Drawing animals for AnimalScapes

Spread from AnimalScapes sketchbook at California Big Trees State Park Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Spread from AnimalScapes sketchbook at California Big Trees State Park
Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook


Hoo! I made the grade and was selected to be an exhibiting artist in the project  AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. This show, a tri-county project of the Calaveras County Arts Council, Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, and the Amador County Arts Council, will include over 50 artists and makers. We artists will be creating pieces—paintings, pottery, photos, sculptures, even poetry—that depict animals in the Sierra Foothills, and our works will travel around the three counties in an exhibition to be displayed in 2016.

There are many good things about this show. It will raise awareness of the animals that live in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and publicize animal welfare organizations working in the Foothill communities. I hope that it will increase the human will to protect and care for the other species that live in the area.

But one of the best things about being a part of this show?  There were two field trips. I love a field trip. (Yeah, selfish. I know.)

For our first foray we piled into a big yellow school bus and spent a long day rambling around Calaveras and Alpine Counties. It was great to leave the isolation of the studio and meet other local artists (my people!).

First stop was the New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum, where rangers led us on a short hike and we spotted an osprey roosting in a tree. The ranger said it was probably a fledgling from last summer’s clutch of chicks raised in the osprey nest built near the center.

Stuffed coyote in pouncing pose at New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Stuffed coyote in pouncing pose at New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum
Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

At Calaveras Big Trees State Park we had a short tour of the redwoods, led by volunteer docent Dexter. Dexter gave a good tour, and even better, had a great face for sketching. (That’s the illustration at the top of this post.)

This trip was like sketching heaven for me, and my pencil was busy the entire time. I tried to catch as much visual information as I could. Since the theme of this show is animals, I spent time drawing the taxidermy specimens in the visitor centers. Sketching stuffed animals isn’t as fun as drawing live beasts, but on the bright side, I could really concentrate on understanding perspective, proportions and forms.

I’m slowly adding color to the sketches, as there was no time for dragging out watercolors during either tour. It’s been a great way to experiment with the paint, as I’ve scanned the original pencil sketches to preserve them. With the sketches safely stored on my computer, I feel like I can take some chances with the paint.

AnimalScapes blog posts

Drawing animals for AnimalScapes

Sketching bears and tigers at the PAWS Ark 2000 animal sanctuary

Elephants at PAWS

Rain frog

Amulets_FrogThe Mayans have a serious froggy called Uo. The rain caller. It’s a fat plop of a frog that burrows in mud. (Read about the Uo here)

When I lived in Mexico, we often made our evening paseo near a long-abandoned hotel; during the rainy season the frogs  who lived in the drippy jungle and roofless building chorused like something out of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  I’m not sure if the Uo makes its home on the Pacific coast of Mexico, but every time it was going to rain, the ranas that lived in the overgrown hotel garden sang like the feverish lovers they were.

Here in the drought-dusty Sierra, we have been crying for rain. And the day before the big California-walloper storm hit, I heard a few tree frogs singing. Not many, but their small voices rang out like oracles.

It’s been a long while since I’ve heard froggy voices of any kind.  They all but disappeared from Silicon Valley decades ago. The Sierra frogs I heard heralded a good soaking rain, and I made the above picture to honor them as the rain bucketed down last night, and to ease my anxiety about flooding, mudslides, and all the other horror stories from the National Weather Service.

I needn’t have worried about rain. Because right now? It’s snowing.



Mockingbirds in the morning

This morning I woke to find four newly fledged mockingbirds on my lawn. They were gawky, still scruffy with baby down, and clumsy as they fluttered from lawn to lawn chair. Regularly they stretched out their little wings as if exercising them for their next big flight.

Sketch of mockingbirds
Sketch of baby mockingbirds; Pigma Micron pen in Strathmore mixed media journal. Click on the image to see a larger vision.

This is the first time I’ve been able to sketch in a while, as house hunting and moving has taken over my life. Hopefully that will soon be over, because for everyday I spent not sketching, painting, or drawing, I feel my skills atrophy.

