits.

Originally bred by early Calaveras County Italian settlers (who had been friends of Eric and Christine Taylor)Camalay tomato is a big girl (according to Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds it can reach 2 pounds), is a pure clean red, and according to Eric, is completely suited to growing in Calaveras County.


A tomato such as this deserves its own artwork, and I’ve been working on a finished illustration to honor it (and use as a portfolio piece). I had my field sketches and a couple of blurry iPhone photos to work from.

As I designed the picture, I grew suspicious about this part of the field sketch.

Tomato_StemHad I seen that knobby structure on the stem correctly? Was it really so big? How exactly was it attaching to the tomato stem?

This week I returned to that row of big green plants and looked more carefully.

Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato stems Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Field sketch of Camalay tomato stems
Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Indeed, the tomatoes are attached to the plant by burly stems and hefty knobs; the fruit is heavy and so needs secure support. Now I wonder, do all big tomatoes have these odd knobs? I’ve never before looked that closely.

But that’s what’s so wonderful about drawing from life. Slow, careful observation reveals what is hidden from the impatient eye. Direct observation creates space for discoveries, and those revelations not only make my life so much more interesting, but they help me feel connected to my world.  Plus, my illustrations feel so much richer for being correct.

Gentle readers, your assignment for today is to look really hard at something familiar. Try to find something about it that you never before noticed, and note that in your sketchbook or journal.

Then slice a sun-ripened tomato (a Camalay if you can find one), sprinkle with salt or sugar, and while enjoying this summer treat, ponder what you’ve learned by observing what most people ignore.

In the Central Sierra look for Camalay tomatoes (as well as other varieties) at Taylor Mountain Farms booths at farmers markets throughout Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties. In Murphys, check out the Outer Aisle Food Hub or the Outer Aisle CSA.

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.

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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Small songs


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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