How to paint the figure, no pencil included.

The gallery below is from a life drawing session. Click on an image to see them at larger size.

Nearly every Thursday I go to Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis for life drawing. (It’s uninstructed, but if you live near there, you should attend. It’s a great group and we’re all happy to help if you’re a beginner.) I’ve been doing this for nearly 2 years. Life drawing really helps sharpen my drawing skills. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

For the last 6 months I’ve been trying to figure out how watercolor can work for me in life drawing. Last Thursday I didn’t use a pencil at all. It was just me, the model, and brush, paint, water and paper.

There are so many things to juggle in my head when I’m painting this way. Not only am I trying to get the proportions right, but I also have to think—all at the same time—about negative space, value, shape, and what trouble the water and paint is going to get into when it hits the paper.

I’ve been thinking a lot about giving up my attachment to my end product. Painting this way is a little like I imagine jumping off a cliff in one of those crazy wingsuits would be like. Terrifying and exhilarating. Although if I make a mistake painting, there’s only a pile of chewed up paper and my bloodied ego in a pile on the floor, rather than a broken body.

Following the advice of fellow artist, Gayle Lorraine, when I start, I whisper to myself, “Let’s just waste paint and paper today.” It gives me the freedom to screw up, which also means that I work more intuitively, letting what I already know drive my hand.

There’s something else about that attitude: I make more work, which means I’m practicing more, entering into more conversations with my materials.

And as my mom always told me, practice makes perfect. Although I’m not so worried about perfection.

Which is perfect.

How art is helping a community heal the burn scars of the Butte Fire

Fire sculpture
Photo: Will Mosgrove
When the Music Stopped
Sculpture made with salvaged objects from the Butte Fire

Sitting on the blackened earth, she took a moment to cradle the clarinet’s skeleton. She ran her fingers over the burned through wall of the bell, the pads fused closed, the jagged end where a mouthpiece had once been. —Cynthia Restivo

Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project

Yesterday I attended the opening for the show called Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project. It’s a show of art, poetry, and prose exploring last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You should come to tiny San Andreas in Calaveras County and see this powerful show.

If you don’t live in the Sierra Foothills, let me remind you what happened. Last September, a fire ripped through rural Calaveras County and fried over 70,000 acres. More than 800 structures were destroyed, better than half of them homes. Places where people lived. Places where people had their lives.

It happened so fast that many residents fled with little more than their clothing, their pets, and not much else. When I say that buildings were destroyed, I mean the houses and everything in them were reduced to nothing but ashes. If Grandma’s china and your mother’s wedding dress were left behind in the mad rush to escape, they were incinerated. Not to mention your pots and pans, your favorite chair. Your studio, your art supplies, the artwork you created that marked the course of your career, your life.

I know, it’s been a year since the fire. Old news, right? Calaveras County has fallen out of the news cycle. With our tragedy eclipsed not just by other wildfires, but by election foofery, Olympic flick-flacks, and (your choice, readers) celebrity name + visible body part, my community is trying, with little publicity, to recover from last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You need to come to Calaveras Country and see this show.

The artworks, including paintings, collage, sculptures and photographs, are in response to the Butte fire.  They are testaments to the bravery of the artists who lost their homes,  who still reel and stagger in various states of balance. Framed poems and artist statements speak with stark gulps of grief, yet also wobbly words of hope and renewal.

Perhaps the most powerful pieces are the sculptures made of items scavenged from the ashes: A clay hand, missing all fingers but the charcoal-stained thumb. A ceramic pot, still intact but too firestorm-fragile to be touched. A weed eater, unrecognizable until you read the card next to it. The remains of a manual typewriter, with glass slumped into a form that resembles a hummingbird buzzing at the side of the keyboard.

When your life has been stolen, how do you know the manner in which you should move forward? But you do move forward, if only because time stands behind you and treads on your heels whether you advance or not.

Art helps you move your feet; it’s the great healer.  Art is how we process things; Art is how we make sense of the world; Art is how we find ourselves when all other maps become meaningless and we are wandering in a charred wilderness of blackened trees.

Come to Calaveras County and see this show. Because the artists there teach us how to salvage our lives from tragedy; how to navigate loss; how to begin traveling on the slow switchback trail of recovery. It’s a small show, to be sure. But it’s powerful in a way that you won’t forget.

In truth, we all walk through life on a paper bridge that could, at any moment, melt in the rain or crisp in a stray flame, plunging us into a gully. We need these messages, these semaphores and telegraphs and murmured communiqués from artists spooling their own ferries across their inner landscapes. They teach us how to grieve, and how to heal.

Pieces: A Community Art Project will be on display at the Calaveras Arts Council Gallery in San Andreas through September. 22 Main Street (Off Highway 49)

Click here for local news station coverage of the exhibit.


