New paintings available at Calaveras County Artist Studio Tours

Portrait of girl
The moment the mask dropped
Watercolor on Aquabord
© 2016 Margaret Sloan

Tomorrow is the big day! First day of Open Studios. I’ll have some new work there, including this watercolor, which I just finished.


Saturday and Sunday, September 24 &25

10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

6814 Michel Road

Mountain Ranch, California


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



You don’t have to be an athlete to balance motherhood, but it helps.

Mother and daughter acrobatics
The Handstand
© 2106 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Strength, grace, beauty and an abiding love; that’s what I saw the first time I watched gymnast Gasya Akhmetova-Atherton and her daughter Kamali balance together in an Instagram video. Gasya, a former Cirque du Soleil performer, stands on her hands and raises her legs into a graceful arabesque above her head; little Kamali clings to her mother’s neck and points her toes in imitation of her mama.

I itched to paint a portrait of them.

But it wasn’t only the sheer amazement of Gasya’s Insta-videos that made me want to honor them in paint. Gasya is a tremendous athlete, doing things that seem nearly extra-human, but it was the joyful bond she shares with her daughter that I wanted to try to capture.

Toddler hugging mom
Mother and daughter acrobatics Detail of The Handstand © 2106 Margaret Sloan Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

As I watched this mother-daughter team, I thought of my own mother. Something about the line of Gasya’s legs and the steadiness of her balance brought to mind a fleeting image of being held when I was a child by my own mother.

My mom certainly wasn’t an athlete (although she did play tennis at the local park). But she was strong; she played and worked hard. She was reliable; we clung to her like little monkeys as she negotiated every day life. And she was loving; she dispensed hugs and kisses like they were daily vitamins.

I never had kids; I never got the chance. And so I am always amazed at the strength it takes for women to balance life with children. Moms teeter under the weight of their little ones, and they do their best to defy gravity and keep their kids (and themselves) from falling.

Yeah. Moms rock. Every day of the year.

AnimalScapes art show opens tomorrow!

Greenwood Side (Created for “Animalscapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills”
30″ x 24″ watercolor on Aquabord
© 2016 Margaret Sloan

I was fortunate to be selected, along with 54 other (excellent) artists and writers, to create a painting for a show called “AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills.” This show was a huge undertaking for the arts councils of our tri-county area, and it was with the generosity of many donors that it happened at all. As one of the artists, I’m very grateful.

Tomorrow (Saturday, January 16) is the first opening for the art show at Ironstone Winery in Murphys, California. The paintings, sculptures, and writings will be at Ironstone until February 15, then will move to Hotel Sutter in Sutter Creek (Feb. 17 – March 13), then will move once again to Black Oak Casino Hotel in Sonora (March 15 – April 3). If you are near, I hope you’ll attend, drink some wine and view (and maybe buy) some art. I think it will be worth it.

A couple of the organizers voiced their hopes that this large group show might help our area heal in some small way from last summer’s nightmare Butte Fire. I hope that it might, if art can help in that way.

Here’s the official press release: ““AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills” is a Tri-County Project of the Calaveras County Arts Council (CCAC), Tuolumne County Arts Alliance (TCAA), Amador County Arts Council (ACAC) and its 2 other major partners: Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. This project is partially funded by the California Arts Council (CAC) through a “Creative California Communities Grant” and the National Endowment for the Arts. The $23,200 CAC Grant is a “matching grant” dollar for dollar. There are also opportunities once more than half of the match has been made for in-kind donations.”

30-in-30: Making a nice painting from a bad photo

Watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Coming clean here: For the last couple days I’ve been painting like crazy to finish a painting for the art show Animalscapes (More about this show in another blog post). Up against the deadline? Yep.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been painting my 30 paintings in 30 days. Just not blogging about them.

Two days ago I painted the tiny study you see at the top of this post. I painted while the fiddler drove. The painting is just a small block of color in my sketchbook of a photo I took at Christmas. The photo is dreadful; I think I dropped the camera and accidentally snapped the picture. But there was something about it that intrigued me. Maybe it’s the angles of the large green carpeted space.

In a class taught by one of my favorite artists, Felicia Forte, I learned to look at these blurry, awkward photos in a different way. Can they be cropped to create an interesting composition? Are there interesting shape or color combinations? Is there something of use?

There is something in the original photo that makes me want to keep playing with this image, and give it a bit more time.

