New beginnings

sail boat
To my colleagues who taught me what it means to create exceptional work, encouraged me to do what I love, and inspired me to do my very best. I’ll see you in the next port. And remember: Make the pie higher!

Today my new life begins. A life without the day job, a job that’s been my home, my sense-of-self, and my security since the beginning of the 21st Century.

The magazine industry is in precarious waters right now, and running heavy ships without good maps. Corporate bean counters are reducing crews, and I was among the group that was most recently set adrift.

But not truly adrift. I’ve spent 15 years working for an exceptional magazine—we won a James Beard award a few years ago, and just last year, an ASME (which is like an Academy Award for the magazine world). During that time, I’ve learned skills enough to float my own boat. And I’ve got a network of others to help me as I chart my own course.

Yes, I’m very sad. I’ll miss the daily schedule. I’ll miss being part of something bigger than myself. I’ll miss the borrowed prestige of working for a large, venerable magazine. I’ll miss the incredible view from the window by my desk. I’ll miss the steady paycheck. And most of all, I’ll miss the people I worked with. After so many years we had become friends.

Things change, and I hate change. But I’m a little excited (and terrified) about this change. I’m not sure where I’ll go from here, but for now, my morning commute is short and beautiful and I’ll have more time to paint. I think this blog will change (or at least become more frequent). I’ve got some ideas. We’ll see where I end up.

I’ve sailed through waters rougher than these.


“Listen, Miss, boats are supposed to float. Even if they break up, they usually still float and show up on a shore somewhere. There have been no reports of wreckage or abandoned boats. At this point, no news is still good news. Don’t worry. It’s too early to worry.” Cathy Ostlere, Lost

Multiple studies

I’ve been known to paint a single image many times, trying to “get it right.” (The painting “Trim the Velvet” I painted at least 12 times before I was happy with the results.)

I’ve been working an image of a friend’s wife for a year. It’s eluded me, partly because the original photograph was taken with the sun overhead. A no-no; yes, I’m aware of that. But her eyelashes cast a shadow on her cheek, delicate and curved. Her hair was wisping in a light breeze. Her name is Margaret (yes, my name too!), which, according to coffee cup research, means “pearl of the sea.” The photo, although taken on the front steps of a local church, somehow made me think of the ocean, so I decided to place her on a beach.

This first painting was a color sketch, to play around with the palette and composition. The sketch looks fresh, with nice, clear colors (my favorite part is the blue and green in the shadowed side of her face) and easy brush strokes, but it was just a very quick drawing.

watercolor painting
Sketch for “Margaret”
Watercolor on paper


This is the second version, a small painting: only 8.5″ x 11″. Whatever it was that had caught my attention eluded me in this painting, although in retrospect, I like the placement of the horizon the best in this version.

watercolor painting
Margaret 1
8.5″ x 11″ Watercolor on Arches #300
© Margaret Sloan 2014


This is the current painting, larger, with more finish. From the beginning the drawing was off, asI didn’t take a lot of time with it. (I grabbed it off the drawing board to take to Open Studios so I could paint while I hung out in my booth.) That little bit of wonkiness in the drawing magnified to large proportions when I started adding paint, and I had to repaint the eyes—a couple times—before they looked like eyes that belonged together on the same face. (Lots of gentle scrubbing with an ancient Series Seven sable removed the eyes.) Note to self: Nail the drawing before applying paint.

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

I think I’ll let this last one sit in the flat file for a while, then take it out and see what can be done. Or I might repaint it again someday!


I’m interested to know what you think. Let me know in the comments field.

Processing Open Studios

All smiley at Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of the roses in the "Desert Rat" painting.
All smiley, pre-exhaustion, at the first day of Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of roses in the “Desert Rat” painting.

It’s been a week and I’m just about recovered from Open Studios.  Months of hard work and the two weekends of display left me limp and worn out, and reduced my apartment a dust-rimed wreck. Yesterday I de-cluttered, dusted and vacuumed; wiped down the kitchen cabinets and mopped the floor; then set up my easel, and started painting a portrait in the slow, thoughtful way I prefer to work (rather than slam-painting that I wrote about here.) And in the evening, I watched a movie (a bad one, but hey, two hours of not working!).

I’m still processing Open Studios, and I expect I’ll post more than one blog about the experience. I’ll put it under the category “Silicon Valley Open Studios,” so that it’s easy to find, should you be curious about what I learned.

One thing I can tell you right now: I should have swallowed my initial fear at doing open studios, a fear that paralyzed me. I should have painted more, and painted more sooner. I should have been better prepared. I should have done this, I should have done that.

