Lupines in the afternoon


It was a rare weekday afternoon that I was able to spend painting at Russian Ridge, just before a late spring storm. Last weekend I realized this little patch of lupine was about ready to pop into full bloom, and if I wanted to paint them in their full glory, I’d have to get out there soon. Wildflowers fade fast.

Such is the life of a plein air painter. Time and flowers wait for no man or woman, and I wanted to capture the feeling I got on this trail that a person could step from the edge of the lupine-purple earth into the glowing sky.


I love these hazy days with lots of high clouds in the sky. We don’t get enough clouds in the Bay Area. And soon we’ll have the eternal sunshine of the spotless California summer, with no cover from the sun for months and months. But for now, we’ve got clouds a-plenty.


Of course, we’ll always have the fog rolling over the ridgelines, even on most summer evenings.

The landscape painter as tourist attraction


View from Badwater parking lot. Quick watercolor sketch on a piece of 3.5 x 5″ Arches 300 lb. hot press

I had planned a full day of non-painting sight-seeing with my non-painter traveling companions, but that was derailed when J. realized that she wasn’t quite recovered from a bad flu and she needed some rest.  Fortunately I had packed my watercolors, just in case I had a few moments while the others were hiking. (Always take some kind of painting supplies with you!) When the group decided to go back to the motel, I was able to split off and spend the afternoon painting.

I pulled off the road at the Devil’s Golf Course and set up my easel on the shady side of the car. Even in January, it’s often quite warm in Death Valley and I was grateful for the wee bit of shade.


View from the cutoff to the Devil’s Golf Course. Watercolor sketch on 8 x 10″ Arches 300 lb. hot press.

When painting in public, I often feel like I become part of the scenery. On their way to the Devil’s Golf Course, tourists stopped and from the comfort of their car watched me paint. Some stopped twice: once on their way in and once again as they drove out, checking my progress. One man, a tourist from New York City, asked, “Can I take your photo? It’s a great shot, with you painting and the whole valley around you.”

I must be quite picturesque. I think it’s the hat.

TheHatView of me, painting in the middle of Mosaic Canyon. 

Little cloud

Little Cloud
Oil on Panel
© 2012 Margaret Sloan

This painting captures a fleeting hour of a Northern California morning on Windy Hill. The South Bay stretched gloriously at our feet, but I blinkered my eyes and found a less dramatic scene: the last of the morning fog drifting over a little hill. It was the kind of hill that I might have climbed when I was a child, peering in squirrel holes and looking for foxes.

These days I’m finding greater success in painting small slices of the view, in making the landscape more intimate. Limiting the painting to this small view made seeing the composition and the values easier. I was able to wrap my head around the color shifts, and win more arguments with the paint than I lost.

Maybe that’s the kind of person I am right now; my present tense has gotten smaller, more confined to small views. Once-upon-a-time I took epic (seeming to me) journeys, traveling across desert horizons and through mountains of rainforests. But now I stay home mostly, in the place where I was raised.

My friend Cynthia Brannvall (an artist whose wonderful work taps into some larger, softer universal landscape) wrote to me, “One of the things that I find so beautiful about your work are the little, beautiful moments of everyday life…in this day and age when we are assaulted with stimulation and virtual realities, I find the little and ordinary gestures of real life to be more and more precious.”

I guess for me, small is comfortable. I like the up-close view, the things seen at trailside. I find value in landscapes that are familiar to children, in the possibilities of squirrel holes, foxes, and little white clouds.