Hold on to your inner maiden when you become a midlife crone

Girl with garland
Spring Maiden
Watercolor on Arches #140 hot press

Spring is officially here.  Freshly laden with promise, sex, and the promise of sex; the season of flowers and babies has sproinged to life in the Northern Hemisphere. The maiden, full and fertile, drives mythology of the vernal equinox.

Spring is so closely identified with the maiden that we still tell the ancient myths about her: Stories of beautiful Persephone, emerging each spring from her winter home in Hades to touch the landscape with life; Myths of Ēostra, dawn goddess of ancient Britain, who so tickled St. Bede’s fancy that he attributed Easter festivals to remnants of her ancient cult. And songs of huntress Artemis, notching arrows to her bow, echo across the centuries to create Katniss Everdeen and her fight against the evil capitol of Panem.

We love the myth of the springtime maiden. Perhaps because we are in love with youth. But one of the unavoidable truths of life is that, unless death preempts it,  we are all going to age.

The crone often represents aging, the waning of the moon. Winter. She occupies a cold place in our cultural mythologies. We scare children (and adults) with stories of crones feeding princesses with poison apples, Baba Yaga beating the air with her pestle, fashion-forward heiresses making coats from puppies.

This is wrong. We need new stories. Tales that recognize the duality of spring and winter, and the worth of both ends of our lives.

Woman with dog
Spring Crone
Watercolor on Arches #140 hot press

International Women’s Day: 4 paintings, 4 stories

new car
The New Car
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press paper
© 2015 Margaret Sloan

The painting above is of my mom with her brand new car in 1956, that she bought with her own money earned from working a professional job. (For 60 years, my dad carried in his wallet the black and white photo I used to make this painting)

She told me that when I was a baby, she was passed over for a promotion—even though the boss admitted she was better qualified for the job—because he had to give it to a man, even though that man was less qualified. After all, he had a family to feed. My mom was supporting us at that time while my dad went to school. She asked the boss man, “what about my family?” Perhaps because I was a girl-child, I didn’t need to eat much?

My mom is one of my heroes. I can only hope to ever measure up to her intelligence, compassion, dedication, and love.

Watercolor Painting
Margaret M.
11″ x 14″ Watercolor on Arches 300#
© Margaret Sloan 2014

The above painting is of Margaret, the wife of a very fine painter. She and her husband told me that she helped put him through art school by being a model. She helps run the half of his business that doesn’t involve painting, and is raising their young children. When I painted this picture, I kept thinking of her as the heart of their family, as well as the heart of the sea.

She still models for him.

Watercolor figure sketch
Figure sketch in watercolor

This is my beautiful niece. I convinced her to pose for me one warm summer day. She was very young; I wanted to capture that fear of being a young woman setting out in the strange and sometimes frightening world. 5 years later, she’s planning a wander year, still a little anxious, but bravely planning her journeys. I worry about her. I know that the world is not always kind to young women, and yet, I want her to make her way with bravery and joy.

Beginners Reel
© 2012 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

This little girl was at her first stepdancing exhibition. She was about 6 years old, and the only beginner to dance at the show. But she bravely marched out and danced her sevens and one-two-threes by herself, soloing on the edge of a world that holds promise as well as dread. I hope that she dances through a world that gives her a chance.

The Wheel © 2013 Margaret Sloan Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
The Wheel
© 2013 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

To all women still turning the wheel, I salute us. To the men who love us, I salute you too.  It’s sometimes a hard wheel to turn; let’s work together on making it revolve.

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, www.susanseye.com

Lady bugs


How to create memories of loved ones with watercolor portraits

Charcoal portrait
Charcoal portrait from life

I am currently accepting portrait commissions. I’d love to create a memory for you of a loved one, an event, or an emotional time. See the gallery at the bottom of the post for some of my favorite portrait creations, then contact me at mockingbirdatmidnight_ at _gmail . com to find out how you can commission a watercolor portrait.

I love drawing portraits more than anything else. It’s odd that I would, as I’m not a gregarious person. As introverts go, I’m pretty high on the “I vant to be alone” scale.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t yearn for human connections. It’s just that, rather than partying in a big, loud group, I prefer an intimate cuppa  (plenty of milk and sugar, please!) with one or two close friends, sitting in the sun or in front of a cozy fire, trading tales, hearing their stories of their lives and loves.

Painting a portrait is like sitting down with someone and having a nice chat, even if I’m working from a photograph. I often imagine I can hear them speaking to me. In fact, I often fancy the portrait as a conversation I’m having with the person, the paint, and the paper.

My favorite portraits come from sitting down and letting the person talk. Their stories become part of the portrait, and help bring it to life, full of their spirit and soul.

Former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving shot a video of Andrew Wyeth painting his portrait. In it, Hoving is blabbing away while Wyeth chuckles, nods, and makes “I’m listening” noises, paintbrush moving the whole time. Hoving  said that Wyeth told him to talk during the two sessions during which he drew the portrait. Wyeth reportedly said, “I must have animation.”

You can see that video here. It’s not long, and it’s very amusing.

It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world when you manage to draw a portrait that captures not only the likeness of a person but something of their inner life as well.

In the best of portraits there’s a synergy between artist and model that flows as easily as liquid, and creates something as beautiful and memorable as a life expressed in pigment, water, and paper.

A hand painted portrait tells a story you can keep forever.

