Long time crush

painting of church
A watercolor done many years ago of a half-built church

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere lately because we are in the process of moving (or thinking about moving, or taking about moving. We are not fast people. We move slowly).

Part of the process of moving is, of course, going through years of accumulated detritus, sifting out what to keep and what to save. It’s a little like an archeological dig, exposing layers of life that have been buried in boxes for nearly 2 decades.

The painting that heads this blog was done when, many years and lives ago, and sweating in tropical heat, I was just discovering that I needed to be a painter. I had always drawn, painted, created, but I was also attempting a writing career in those days. I was carving my time into chunks so that I could do both— write and paint—plus upkeep our lives in a foreign land.

I happened to read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. In it she describes making a pen drawing of the view she had through her window. Then one day she shut the blinds.

“Then, by lamplight, I taped my drawing to the closed blind. There, on the drawing, was the window’s view….If I wanted a sense of the world, I could look at the stylized outline drawing. If I had possessed the skill, I would have painted, directly on the slats of the lower blind, in meticulous color, a tromp l’oil mural view of all that the blinds hid. Instead, I wrote it.”

This passage was a watershed moment. I realized that by focusing on writing, I was penciling the wrong paper; I needed to paint, and to paint realistically, because I needed to see the world. I needed that connection of observing the world closely, granularly, carefully. I needed to create the picture in the window, not write it.  Painting was where my stories could live.

Need is such a weak word to describe the yearning, the almost sick-with-desire crush I felt for painting, that I feel even now. I still write (yeah, this blog), and I enjoy the (rare) feel of stones falling clop-clop-clop when I craft a particularly elegant sentence. But my true love, that moves with me from place to place, after nearly 20 years?

Brush and paint.

Watercolor painting
One of my first landscape paintings done from a sketch I’d made onsite.


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  www.karenolsenfineart.com

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.

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

The goddess and her cat

Note: For the first time ever, I’m offering paintings for sale online. These paintings, to be specific. You can find them on Etsy.

This series of paintings popped into my head one night as I sketched in pre-sleep drowsiness, having just finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

The liturgy at the congregation where we celebrate the High Holy days does not give G*d a gender, or rather, the gender is floating, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes nothing. So I have chosen to portray the earth’s protector as a feminine entity, a Goddess, if you will, in comfy clothes (she’s a goddess; she can wear sweat pants if she wants!), with a cat (you can make the cat a symbol of something if you want. But really, it’s just a cat. And isn’t being a cat enough?)

Earth Mother Protects

 Earth Mother #1: Protecting
7″x 5″
© Margaret Sloan 2013
Watercolor on paper
Earth Mother Sleeps Earth Mother #2: Dreaming
7″x 5″
© Margaret Sloan 2013
Watercolor on paper

Earth Mother Plays

Earth Mother #3: Playing
5″ x 6.5
© Margaret Sloan 2013
Watercolor on paper

My Etsy shop, in case you don’t like to click is: etsy.com/shop/MargaretSloanArt


For the love of a hound

Cordelia and Jack


Cordelia and Jack
© Margaret Sloan 2012
Watercolor on paper

My friend Cordelia has two rescue greyhounds, a little female and a great big male. I was surprised to find just how big they are, and also, what great dogs they make for working people. She says her two dogs sleep most of the day, frolic a bit when she comes home, then need to rest up. They are lovely dogs who will take a lot of petting from the houseguest with the big camera.

It was great to spend a day with her, photographing and sketching. I got my dog fix, and had a nice long girlie chat with Cordelia.

Painting from life

Watercolor portrait

Red-haired Girl (cropped)
Watercolor 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Model guild benefits are wonderful opportunities for painting. There are often two sections: short poses and long poses. I like to spend the morning at the short pose session, warming up with gesture drawings. After a quick lunch, I  get down to brass tacks for a single long pose. After racing through the brittle morning time of 1-, 2-, and 5-minute poses, I can relax into the long 3-hour pose, and the afternoon unravels and stretches like a rubber band. My mind settles solidly into the work.

It may feel luxurious to have 3 full hours with the same pose, but the model’s timer is still ticking, so I like to organize my process. For this 3-hour pose, I allowed myself 40-minutes (2 20-minute periods) to make a graphite drawing, then I started painting. I try to get an accurate drawing quickly, as poses shift slightly over time, and even the best, most rock-solid models have to take a breath now and then. And once you start painting with watercolor, you can’t make a lot of easy changes.

There is really nothing like painting from life. You are able to see infinite numbers of color that could never show up in a photograph. The blue-green in the shadows around the eyes, the mineral violet in the shadows. You can see the subtle shifting of values, the way the skin flows over muscle and bone.

I’m not against painting from (your own) photos. In the interest of time and money, I often use digital references. But there is nothing like painting the portrait of a live person. Here’s to life.


The power in a word

Watercolor 23″ X 19″ 300# Arches hot press

Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

When I painted this picture, I remembered that Mary Whyte, in a workshop, told us to name our paintings before we made our first washes of color. I couldn’t for the life of me remember this girl’s name (the daughter of a cousin-in-law, she’s a delightful girl, but I only met her once), so I just called her princess. I don’t mean princess in a bad way—all diva and finer-than-thou—but princess in a good way, a fairytale Cinderella-sorting-ashes or brave-and-loading-bullets sort of way.

As readers of fairy tales and fantasy-fiction know, names have power. So I let the word princess guide my brush. When I was stuck for a color choice, I whispered the word: princess. The taste of the word on my tongue gave me the flavor of the color I needed to use in that passage.

My favorite part of the painting, and the whole reason I wanted to paint this, is the shadow that curls under the sunlit eye. I love the way the curve describes the roundness of the cheek. There’s something delicate and fragile in that shadow, a sweetness and hope particular to young women.

Kate Detail
Watercolor 23″ X 19″ 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Then suddenly, as I approached the end of the painting, I recalled that her name is, or might be, Kate. If it’s not, it’s still the name of this painted princess-girl.

Dandelion fluff and painting

Looking forward
Watercolor on Arches 300# hot press
Copyright 2011 by Margaret Sloan

It’s an odd, drifty feeling to paint without a teacher at my shoulder. It’s like being dandelion fluff caught on the surface of a pond, stuck to the water film but still blown about hither and thither (that thither-zone is an uncomfortable place!).

While I painted this picture, I anchored myself in the painter-pond by studying painters I liked. I kept those painters’ images on my computer, and every so often would take a break from my painting and run over to study how they handled a similar passage. I didn’t feel as if I were copying a master, but rather, as if I were asking a master a question.

I also talked incessantly to myself. I’m sure I sound like a muttering madwoman escalating into a full-blown fit: What color should go here? Should I use a warm red or a cool red? Can I get away with a purple or a green? How can I get this form to turn? Is the value dark enough yet? It’s too dark! Oh no, that’s Alizaron Crimson, it won’t lift off the paper! What am I going to do now? Gah! What am I thinking?!!!

At this point there is much wailing and whining, stamping of feet and tearing of hair. Then I do what Rose Frantzen recommends: I take a paper towel and clean my palette. She’s right. It’s calming. It resets my clock.

I’m stuck on the background of this painting right now. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, and will probably have to think about it a bit more. Turning and churning it in my head while I float about uninstructed.

Looking forward (Detail)
Watercolor on Arches 300# hot press
Copyright 2011 by Margaret Sloan


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