How to find peace in a howling Sierra storm

watercolor set up
A square-yard of watercolor calm while the storm rages just outside the window.

Big storm last week in the mountains. Winds howling through the trees, sounding like freight trains bearing down on us. Trees dancing and shaking like things possessed.

I sat down to work on a painting. Painting calms me; I have to be still inside to hear what the watercolors are saying.

At 7:45 the lights went out.

Scary noises in the dark

In the mountains, when the lights go out during a storm, it’s dark as hell, if hell is dark and winds screams on the wild hunt over the ridge and through the treetops. The house rattled and windblown branches cracked against the siding, smacked against the windows. In the dark I heard the fiddler in his upstairs office aerie play tunes in a minor key, and the wind wailed in harmony. The interval sounded like the Devil’s  chord.

The big trees on the windward side of our house swung and swayed; in the dark I couldn’t tell if the venerable cedar that leans towards our house was about to give way to the push of the wind, lose its footing and crash through the roof. The fiddler asked, should we build a fire in the fireplace? I prevaricated; if the tree went through the roof into the living room, it could catch the house on fire.

I love that we live in a house that’s like a tree house. I love the soft gray-green light that comes through the branches of the pine outside the window. I love my view over the forest and the baby cedars sprouting on the hillside below. I’m eye to eye with flickers and nuthatches; I watch tiny gray birds flock and flutter through the trees as I eat breakfast.

But being in the trees is a precarious position. Every season brings new pleasures, but also new worries.

John Muir used to climb tall Sierra trees and ride out big storms in the rocking branches at the crown. I’m too chicken to do that. Instead, I groped about and found my penny whistle to add my trilling keen to the fiddlers wail, while the wind augmented the fourth and chased across the mountains.

In the morning: The holy blue light of snow, melting in soft blip-blips. Water on the windows, branches on the ground, but the trees still stand.

Branch in snow
Actually, one tree did go down, a small snag killed by bark beetles and destined for the chainsaw anyway. It didn’t hurt anything, thank goodness.


A walk in the woods finds inspiration in a cloud of ladybugs

Snow and water
Snow and water 10″ x 8″ Watercolor on Arches 300# hot press

On Superbowl Sunday I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park to interview photographer Susan Conner. She shoots landscapes that tell the story of a quiet earth that often seems to be waiting for something.

“Dress warm,” she warned me. “It will be cold.”

That meant lots of layers, and as I drove past drifts of snow on the highway, I was glad for the long underwear, double shirts, down vest, and Sherpa cap.

But as we sat at a sunny picnic table, the air was warm, the sun burnt our winter-pale faces. We had to speak loudly to be heard over the sound of running water.

I get such a charge out of talking about art with creators, especially when they’re as open and talkative as Susan. As we chatted, we began to strip: first gloves, then the down vest, the jacket, the hat, until in the end we were wearing just jeans and shirts. I don’t know about Susan, but I was wishing I could lose the long underwear.

I wanted Susan to take me on a mini photo shoot. I’m deeply interested in how others work. I always wonder, how do they get from point A to point B, C, and beyond.

Susan hunts for photographs nearly everyday. Things catch her eye, and she starts shooting. She says sometimes she just knows a photo will be great, and other times she doesn’t see the composition until she gets home and looks at the photo on her computer.

We crunched through melting snow as she shot random things: water trickling down a redwood stump, burls in an old tree. On the north side of the forest, the snow, rather than melting, turned to ice at the edge of the big meadow.

A boardwalk crisscrossed the fen to protect the delicate ecosystem from trampling human feet; it was covered in slick humps of iced-over snow. “Too dangerous,” Susan said, and we turned back to the sunny side of the meadow.

There, sparkling in the touch of the sun, streams and rivulets of snowmelt ran through last year’s curled and matted grass. From this approach the boardwalk was dry, and we ventured over the meadow.


Suddenly the air was filled with a swarm of flying bugs. Thousands of glowing wings whirred in clouds; on the ground we saw bazillions of ladybugs. There were so many that the ground appeared to be moving. They climbed anything vertical and clung to sticks and stems.