Celebrate your sister on National Sisters Day

Watercolor on 6″ x 6″ Aquabord


These two sisters are for sale. It’s a small painting on Aquabord, 6″ x 6″, and is unframed. It’s been sprayed with a UV-protective varnish, so you don’t have to put it under glass (although it will need to stay out of sun and bright light so that the colors don’t fade). It’s on a hard board, so you can lean it up on a picture ledge, or frame it.

Email me at mockingbirdatmidnight at gmail to purchase.

Finding power in the landscape and creation close to the sky

Mountains in distance
View from the Lehman Cave Visitor Center in Great Basin National Park
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” —Terry Tempest Williams

Earlier this summer I traveled with a friend to Eastern Nevada. We’d been talking about taking this trip for a long time, and this year it finally came together in a clatter and clank of camping stoves, tent pegs, and way too much painting equipment.

In late June the hills of California already rolled golden and tinder dry, but the deserts and mountains of Eastern Nevada were fresh and minty green. In some parts of the Ruby Mountains, the snow had melted only a few weeks before we arrived, and it made me giddy, the sight of so much water—it gushed off cliffs, roared through valleys, or just spread over the ground like it hadn’t a care in the world.

At higher elevations, spring ran crazy like a wild child, ribbons trailing and bare feet muddy, splashing up flowers at every step. Columbine, paintbrush and penstemon spangled meadows and glens; starry white clusters of Queen Anne’s lace dreamed in the flickering light of aspen groves; and cactus blossomed prickly under pinyon and juniper. If the earth laughs with flowers, the planet was falling out of her chair, cackling until she nearly peed her pants.

I felt like laughing too, trailing along these high mountain trails beside water and flower. And I felt something else: a sideways space of awe and joy that slid into my chest and made my dull-thudding heart want to leap and shout and spin.

This feeling was something so big and so full that it took my breath away. Gasping so close to the sky, I felt a belonging, a coming home, a connection that thrummed from the ground into my feet, shook my body, and shot like a rocket out of the top of my head. For a moment I became a small, bi-pedal conduit to a power far greater than my tiny humanity.

I’ve felt this way only a few times in my life, and all of those times have been when I’m outdoors: on a beach, or a mountain, or deep in a redwood forest. In between times, I forget these places of power, and I know I need to seek them out more often, for it’s in those places I find my life. I hope they help you find yours.

Aspens and rock painting
Spring meadow at 9,000 feet
Watercolor 5″ x 7″

Some people catch the spirit and speak in tongues. Others fall and writhe. Still others weep or sigh or sing. Me? I paint. I write. I create because the world spills out of me; to do anything else would be to waste what the earth gives me. And I owe it to the beautiful blue marble that gives me my home.

Peak at Lamoille Canyon
Oil on canvas panel  5″ x 7″



Slaying boredom by painting dreams at 35,000 feet

Sketching while flying
This is my watercolor kit for traveling. It’s small, fits in my laptop case, and I can paint almost anywhere with it. Clockwise from top left: Sakura Sumo Grip mechanical pencil;  Aquash Watercolor brush; Windsor Newton travel paint box; Handbook Artist Journal (5.5″ x 5.5″).

I admit, we are stay-at-home types. I didn’t use to be, but after we bought the Tree House, it seems like I never want to leave. As a result, we don’t travel much. But this summer seems to be our summer of criss-crossing the country.

First there was a girls-gone-wild week in Eastern Nevada with my traveling red-headed friend. She’s been spending the first few years of her retirement seeing the West from her Toyota Tacoma.  Oh my, but that was fun. We were really out of control. I mean, we had TWO bags of cheesy poofs! We stayed up until 10! We talked to strangers!

Then there were two weeks on the east coast with the fiddler, wrapped in humidity that boggled my mind. (I’m from the arid West, where, if the thermometer drops much below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear a wrap to ward off the cold. In Connecticut at 86 degrees,  I sincerely considered just how naked I could get before I would upstage the bride.)

Being on the road; or in the air; or at a wedding; or touring New England means there was little time to drag out the sketchbook and draw, or unpack the plein air supplies and paint.

The best time to paint turned out to be on the airplane. Boredom and enforced stillness turns on my creative tap. I need to spend more time being bored.

girl typing
I took it upon myself to be the dream giver, but one of the other passengers was my proxy model.


Dream surroung
Detail of couple sleeping and the dreams I gave them.

At the peak of liberty, I don’t want to see disposable diapers

Purple cliffs
Liberty Peak in the Ruby Mountains
Oil 5″ x 7″

Today of all days, when we celebrate our nation’s independence, I’m happy to post this little painting of Liberty Peak in Nevada.

There are many reasons why I’m proud and glad to be an American citizen, but in my opinion, one of the best and most important things this country has done is protect our wild places.

I’ve lived in other countries, and believe me when I tell you that what we have in the United States—national, state, and county parks; wilderness lands; vast tracts of undeveloped space that we all may visit—is nearly miraculous. Only a few countries protect as much of their land as we protect of ours.

Recently our wild lands have been under renewed attack on many fronts: People who want to rape the land to get at her resources, scar her for entertainment, build upon her for their profit. And then there are the people who are simply so clueless that they just don’t care.

