A new sense of place

Giant Sequoias
Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

Our new home is an easy drive to a grove of giant Sequoias. I had never before seen these particular big trees. Although they are related to  coast redwoods, they are as different as second cousins twice removed. Where the coast redwoods seem to doze in the soft green light and drippy air of their coastal home, the giant Sequoias seem alive and awake, the colors of tree, leaf and sky sharp and at attention in the bright clear air of the mountains.

Base of a giant Sequoia
Base of a giant Sequoia

Fall is settling in, and the forest floor rang with sudden shouts of yellow and red.

The burls (or eyes) of a dead Sequoia
The burls (or eyes) of a dead Sequoia

I feel like this place is already affecting my artwork. My eyes want to taste new colors;  I’m aching to serve up a new palette for the landscape.

Part of a triptych I am working on. Just the beginning stages. More soon!

When I’m in the mountains I feel something in me change, like my heart is opening up, like there is more space in the back of my skull. I’m so excited to paint there!


At cliff edge with a sketchbook

Bean Hollow
Looking out over Bean Hollow State Beach.

Yesterday while plein air painting on the cliff overlooking Bean Hollow State Beach, I watched legions of families troop down to the pebbly beach. Every so often kids would stop and politely ask if they might look at my painting; My goodness, yes!

A small boy sat at the edge of the cliff next to me, a packet of colored pens and a sketchbook in hand.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I think this will do nicely.” And he opened his sketchbook, ready to draw.

But those cliffs are slippery; it’s best to be careful on the California coast. Absorbed in the view, the little boy leaned forward, and in a scraping of dust and sand he slid down the cliff to the beach below. (Don’t worry. The cliff face is shallow, the surface smooth from generations of kids zooming down on their bottoms, and the sand and pebbles below make the landing soft and delightfully scrunchy.)

He never dropped his art supplies. He stood, brushed himself off and gazed out to sea. Then he turned and ran up the stairs, around my easel, and, still grasping pens and sketchbook, slid down the cliff again.

Gentle painters and sketchers, take a lesson from this small boy. Even though life might send you sliding down a cliff, never let go of your sketchbook!

Breaking waves
Waves at Bean Hollow.
Breaking waves
Waves at sunset after a beautiful day.

Landscape painting vs. landscape walking

Pinnacles National Park

Rocks at Bear Gulch Resevoir, Pinnacles National Park

7.5″ x 9.5″
© 2013 by Margaret Sloan

I am still reading—and recommend—The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane is a walker; he experiences the landscape through his feet, even walking barefoot through several pages. He travels at shanks-mare pace, slow enough to notice things as he walks over mountain, bog, or desert, passing landmarks, pathways, and people. Fair enough. Good writing has to keep moving to get anywhere.

I’m enjoying this book, as I’ve always loved walking, and fantasize regularly about a walkabout of my own. But since I’ve started landscape painting, my relationship with the landscape has changed.

As a landscape painter, I don’t so much move through a landscape as move into it. I build a temporary studio with tripod, pochade box, and backpack full of supplies and sandwiches (this army travels on her stomach). And there I stand at the easel, brush in hand, watching the landscape move around me.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

Wind crackles through grass, and cloud shadows ripple and dimple the surface of the hills. Tides ebb and flow, birds fly by, eyeing my sack of sandwiches, and people stop, chat, then continue their own walk. When you stand still on the earth, the landscape moves like a flood around you, driven by the solar-storm of the sun as it rockets overhead.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

And that is the landscape painter’s challenge, isn’t it? To try to capture a scene, to freeze a feeling, a smell or a taste of a moment that is constantly zooming past, on towards the next moment. The land is never, ever going to hold a pose long enough for me to capture a perfect likeness. In the field, all I can hope for are impressions: an idea of color, a gesture of form. In the studio, I can rely only on memory (and perhaps photographs).

Although I’m not walking across the land when I paint, I am making a slow sort of progress in tracking the world. I’m learning to notice things I don’t see when walking. Sometimes standing still is the best way to move.

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” —Franz Kafka

Here’s a lecture by MacFarlane. It’s long, so get a cup of tea, pull out your sketchbook, and draw while you listen.

What does the landscape know of the painter?

Painting of hills
Oil sketch of bay and hills. 8″ x 10″

In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot , Robert MacFarlane says:

“For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: Firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else. And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

As a landscape painter, I felt particularly pierced by this quote. I rolled it around in my head as I painted in Alviso Marina County Park this weekend. I recounted to myself what I knew of this landscape: it used to be rural and isolated from the hustle of Silicon Valley. It was, quite literally, the site of a dump, but now, with the invasion of tech dollars, it’s got that beginning shine of gentrification-creep.

But it hasn’t all been siliconized yet. The town and park are on the wild southern edge of the Bay, and across the water you can see the Diablo range. The tide was in, and the bay glowed sky blue in the slanting afternoon light. The color of the hills reddened as the sun burned through the late autumn haze and I scrambled to adjust my colors and capture the sweetness of the evening.

Every landscape I paint makes me know of myself that I do not paint enough; that I desire more than I can accomplish in the time allotted to me; and that I love being outside more than just about anything (except for playing music and painting). And when I paint in urban-edge areas, I learn, over and over again, that the earth, even while brutalized by humans, remains steadfast.

But does that landscape know anything of me? What does it even mean that the place might know of me something I cannot know of myself? Does it mean what I should know from the humans who come over to “meet a painter?” Or does it mean some sort of Gaia-like sentience on the part of the landscape, the dried mud that powders around my feet, the weeds that jump into my socks as I wade through them, the hills and water that stand silently in my view?

