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 to find artistic vision when you’re just groping in the dark


Three watercolor people
5-minute figures in watercolor

Once a week I attend a life drawing session. I love figure drawing more than doing just about anything else (except maybe eating ice cream).

But for the last few months I’ve really been struggling; I’ve been looking for something in my work, a change, a way of seeing. Trouble is, I’m not sure what it is that I’m searching for. It’s something that I can’t yet define.

Other artists tell me they search too, stumbling towards a foggy idea that morphs and shifts as soon as they think they’re near.  The mind’s eye is often myopic. It’s not unusual.

It is frustrating, all those failed experiments, the ghastly embarrassments, the ever-growing stacks of used-up paper. On some days, it seems it would be easier to throw away the paintbrushes and become something simpler, a neurosurgeon maybe, or a nuclear physicist.

My brain, smarter than my heart, says, “give it up. Go watch a movie instead.”  But my stubborn and desperate heart over rules my brain. The part of my soul that aches after painting is  ever hopeful each time I stand up to the easel that this time…no…okay…this time…argh!….no, really, this time for sure I’m going to have the breakthrough I’m looking for.

I keep looking. I’m ever hopeful that one day I’ll paint around a hair-pin turn and suddenly the thing I’m looking for—the thing I can’t even describe or identify on a map—will come into focus and I”ll be able to grab it.

“There you are, you little monkey,” I’ll exclaim, clutching at it before it can get away.

Which of course means it must get away. Because if it doesn’t wriggle from my hand and dance back into the dimly lit future, it’ll die in my cramped and rigid fist. Then where will my artistic vision be?

I like to know it’s there in the half-light of my mind, taunting me, teasing me with occasional flashes of clarity (usually when I’m in the shower). So I slog on, trying to paint smartly, fearlessly, easily. And as I feel my way through the dark, every so often a faint light will glimmer across a portion of my work. A brush stroke that shows the turn of a shoulder. A happy color choice. A gracefully proportionate figure. And that flicker will be enough to keep me going.

Small steps. Baby steps. Sometimes steps that go backwards. That’s all I can do as an artist: Put one foot in front of the other and keep working. Because it’s the thing that makes my heart sing, even when I’m grinding my teeth with frustration.

How about you, dear readers? What are you stretching for in your art? Share in the comments how you keep yourself working.

Watercolor figure
20-minute pose in watercolor



Four artists, one life-drawing session

Last Thursday I hosted a drawing session at my house. It was so much fun that I can’t wait to host another one. It was a great group of artists, all confident in their own hand, and strong with their own vision. I’d like to show you some of their work.

Sue Smith
Drawing by Sue Smith

I could watch Sue Smith draw all day long. She has such a delicate touch of charcoal to paper, yet a strength of form and line; her hand moves like it’s dancing when she draws.

Sarah Switek
Drawing by Sarah Switek

Sarah is also a sculptor, and I think that her knowledge of all dimensions of a form gave this drawing substance even though it’s drawn primarily with an energetic line and just a little shading.

You can see her work here:


Drawing by George Durkee

I envy George’s ability to draw with such expressive marks. His drawings are always spare and minimal, but the lines are loose and free. And he makes it look so easy. Drat you, Geo (not really).

You can see his work, and his wonderful videos here:

Margaret Sloan
Drawing by Margaret Sloan

And mine…

The quick portrait sketch, in time and in tune

I’ll be teaching a portrait drawing class December 10, 2015 at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis. Hope to see you there.

Music party
Music party After Hours
Graphite sketch with watercolor
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

How in the world do non-musicians spend their time?  The day after Thanksgiving, I attended a music party where tunes raged, fueled by left-over turkey, cranberry sauce, and chocolate-pudding pie.

I knew there were going to be a lot of American Old-Time tunes, which I don’t usually play (I’m more of an Irish-jig-and-reel girl). But I didn’t want to be left behind while the fiddler had fun, so I brought my trusty sketchbook and practiced portraits on the fly.

Three musicians
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal
Accordion player
Detail of Three Musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Drawing a moving target is tough. You can see in these sketches lines that have been partially erased because my subject shifted or stopped playing and I had to start again. Drawing at a musical house party means waiting for a waltzing couple to stop dancing into my line of vision. It means paying attention to the tune so that I know how much longer I have before the musicians stop playing and take a break to drink, eat, or simply gab. It means that I might suddenly have to stop drawing because Hey! I know that tune!

Guitar player, fiddler, recorder player
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Often, when I teach life drawing, students complain when the model moves. Indeed, that is frustrating, and I used to whine about it too. But then I realized that humans aren’t statues; we twitch and wiggle and shift. We move. 

So if you can’t count on the model being still, what do you do?

  1. Draw fast  Sketch really fast to try to get as much information on the page as possible.
  2. Give up on details Don’t worry about things like faces until you’ve blocked in the big shapes. Block in the big planes of the face before zeroing in on each feature.
  3. Remember Life drawing exercises your memory, but only if you pay attention. Keep track of the position, because it’s likely the model will move back into it.
  4. Observe It’s why you’re drawing, ‘ent it?
Dulcimer player
Mountain Dulcimer Player
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal


Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

I wish everybody would find the joy in music, and not just as consumers, but as participants. I especially wish for everyone the joy of playing these folk traditions, where people play together, having musical conversations rather than performances. If you’re interested in learning more and live in the Bay Area, please check out the following links.

