Boxwood flute

Boxwood Flute © 2009 Margaret Sloan

This painting is a portrait of a young woman I met at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Her flute was made of boxwood, which has a tendency to warp.  Hers was bent in a charming shape. But, she said, it hadn’t really made any difference in how it played. It was a sweet-toned flute, and fit her playing style very well.

It took me a while to finish this painting, with many sketches and smaller studies. I started off rather badly; the night I began I was exhausted, and there was loud, very interesting music playing in the classroom. I have a really hard time working when music is playing, because my brain stands up and says, hey! There’s music going on over here that you need to come listen to right now! It’s one of the things I know about how my brain works. I can’t have music playing when I’m painting or drawing.

The question of perfection

Fluteplayer <br />  <br>© 2009 Margaret Sloan<br /> <i>Graphite </i>
Flute player © 2009 Margaret Sloan

I’ve been working on this painting for something like a month now, doing color roughs and composition studies. Of course, I don’t work on it every day (the day job, much as I love it, cuts considerably into time for painting and drawing), so I have some (lame) excuses for my slow pace.

This is the drawing for the for the final painting.  It’s given me quite a lot of trouble, because I have been picky about it. Teacher Steve has said, “you’re splitting hairs. I know that’s your working method, but you need to get on with painting!” I know he’s got a point: the piece can get too precious. But I know also that I need to get the base drawing right in order to convey what I have to say in this painting.

First of all, I needed to get the tilt of the flute player’s head as she bends forward to meet her flute. The head is down, the chin tilted to the left, and the body curls around the instrument. (This  flute posture is actually a position I’m trying to modify in my Alexander Technique classes, as playing the flute tends to give me terrible stiff necks and headaches.)

I struggled until I was ready to bite the pencil; the drawing kept looking like a profile, until Steve pointed out that when you look down on a persons face, there are certain cues that tell us the tilt of the head. The brow line curves down  and covers the top of the eye. You can see more of the inside of the bottom eye lid. And you can see more of the top of the head. Yeah, I know that already, but sometimes we’re blinded to the simplest mistakes while drawing. I made those changes, and—shazaam!—the tilt was there.

I also want to convey her age (young) which means her features are rounded, slightly blunt, and soft (I’ll use color also as a symbol of her age, when I do finally start painting). I had to measure the drawing carefully, because her chin and nose kept growing in the drawing, giving her that kind of solid jaw-bone look of grown ups.

But the most important thing I want to convey is the way she’s  listening hard to the tune in her head and reaching into her flute to pull out the music and send it into the world. That’s going to be the magical thing that makes this painting work.

This is to to be a larger size painting than I usually work in, on 12 x 16 Arches watercolor block—blocks being the easiest thing to schlepp back and forth to the Pacific Art League watercolor class, where I do most of my watercolor painting.

The music in your bones

Watercolor color study
Watercolor color study

Last night after the session wound up, after the last Irish jig and reel danced out across the floor, after the last polka whirled by and the last hornpipe bobbed out for the night, after the flutes were swabbed  clean and the fiddles wrapped and stowed in their cases., we musicians fell to talking a bit about Irish music.

We talked about how we came to this old and eccentric style of music in this land of pop melody and commercial jingles. Nearly every person at that party came into the music during a crisis in their life (many of us, it seemed, found it while ending a bad relationship). We found solace in the music, friendship in our instrument. “When I feel down or troubled,” C. said, “I tell it to my fiddle.”

How well I know that type of long conversation with my flute.

Not everyone who comes to Irish music is an emotional refugee looking for comfort. Some are lucky enough to have been born into the music, and wise enough to continue playing their legacy. Others just enjoy the intellectual exercise of learning stacks of tunes. And most of us love the camaraderie and community that comes from playing this music with others.

But I’d wager that for lots of musicians, the music is more importantly a place of comfort and safety. The familiar tunes are like favorite stories  we tell ourselves when we’re happy, scared, bored, or sad.

No matter our level of competence, just to sit quietly by ourselves and play this music is to have a relationship with the tunes and with our instruments that is as deep and serious as our relationships with our spouses, our children, our parents.  I guess because ultimately, it’s a relationship with ourselves.

