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.

Celebrate your sister on National Sisters Day

Watercolor on 6″ x 6″ Aquabord


These two sisters are for sale. It’s a small painting on Aquabord, 6″ x 6″, and is unframed. It’s been sprayed with a UV-protective varnish, so you don’t have to put it under glass (although it will need to stay out of sun and bright light so that the colors don’t fade). It’s on a hard board, so you can lean it up on a picture ledge, or frame it.

Email me at mockingbirdatmidnight at gmail to purchase.

A walk in the woods finds inspiration in a cloud of ladybugs

Snow and water
Snow and water 10″ x 8″ Watercolor on Arches 300# hot press

On Superbowl Sunday I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park to interview photographer Susan Conner. She shoots landscapes that tell the story of a quiet earth that often seems to be waiting for something.

“Dress warm,” she warned me. “It will be cold.”

That meant lots of layers, and as I drove past drifts of snow on the highway, I was glad for the long underwear, double shirts, down vest, and Sherpa cap.

But as we sat at a sunny picnic table, the air was warm, the sun burnt our winter-pale faces. We had to speak loudly to be heard over the sound of running water.

I get such a charge out of talking about art with creators, especially when they’re as open and talkative as Susan. As we chatted, we began to strip: first gloves, then the down vest, the jacket, the hat, until in the end we were wearing just jeans and shirts. I don’t know about Susan, but I was wishing I could lose the long underwear.

I wanted Susan to take me on a mini photo shoot. I’m deeply interested in how others work. I always wonder, how do they get from point A to point B, C, and beyond.

Susan hunts for photographs nearly everyday. Things catch her eye, and she starts shooting. She says sometimes she just knows a photo will be great, and other times she doesn’t see the composition until she gets home and looks at the photo on her computer.

We crunched through melting snow as she shot random things: water trickling down a redwood stump, burls in an old tree. On the north side of the forest, the snow, rather than melting, turned to ice at the edge of the big meadow.

A boardwalk crisscrossed the fen to protect the delicate ecosystem from trampling human feet; it was covered in slick humps of iced-over snow. “Too dangerous,” Susan said, and we turned back to the sunny side of the meadow.

There, sparkling in the touch of the sun, streams and rivulets of snowmelt ran through last year’s curled and matted grass. From this approach the boardwalk was dry, and we ventured over the meadow.


Suddenly the air was filled with a swarm of flying bugs. Thousands of glowing wings whirred in clouds; on the ground we saw bazillions of ladybugs. There were so many that the ground appeared to be moving. They climbed anything vertical and clung to sticks and stems.

Ladybugs hibernate together in clumps during winter, emerging in the first warm days of spring to eat and mate. “It’s too early,” Susan said, as everyone has said when I tell them this story. They should still be hibernating in February. But ladybugs don’t have calendars, and the sun was telling them to wake up.

We laughed and laughed while ladybugs whirred around us. Susan clicked off a dozen or more shots into the air, trying to capture the floating, glowing insects. Then she jumped to the boggy ground and began composing shots of the clumps of the orange and red bugs that had not yet flown. I stood watching, back to the sun, and later Susan had to brush the bugs off my sweater; they had clumped together in the warmth on my back.

After our walk in the woods, Susan went off to photograph more ladybugs and I dragged out my easel and paint box. I painted the watercolor at the top of this post, trying to capture the feeling and the colors of the day.

For a landscape photographer, for a landscape painter, for a writer, for anyone who creates, I think the trick to inspiration is simply showing up. You never know what will happen when you step outdoors. You could find icy snow on your favorite path, but if you turn around and go a different direction, you could find yourself in a cloud of flying ladybugs.

You can see Susan Conner’s gorgeous work at her website,

Lady bugs


30-in-30: How to sketch it now and paint it later



Near my house the pond had gone perilously dry until our recent rains. But El Niño has come to the rescue and filled it to overflowing. Last night on my walk, I noticed water rushing through the overflow ditch and into a spillway. It was a sweet scene in the afternoon light, with tree frogs singing, and the rays of sun streaking the water beyond. I whipped out my sketchbook to capture the mood with a pencil drawing.

Pencil sketch
Pencil sketch

Yes, I always carry a sketchbook and pencil, even on my walks. Doesn’t everyone?

