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Study for American Still Life, Replica


So this little toy gun, and I do mean little, is marked “REPLICA”.  Phew!  I thought this gun, which is less than three inches tall, might be the real thing.  (No, not really.)

It does beg the question of why someone would want a really tiny replica.  Something to fit well in the hands of really tiny children?  Something convenient to carry to scare off those accosting you, hoping they won’t notice it’s too tiny to hurt anything larger than a gnat?  OK, I’m out of guesses.

I haven’t drawn in ages, having added the role of product photographer to the too-many roles I already have in  managing the business (Sundial Wire).  But it was a  soul-sucking mistake to be away from drawing essentially all summer.

I had started another tiny drawing of a toy gun when Jim and I went to Rockport, MA, for a couple of days.  We went to Halibut State Park, a lovely area with an old quarry near the shore.  I sat at a picnic table with a lovely breeze, my pastel pencils (the only truly portable form of pastels) on a picnic table with a gorgeous view, but, unfortunately, in the company of about 50 biting black flies.

The quarry at Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, MA

The quarry at Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, MA.

But I got a start on Replica in spite of the flies, and I finished it today at the September Sundial Still Life Sunday.  (Sundial Still Life Sundays happen every third Sunday; a group of friends comes to draw at Sundial Wire, where there’s lots of room and light and not much to mess up with paint or pastel.)

Study for American Still Life, Replica

Study for American Still Life, Replica, pastel, 4.75″ x 2.75″, 2016, Copyright Hilary Zaloom

It is amazing how long it takes for me to complete something so tiny.  Three to four hours.  But I’ve never been fast at anything.  (Except giving birth.  That was the one thing I’ve done fast.)  I love how the red comes through all over the gun.

More American Still Life studies to come, hopefully not so far apart.  And maybe I can carve out the time to do the first in the series rather than a tiny study.  Meanwhile, it was great to have a couple of hours to draw.  Here’s to getting back to daily drawing.

Size Matters

OK, there are a few parts I like in this picture, in the shiny part on the front of the barrel, where the turquoise, gold, white, and purple-black swirl together.  And on the base and trigger guard and body, in the front, where the reflections allow so much color in those tiny areas.

But I made this pastel, 9″ x 12″, struggling the whole time because the size is just too small to really allow me to have freedom with the pastels, to create beautiful, abstract areas of color within the representational picture.  So I decided it would be a study, not a final product, a study for one in a series I have planned, American Still Life.


“Study for American Still Life: Occupied Japan Lighter, Glass Peppermint”, pastel, 9″ x 12″, 2016, Copyright Hilary Zaloom

I have struggled to get myself to almost finish this – the right hand side of the wrapper on the peppermint still needs work – and I keep worrying about the ellipse-on-ellipse-on-ellipse of the base.  Should I keep fiddling with it?  The size also frustrates me because the gun’s shadow is too close to the peppermint.  But I made myself (almost) finish this because I thought it would be cowardly somehow to abandon it.  And I did learn a lot about working that small.  It really was a good exercise to make myself keep working on it. But I didn’t love it.  I kept wanting it to be bigger.

So I decided I would make the final picture and the others in the series 36″ x 48″.  So, did I start on that?  No, I started drawing these at night, the first done between midnight and 2AM one night while I was sort of watching British TV murder shows, and the second done with me holding the tiny paper under my bedside light trying to see in the dark while I sat in bed and talked to Isabel:


“Study for American Still Life, Partner”, pastel, 4.75″ x 2.75″, 2016, Copyright Hilary Zaloom


Dyna-Mite (2)

“Study for American Still Life, Dyna-Mite”, pastel, 4.75″ x 2.75″, 2016, Copyright Hilary Zaloom

I’ve never drawn anything that small before.  And I was totally in the zone, drawing along, even the scrollwork on “Dyna-Mite” and the hatching on the stock of “Partner”, not feeling at all that the pastel pencils were too big, which I normally feel on a much bigger picture if I get them out.  This is not normal for me.  I hate working small, and crazy busy detail usually drives me crazy.  (Although I did do every divot in the dish towel in the Swedish Fish picture – see Gallery.)  But perhaps because I didn’t take these pictures too seriously – I was drawing under silly circumstances, after all, not at an easel in the sunroom that masquerades as my studio – they fed something in me, put me in that zone of contented scratching at the paper, watching elements start to pop, colors start to blend.

