Open Studios Profile: Elyse Dunnahoo

In May I’ll be exhibiting with other artists at two locations in Silicon Valley Open Studios. I’d like to introduce you, dear readers, to some of the other artists who will be showing their work, so I’ll be writing a series of posts in the weeks leading up to Open Studios..

The first artist I’d like to introduce you to is Elyse Dunnahoo. Elyse paints representationally, making beautiful images that portray her feelings about the subject she paints. I love her images for their softness and  the calmness they reflect.

Clematis in Silver Goblet
Clematis in Silver Goblet
© 2014 Elyse Dunnahoo
Oil on canvas

Describe your artistic journey

I owned my own business, designing and manufacturing women’s cycling apparel. The business was successful, but took most of my time to manage and design the product. My husband also had a business and business partner. We had two (twins) young children. Our time was spread out too thinly, so it was decided to sell my business. I began studying classical realism (representational art) while at home with my kids. I took as many workshops and classes that I could afford and time would allow. I was extremely fortunate to study with Ted Jacobs and Tony Ryder. I copied master drawings and cast statues. I practiced drawing as often as possible, from portrait to life to still life.

Where has art taken you in life?

I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Paris, France. I studied in Paris for 6 weeks, drawing in the Louvre.

Roses in Silver Goblet
Roses in Silver Goblet
© 2014 Elyse Dunnahoo
Oil on canvas

What do you think about when you begin painting?

How beautiful the still life is, lit by the North light- tender, softly blanketing the subject, and striking in appearance in its quiet beauty. My thinking, my goal, from beginning to end, is working to portray the light as I have described it.

The Creamer
The Creamer
© 2014 Elyse Dunnahoo
Oil on canvas

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

One of my favorite paintings is  The Creamery. This is one of my first paintings using the Flemish method of indirect painting. I admire insects and have a small collection of butterflies, beetles, and wasps. The butterfly in this painting is from my collection. The North light exuding calm and quiet is rendered so.

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

Andrew Wyeth. Describe in detail your painting technique, the lighting in your studio, your color palette.

You can see more of Elyse’s work at

Elyse Dunnahoo will be exhibiting on May 3-4  at 1191 Sherman Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025

Biting back at the tyranny of perfectionism

Frustrated artist
Portrait of the artist seeking perfection
Watercolor on Yupo

Blogger Drew at the Skinny Artist recently posted about the perils and paralysis of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that keeps painters from painting, writers from writing, and musicians from musicking. You probably have felt it: the need to make sure everything is just so before beginning, working on, or finishing a piece of work. It can be a problem for creatives. It can keep us from accomplishing our goals, telling our stories, meeting deadlines, and making our dreams come true.

I know, I know, it’s hard to let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. I work at freeing myself from it constantly. But it’s possible to break those chains. Here 8 simple bullet point items that work for me.