Santa Clara Fiddlers Association

California State Old Time Fiddlers Association

Fiddler Magazine

Elephants at PAWS

Thika on the hill at PAWS
Thika on the hill at PAWS
Watercolor and gouache on Arches #300 hot press

I was recently selected to be an exhibiting artist in the project  AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. This show, a tri-county project of the Calaveras County Arts Council, Tuolumne County Arts Alliance and the Amador County Arts Council, will include over 50 artists and makers. We artists will be creating pieces—paintings, pottery, photos, sculptures, even poetry—that depict animals in the Sierra Foothills, and our works will travel around the three counties in an exhibition to be displayed in 2016.

Thika the elephant stood on the hill looking down at us. PAWS president Ed Stewart said, “if I called her, she’d probably come down. But it’s such a beautiful scene, let’s leave her there.” Indeed. Thika was posing like a movie star between two old oak trees, and the cameras of the AnimalScapes artists clicked and whirred. I took lots of photos, and I sketched fiercely.

PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, is home to 8 elephants. The property in Calaveras County, fittingly called Ark 2000, has enough land that the huge animals can roam on mountainsides, splash in pools, and live out their lives as close to wildness as they could possibly come in the Central Sierra Foothills.

Elephant sketches
Elephant sketches

I have to admit that I’ve always had a thing for elephants, ever since watching the documentary The African Elephant when I was a kid. It seems to me that they are as conscious  as we pretend to be; their complicated familial relationships, their obvious understanding of death and life, and their clear but ponderous intelligence makes me believe they are a sentient species. And we are destroying them.

Some of the elephants at PAWS had been mistreated in their former working lives, or were stolen from their mothers as little babies. Some witnessed elephants killing elephants; possibly some witnessed humans killing their mothers. It’s a wonder that the animals at PAWS have been able to overcome their past traumas to form attachments with the humans that care for them.  There are a trio of Africans who throw stones at cars, but other elephants we met were just as curious about us as we were about them.

Watercolor in Stilman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

We got to meet Nicholas personally. He rumbled low as his keeper showed us how they had convinced Nicholas to open his mouth for dental inspection, or show them the bottom of his ottoman-sized feet. I don’t like to use the word trained. Really what they’ve done is learned how to communicate with the animals, and they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t involve pain or punishment. If these animals consent to a dental examination, or present their ottoman-sized feet for a checkup, it’s because they want to. Not because someone is stabbing them with a bullhook.

I couldn’t stop sketching. I could have drawn Nicholas all day long as he snuffled through a pile of bran meal on the floor and purred his elephant growl.

Drawing portraits in person always brings me closer to my subject, and drawing Nicholas was no different. I could feel an intelligence there, a being that knew who he was and who accepted that a small female animal was observing him while he observed her.

Graphite sketch of Thika the elephant at PAWS
Graphite sketch of Thika the elephant at PAWS



AnimalScapes blog posts

Drawing animals for AnimalScapes

Sketching bears and tigers at the PAWS Ark 2000 animal sanctuary

Elephants at PAWS



Beginner’s Mind for the Student

Lots of life drawing. Drawings on the back of the paper too.

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Yesterday I wrote of the need for the teacher to practice the beginner’s mind. Today I want to talk about that childlike inquisitiveness as a student.

By student, I mean that we should all be learning constantly, and especially when practicing art. But it’s easy when creating art to fall into habit, to be mindless, bored, resistant, or just lazy. Or to be so driven by results that we forget that the process is where we make progress.

I practice figure drawing a lot. I draw from internet sources like the Croquis Cafe, life drawing sessions, and real life. And I consider accuracy to the form to be important.

I usually draw with line, or block in my figures, then progress to value to build the form. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a recent discussion with a student who wanted to draw the figure as if it were a painting—using only values and no line—made me start thinking about other ways to create a figure. As I said yesterday, I need to get out of tunnels I’m stuck in; they’re dank and sloggy, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. So I decided to force myself to adopt a different kind of process for drawing the figure.

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

The drawing above is how I normally approach life drawing. I like to make sure everything on the contour is accurate before I begin describing form shapes.

15-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I usually make a contour drawing describing the shapes of the form and cast shadows, then fill in the values. This is my classical realism tunnel; thanks Bargue plates.

Drawing from model on Croquis Cafe
2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

So I decided to change things up. Instead of a charcoal pencil, I used a block of charcoal, and tried really hard not to let myself devolve into line, but instead, draw the figure using broad strokes to create shapes that described the form, without the benefit of line and pre-planning. Something different happened here, although I was unable to complete the entire figure in 2 minute gesture poses.

20-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I tried a longer pose, still trying to limit myself to shape only, carving out the form with an eraser when needed. You can see that some lines snuck in to the drawing, despite my best intentions. However, this one has a different life to it than the other (although it’s very hard to manage proportions with this method).