But as my grandfather used to say, “should-a, would-a, could-a doesn’t get the house built.” I’ll know better next time. And now I’m off to (slowly and thoughtfully) sling around some paint.

Open Studio Profile: Karen Olsen

Today you’ll be able to visit the 5 artists profiled at Mockingbirds at midnight. I do hope you’ll come let us delight you with our offerings!

The last artist interview for Silicon Valley Open Studios is with Karen Olsen. Karen paints beautiful landscapes in oil and watercolor, and her career in graphic design is evident in the strong designs and bold shapes she uses for her paintings.

Late Light at Grand Canyon Watercolor © 2014 Karen Olsen
Late Light at Grand Canyon
18″ x 24″ watercolor on Arches
© 2014 Karen Olsen

Describe your artistic journey
I was one of those kids who drew from the time I could hold a pencil, but my mother, who was very talented but had an unfortunate career path as an artist, encouraged me to pursue anything except art.  In my early twenties, I learned to paint in watercolor, and I dabbled in it between feedings of my newborn daughter, but still with little serious intent.  My life took an unexpected turn after that, and I was on my own, needing to make a living.  I eventually landed in the graphic design field, and for 25 years I have made my living in it.  Another life surprise recently brought me back to painting, and I now consider that I have a dual career as both designer and fine artist.

Where has art taken you in life?
I think my previous answer covers this…

Gnarled Tree at Canyon Rim Watercolor © 2014 Karen Olsen
Gnarled Tree at Canyon Rim
12″ x 16″ watercolor on Arches
© 2014 Karen Olsen

What do you think about when you begin painting?
First thought: “I wonder whether I can pull this one off??!!”

Yes, that’s sort of a joke.  But in a way it’s not at all.  Each blank sheet of paper or canvas is the beginning of a new adventure.  I may be trying a new brush, a new color, a new technique I want to experiment with, or a type of subject I haven’t done before.  Or maybe a subject I’ve done but want to see if I do better.  If it’s plein air, it’s new and unknown every single time!  Weather, changing light, curious onlookers, even bugs make for interesting challenges when painting outdoors.  So…to answer the question—I try to assess the environment I’m in and what I want to achieve, then try to figure out how to go about it.

Runner at Papohaku Beach, Molokai Oil © 2014 Karen Olsen
Runner at Papohaku Beach, Molokai
32″ x 40″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Karen Olsen

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?
Gee, I guess I’d have to select one of my Hawaiian or Grand Canyon subjects.  They are my favorites because of the joyful personal experiences that went into their creation, and which I hope are passed along through the eyes and into the hearts of the people who see them.

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?
This isn’t an easy one.  I’ll let you pick…I can’t.  🙂

to Anders Zorn: “Your stunningly beautiful watercolor painting Sommarnöje (Summer pleasure) is so evocative, and so…well…Swedish!  It’s one of my favorites.  How long did it take you to make it?”

to Monet and friends I’d ask: “Hey, can I come out and paint with you guys one of these days?  I’ll bring a picnic…”

to Georgia O’Keeffe I probably wouldn’t ask anything.  I’d just tell her, “I could look at these paintings forever…except after a while, they make me DIZZY!”

and to Leonardo: “Who is that lady?”

You can see more of Karen’s work at

Karen Olsen will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024 and May 17-18 at  247 Velarde, Mountain View.

Open Studios starts this Saturday! 

Silicon Valley Open Studios

May 3-4

What a way to spend a day: Looking at contemporary art made by local artists.

This year, I’ll be exhibiting my artwork. I’ll have my watercolors, illustrations, and prints available for sale, many for the first time ever.

I’d love to see you there. Step up and say hello, and mention you read my blog and that you know the secret word, and you’ll get 15% off on all purchases of finished prints and paintings at my tent only.

But what’s the secret word?

Here it is. I’ll tell you. But shhhh, it’s a secret.

Secret word
Zingen (it means to sing in Yiddish)

And for a show special, I’ll be offering a 10% discount on all portrait commissions engaged this weekend.

See you there!

The other artists exhibiting at this site will be:

Elyse Dunnahoo

Brian Corral

JoAnne Perez Robinson

Where we’ll be this weekend:

May 3 – 4, Site 72: 1191 Sherman Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025  (click on the map to go to Google maps.) We’ll be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Open Studios 11-5
Open Studios

How to begin a painting



Study for painting 3" x 5" watercolor painting
Study for painting
 I’ve started the drawing for this painting. Six hours into the drawing and I feel like it’s just beginning to emerge from a mush of pencilscratchings. But I dreamed the colors, and couldn’t wait to get them onto paper. 