My goal for this exercise was to draw enough information so that I could make a painting from it in my studio (where it’s warm and I have hot drinks and a restroom).

What information did I try to capture?

  • A rough idea of composition  I’ve been working on improving my compositions. In this sketch I was trying to see big shapes rather than worry about detail.
  • Areas of interest I liked the water line as it went from the organic shape of the ditch to the man-made hard lines of the cement weir. Then there’s that little corner in the left hand side where the water starts that I also found interesting.
  • Relative values of the whole scene  There was a simple, stark contrast between water and land, but on the cement weir the values grew trickier. I was also trying to think about how the light and dark values could lead the eye and create the illusion of water.

Although this was a quick sketch, it wasn’t quick enough. Suddenly it got very dark, and I realized that the sun had sunk behind the ridge. I was still a couple miles from home, night was falling, and mountain lions were about!

Clearly I made it home (and I wrestled, not with mountain lions, but with my lazy self  as I climbed the hill towards home) and this morning I painted the study at the top of this post, using information I gleaned from my pencil sketch.

For me, art is all about learning to see. It’s good practice to make these little black and white studies and try to paint them later. It sharpens observation skills, and hones the memory.

Plus, there’s a nice cuppa with milk and honey back at the studio.


30-in-30: Watercolor selfie

Self portrait 8" x 10" watercolor on Arches 140# hot press
Self portrait
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# hot press

This is pretty much what I look like, dear readers, although I might have smoothed out the bags under my eyes, and neglected to paint the complete truth about hair color. I come from a red-face family, and my cheeks are often nearly that crimson, although in this painting they might have been exaggerated just a bit by the new tube of Daniel Smith quinacridone rose. Awesome color. I’m afraid to do a light test on it…

I love to draw, almost more than anything else (except maybe eat), but I spent all this morning with a pencil in my hand, and by this afternoon, I was just tired of it. This little painting was done with only two pencil marks, one to mark the top of the head and one to mark the angle of the chin. Everything else was by brush alone.

And after 2 weeks of arguing with Aquabord, I decided to do my daily painting on PAPER! Although it wasn’t my beloved 300# hot press, it was still Arches, cotton rag torn out of a block. Ah, back home again.

Although I tried to limit myself to 1 hour, when the ringer went off, I had to mess with it just a half hour more to bring it into some sort of completion.


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




Drawing animals for AnimalScapes

Spread from AnimalScapes sketchbook at California Big Trees State Park Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Spread from AnimalScapes sketchbook at California Big Trees State Park
Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook


Hoo! I made the grade and was 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.

There are many good things about this show. It will raise awareness of the animals that live in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and publicize animal welfare organizations working in the Foothill communities. I hope that it will increase the human will to protect and care for the other species that live in the area.

But one of the best things about being a part of this show?  There were two field trips. I love a field trip. (Yeah, selfish. I know.)

For our first foray we piled into a big yellow school bus and spent a long day rambling around Calaveras and Alpine Counties. It was great to leave the isolation of the studio and meet other local artists (my people!).

First stop was the New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum, where rangers led us on a short hike and we spotted an osprey roosting in a tree. The ranger said it was probably a fledgling from last summer’s clutch of chicks raised in the osprey nest built near the center.

Stuffed coyote in pouncing pose at New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Stuffed coyote in pouncing pose at New Melones Lake Visitor Center & Museum
Stilman& Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

At Calaveras Big Trees State Park we had a short tour of the redwoods, led by volunteer docent Dexter. Dexter gave a good tour, and even better, had a great face for sketching. (That’s the illustration at the top of this post.)

This trip was like sketching heaven for me, and my pencil was busy the entire time. I tried to catch as much visual information as I could. Since the theme of this show is animals, I spent time drawing the taxidermy specimens in the visitor centers. Sketching stuffed animals isn’t as fun as drawing live beasts, but on the bright side, I could really concentrate on understanding perspective, proportions and forms.

I’m slowly adding color to the sketches, as there was no time for dragging out watercolors during either tour. It’s been a great way to experiment with the paint, as I’ve scanned the original pencil sketches to preserve them. With the sketches safely stored on my computer, I feel like I can take some chances with the paint.

AnimalScapes blog posts

Drawing animals for AnimalScapes

Sketching bears and tigers at the PAWS Ark 2000 animal sanctuary

Elephants at PAWS

Learning to slow down and take a break

Airstream trailer
Airstream at camp sketch
© 2015 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches hot press #300

In the week after the Ironstone Concourse d’Elegance, we plein air painters who had participated in the event had the opportunity at the winery to display what we had painted.