My point is not that I drew better or worse using either style. My point is that, as an artist, taking a beginner’s mind attitude when I work leads to new discoveries. I don’t get so bound up in what I know, or the need to have a successful drawing. The outcome for my own personal projects (illustration work-for-hire is another story) is not as important as the process.

Dear reader, next time you’re creating art, do something you’ve not done before, or that you don’t like to do. Do something that makes you feel silly: Dance while you draw. Paint with a leaf and a feather, or even a rock. Be happy and light-hearted, focused as well as scattered, and learn something new!

The Beginner’s Mind for a teacher

Watercolor of laughing baby
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”—Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A friend (and fabulous painter/film maker) George Durkee recently introduced me to the concept of beginner’s mind. It’s the idea that you need to keep a child’s mind—open, curious, and free of expectations—when studying. The attitude that you should attack your studies as if you are not an expert, even if you are studying at an advanced level.

I’ve only recently begun to teach life drawing, transmitting the knowledge of figure and form I received from my teacher, Rob Anderson (you can see his work here, but sadly, he has left us for that studio beyond this world), and I sometimes struggle to explain my methods.

So when George mentioned the beginner’s-mind attitude, and I thought about it a little, I realized that it doesn’t apply only to student, but to teacher as well.

When I’m talking to a student, sometimes my brain descends into a mental tunnel, where the concept I’m trying to explain becomes a mere whisper of what I want to teach. That faint echo is only slightly audible over the noise of my own pedantically droning voice and blathering insecurities.  Over all that racket, of course I have trouble hearing the student.

But the students are my real focus, are they not? And if they ask a question, or encounter difficulty in figuring out overlapping forms, proportions, or lines of action, then I need to figure out how to answer them with my own beginner’s mind. To find a different way to explain, or give them another tool for translating the human form to a 2-dimensional drawing. And to do that, I need to stop and open my mind up to other possibilities.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a sharp left turn when I’ve been so focused on trudging through a tunnel, but I’m learning (slowly) that it’s best to surrender to the dog-leg and play on lit like a child so that it leads me to the open air.

Life drawing at the Sonora Farmers Market

Market Baker Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Market Baker
Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

I love the Sonora Farmers Market. It’s what you expect from a farmers market: great produce, homemade goodies, local musicians, and the occasional friend who greets you as you’re sorting through summer peaches.

There’s also a small seating area where you can eat any delicious purchases you’ve made, and sip a smoothie in the shade (criminey, it’s blazing hot in these foothill towns!). As I snarfed down a gluten-free scone (from Schnoog’s Cafe) and the fiddler delicately devoured a chocolate croissant (from I know not where), I took the opportunity to sketch one of the vendors. The inset is an idea for a painting that I noodled out while I was waiting for my turn at the loo (Yes, Virginia, you can and should sketch anywhere).

I credit my years learning  life drawing for my ability to sketch a moving target. Life drawing hones the artistic memory, so I was able to work even though my subject was moving about as she helped customers.  Fortunately, she often resumed the same pose so I was able to check my marks.

Then, at home, I added color. I wish I’d made better color notes while I was sketching in pencil, but it was getting ever hotter, even in the shade, so we retreated to the coolness of our air conditioned automobile.

Market Baker Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Market Baker
Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 18 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We’ll be learning more about proportions, and embarking on a long pose that will last the whole class. My goal is to help all the students complete a blocked in drawing, and start building form with value. All you need is paper and charcoal, and some tracing paper,  and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.

Figure grouping and stories I tell myself during life drawing


Life Drawing Group
Shakespeare while waiting for the train
10-minute poses in charcoal on smooth paper.

Life drawing can quickly get out of control, with the figure’s head and feet disappearing off the edges of the paper, or a little  drawing floating lost in a sea of newsprint. One way I like to corral my drawings is by arranging the figures so that they relate to each other on the page. This forces me to design the perspective (what size should they be for the figures to make sense?); imagine overlapping forms (correctly layered, the forms will then indicate depth); and practice size and proportion control (no more figures falling off the paper). And I have to do this all on the fly, as the model changes position.

I often tell myself stories while I do this. I’m a compulsive story teller (yeah, you say lies, I say plot) and I often create narrative arcs, complete with build up, climax, and denouement, when I’m drawing. That inner literary tension, coupled with the stresses of figure drawing, makes life drawing doubly exciting for me.

The drawing below, for example, became a scene from a book the Fiddler and I are enjoying right now, World Without End by Ken Follett. My drawing is not about the main characters, but the faceless prisoners of war that might have been taken during Edward III campaign in France (Yes, I realize those luckless souls were probably not taken alive, but in my story they lived at least bit before they were chopped into bits.) Telling a story entertains me as well as directing the placement of my figures, and the discipline of grouping the figures really improves my life drawing.

Figure drawing group
Prisoners of war
5-minute drawings with charcoal on smooth paper

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 11 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We will be studying how the head fits on the torso. All you need is a pad of newsprint and some charcoal (that’s the beauty of drawing), and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.