Painting is a very slow process for me. I’m not a slap dash painter; I dream, plan, draw, make more drawings, prepare my references, compose the image, draw the image, stew and chew my cuticles, draw some more, then finally start to paint. In a world of instant gratification, I’m a total throwback.

But when, at his workshop last week, Ted Nuttall told me to keep working on my drawing for the whole of the first day, my heart kind of grinched around in my chest. I’d already spent a lot of time on that drawing, but hey, I was paying the man to help me with my life’s work.  I kept at the drawing, all day, and eventually, I really looked at it.  And there was a sorting, as if things were sliding into place. I found a multitude of drawing mistakes that would have plagued me once I began to paint; fixing those mistakes felt really good, like scratching an itch in the deep part of my heart. The painting eventually became Strength. It has a certain clearness, a crispness that I really like. It makes music in my head.

There are days, though,  when I have to simply let go and paint. If you paint, you know what I mean: You need to feel the water love the brush, and the brush kiss the paper with paint . That’s the time for color  studies.

These next two studes are for a painting my Dad has requested. It’s a small black and white photo of my mom he’s had in his wallet for nearly 60 years (can it be that long since they were so young, beautiful, and full of early romance?).

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study
Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study


It’s interesting how the composition and editing of the background changes the story. What stories do you see?

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study
Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study

Farm memories

Although I grew up in the city, I come from farming people. I grew up with so many stories of the farm, the family, and the various chickens, goats, and cows, that I sometimes feel I lived alongside my ancestors.

I’ve certainly romaticized their lives, although I know that it was a hard life; subsistence living is never easy. But I’ve heard their stories, told with a slight bitterness towards the privations, but mostly washed by a greater love of their lives. It makes me wonder if today, in our lives of relative ease, are we really happier?

Her Favorite Red Coat
Watercolor © 2011 Margaret Sloan

This is a small painting: 9″ x 12″ on Arches cold press. Yes, it’s from a photo-a black and white photo at that. Right now I’m enjoying working from black and white photos. They give me greater freedom in color choices and combinations. Unchained from the tyranny of the camera’s red-blue-green, I can make my own statements. (Of course, now that the painting has been fed back into the camera and computer, I can see errors that will need fixing, mostly edges that need softening.)

That little girl is all grown up now, and that chicken long emigrated to chicken heaven (grasshoppers and freshly sprouted gardens abound!). Some painters gripe about painters who paint from photos. “Why paint it if you can take a photo of it?” they ask. But without this dusty photo, I could not have made this sweet painting, and this little girl would have been lost.

Are you a painter? What do you think about using photos?

Discovering collage

I’ve never done much collage, except during college design courses when we cut out magazine pictures and arranged them over a Swiss grid to make practice layouts. I liked the grid, but I found the snipping and gluing of other people’s images really frustrating. (I know, isn’t that what design is all about? But I’m a painter at heart; I like to make my own images.)

So when I signed up for the Strathmore Visual Journal Online Workshop Series, I knew I would have to be cutting and pasting. I was a little hesitant about all the cutting, and I started eye-balling magazines through the filter of a pair of scissors.

But the first workshop leader, Pam Carriker, suggested using photocopies of our own work. Simple concept, right? Use your own stuff. Mind bending. Why in the heck don’t I think of these kinds of things on my own?

When I read “use photocopies of your own work,” the brain cells where I keep my creativity leaped up and started jitterbugging across the inside of my skull. I’ve had a collage-induced dance party going on inside my head for the last two weeks.

I’m having a blast altering my own artwork. For instance, this simple watercolor portrait

became this clipped up version (with a Christmas card added)

and then it became this version.

I’m still working on it. Don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But it’s all done with photocopies, so there’s no fear! I can always copy more.

It’s not Great Art, but it’s sure Great Fun.

Teatro Zinzanni

Mat Plendl of Teatro Zinzanni

It was one of the best Christmas gifts ever, a family outing to Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco. The  tag line is “Love, Chaos, Dinner.” And it’s true.

It’s like dinner theatre/circus. Every act is spot on, funny when it’s supposed to be funny, amazing when it’s supposed to amaze, and always entertaining. All this and they feed you too!

Marina Luna

There was juggling, trapeze, singing, dancing, clowns, even hula hooping. All the artists were phenomenal. The professionalism, energy, and grace with which they performed was amazing. It was so enchanting and fast paced that I didn’t have time to do any sketching, so I had to sketch from memory when I came home.

My favorite act was Marina Luna, an aerial artist who has a terrific dance on the rope. I would love to sit and draw her as she worked on the ropes, and would love to get her to model for a portrait.

If I were younger, beautiful, and talented, I’d run away and join a circus.