1. Just start. Fear of failure can derail my creative train before it ever gets out of the station. But come on. It’s art, not mass transportation; if I go off the artistic tracks, nobody dies. Truly. So I chug ahead by doing something. Anything. I copy a Bargue plate; study how to draw a particular body part (right now I’m doing knees); make some color charts; even—when I’m least inspired—drag a brush or pen across a piece of paper just to make some marks. It often sparks an idea and stokes that creative choo-choo.
2. Do a lot of work. Everyday. With plenty of work going on, I don’t end up hunched over one painting hissing “my precioussss”. I’ve got other fish to fry. If a particular painting isn’t working, I move on to something else for a while.
3. Make a mistake early in the process. I work in watercolor, and we all know how hard it can be to correct an errant  . Rather than live in fear that I’ll ruin my perfect piece, I often deliberately make a mistake, just to get it over with so I can paint in peace.
4. Forge ahead and find those mistakes. As an artist, I’m an explorer. I’m seeking the fountain of eternal personal vision, but along the way I’m sure get stuck in the bog of bad brushstrokes, or lost in the desert of dumb ideas. My job is to find those places too; while slogging through them, I’m also mapping them. Who knows? There might be something there I’ll need in the future.
5. When the inner critic starts blathering, change the station. Sometimes there’s a reason to listen to that gremlin, but usually there’s not. When mine starts to cackle in glee at a mistake, I shut him out by thinking of my past teachers, and imagining that they’re standing at my shoulder helping me out of a sticky situation (fortunately I’ve only ever had wonderful, supportive teachers).
6. Let it go. Take a breath. Turn the work to the wall. Go eat some cookies. When you come back to the work, you might discover the fix for any mistakes that have been bugging you. Or you might just discover that you are, in fact, finished, and ready to take what you’ve learned from this work on to the next.
7. Embrace rejection. I once asked a magazine editor friend how she dealt with the constant rejection of her ideas at story meetings. She laughed. “Ideas are cheap. I come up with a hundred of them everyday. Most of them get rejected; I don’t take it personally.” So, go back to #2 in this list. Or move on to #8.
8. Did I say work? Yeah. Work some more. Sleep. Then get back to work. Over the years I’ve noticed that many of the successful artists I admire don’t really have time for existential angst over perfectionism. They don’t have time to, well, spend a lot of time obsessing. Painters pick up the brush and paint; writers sit down at the computer and write. My fiddler takes up his fiddle and plays. There might be angst contained in the process, and they always try to do their best, but the work? It gets done.

**Disclaimer: Understand that I’m just whistling in the dark here. But the thin tune I’m singing can bolster my courage and gumption to get over that fear of failure. Because really, the game may be a foot, but still, it’s all in the mind. 

Get to work.

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.

Santa Cruz Holiday Bazaar

Holiday Bazaar flyer

I’ll be showing my work on December 7 from 11 to 5 at a holiday bazaar at the Live Oak Senior Center at 1777 Capitola Road in Santa Cruz. (See below for  map). This is a small affair, with only 7 artists and craftspeople showing, but there will be treats as well as live Irish music for part of the day. You might even catch me playing a tune or two.

I’ll have prints and original paintings for sale, and examples of my portrait work. I hope to see you there.

Live Oak Senior Center
1777 Capitola Rd.
Santa Cruz, CA

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.

Road Trip!

Last week we were off to Death Valley with a group of friends! Painting! Hiking! More painting!

It’s a long trip to DV.  Eleven hours for us, stopping often to drain our radiators, stretch creaky backs, eat, and just generally look around. I can paint a little on the road (the fiddler does the driving), but the scenery moves too fast for an even partially realized landscape. There’s only enough time for quick color sketches.




Quick color sketches in watercolor on Aquabee Super Deluxe Sketch Book paper. This paper is not sized as well as it used to be so the colors don’t sit as nicely on the paper as they do on Arches 300 lb. hot press. But for quick studies in the car, it’s enough.

I also filled in some pages of color blocks in my color journal.


My color journal is a Daler & Rowney Cachet watercolor journal. Again, it’s adequate, but the paint is not as vibrant or well behaved on this paper. When I’ve filled up this journal, I think I will make one bound with binder rings of my favorite Arches hot  press.

My tiny pocket palette has a mysterious collection of pigments; I don’t remember what I was thinking when I poured the paint but there are decidedly too many oranges in this palette. Most of my mixtures from the pocket palette end up being built around Mayan blue and transparent orange, with Hooker’s green and a yellow (lemon or aureolin) as secondary colors.

Anyone who likes to paint on the road really should take a look at the book A Pocketful of Watercolors: Philip Enquist. It’s a little book full of little watercolor sketches that shows just how evocative such simplicity can be.

Little cloud

Little Cloud
Oil on Panel
© 2012 Margaret Sloan

This painting captures a fleeting hour of a Northern California morning on Windy Hill. The South Bay stretched gloriously at our feet, but I blinkered my eyes and found a less dramatic scene: the last of the morning fog drifting over a little hill. It was the kind of hill that I might have climbed when I was a child, peering in squirrel holes and looking for foxes.