It’s the clueless ones who bother me the most. The people who litter while they are in our magnificent places; who tramp off trail and destroy fragile eco-systems; who poop on trail (or leave disposable diapers or bags of dog poo behind) because they can’t be bothered to carry out their waste); who won’t turn off their boomboxes so that we can all hear the complex warble of a tiny wren.

They bother me because I think they do not to love the land, and their carelessness seems to be contagious. They do not recognize the gift that we have been given by visionary Americans: open, untrammeled space. And if they don’t care about what they do, why would they care about what anyone else does?

There are not only a million small wounds on our land, there’s a distressing lack of voices heard in defense of her. And if we little people don’t value our great open spaces enough to band together, how then will we fight against those big ones who would turn our country into one huge open-pit mine and cesspool?

I came of age with the image seared in my mind of a Native American man weeping at the trashing of his/our country. Yes, people complain about it being racist, maudlin, etcetera. But I think it helped change a way of thinking for a generation. And it seems to me that that Native American man is still weeping. Our tears mingle.

I hope you’ll visit our national lands this summer. I beg you to treat the land with respect. Out of patriotism at the very least; out of deep, abiding love at the most.

And since I know that you, my dear reader, love the land and would not leave trash on her, please pick up after those who don’t know better.



Join me for World Watercolor Month


Somehow July has become World Watercolor Month. Charlie O’Shields from Doodlewash was the mover and shaker that started this observation. You can also learn more about it from

That’s just dandy. I love watercolor; until recently, I worked in watercolor almost exclusively. It’s a medium that’s still challenging me, even after 30 years of working with it.

I’ll be observing World Watercolor Month too, sometimes with old paintings, but more often with new. I’ll be offering some quick tutorials, and I’m planning some in-depth online courses soon. I’ll be talking about my journey through water, pigment, and paint; I hope it will be helpful to your watercolor month. If there’s something you’d like to learn about watercolors, ask me in the comments.

Antler (cropped) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press


Playing music in the pines at Kowana Valley Folk School & Lodge

Banjo Player
Moon in June at Kowana Valley Ranch

Last weekend I wrote this blog post from a tent in the Sierra Nevada while I listened to two flutes playing outside the door. They swung through an old Irish jig called “Out on the Ocean.” From a camp to my right, a mandolin tinkled and plunked through a completely different tune: a hornpipe called Little Stack of Barley. In the distance, a beautiful cacophony of fiddles, whistles, and banjos careered from reel to reel. Pigeon on a Gate into Swinging on a Gate into Cooley’s.

I live in a rare and strange world where people play music together. It’s old music that’s been with the human culture for a very long time, mostly Irish, but some American Old Time, some French Canadian, some English Country tunes. We play for no other reason except to make each other happy. No money changes hands; we play freely.

We play as conversation, not performance. We communicate through notes spooling out from our instruments, conversing with three-four waltzes, two-four polkas, six-eight jigs, and of course, the four-four stampeding eighth notes of reels.

Late night session

People who play this kind of music seek each other out because we are few. We form community where we find it. The community I’m part of is lucky; we found a home for our summer camp at Kowana Valley Ranch, an exquisite piece of property in a long valley just below Yosemite. Every year a bunch of us convene for a weekend of camping, swimming, dancing, eating, and playing a torrent of music from dawn to dawn.

The hosts, Lynn and Richard Ferry, welcome us with flute, banjo, harmonica, and guitar. They play too, when they are not managing their land or their guest lodge. They are the two thumping hearts of this celebration, keeping it alive and giving it the deep soul that makes it the favored event of the year.

I can’t invite you to our music party (it’s private), but I can tell you about the Ferry’s lodge, where you should plan to spend some vacation time.

The lodge is set at the head of a long valley, where little Bull Creek runs fitfully (sometimes it’s partly dry during summer) through willows and pines. To get there, you drive into the middle of nowhere, take a right, and wind down 5 miles of dusty, unpaved road. Once there, you’re off grid. Your devices have no place to connect, and become the door stops you wish they were. You will have to get your kicks from the flashing of birds, the sparkle of dragonflies, and the moon as it rises over the mountains. You can hike in deep forests or lounge beside a cold mountain swimming hole. Glorious nothingness can fill your days.

You can rent out rooms, bunks, or the whole shebang for large parties and getaways. If you play trad music, they might just break out their instruments and share some tunes with you.

Here’s the link to their ranch: Tell them hi from Maggie. And if you don’t know what trad music is, ask them to share a couple cds with you while you are there.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to take up an instrument and learn to play (they have music workshops at the lodge). More people should play this old music, making all the hills and valleys across the land ring with people’s music. Not only the Irish, but Old Time, Cape Breton, Cajun; people’s music, stuff that’s not been predigested by a computer and corporate for our consumption, but real tunes that have traveled miles through space and time and arrive in our ears as raw as the day the earth was new.