Ladybugs hibernate together in clumps during winter, emerging in the first warm days of spring to eat and mate. “It’s too early,” Susan said, as everyone has said when I tell them this story. They should still be hibernating in February. But ladybugs don’t have calendars, and the sun was telling them to wake up.

We laughed and laughed while ladybugs whirred around us. Susan clicked off a dozen or more shots into the air, trying to capture the floating, glowing insects. Then she jumped to the boggy ground and began composing shots of the clumps of the orange and red bugs that had not yet flown. I stood watching, back to the sun, and later Susan had to brush the bugs off my sweater; they had clumped together in the warmth on my back.

After our walk in the woods, Susan went off to photograph more ladybugs and I dragged out my easel and paint box. I painted the watercolor at the top of this post, trying to capture the feeling and the colors of the day.

For a landscape photographer, for a landscape painter, for a writer, for anyone who creates, I think the trick to inspiration is simply showing up. You never know what will happen when you step outdoors. You could find icy snow on your favorite path, but if you turn around and go a different direction, you could find yourself in a cloud of flying ladybugs.

You can see Susan Conner’s gorgeous work at her website,

Lady bugs


Four artists, one life-drawing session

Last Thursday I hosted a drawing session at my house. It was so much fun that I can’t wait to host another one. It was a great group of artists, all confident in their own hand, and strong with their own vision. I’d like to show you some of their work.

Sue Smith
Drawing by Sue Smith

I could watch Sue Smith draw all day long. She has such a delicate touch of charcoal to paper, yet a strength of form and line; her hand moves like it’s dancing when she draws.

Sarah Switek
Drawing by Sarah Switek

Sarah is also a sculptor, and I think that her knowledge of all dimensions of a form gave this drawing substance even though it’s drawn primarily with an energetic line and just a little shading.

You can see her work here:


Drawing by George Durkee

I envy George’s ability to draw with such expressive marks. His drawings are always spare and minimal, but the lines are loose and free. And he makes it look so easy. Drat you, Geo (not really).

You can see his work, and his wonderful videos here:

Margaret Sloan
Drawing by Margaret Sloan

And mine…

30-in-30: Painting a snowstorm, take 2

Snowstorm study
8″ x 8″ watercolor on Fluid hot press paper

This morning I spent some time with the snowstorm photo, improving the composition (left out the deer), working hard to keep my values correct, and having some fun.

I’m working on a large portrait that’s been taking up my time. 12 hours into this picture and I just started painting today. You can see process shots on Instagram @margaret.sloan.

New year 1 a.m.

The last few days have been clear and cold leading up to the calendar roll over. Today I drew a wonderful model, then had a long chat with a good friend. Tonight we played for a contra dance, then drove home under Orion wheeling through the sky. A satisfying New Year ‘s Eve.

I am grateful for my life. For good food, heat, peace. For sable brushes, burnt sienna and Mayan blue. For music, dancers, and silly jokes. But most of all grateful for friends, my wonderful family, and my most excellent fiddler.

And I’m grateful that you, dear reader, choose to spend some moments with me in cyberspace. 

Happy New Year to you all.


Atherton Library art show

One wall of my Atherton Library exhibit

There are only a few days remaining to see my paintings at the Atherton Library (They are closed New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). I’ll be taking down the show on Tuesday, January 5. So if you have time and are in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll stop by and see them before they get boxed up.

I want to thank Betty Ullman of the Atherton Arts Foundation, for suggesting me as an exhibiting artist for the library, and for always being so supportive of my art career. She rocks, big time!

I also want to thank Mara Cota and the library staff for putting up with the disruption as my dad and I rather animatedly hung the show.

And last, but never least, I want to thank my dad for always helping out by lending not just his height, strength, and handyman knowledge, but also his excellent aesthetics when hanging my artwork.

You can find out more about the Atherton Library here:

And I know you’ll enjoy visiting the Atherton Arts Foundation website here:

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