These days I’m finding greater success in painting small slices of the view, in making the landscape more intimate. Limiting the painting to this small view made seeing the composition and the values easier. I was able to wrap my head around the color shifts, and win more arguments with the paint than I lost.

Maybe that’s the kind of person I am right now; my present tense has gotten smaller, more confined to small views. Once-upon-a-time I took epic (seeming to me) journeys, traveling across desert horizons and through mountains of rainforests. But now I stay home mostly, in the place where I was raised.

My friend Cynthia Brannvall (an artist whose wonderful work taps into some larger, softer universal landscape) wrote to me, “One of the things that I find so beautiful about your work are the little, beautiful moments of everyday life…in this day and age when we are assaulted with stimulation and virtual realities, I find the little and ordinary gestures of real life to be more and more precious.”

I guess for me, small is comfortable. I like the up-close view, the things seen at trailside. I find value in landscapes that are familiar to children, in the possibilities of squirrel holes, foxes, and little white clouds.

These days

The fiddler and main computer guy of the house finally convinced me to back up my computer, so I’m trying out the mythical cloud storage route. Now my trusty little laptop is occupied with the upload that never ends, and I’m reduced to the fiddler’s old machine that, a few months ago, came out on the wrong side of a tussle with a cup of coffee. Not all the keys work all of the time. I don’t hold that against it, but it does make it hard to type.

I’m feeling better from the walk-in-the-park-from-heck surgery, and am back to the day job and doing some painting. Paul Fox’s Habit Building forum really helped me get back into a groove. I know I’m establishing a habit of taking out the sketchbook or paints in the evening, even if I’m a wee bit too tired to do much actual drawing or painting. But without much work, I don’t write many blogs

But I have been enjoying the blogs of others. Painter Keven McEvoy has written a lovely sweet blog about the Four Ages of Man and the power of a portrait. James Gurney has a link to a neat old movie about Hollywood matte painter Peter Ellenshaw. Sue Favinger Smith (who is really a terrific landscape painter) talks about the importance of learning to draw, and offers links to several sites with photos of models for you to draw. And Matthew D. Innis has gifted the blogosphere with a look at the paintings of Michael Klein (both are painters of a quality to which I can only aspire).

Round the house and mind the easel!

Playing for Set Dancers

My band has been preparing for a gig. We recorded a tune, and when I listened to it, I was horrified to hear a tempo as ragged and floppy as an old stuffed bunny.

I play Irish flute, specifically dance music. I love the rolling beat, the pulse of the tune lifting and driving dancers through the set. The beat needs to be crisp and perfect to move the dancers.

But that what wasn’t what I was hearing in our recording.

So I’ve spent the last week practicing with a metronome, first lilting the tune in time with the flashing red LED, then trying to match my flute playing to that maddening strobe.

It’s amazing how that little pulsing light seems to slow down and speed up as I play a tune. At first I thought there was something wrong with the metronome, but of course, there’s nothing wrong with the electronics; it’s my playing that’s uneven. But gradually I’ve managed to tame my out-of-control tempo, and the tunes sound all the better for it.

Painting isn’t like playing a flute, but visual arts don’t exist outside of tempo. I think that paintings have their own internal tunes. My favorite paintings are those that make my brain feel like I’m seeing music. Sorolla paintings play tunes to me. Zorns are full of music. Sargent is something like a symphony. Surprisingly (because I prefer realistic work) Paul Klee paintings are like small pipes and fiddles.

I find that external noise while I paint influences a painting’s tempo. My most successful paintings are done in silence, when I really listen to the painting and pay close attention to the pulse that each passage requires. I listen carefully to hear fast strokes that are well conceived; slow shapes of color placed just exactly where they need to be; staccato or slurred edges; the pacing of high and low values. I’m always asking myself, how do I encourage the viewer to dance through a painting?

When I paint, there’s no steady tick-tock of a metronome, other than the drum of my blood and the deep sound a painting makes when it’s making my heart dance. Only if my heart is shouting “house Maggie, mind the dresser!” will I have a chance to let others hear that internal music.