The only baby at Christmas
Watercolor sketch on 9″ x 12″ Ampersand Aquabord




Public sketching with gold rush costumes

The Prenologist's Wife, Calliope Dodge Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
The Prenologist’s Wife, Calliope Dodge
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Yesterday the fiddler played at Columbia State Park for an event known as The Diggins. Why not? He has a costume reminiscent of that era (despite the back pocket), and he plays tunes that would have made gold miners stamp and strut.

I went along for the sketching.

Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Making portraits on the fly, in real time…yeah, that’s kind of scary. But it’s enormously fun too, especially at costume events.

I’ve only recently gotten brave enough to ask someone to sit for a portrait (only if it’s not busy and they seem friendly. And bored.). And I absolutely love it!

When I ask,  I assure my subjects that while I may not catch a good likeness, I will make them look like a human (which is a big improvement over the days when my off-the-cuff portraits looked like pigs in bags).

I also let them talk. I encourage it, although it is harder to capture their likeness when they’re moving. But I hear such interesting stories, and I feel like it helps me draw better likenesses after all.

Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

This question runs around in my mind: If portraits are about unmasking the subject, what then, to make of a subject who’s assumed an identity  that may well be the real person under the everyday mask they put on for their pedestrian life?

Links for this post

Go to the Diggins. Costumed docents, banjo players, and bean soups that give you a flavor of what the California gold rush must have been like. This weekend (May 29-31)

Or visit Columbia State Park when ever you can.

Carol Bassoni makes lace at

You can find Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge at

Painting a watercolor portrait from life when you only have a few minutes to collect yourself

Watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait from 15-minute life pose at a life drawing session

The painting above was the result of a 15-minute pose at the local life drawing session. 15 minutes isn’t long time. Fruit flies live longer. All I could manage was a quick pencil sketch to capture the model’s likeness and a few brush strokes to remind myself of his overall skin tone (his local color). And one of those brushstrokes—the red stripe on the shadowed side of his cheek—was as awkward as a quarterback in toeshoes.

Oh well. Ted Nuttall once said in a class that sometimes he makes big mistakes just so he has a problem to solve. It keeps him from getting bored.

Watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait after working on it at home for another 45-minutes.

I haven’t been painting much the last week. I’ve been busy with a few illustration commissions which I was doing in digital space, and haven’t been real-world painting. But Friday morning the call of the paintbox was too strong, that desire to sling pigment and water an unbearable pain in my heart. What could I do? I gave myself an hour behind the brush to play with this painting, setting the alarm for 45 minutes, which would give me 15 minutes to wrap it all up.

During that 45 minutes, the painting began to take shape. But even 45 minutes is not long enough for me to make thoughtful decisions about a painting. More bad brush strokes. Questionable color choices. And unstretched watercolor paper that warps under washes until it’s like painting on a wrinkled wet towel.

watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait with dark gouache background and ultramarine blue shadows

When the alarm went off, it was time to dry the wrinkly paper with a blast of air from the blow dryer (I’ve heard some folks use a blow dryer to dry their hair. Curious, isn’t it?) and make a couple of large decisions that would finish (or ruin) the portrait.

A dark background of gouache helped ease the brilliance of the colors in the face, and a light wash of ultramarine watercolor over the shadowed side of the face helped unify the shapes and blur the weird red brush stroke that had stumbled across the cheek in the initial 15 minute painting. I had to restate the eye, which wandered a bit. Oh well, we all have a bit of a wandering eye at some point in our lives.

30-in-30: Watercolor portrait from life


Watercolor portrait
15-minute portrait
Watercolor on really terrible paper

I began this painting in the life drawing session on Thursday. But since the models (us!) only posed for 10 to 15 minutes, I didn’t have time to A. Catch a good likeness and B. apply much paint. So I brought it home and played with it in my studio. I admit, I cheated a little bit. I started it on Thursday, but finished it today. (I didn’t have time to start a personal painting today, as commercial work fell in my lap, and you know how freelancing goes: work when you’ve got it and starve when you don’t.)

This is paper that, even though it wasn’t cheap (although not at the top of the food chain either),  is even more unsatisfactory than the really cheap stuff. I was sorely disappointed in this paper, and have never really used it for anything much at all. It looks like it should be a wonderful paper, but when you start applying washes, it gets very strange speckles all over it. And you can’t take any of the paint off; scrubbing gets you nowhere. I won’t tell you the brand in public (I don’t like to kiss and tell), but if you really want to know, I can tell you privately.

Maybe I haven’t learned how to coax the best from this paper. Eventually I guess I’ll learn as I still have a whole pad of it.


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