A fiddle is only as good as it plays


This  fiddle I saw at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival. The lady bought it in the 1970s. She thought it was a Vuillaume. Maybe.


The name Vuillaume could mean anything. It’s like finding a fiddle in your grandmother’s attic, peering through the f-hole and seeing a  Stradivarius label. Probably not a real Strad. Lots of people have made lots of money selling instruments with phony labels. And musicians tend to give their instruments distinguished pedigrees.


But whatever this fiddle’s ancestry, it is a lovely piece of work, with a beautifully carved scroll, and cunning carved corners on the back, and Celtic-looking purfling. The scroll does place it sometime during the 19th or early 20th century—a time when ornamentation was popular on all things, and ornamented scrolls decked out many fiddles.

I’m not a violin connoisseur, so I didn’t know enough then to look closely at the painting on the back to see if it is inlay, painting, or both.

The most important things about a fiddle are how it feels when you play it, and how it sounds. An instrument can have the beauty of Grace Kelly, but if it shrieks like a toothless angry old witch, then it’s of no use.

The owner of this fiddle treated it with the casual attention you’d give a favored pet. It sat next to her as she sat listening to the music. She carried it around, cradled in her arms. She loved it. She said it had a great sound.

That’s all that’s important.

Vermeer with a limited color palette

Vermeer copy Charcoal and pastel chalk on toned paper

This is the results of the first 5 hours into my homework (copy a part of an old master, once as if under warm light and once as if under cool light)  for the Atelier. Vermeer’s guitar player  looks spooky with no eyes, but they’ll go in last, to keep me from focusing on them and nothing else. Her nose is not long enough and her mouth is too high; I’ll fix that later as well.

ValueChartWarmMaestro Rob has allowed us to use a limited color palette—charcoal, white chalk, gray chalk, and 5 earth-toned chalks. We’re working with color temperature and value to build form. At left you can see my value chart. This drawing is imagined to be under warm light, which, according to the way David and Rob teach color temperature theory, makes cool highlights and shadow, alternating cool and warm in all the steps in between.

This drawing will have to go on the back burner for now, as I still have to attempt the other part of the assignment in two evenings, that of the same drawing as if under cool light. That will mean warm highlights, warm shadows.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure, learning to draw and see effectively, but it’s been worth it. 3 years ago I couldn’t even imagine doing this kind of work. I still have trouble imagining that I can do it, and still am never satisfied.

Vermeer cropped original

Study of a flute player

Girl playing flute Graphite value study
Girl playing flute
© 2009 Margaret Sloan
Graphite value study

I met this lovely young woman at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. She had a boxwood flute that had bent as it aged, but it sounded lovely.

One day while we were in class, the rain and snow stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun streamed through the windows. Sitting in a shaft of sunlight, the young woman glowed as she practiced her tune. I snapped a photo quickly. There was no time to fool around if I wanted to capture the naturalness in her posture. Youth is a time of great beauty, but also great self consciousness.

I’ve come to understand the importance of doing value studies before beginning a painting. Steve Curl, my watercolor teacher, told me that when I was designing the value study I shouldn’t focus on the details. Instead, he said, look for the large shapes of light and dark; I did, and it made all the difference.

I’ve already practiced painting hands playing the flute, so I should be in good shape for her hands.

Reynard’s accordion

Reynard's accordion 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor
Reynard’s accordion
© 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor

The accordion has gotten a bad rap in this country, thanks to cheesy lounge lizard music and guys in glittery suits. But there are other sides to this instrument, facets that do not include champagne bubbles and Lady of Spain. Accordions have morphed into something new whenever a culture touched them.

I like accordion music, particularly music played on the button box. Particularly Irish music played on the button box (no surprise there), although I’ll take a good French Canadian reel too. English country music on the button box sounds great. And don’t forget accordion is a staple in  Cajun music.

It makes sense to me that a fox should play the accordion. And the fellow in this painting reminds me of a fox.

Raynard the fox was, in European folklore, a trickster, a shape-shifter, a magical animal. May Day seems like a day he is in top form.

I like to think of my Raynard  attracting fluffy white rabbits with his accordion, wooing them with a rockin’ reel or a seductive waltz on dry-tuned reeds and then…well, what he does with the bunnies when he catches them is best left to your imagination. I can assure you that my Reynard doesn’t bite their little heads off, and that they’re pretty happy to have been caught.

Anxiety and accordions

Last night I was waylaid by anxiety. You know the feeling: heart racing, mind jumping like a monkey shrieking at each imagined worse case scenario.

It felt something like this:

Colored markers on slick paper
Colored markers on slick paper

Well, I wasn’t actually feeling quite this armageddon-ish, despite world events cascading towards something scary in a most remarkable manner. Instead,  my anxiety was of a personal nature, stemming from the feeling of falling behind, of not painting enough, of not moving fast enough towards my goal, of being too lax, too lazy.

Part of this stems from late night reading of artist blogs, stories like Middle of Nowhere, about a toymaker in the UK, or Andrea Joseph’s sketch blog, that has lovely drawings in such a beautiful style. I admire these artists, and  they give me something to stretch for, to be sure, but also they make me feel so far behind.

So, since the bed was making me feel prickly and itchy, I got up at 1 a.m. and drew this fellow.

Accordion player number 1
Accordion player number 1

It’s my first pass at a painting I want to make of a Morris accordion player on May Day. However, this fellow looks too innocent. Too farmboy to play a diabolical instrument like the accordion.

This is better. I like his smirk. I like that he looks like a magician. The Morris dancers say they dance to keep the sun coming up on May Day. Some days I think it takes a magician to do that. I’ll start painting him this evening.

Accordion player number 2
Accordion player number 2

Whistles in the dark

Three Penny Whistles Graphite on paper
Three Penny Whistles
Graphite on paper

My wonderful husband gifted me with a Michael Burke whistle for our anniversary. I’ve been craving one.

I have to admit that, as a whistle player, I have many whistles. I don’t know why, but whistle players often have more whistles than does a bird singing in the moonlight. Perhaps we are always looking for that perfect instrument that will give us a nice loud true middle d, as well as a soft, chiffy high b. A whistle that can be heard above the din of fiddles and pipes. A whistle that won’t screech so loud your fillings fall out. It’s a never ending search and whistle makers oblige us in our quest.

I was struck by the differences of whistle construction, and this week during a sleepless night, drew three of my favorites (from left to right, Susato, Water Weasel, and Burke) to learn how to draw the materials they are made of (black plastic, pvc, and brass). And to admire my new Burke.

The Susato is a good loud session whistle. I played it happily for years. Then the Water Weasel was my favorite whistle until it cracked. It never played the same again, even after it’s creator, Glenn Schultz, repaired it. Now it’s cracked again, and unfortunately, Glenn has passed away.

The Burke is lovely. It’s not very loud, which is great for playing in our apartment. It’s got a sweet sound. It’s a little chiffy on the high notes, which I like. All in all, I’d say the husband got a good lot of husband points for this gift.