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

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.


Sketching musical hands while they’re playing guitar

Sketch of Beppe Gambetta
Sketch of Beppe Gambetta while he played lightning fast flat-pick guitar licks.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing flat-pick guitar player Beppe Gambetta in concert. It was a small venue, and I was fortunate to sit right up front, thanks to friends who arrived early. I was so stunned by Mr. Gambetta’s playing that I couldn’t even think of drawing for the first half of the concert. But of course I had a sketch book (It was the 11″ x 14″ Cachet,  far too large for unobtrusive concert drawing. Reminder to self: bring something smaller to concerts.). I swallowed my sketching-in-public shame during the second half of the concert and drew (still amazed and enchanted) while Gambetta played.

You can’t draw musicians without drawing their hands, yet hands are so difficult to draw. And the hands of a musician are always moving (Gambetta’s left hand sometimes blurs against the neck of the guitar). But I’ve found that even a mass of lines can lead me to a better understanding of the subject. And when I draw something I have a better understanding of the whole thing, music included.

Sketch of hand
First sketch of guitar player’s left hand

The first time I drew Gambetta’s hand, I tried to record the position of the fingers and knuckles, and the angle of his hand as it wrapped around the neck of the guitar. I imagined the fingers as little boxes, with tops, bottoms, and sides, to help me figure out the planes of each digit.

But it’s not easy; since his hands are always moving, I had to devise a way to make a gesture drawing that was accurate. First, I listened a bit to understand the structure of the tune. Then I chose a chord that he made often. Since I could anticipate when he’d return to that chord, I was ready to draw when he got there, and I quickly sketched as he played with his hand in that position.


Sketch of hand
Second sketch of guitar player’s left hand

In my second attempt, I wanted to smooth out the lines and make the drawing less about boxes and more about fingers. I was also trying to figure out the position of his hand and how the fingers attached to it.

Sketch of hand
Final sketch of guitar player’s left hand

Later, I studied my sketches and made the drawing above. It’s neater, and shows each finger and the hand position as it wraps around the guitar. It doesn’t show the passion that Gambetta puts into his chord hand; the initial scribble at the top of the post does a better job at that. But this is work that needs to be done; it will eventually make my initial sketches better.

The more an artist learns about a subject, the more force they can bring to even little things like a quick sketch. It’s all about observing, paying close attention, and then attempting to show what you’re feeling with pen and paper, brush and paint. What better way to live a life?

And here are some YouTube videos of Beppe Gambetta.

Painting against time

clarinet player
Klezmer musician sketch
8.5″ x 12″
Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I tend to paint slowly. I spend hours getting the drawing right before I move to color. Then I paint deliberately, thinking about each stroke. Sometimes I think too much,  standing in front of the easel, brush in hand, looking and daubing.

Eventually I start feeling trapped, like some old hen pecking away in a chicken coop. I’m afraid to move from my comfort zone because I’ve got too much invested in a particular painting. Yet, with no forays out of the barnyard into the woods, well, where is the exploration? Where is the learning? Where is the joy? All I’m doing is laying eggs.

But I want to fly.

Perversely, sometimes limits can free an artist from gravity. Rather than spend hours on a painting, I decided to give myself some parameters: half hour for the drawing and an hour for the painting. I wanted to see what I could accomplish in a short period of time.

What a great exercise! It forced me to think in terms of big shapes, clear color and correct value. I let go of trying to have a “finished” product and made choices quickly. And I was quite surprised at how instinctive painting has become.

Most valuable tool in this exercise: The kitchen timer.

Painting from a fast sketch


The holiday bazaar last Saturday was lovely, with beautiful artwork and Irish music provided by my own fiddler and our friends from the Irish music community (if there’s any reason—other than sheer joy—to learn to play Irish music, old time, or any folk music, it would be the wonderful groups of friends you’ll make doing so).

The day started a bit slowly, so I took the opportunity from my seat inside the circle of musicians (in between firing off the tunes I knew on the whistle) to sketch the dulcimer player with the intention of later making a painting solely from my sketch after the dulcimer player left to go to another gig.

Sometimes I can’t take photos for reference. Sometimes I just don’t want a camera intruding on the moment. And I like the practice of trying to find a painting from my initial sketch.


pencil sketch
Quick pencil sketch

I payed particular attention to these elements as I gathered information for a painting:

  1. The shapes of the features that made a likeness. She has strong features, making it easier to draw them.
  2. The shapes of the shadow forms. There wasn’t a clear single-light source, so I had to choose the shadows as best I could to show form.
  3. Lost and found edges. Frankly, I was pressed for time, so I didn’t give as much thought to edges as I should have.
  4. Color notes. Okay, in all honesty, I didn’t make any color notes on anything other than her hair and her jacket. But I should have. They would have noted things like skin color in the highlights, midtones, and shadows, room color, light quality. Next time!

I had about half an hour (give or take a tune or two) to make this sketch, so some areas, like the far eye and hairline, were left a bit hazy.  These omissions would later bite me in the butt as I tried to recreate this sketch in color.

Then, while the hall bustled around me with holiday shoppers, I painted.

Watercolor painting
Watercolor painting using pencil sketch as resource

After a day of painting between customers, I ended up with a sort of half sketched painting that was almost a likeness, but not quite.