Study of a flute player

Girl playing flute Graphite value study
Girl playing flute
© 2009 Margaret Sloan
Graphite value study

I met this lovely young woman at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. She had a boxwood flute that had bent as it aged, but it sounded lovely.

One day while we were in class, the rain and snow stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun streamed through the windows. Sitting in a shaft of sunlight, the young woman glowed as she practiced her tune. I snapped a photo quickly. There was no time to fool around if I wanted to capture the naturalness in her posture. Youth is a time of great beauty, but also great self consciousness.

I’ve come to understand the importance of doing value studies before beginning a painting. Steve Curl, my watercolor teacher, told me that when I was designing the value study I shouldn’t focus on the details. Instead, he said, look for the large shapes of light and dark; I did, and it made all the difference.

I’ve already practiced painting hands playing the flute, so I should be in good shape for her hands.

Finally! It doesn’t take this long to play the tune!

Trim the Velvet <p>Watercolor</p> <p> Copyright Margaret Sloan 2009
Trim the Velvet
Copyright Margaret Sloan 2009

This week I painted my final version of William Bajzek’s hands playing flute. I think I’ve painted about 12 versions of this; I’m happiest with this last version, although I also like the earlier version I posted in February.

I’m calling it Trim the Velvet, one of my favorite Irish tunes. It’s a tune that falls beautifully on the flute, and one that William plays really well. You can hear sound samples of William playing Irish music with his wife, Angeline, in their duo called Castlerock. Unfortunately, they haven’t any sound samples of Trim the Velvet on their website. They should.

12 versions of the same painting. That’s a pretty compulsive thing to do. But I made about every mistake a person can make in those 12 paintings. Sometimes I made pretty awful color decisions (and sometimes no decisions at all). I struggled to create soft edges. I roared into the painting and impatiently splashed dark values onto the paper too soon. I didn’t pay attention to the paint.

These are the things I learned: Painting a watercolor is a lot like starting a relationship. It’s best to be delicate in the beginning, leaving room for the big decisions that you’ll have to make later on. Plan well. Make clear choices. Use a light touch. Be happy with what the painting wants to be.

Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp

Fiddlers at a session
Fiddlers at a session

What a way to ring in Saint Patrick’s Day. We spent a week at the Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp on San Juan Island. It was brilliant. These drawings were done one night during a session, in dim light, while the music was rocking along.

I didn’t get much drawing done at the camp. It was too exciting to draw; the music, wild and free, trapped me, and so I just played music, pretty solidly, for six days. Art took a fiddle class from Liz Kane, and a music theory class from Randal Bays. I took flute classes from Catherine McEvoy, one of my favorite flute players. I fell in love with my flute all over again.

Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful.
Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful and strong. Not ladylike at all.

For the last few years, I haven’t been playing music much,  concentrating instead on painting, and so I had fallen out of the groove of playing. But a week of music brought it back: how much I love the music, love playing my flute. Don’t know how I’m going to balance music with painting, and still go to my day job.

If you haven’t heard of Catherine McEvoy, check out this video. She’s amazing.

Painting hands

hands playing flute

These are the hands of William Bajzek, a very fine Irishflute player from County Santa Clara (that would be in California).

When you play the wooden flute, you feel the flute vibrate through your hands and the air rush up through the finger holes. A well-made flute feels nearly alive in your hands, ready to start singing at barely a breath of air. When I watch William play, it seems to me that his hands as well as his ears are listening to his flute.

monochromaticstudyI’ve painted this image in watercolor 8 times. The first 6 paintings were one-color value studies, painted on Biggie watercolor paper, 2- up. I was trying to understand the way the values moved across the forms, and how to manipulate the paint. With watercolor especially, you need to have a plan, a framework around which to build your spontanaity, and I’m trying to figure out that plan.

I’m posting just one pair of my favorite one-color studies. I think it’s nice as one color, but I have a color piece in mind.

The first time I tried to use color was disastrous. Lesson learned: start with light value colors first, and progress to dark values. Also, be very careful with staining color, because it’s nearly impossible to remove.

I’m not entirely happy with this first color version, although it has a freshness to it. But the cheap paper buckles unattractively. And I’d like it to be a little tighter, less impressionistic, although I know that is the style in watercolor right now. Somehow I’d like to combine freshness and control in my watercolors.

If you’d like to know more about woodenflutes, you can start at