Playing music in the pines at Kowana Valley Folk School & Lodge

Banjo Player
Moon in June at Kowana Valley Ranch

Last weekend I wrote this blog post from a tent in the Sierra Nevada while I listened to two flutes playing outside the door. They swung through an old Irish jig called “Out on the Ocean.” From a camp to my right, a mandolin tinkled and plunked through a completely different tune: a hornpipe called Little Stack of Barley. In the distance, a beautiful cacophony of fiddles, whistles, and banjos careered from reel to reel. Pigeon on a Gate into Swinging on a Gate into Cooley’s.

I live in a rare and strange world where people play music together. It’s old music that’s been with the human culture for a very long time, mostly Irish, but some American Old Time, some French Canadian, some English Country tunes. We play for no other reason except to make each other happy. No money changes hands; we play freely.

We play as conversation, not performance. We communicate through notes spooling out from our instruments, conversing with three-four waltzes, two-four polkas, six-eight jigs, and of course, the four-four stampeding eighth notes of reels.

Late night session

People who play this kind of music seek each other out because we are few. We form community where we find it. The community I’m part of is lucky; we found a home for our summer camp at Kowana Valley Ranch, an exquisite piece of property in a long valley just below Yosemite. Every year a bunch of us convene for a weekend of camping, swimming, dancing, eating, and playing a torrent of music from dawn to dawn.

The hosts, Lynn and Richard Ferry, welcome us with flute, banjo, harmonica, and guitar. They play too, when they are not managing their land or their guest lodge. They are the two thumping hearts of this celebration, keeping it alive and giving it the deep soul that makes it the favored event of the year.

I can’t invite you to our music party (it’s private), but I can tell you about the Ferry’s lodge, where you should plan to spend some vacation time.

The lodge is set at the head of a long valley, where little Bull Creek runs fitfully (sometimes it’s partly dry during summer) through willows and pines. To get there, you drive into the middle of nowhere, take a right, and wind down 5 miles of dusty, unpaved road. Once there, you’re off grid. Your devices have no place to connect, and become the door stops you wish they were. You will have to get your kicks from the flashing of birds, the sparkle of dragonflies, and the moon as it rises over the mountains. You can hike in deep forests or lounge beside a cold mountain swimming hole. Glorious nothingness can fill your days.

You can rent out rooms, bunks, or the whole shebang for large parties and getaways. If you play trad music, they might just break out their instruments and share some tunes with you.

Here’s the link to their ranch: Tell them hi from Maggie. And if you don’t know what trad music is, ask them to share a couple cds with you while you are there.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to take up an instrument and learn to play (they have music workshops at the lodge). More people should play this old music, making all the hills and valleys across the land ring with people’s music. Not only the Irish, but Old Time, Cape Breton, Cajun; people’s music, stuff that’s not been predigested by a computer and corporate for our consumption, but real tunes that have traveled miles through space and time and arrive in our ears as raw as the day the earth was new.


The best summer fun sketching at the county fair

Chrisy Horne and Michel Olson
Florence the traveling castle

I credit Roz Stendahl for my obsession with our county fair. She blogs at Roz Wound up about her annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair. She makes it sound like so much fun that when I foggily realized that we had a county fair (very close to my home, and with free shuttle service!), I couldn’t wait to hightail it, pens and sketchbook in hand, to the Calaveras County Fair, otherwise known as Frog Jumps.

But I also just love county fairs in rural areas. They are small events, but the effort that goes into them is large. From the displays of pickles and flower arrangements to barns filled with artwork, animals, and school projects, county fairs are the community coming together to compete, to crow, to participate and shine.

I almost missed the fair. Dates sneak up on me. I’m not good with calendars, although I should have been more on top of it because I wrote an article for the local paper about the Gypsy Time Travelers, a fun show appearing at Frog Jumps.  Storyteller Christy Horne spins tales of legends, iron, maidens, men and devils to the beat of blacksmith Michel Olson’s hammer upon anvil. Their stage is a castle built by Olson —check out this link to get a better view of Florence the truck that packs a castle.

Seated on a hay bale waiting for the show to start, I sketched Florence (above), but after the show started, I was so entranced by Christy’s story and Michel whacking away at glowing metal bits that I forgot to draw.

Steam engine
1908 Weber 10 hp steam engine

After the Gypsy show, we segued over to the Foothill Flywheelers’ exhibit of antique engines. Hundred-year-old pieces of machinery puttered, popped, whirred and growled.

I love old engines. I’ve always wished I knew how to work on them; they seem like magic to me. I drew this venerable 1908 Weber engine while keeping my ear tuned to her owner’s explanations of how she ran. The words he used—rocker arm, regulator, governor—were like little marbles of sound that clacked pleasingly in my ear. I wrote them down so I could to keep track of them.