I’m going to miss my mockingbirds when we move. I don’t think that they live where I’m going. But I think I’ll keep the name of this blog, because I’ll always know that somewhere, mockingbirds are yodeling the night away.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

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?

New work for Open Studios

One of the things I learned last weekend at Silicon Valley Open Studios was that I needed more work to display.

So this week I’ve been painting: Birds!

I’m a portrait painter. I seriously love painting people, but the few animal paintings I had at open studios were the most popular (read: sales.) So this week I combed through my photos and painted a few birds.

Painting of sparrow
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 300#
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

And you know what? It turns out I love painting birds. Who knew?

Sparrow detail
Sparrow detail (It has a bug in its mouth)

Now, can anyone tell me what kind of little speckled bird this is?


I hope you’ll come to our open studios this weekend (maybe you’ll buy a bird for Mother’s day!) I’ll be at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

Mockingbirds at midnight

Mockingbird 1
Pencil sketch

Last week I heard a mockingbird singing in the wee hours for the first time this year. I’ve been seeing them sitting in the overgrown apple tree in my backyard (I think they’re year-round residents in the Bay),  but I hadn’t yet been awakened by their midnight battle arias.

I love the songs of mockingbirds although I know they’re just the yells of  horny males. They’re endlessly entertaining; I try to figure out what they’re mimicking. Sometimes I whistle a tune to them (I’ve been trying to teach them Sail Away Ladies since forever). Once, back in the first days of the now ever-present cell phone, I heard one singing the then-standard ringtone.

When I was young (just as this sixth mass extinction began in earnest) mockingbirds lived up and down our street, and their repertoires included stanzas from all the seemingly thousands of songbirds that nested in the eaves and trees and foundation plantings of suburbia. Sadly, these days the mockingbirds mostly sing songs of squirrels, crows, sparrows, and noises I can’t identify. But they still make me happy to hear them doing musical battle in the middle of the night.

Mockingbirds 2
Pencil sketch

Drawing more birds

Click on thumbnails above to see larger images

In my previous post I wrote about John Muir Laws book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. Imagine how happy I was to find that he also has organized The Nature Journal Club, a monthly meet up and workshops series. I went to my first one last month, at one of my favorite places in the Bay Area, the Palo Alto Baylands. It was so much fun, with people of all ages and abilities there to keenly observe the birds and landscape.

Honestly, I could go out anytime and draw or paint, and I often do. But there’s something about being with a group of people all focused on the same thing that makes it ever so much more satisfying. And you can learn by sharing observations and techniques, stories and jokes.

If you live in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll consider coming out for the next Sunday outing, or one of the weekday workshops. But if you don’t live in the Bay, I hope you’ll organize your own Nature Journal Club where you live.

Palo Alto Airport
Pencil Sketch

The Nature Journal Club is free, but donations are welcome and encouraged.  During a time when our natural world is beleaguered unto the point of disappearance, if people will get outside and really see the world so that they feel close to it, perhaps we’ll find a way to make a healthy world as important as development.


Drawing birds

Book coverI recently discovered The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it if you’re looking to learn how to draw birds. He has terrific instruction on things like drawing feathers, birds in flight, and field sketching.

Laws is a very good bird and nature artist, but the focus of this book is to give up on the idea of pretty pictures and really look at what you’re drawing. He believes that by studying nature in order to draw it, you change yourself, saying in the first chapter of this book,  “As you grow in patient observation, the world will open and you will be changed forever.”

I agree with him. After drawing, I see things more clearly. After plein air painting, colors shout and announce themselves. One of the great joys of drawing is the act of studying, the process of slowing down enough to really look at what you’re seeing. I’m not going to say that it’s meditative, because for me, there’s a pulse of excitement when I’m really looking at something and able to co-ordinate my hand enough to get my observations down on paper. My heart beats with each line, and my mind seems to sparkle and tingle. Seriously? Better than any drug or drink.

Try it!