I chose to opt out.

I had good intentions of submitting a painting, but you know the axiom: Wish in one hand….

I suppose I could have framed my sketches from the event. Here are the reasons I didn’t: 1. The pieces from the concourse were little more than sketches and 2. I didn’t have empty frames that size, so I would have to cannibalize an already framed piece.

Besides, I was working on three large paintings to round out my own solo show at the Atherton Library in the Bay Area. But, ever attempting to be an overachiever (and generally failing), I put show preparation on hold and spent one long evening working on the above small painting.

At the Concourse there is a group that calls themselves “Trailer Trash.” They are trailer collectors who drink cocktails in front of vintage Airstream trailers and teardrop campers circled on the lawn like Conistoga wagons. It’s a popular place to paint. In the late afternoon sun I sketched this little scene and made some mental notes while I sketched. And I snapped a few pictures with a friend’s phone (because my phone hates me and refuses to take photos).

Let me tell you. A photo taken with a camera phone in bad afternoon light is not a good reference. In fact, I find that often photos aren’t good references at all. That’s why I keep my sketchbook closer to me than a dog keeps her fleas. Thank goodness I had that sketch and my notes about the scene.

So with my bad photo, my good sketch, and my Swiss cheese memory to guide me, I painted all evening until the fiddler wandered down to the studio and wailed plaintively, aren’t you finished yet? (No, he didn’t really wail. Only his fiddle wails.) But at night he does often come to the bottom of the house where I struggle in my studio. He likes to walk me “home” (upstairs to the kitchen and living room). You never know when a mountain lion is hanging out under the deck, starving for a bite of pudgy artist.

And I have to admit to you, at that point I gave up on this painting.

There are many reasons to give up on a painting. Here are my reasons: 1. It was late. 2. I was tired 3. The painting wasn’t what I had in mind. 4. A perfectly good fiddler was inviting me upstairs for a glass of wine and some dinner.

And most importantly, I hate being rushed.

I know, we are all in a hurry these days. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing fast, right? And we’re all reaching for the stars, trying to achieve greatness, or at least trying to get someone to look at our artwork and expound on its loveliness. Or maybe just trying to get something painted and framed to hang in a last-minute show.

I’ve said this before: I am a slow painter. I think too much, but it’s who I am.  I need time to process and plan, to understand what I’m doing. This painting, quickly drawn and painted, was a good start for a larger, better painting. But not good enough to miss spending time with the fiddler.


Plein air painting vintage cars in watercolor

Touring car
Touring car sketch
© 2015 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches hot press #300

If you follow this blog, you know that I was a little nervous about painting at the Ironstone Concourse d’Elegance in Murphys, California.

It’s not that I mind painting in public. Being part of the scenery doesn’t much bother me these days—I actually love talking to people I meet while I’m painting outdoors—but the attendance at the Concourse can be in the thousands. That’s a lot of eyeballs looking over my shoulder as I apply paint and scrub out mistakes. And the weather forecast predicted more tiresome California summer heat.

Yes, the weather was blisteringly hot, but the people who attended—car owners and car lovers alike—were the nicest people. Lubed by Ironstone’s wine and revved up by the event, they were always ready to chat. And best of all, a lovely young woman hired me on-the-spot to paint a portrait of her grandfather’s sweet little red Triumph. (Unfortunately, my iPhone was cranky and refused to snap a photo of the painting, so I can’t show it to you.)

By the end of the day, I was hot and tired with feet that felt flat, but I was still having a ball, splashing paint and schmoozing. I kept painting until I realized that I was no longer able to see and understand color. The color-parsing cones in my eyeballs had seized up like a motor run dry of oil. I quit painting during the car parade and simply admired the beautiful cars as they drove past.

My dad has always been a vintage car fan, and tried to interest me in them all my life, but until the Concourse, I never realized that these old conglomerations of metal, chrome, and rubber are amazing pieces of art, kinetic sculptural forms that are useful as well as gorgeous.  And devilishly fun to draw. My next vacation? The National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, or wherever vintage cars are found.

Green car painting
Vintage green car sketch
© 2015 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches hot press #300