Chicken barn
Roosters and a hen

We skipped the midway, although it would have been fun to draw the rides and the crowds. But I was intent on the animal barns.

4H prize winners at the bovine barn

The animal barns are my favorite. I love to draw animals. But that’s not the only reason I love the livestock barns.

They are places where little dramas play out daily.

Many of the animals at Frog Jumps were raised by kids in 4-H. I grew up in the ‘burbs. We didn’t have 4-H. I’m still a little envious of the kids who get to engage head, heart, hands, and health by raising farm animals.

The kids work hard, and are proud of their pigs, chickens, cows, goats and sheep. And the animals are spectacular, all gussied up for judging; brushed, combed, and curried to look their best.

There is, of course, often a sad ending to this story for the kids and the large animals. You can read one of those stories in the sketchbook page below if you wish (assuming you can decipher my scrawl). Farm kids have to learn to be stoic about such things.

County fairs are some of the fun of summer, and a great place to sketch.

Swine barn
Fine pigs at the fair

How contour drawing helped battle an attack of the criticism blues

Last week I wrote 5 steps to deal with criticism. I gave the example of a critical friend who said my figure drawing looked “constructed.”

Ouch. That hurt. But since my friend is A. a wonderful artist and B. Far more educated than I’ll ever be, I had to examine her criticism. To ignore it would have wasted valuable input from a trustworthy source.

I was trained in figure drawing by Rob Anderson, a teacher I respect immensely. He taught us to construct a figure using circles, boxes, and lines.

I love this method of figure drawing. For me, it’s like engineering the figure. It makes all the body parts understandable, and my drawing hand can grasp what my eyes and brain are trying to tell me. But if I have to admit it (and I believe in telling myself as much truth as I can stand), it does give my figures a certain stilted look.

figure drawing
Figures drawn by constructing all the bits then connecting the dots

I’ve been struggling with my figure drawing for a while. During our weekly drawing session, I’ve been looking for something when I draw that I haven’t been able to find. So maybe I was simply ready and primed for the criticism; It made me look hard at my work.

My friend Sue Smith draws in a beautiful, fluid style. I could watch her draw all day. So when she taught a class, of course I took it. I wanted to learn her secrets.

What did she teach us?

Contour drawing.

In the past, I have tried contour drawing and failed miserably. Way back when in college (when we went to school on woolly mammoths and drew with sticks in the mud because fire hadn’t yet been discovered and so we had no charcoal), a teacher hell-bent on minimalism insisted we make blind lines to describe the figure. We couldn’t look at our paper when we drew. Our eyes were supposed to stay on the figure. It’s a commonly used method to teach beginning students to draw.

I hated it.

But I firmly believe in embracing the beginner’s mind. And besides, Sue’s drawings are beautiful. She must be on to something.

So I drew blindly, and made these monsters. But there is something about them that I like. A freedom of line. A fluid movement of the charcoal.

Then we were allowed to look at our paper, but not while we were drawing. When we were drawing we looked only at the model. I feel like these drawings have a motion that I’ve been missing.



In our next life drawing session, I used a brush pen to better focus on line quality. I forced myself to think in terms of contour instead of constructing the figure.


My brain changed. Suddenly I was thinking more about the whole figure as I tried to make relationships on the fly rather than mapping out the body parts and connecting the dots.  My drawing changed too: My drawings became more active, more alive.

But what I gained in artistic fluidity, I lost in accuracy; I need to balance those two things. Can’t I have both?

I set out to combine the two. When I made this drawing, the idea of blind contour drawing was still bouncing around in my head, even while I lightly mapped the figure for accuracy. I can feel the echo of those clumsy blind-contour monsters giving life to this drawing.


I’m super excited by this discovery. I can feel the hardened edges of my artistic soul cracking open to let in more light.

And all because I didn’t shrivel away from criticism, but rather smacked it like a piñata and let its wisdom rain down like candy.

Four artists, one life-drawing session

Last Thursday I hosted a drawing session at my house. It was so much fun that I can’t wait to host another one. It was a great group of artists, all confident in their own hand, and strong with their own vision. I’d like to show you some of their work.

Sue Smith
Drawing by Sue Smith

I could watch Sue Smith draw all day long. She has such a delicate touch of charcoal to paper, yet a strength of form and line; her hand moves like it’s dancing when she draws.

Sarah Switek
Drawing by Sarah Switek

Sarah is also a sculptor, and I think that her knowledge of all dimensions of a form gave this drawing substance even though it’s drawn primarily with an energetic line and just a little shading.

