Gold Rush dancing and great news


Saturday night the fiddler had a gig in Columbia State Historic Park playing tunes for the annual Lamplight Tours. Docents dressed like they stepped out of 1849 give tours of Columbia, and players perform skits so that you can see what it might have been like when the West was still wild. Afterwards in Angelo’s Hall there was dancing, cake, and merriment. And beautiful costumes.

Waiting to Dance
Waiting to be asked

I am always amazed at the time and effort the docents take in creating their costumes. Corsets and collars, tucks and pleats, hand-crocheted lace and yards of trim: All the details are researched and historically accurate, I’m told. Right down to what’s under the crinolines. The ladies looked like flowers spinning on the dance floor.

I always covet these dresses. Someday, when I learn to sew…

Of course I had to sketch the dance (when I wasn’t playing tunes).

couple dancing
The Sailor’s Dance

I was off my game, though, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. The previous day I’d had a procedure that would have been unimaginable during the Gold Rush. Thankfully the doctor gave me a two-year pass until the next time I need the test. I’m certified cancer-free! Yippeee! No wasting sickness for me. If I’d had a long dress, I’d have been spinning with the other girls.

But the drugs block the signal between my brain and hand. I could remember tunes, but my fingers wouldn’t play them. While drawing, I fumbled and erased a lot. But it was still fun to  capture an older entertainment with an even older technology.

Dance Teacher
Dance teacher

Really, more people should get out and dance. It’s a lot of fun.



The quick portrait sketch, in time and in tune

I’ll be teaching a portrait drawing class December 10, 2015 at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis. Hope to see you there.

Music party
Music party After Hours
Graphite sketch with watercolor
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

How in the world do non-musicians spend their time?  The day after Thanksgiving, I attended a music party where tunes raged, fueled by left-over turkey, cranberry sauce, and chocolate-pudding pie.

I knew there were going to be a lot of American Old-Time tunes, which I don’t usually play (I’m more of an Irish-jig-and-reel girl). But I didn’t want to be left behind while the fiddler had fun, so I brought my trusty sketchbook and practiced portraits on the fly.

Three musicians
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal
Accordion player
Detail of Three Musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Drawing a moving target is tough. You can see in these sketches lines that have been partially erased because my subject shifted or stopped playing and I had to start again. Drawing at a musical house party means waiting for a waltzing couple to stop dancing into my line of vision. It means paying attention to the tune so that I know how much longer I have before the musicians stop playing and take a break to drink, eat, or simply gab. It means that I might suddenly have to stop drawing because Hey! I know that tune!

Guitar player, fiddler, recorder player
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Often, when I teach life drawing, students complain when the model moves. Indeed, that is frustrating, and I used to whine about it too. But then I realized that humans aren’t statues; we twitch and wiggle and shift. We move. 

So if you can’t count on the model being still, what do you do?

  1. Draw fast  Sketch really fast to try to get as much information on the page as possible.
  2. Give up on details Don’t worry about things like faces until you’ve blocked in the big shapes. Block in the big planes of the face before zeroing in on each feature.
  3. Remember Life drawing exercises your memory, but only if you pay attention. Keep track of the position, because it’s likely the model will move back into it.
  4. Observe It’s why you’re drawing, ‘ent it?
Dulcimer player
Mountain Dulcimer Player
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal


Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

I wish everybody would find the joy in music, and not just as consumers, but as participants. I especially wish for everyone the joy of playing these folk traditions, where people play together, having musical conversations rather than performances. If you’re interested in learning more and live in the Bay Area, please check out the following links.

Santa Clara Fiddlers Association

California State Old Time Fiddlers Association

Fiddler Magazine

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

Plein air painting vintage cars in watercolor

Touring car
Touring car sketch
© 2015 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches hot press #300

If you follow this blog, you know that I was a little nervous about painting at the Ironstone Concourse d’Elegance in Murphys, California.

It’s not that I mind painting in public. Being part of the scenery doesn’t much bother me these days—I actually love talking to people I meet while I’m painting outdoors—but the attendance at the Concourse can be in the thousands. That’s a lot of eyeballs looking over my shoulder as I apply paint and scrub out mistakes. And the weather forecast predicted more tiresome California summer heat.

Yes, the weather was blisteringly hot, but the people who attended—car owners and car lovers alike—were the nicest people. Lubed by Ironstone’s wine and revved up by the event, they were always ready to chat. And best of all, a lovely young woman hired me on-the-spot to paint a portrait of her grandfather’s sweet little red Triumph. (Unfortunately, my iPhone was cranky and refused to snap a photo of the painting, so I can’t show it to you.)

By the end of the day, I was hot and tired with feet that felt flat, but I was still having a ball, splashing paint and schmoozing. I kept painting until I realized that I was no longer able to see and understand color. The color-parsing cones in my eyeballs had seized up like a motor run dry of oil. I quit painting during the car parade and simply admired the beautiful cars as they drove past.

My dad has always been a vintage car fan, and tried to interest me in them all my life, but until the Concourse, I never realized that these old conglomerations of metal, chrome, and rubber are amazing pieces of art, kinetic sculptural forms that are useful as well as gorgeous.  And devilishly fun to draw. My next vacation? The National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, or wherever vintage cars are found.

Green car painting
Vintage green car sketch
© 2015 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches hot press #300


Painting cars


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!


30-in-30: Farmer’s market musicians


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 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.


How to make sketches into compositions

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

Sketching at the Farmer’s market

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:

Note to self: My sketchbook is not an invisibility cloak.

Sketch of young boy, graphite with watercolor. Stillman & Birn Beta Series

I was sketching at a contra dance Saturday night. I was on stage, playing whistle and sketching during tunes I didn’t know. Normally at these things, I sketch the other musicians, as the dancers are moving too fast for all but the most brief gesture drawing, but a boy was sitting on the sidelines of the dance watching the figures. Being still. In good light.

Since I was flanked by fiddlers and behind a guitar player, I felt like I was not really noticeable. And the kid seemed to be engrossed with watching the dancers. So I began drawing.

Suddenly he whipped his head around and glared right at me, watching me watch him. It’s funny how sometimes we can feel people looking at us from across even a crowded large room, and we seem to be especially sensitive to the direct stare of the surreptitious portrait artist.

I nearly always have a sketchbook with me, and most of my friends, and the people at musical gatherings have grown used to my scratchings. But not this subject; he glared for a while longer, then got up and moved out of my line of sight, and so I was not able to get any kind of likeness, merely a sweet drawing. Oh well, sometimes that’s enough.

Detail of sketch