I don’t know. But I think for a while it will become my painting mantra, an addition to the usual litany of: is this the right color, right value, right chroma, and right stroke?

More about Alviso http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/08.20.98/cover/alviso-9833.html

Rapid Painting

Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado
Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado

On a recent trip to Colorado, I painted at Lily Lake near Estes Park.

I’ve been trying to loosen up my watercolor landscapes; normally I make a tight pencil drawing on the paper before I start applying water and pigment. But I’m not liking the results. The image is too tight,  much like a cartoon.

Watercolor landscape painter Jonathan Pitts advises starting out with a 5-minute sketch before launching into a longer painting. In 5 minutes there’s only so much you can do. You have to rely on simple shapes, colors, and brush strokes.

At Lily Lake, I couldn’t quite restrict myself to 5 minutes. I gave myself a 15 minute time limit for an initial sketch on a 3.5″ x 5″ piece of watercolor paper, set the timer, and painted.

LilyLake_15MinutesLily Lake
15 minute study

Next I worked for a couple of hours on a larger piece of paper. It was late afternoon, and the light and sky was changing every few minutes.


Lily Lake
2 hour study

I like the quick study much better. Making quick decisions forces me to work rapidly in bold patterns and simple color. Such “thin-slicing” is not my normal state of affairs; I usually mull things over until they are thoroughly mushed and muddy. I’m searching for clarity in many things. Funny that it should sometime come as a result of flash decisions.

Grass moon

Grass Moon
Grass Moon

We’re just coming off the April full moon (last night, gleaming through the slats in the blinds, she woke me; though waning gibbous, she still left me breathless) . Her names are hopeful: the Pink Moon; the Full Sprouting-Grass Moon; the Egg Moon; the Full Fish Moon.

Here in the Bay Area I think she’s best called the Grass Moon. It’s a name that celebrates the luxurious growth of plants reveling in moisture at the end of our short damp winter.

This is a painting from Russian Ridge (right now one of my favorite places in the Bay). On the day I painted this, the marine layer (aka fog) covered the mountains, hugging the ridge in the drippy embrace of the not-too-distant ocean. The grass raved viridian, turquoise, and shining wet jade green around this little outcropping of rocks.

In just a few weeks the grass will yellow and turn white-gold in the California sun. Even now the poverty grass is silvering, turning the color of a new moon.

Lupines in the afternoon


It was a rare weekday afternoon that I was able to spend painting at Russian Ridge, just before a late spring storm. Last weekend I realized this little patch of lupine was about ready to pop into full bloom, and if I wanted to paint them in their full glory, I’d have to get out there soon. Wildflowers fade fast.

Such is the life of a plein air painter. Time and flowers wait for no man or woman, and I wanted to capture the feeling I got on this trail that a person could step from the edge of the lupine-purple earth into the glowing sky.


I love these hazy days with lots of high clouds in the sky. We don’t get enough clouds in the Bay Area. And soon we’ll have the eternal sunshine of the spotless California summer, with no cover from the sun for months and months. But for now, we’ve got clouds a-plenty.


Of course, we’ll always have the fog rolling over the ridgelines, even on most summer evenings.

Painting outside: Mindego Hill

RussianRidge500pxMindego Hill #1
Oil on canvas board
© 2013 Margaret Sloan

For the last 3 Saturdays I’ve been at Russian Ridge, painting Mindego Hill. It’s an iconic view from the ridge: Mindego Hill rises over the coast range of mountain ridges rippling all the way to the sea. On a clear evening from the ridge, you can watch the sun set into the Pacific.

A few years ago, this hill was saved for all of us by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSP), organizations that have protected many acres of the Bay Area from the rampant cancer of development that afflicts the Bay. It’s rather miraculous that we have these open spaces where we can all savor the landscape that makes the Bay Area so beautiful. For many of us, getting away from the city streets is a necessity for our health and sanity.

The world is full of coincidence. (If you don’t believe me, check out This American Life’s recent show on coincidence) While I was writing this post, a young man rang to ask me to take a survey about POST and MROSP. I guess they are trying to put together a bond issue to raise some dollars. Would I be willing to pay more taxes to fund the necessary luxury of having open space available to everyone?  I’m not a fan of more taxes, but for this, I’m not sure how I could refuse.

To read about the GoMindego campaign (which was successfull in preserving the hill), as well as some history and facts about the hill, go to this newsletter: http://www.openspacetrust.org/downloads/newsletters/Landscapes-WI07.pdf

Landscape painting from the front porch

Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells
Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells

The bad thing about staying in Death Valley National Park is that there are limited options of where to stay. You have three: an expensive hotel; a less expensive hotel; and camping.

The good thing about staying in the park is that there are only two hotels and limited camping. There are no neon-lit chain hotels, no glossy fast food signs. There is not even a food truck glowing in the parking lot. That means the views, even from from the less expensive Stovepipe Wells, are unobstructed million-dollar vistas.

So I set up my pochade box on the front porch of the hotel, and painted what what was in front of me: the broad valley and mountains beyond.  A friend stayed with me, and she knitted while I painted.

It was a simple equation:

Being outside + Cookies and tea on the table + companionable silence broken by occasional conversation + paint on my canvas (and in my hair) =  Heaven. (Bonus: bathroom nearby—a plein air painter’s dream.)