You can see her work here:


Drawing by George Durkee

I envy George’s ability to draw with such expressive marks. His drawings are always spare and minimal, but the lines are loose and free. And he makes it look so easy. Drat you, Geo (not really).

You can see his work, and his wonderful videos here:

Margaret Sloan
Drawing by Margaret Sloan

And mine…

How to draw portraits

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.

Drawing a candle holder for beginning a watercolor painting


After all those eggs, it feels good to be painting something else besides eggs. Well, and eggs too.

Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting
Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting

This is how I start a drawing; by measuring the angles, horizontal lines, and vertical lines. It’s kind of like using a grid. For subjects that aren’t so man-made as this candle holder, I can often hold the grid and the lines in my head, but for this I needed to make sure that my horizontals were level (I tend to drift down when I draw horizontal lines), and that my verticals were really straight up and down. Before I start to paint, I’ll erase many of these lines, and lighten the rest. I’ll also erase lines that need to be soft edges, so that I don’t forget when I’m in the heat of applying pigment.

I’m not quite done with this drawing. There are a few area I want to perfect. But it’s pretty close. It’s been for this image that I’ve painted all those darn eggs.

Now I’m going to get to paint something else, and I’m eggs-cited.


Drawing babies

Sketch of baby
Graphite, red and white chalk, Strathmore 400 Series Toned Sketch Journal, Warm Tan paper

Sunday our power went out for the whole day, so that meant no computers, no internet, none of the electronic time-wasters we’re all so used to. Even my phone lost its charge, so I was cut off from the 4g network I usually live on.

How did we pass the time?! Well, we went with some friends to a local park and had a little picnic. While we were there, I tried to sketch their new-born daughter. Babies are hard to draw, especially newborns. They lack the bone structure that an artist can use as landmarks when drawing. Their faces are all out-of-whack, proportion-wise. And even asleep, babies don’t really want to hold a long pose.

There are a lot of babies in my life right now (being of grandmotherly age—meh—I find that my younger friends are filling up their lives—and mine—with babies). So I hope to study this baby-sketching more closely.

sketch of baby
Graphite, Strathomre 400 Series Toned Sketch Journal, Warm Tan

This is an idea of a baby, not drawn from life but from what I remember and what I suppose a baby should look like. Small face, big head. I never thought I’d want to spend a lot of time with the youngest set!

Recommendation: I’m really liking the Strathmore 400 Series Toned Sketch Journal. The paper has a nice feel, the brown color doesn’t reflect sunlight and blind me when sketching outdoors, and I love the luxurious feeling of the faux-leather binding.

Almost wordless Wednesday


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.

How’s your art practice?

Blue Lines
Breathing lines practice from Creative Triggers

Oh, November! Internet meme month of get-on-the-stick- and-get-started challenges. Write a novel in a month! Post a drawing a day for 30 days! Draw 30 characters in 30 days! Write, design, and ink a manga comic page every day! Make a masterpiece in November!


We all know that artistic and creative success doesn’t happen in a month (don’t we?). That do accomplish goals, we need a sustainable rate of practice every day of the year. But it’s hard to do, especially in the vacuum of those empty rooms in which we’re supposed to work.

Enter painter and blogger Paul Foxton. Riffing off the book Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow, and tapping his own knowledge of drawing (Paul is a lovely painter) he created a series of exercises to help build skills, as well as sensitivity to design and artistic ability. Then he created a place called Creative Triggers where folks could find the exercises, and get together to support each other as they work.

Creative Triggers video (Here I’d like to embed Paul’s video, but WordPress won’t let me, so you’ll have to go check it out yourself)

The exercises are well thought out, and he’s built them so that they are bit-size junks that bring you to the next step. I’ve been drawing  and painting my entire life, and even so, it’s nice to revisit these basic (and not so basic) exercises in a systematic manner. Plus, it’s been very nice to post to the forums, and later that day get a couple supportive emails from other students (you don’t have to sign up for the emails if you don’t want to).

My favorite exercise has been the most beginning exercise: “breathing lines,” a way of developing your drawing muscle in a quiet and meditative way. I make a page or two at the beginning of every work session; they put my chatty-Cathy monkey mind into a more reflective, deliberate mood. And I do them every night before I go to bed; they are calming, and I can say goodnight to my favorite paints and paint brushes (you know that I’m in love with my #14 sable Rosemary watercolor round.) Of course, sometimes this backfires, and I have to stay up and paint!

On November 1, Roz Stendahl wrote a great blog post exploding the “empty room” notion as she suggested some ways to deal with being creative in “all conditions, whether he or she feels so inclined, isn’t “inspired,” is tired, is stressed, whatever.” I suggest you read it if you’re interested in upping your art (or writing, or stitching, or any kind of practice you might have). Because since life just happens, we have to make sure we get our own stuff done.