The best summer fun sketching at the county fair

Chrisy Horne and Michel Olson
Florence the traveling castle

I credit Roz Stendahl for my obsession with our county fair. She blogs at Roz Wound up about her annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair. She makes it sound like so much fun that when I foggily realized that we had a county fair (very close to my home, and with free shuttle service!), I couldn’t wait to hightail it, pens and sketchbook in hand, to the Calaveras County Fair, otherwise known as Frog Jumps.

But I also just love county fairs in rural areas. They are small events, but the effort that goes into them is large. From the displays of pickles and flower arrangements to barns filled with artwork, animals, and school projects, county fairs are the community coming together to compete, to crow, to participate and shine.

I almost missed the fair. Dates sneak up on me. I’m not good with calendars, although I should have been more on top of it because I wrote an article for the local paper about the Gypsy Time Travelers, a fun show appearing at Frog Jumps.  Storyteller Christy Horne spins tales of legends, iron, maidens, men and devils to the beat of blacksmith Michel Olson’s hammer upon anvil. Their stage is a castle built by Olson —check out this link to get a better view of Florence the truck that packs a castle.

Seated on a hay bale waiting for the show to start, I sketched Florence (above), but after the show started, I was so entranced by Christy’s story and Michel whacking away at glowing metal bits that I forgot to draw.

Steam engine
1908 Weber 10 hp steam engine

After the Gypsy show, we segued over to the Foothill Flywheelers’ exhibit of antique engines. Hundred-year-old pieces of machinery puttered, popped, whirred and growled.

I love old engines. I’ve always wished I knew how to work on them; they seem like magic to me. I drew this venerable 1908 Weber engine while keeping my ear tuned to her owner’s explanations of how she ran. The words he used—rocker arm, regulator, governor—were like little marbles of sound that clacked pleasingly in my ear. I wrote them down so I could to keep track of them.


Chicken barn
Roosters and a hen

We skipped the midway, although it would have been fun to draw the rides and the crowds. But I was intent on the animal barns.

4H prize winners at the bovine barn

The animal barns are my favorite. I love to draw animals. But that’s not the only reason I love the livestock barns.

They are places where little dramas play out daily.

Many of the animals at Frog Jumps were raised by kids in 4-H. I grew up in the ‘burbs. We didn’t have 4-H. I’m still a little envious of the kids who get to engage head, heart, hands, and health by raising farm animals.

The kids work hard, and are proud of their pigs, chickens, cows, goats and sheep. And the animals are spectacular, all gussied up for judging; brushed, combed, and curried to look their best.

There is, of course, often a sad ending to this story for the kids and the large animals. You can read one of those stories in the sketchbook page below if you wish (assuming you can decipher my scrawl). Farm kids have to learn to be stoic about such things.

County fairs are some of the fun of summer, and a great place to sketch.

Swine barn
Fine pigs at the fair


Boy with Chicken

Copyright 2011 Margaret Sloan

I met this young boy at Hidden Villa one late afternoon. He was with his family, looking at the chickens. Suddenly he scooped up one of the hens and cradled her in his arms. She didn’t seem to mind.  I asked if I might take a photo of him. He nodded silently, so I snapped a few photos. I wish I knew who he was so I could give him and his folks a copy of this.

I made this painting after taking Ted Nuttall’s watercolor workshop. If you compare it to the painting of the fiddler that I finished before the workshop, I think you’ll see a lot changes and improvements. At least, I can see them.

In past paintings, I’ve worried the paint to death. I’ve tried to make every transition smooth, and ended up making everything is bland, and even, and lifeless. Ted’s workshop made me finally see that what was missing were edges (although other art teachers have preached edges to me, I evidently wasn’t ready to hear that painting gospel). When I did paint edges, they were too abrupt, unsubtle, unsophisticated.

Edges are important. They give a painting movement and life, tell the story, sing the song. Hard edges can describe a fold, a crease, or the boundary of a cast shadow. Soft edges show a rounded structure, a form shadow, or a distant horizon. Between the nounage of hard and soft edges, there is a whole visual dialect—a spectrum—of edges that make a painting speak with nuance and grace.

When I think about edges in a painting, I’m always reminded that in nature, the edges of eco-systems are the places where life is most abundant. And now, when I paint, I’ve been trying to remember that edges are ok; they are, in fact, necessary to the life of the painting. Edges are where things happen.

Face—Detail of Boy with Chicken

Feathers—Detail of Boy with Chicken

Color theory #2

The Henny Penny in this post  was painted using an analogous color scheme. That is, all the hues came from the same corner of the color wheel. Transparent pyrrol orange, quinacridone red, and perylene maroon (all Daniel Smith watercolors). Not exactly analogous, but pretty close.

The analogous colors are interesting to work with. When mixed, they often increase in intensity. I used the perylene maroon, a dark value, dusky pigment to try to tone things down a bit.

The trouble with the analagous palette in watercolors is that, unless you use black paint, which I don’t, the paints will often not create as dark a value as you might need. They are inherently incapable of making a dark dark. So to make the eye dark enough, I had to mix in a touch of sap green to the violet. It made a nice dark eye. Too dark, I see now. I need to add a little highlight.