Learn more about how you can commission a portrait of your loved one by emailing me at mockingbirdatmidnight [at] gmail [.] com.


30-in-30: How to sketch it now and paint it later



Near my house the pond had gone perilously dry until our recent rains. But El Niño has come to the rescue and filled it to overflowing. Last night on my walk, I noticed water rushing through the overflow ditch and into a spillway. It was a sweet scene in the afternoon light, with tree frogs singing, and the rays of sun streaking the water beyond. I whipped out my sketchbook to capture the mood with a pencil drawing.

Pencil sketch
Pencil sketch

Yes, I always carry a sketchbook and pencil, even on my walks. Doesn’t everyone?

My goal for this exercise was to draw enough information so that I could make a painting from it in my studio (where it’s warm and I have hot drinks and a restroom).

What information did I try to capture?

  • A rough idea of composition  I’ve been working on improving my compositions. In this sketch I was trying to see big shapes rather than worry about detail.
  • Areas of interest I liked the water line as it went from the organic shape of the ditch to the man-made hard lines of the cement weir. Then there’s that little corner in the left hand side where the water starts that I also found interesting.
  • Relative values of the whole scene  There was a simple, stark contrast between water and land, but on the cement weir the values grew trickier. I was also trying to think about how the light and dark values could lead the eye and create the illusion of water.

Although this was a quick sketch, it wasn’t quick enough. Suddenly it got very dark, and I realized that the sun had sunk behind the ridge. I was still a couple miles from home, night was falling, and mountain lions were about!

Clearly I made it home (and I wrestled, not with mountain lions, but with my lazy self  as I climbed the hill towards home) and this morning I painted the study at the top of this post, using information I gleaned from my pencil sketch.

For me, art is all about learning to see. It’s good practice to make these little black and white studies and try to paint them later. It sharpens observation skills, and hones the memory.

Plus, there’s a nice cuppa with milk and honey back at the studio.


AnimalScapes art show opens tomorrow!

Greenwood Side (Created for “Animalscapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills”
30″ x 24″ watercolor on Aquabord
© 2016 Margaret Sloan

I was fortunate to be selected, along with 54 other (excellent) artists and writers, to create a painting for a show called “AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills.” This show was a huge undertaking for the arts councils of our tri-county area, and it was with the generosity of many donors that it happened at all. As one of the artists, I’m very grateful.

Tomorrow (Saturday, January 16) is the first opening for the art show at Ironstone Winery in Murphys, California. The paintings, sculptures, and writings will be at Ironstone until February 15, then will move to Hotel Sutter in Sutter Creek (Feb. 17 – March 13), then will move once again to Black Oak Casino Hotel in Sonora (March 15 – April 3). If you are near, I hope you’ll attend, drink some wine and view (and maybe buy) some art. I think it will be worth it.

A couple of the organizers voiced their hopes that this large group show might help our area heal in some small way from last summer’s nightmare Butte Fire. I hope that it might, if art can help in that way.

Here’s the official press release: ““AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills” is a Tri-County Project of the Calaveras County Arts Council (CCAC), Tuolumne County Arts Alliance (TCAA), Amador County Arts Council (ACAC) and its 2 other major partners: Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) www.pawsweb.org and the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. This project is partially funded by the California Arts Council (CAC) through a “Creative California Communities Grant” and the National Endowment for the Arts. The $23,200 CAC Grant is a “matching grant” dollar for dollar. There are also opportunities once more than half of the match has been made for in-kind donations.”

30-in-30: Watercolor selfie

Self portrait 8" x 10" watercolor on Arches 140# hot press
Self portrait
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# hot press

This is pretty much what I look like, dear readers, although I might have smoothed out the bags under my eyes, and neglected to paint the complete truth about hair color. I come from a red-face family, and my cheeks are often nearly that crimson, although in this painting they might have been exaggerated just a bit by the new tube of Daniel Smith quinacridone rose. Awesome color. I’m afraid to do a light test on it…

I love to draw, almost more than anything else (except maybe eat), but I spent all this morning with a pencil in my hand, and by this afternoon, I was just tired of it. This little painting was done with only two pencil marks, one to mark the top of the head and one to mark the angle of the chin. Everything else was by brush alone.

And after 2 weeks of arguing with Aquabord, I decided to do my daily painting on PAPER! Although it wasn’t my beloved 300# hot press, it was still Arches, cotton rag torn out of a block. Ah, back home again.

Although I tried to limit myself to 1 hour, when the ringer went off, I had to mess with it just a half hour more to bring it into some sort of completion.


30-in-30: Drive-by haiku

While the fiddler drives, I like to paint. Problem is, the car is moving so fast through the landscape that all I capture are fleeting shapes and color. So rather than write a wordy blog post, dear reader, I give you some classic 5-7-5 haiku with my little sketches. Happy Tuesday afternoon!


Traveling, I paint
wet brown hills fading away
from town cloaked in trees.


The yellow grass, wet
but not yet green, dreams like birds
of El Niño rains.


Two rocks rear above
the road. Wet, the big rock’s head
bleeds to meet the rain


The last pass. Fly down
fast past a parked black-and-white.
Play invisible.


Dry furrows cross fields
newly plowed with hopes of rain
that falls on cities



How to paint a tree?
Edges, texture, size and form.
What’s seen disappears.