The prevailing wisdom about watercolor is that you can’t erase it. Nonsense! While you can never get down to the beautiful pristine paper again, you can certainly lift much of the color. I didn’t like the purply-red I’d put in her hair, so when I got home, I scrubbed it off with a toothbrush and a spray of water. Then I let it dry completely and repainted.

The mouth also didn’t match the sketch, and so lost much of her character, so I lifted the paint using an old sable brush (I don’t know why this is, but nothing lifts watercolor as well as sable), let it dry, redrew it, and repainted it. The nose got a little surgery and lost its bottom edge. I adjusted the angle of the far cheek and the perspective of the eyes.

Watercolor from fast sketch

This almost captures the likeness of the dulcimer player, and I’m pretty pleased to have done it without a photo-aid. To be fair, I’ve known her for years, so that when my brush drove past the likeness, I knew I’d arrived.

Fiddle player

This portrait is on Arches print paper. I inherited this beautiful paper from a friend whose father was an artist. He’d passed a long time ago, and when they finally cleared out his workshop, they found a stack of this lovely paper that probably dates back to the 60’s. Isn’t that an artist’s fantasy—to find beautiful, antique paper from a time when craftsmanship still ruled the day?

I love to draw on this paper, and small sizes worked okay with watercolor. But this painting is big—a full sheet of paper, 22X30—and there were some issues.

Paper for letterpress printing has less sizing than watercolor paper, which makes the press paper lovely and soft, but without the sizing to protect it, the paper sucks up the paint. Plus,  even though I stretched it and stapled it firmly onto a board, when the paper got wet, it got all floppy like a wet cotton sheet. But it dries nice and flat. The painting is still on it’s stretcher board, and I may rework it a bit.

This was painted before I took the Ted Nuttall workshop. I now refer to this as my BT (before Ted) style. Next post, I”ll show you my AT (after Ted) style. Very different.

More about sizing

More about paper

Chicago Irish interlude

Box player at the Abby

A visit to Chicago would have been incomplete without attending an Irish session. The Chicago Irish music scene is legendary. My fiddler said this was the one thing he really, really, really wanted to do. I, of course, was not against this idea.

We found the Abby, where, when we walked through the door,  we were astounded by the most amazing whistle playing.

It was Laurence Nugent, a top Irish whistle and flute player. Pretty cool.

At the Abby

If I’m shy about drawing in public, sometimes I’m even more shy about playing music.  I couldn’t see taking my whistle out and squawking  around on it like a wounded ostrich when there were musicians who were roaring like lions. Instead, I sat at a table, had a beer, and listened to ripping reels, jigs, and hornpipes while I painted. Listeners are an important part of a session too!

I leave you with this video.


Laurence Nugent

If the Northern Lights played the fiddle

The text says: "A Listening tune should be like a wonderful day where everything is as fresh and clean as when the Shaper shaped it."

Today we went to the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association to hear fiddler Sarah Kirton play her hardingfele. It was sheer magic.

The hardingfele, or hardanger fiddle, is a traditional instrument of Norway. It’s got 4 strings stretched across the top of the instrument, like a regular fiddle, but beneath those strings are 4 more strings that buzz and moan in sympathy when the top strings are played. The music is other-worldly. When I hear it, I think of ice goddesses, snow fields, midnight suns, birch trees in brilliant green meadows.

If the northern lights played music, it would be on the hardingfele.

In the Bay Area we gab ceaselessly about diversity, and yet, most people only really listen to music presented to them by mainstream radio; they don’t know that there is a whole world of music out there that isn’t just Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber.  It’s the musical equivalent of eating at only McDonalds when you live 2 blocks from a wonderful street where every restaurant serves food from a different country . If you never go down that street, you never even know that there are other foods.

If you want to taste some Norwegian hardingele music, you might start at the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. There are some sound files to give you an idea of what this wonderful and mysterious music sounds like.  And there’s a radio show about the fiddle (Sarah’s in it!) here.

And you might want to explore some of the fabulous musical menus that the world has to offer. Who knows? There might be a hardingele fiddler living right next door to you!

Hot Club of Palo Alto

Last week we made it down to the Red Rock coffeehouse to hear the Hot Club of Palo Alto. They were great! In their own words (lifted from their website):

Our music has direct origins back to the gypsy virtuosos who played the Parisian dance halls, bistros, and cafés of the 30’s and 40’s. It was referred to as “Hot Club” music, taken from the name of it most famous group, the Hot Club de France, who was prominent in the 30s and 40s. These Hot Club style musicians took American Dixieland Jazz and Swing, blended it with European Tangos and the dance hall Musettes of the day, creating a very pleasing musical concoction that became among the most popular music forms of its time. Just about every top-flight band in America rewrote and rearranged large sections of their repertoire to accommodate this Hot Club new style. This Hot Club music went on to greatly influence American Jazz, Pop, and Swing. Even Rock and Roll traces roots back to these rhythmic and melodic giants.

Oh yeah. Reinhardt, Grappelli. Hot Club music meant for listening (and some dancing by a cute couple who could still swing despite the silver in their hair) I dig this music. And I got to indulge in my greatest pleasure: sketching musicians while they play.

Hot Club Palo Alto plays at the Red Rock the last two Sundays in December, and at Cafe Zoë in Menlo Park the first two Sundays. Be there or be square.