I’m still going to do my American Still Life series in 3′ x 4′ pastels, but I’m glad I just did these.  I think these are as close to “whipping something off” that I am capable of.  But who knows, I didn’t think I’d do these miniatures.  It is fun being on a ride with nice surprises.

[A footnote about my subject matter lately.  I am drawing toy guns, not real ones, and I’m hoping I don’t have to explain that these pictures are not a paean to guns.  I don’t like explanations of why people draw or sculpt what they do, so I’ll leave it at that, but I have a lot of people asking me why I’m drawing guns.  Here’s my answer: They’re toys; it’s not a paean.]

Embracing My Medium

Today I gave up the charcoal pencils and two pastel pencils I was using, trying to channel Jim Dine, for my Sennelier and Girault pastels, still in just a few colors, yellows, golds, blood red, and black/gray/white.  I’ve never been able to limit my palette before.  I’m not sure I always want to do that, but I like it in this picture.  I think it’s the Dine influence, still a bit there, letting me do that.

Pastel is definitely my medium.  I just love its richness, despite the nuisance of the mess, it often feeling like I’m drawing with a broomstick, the difficulty of framing and preserving them, etc.  The richness and texture and depth of color trumps all that.  In the background of this picture it is thick enough, even on this Strathmore pastel paper – no grit – to let me smoosh it around, my absolute favorite place to find myself with pastels.  People often can’t figure out why I use Senneliers, because they’re so soft, but they do that smooshing thing so nicely.  I love them.

I discovered the Giraults when my across-the-street neighbor, Gail, came to the door and presented them to me, a beautiful set bought in Paris, clearly long, long ago.  She had inherited them from a woman who was around 90 when we moved into our current house just across the road, but so ill I never saw her.  Gail runs a drawing group started by her mother Claire, along with Andie, the woman who was dying when we moved here, and Priscilla, a lovely woman who lived down the street.  It was started when they were young, and they have all since died, in their 90s, maybe 80s for Priscilla.  So it has been going on for decades.   I was privileged to be able to draw with Priscilla in the group before she died.

Gail is not a fan of drawing with pastels herself but knew I was, so she presented the pastels to me when Andie died and she inherited them.  I don’t think she knows what a wonderful gift they have been although I have tried to tell her. I bought myself some new Giraults to have a wider color range, but the old ones are just the best.  The perfect harder pastel to go with my Senneliers.


Here is today’s version of my latest effort.



“Wasp”, work in progress, 9″x12″

This is still a work in progress, but I am liking it much more than where it was yesterday before I embraced my medium.  Finished it a few days later, finished state at beginning of post.


Whipping It Off In the Style of….


I have been struggling with thinking I should whip off drawings that have a freedom and life to them, particularly at the Sundial Still Life Sundays and for warming up and sketching in between working on fully finished pieces.  Part of my motivation is that all the drawing books/classes/etc. say that you should do this, that it will make you a better artist.  The other motivation is that I feel that I’ve had a very static, fill-it-all-in, pretty boring way of working in all but maybe one of the pieces I’ve done.  But when I sit down to whip something off, I haven’t been able to do it.  When I try, what I produce is just a sloppy mess; I hate what I’m doing, don’t think it’s worth any time, and quit drawing for the day altogether in total disgust and discouragement.  I realize one thing I’m forgetting is that drawings that have the qualities that make them look whipped off might not be.

I saw the Degas print show at MoMA a few weeks ago.  Once the crowds subsided enough that I could even contemplate seeing the pictures (an hour and a half before closing), I was entranced by two of the pictures in particular. I guess there are prints under the pastel, but for all intents and purposes, they are pastels, my favorite medium by nearly any artist and certainly my favorite medium for Degas. (I am always disappointed to see a picture is an oil rather than a pastel when it’s by Degas. The texture of the pastels adds so much that just isn’t there with oil.) Here are those two pastels:

Degas pastel 1


Degas pastel 2

That is how I would like to draw.  But it is clear that Degas did not get the lines quite right the first time.  And did these take him ten or fifteen minutes a piece?  I doubt it.  I love these two so much that I was trying to get Isabel to slip one under her arm and I’d slip the other under mine and we’d make a run for it.  But she wasn’t up for it.  I think maybe she thought a thousand alarms would go off and we’d be hunted down as we raced through the throngs of people that seem to jam every museum and then we’d be locked up for life.  So they’re still there if you want to see them.

So, at first discouraged by thinking that Degas had so many more years drawing, so much more discipline in getting it done, so much more opportunity to go backstage at the ballet, for example, etc., etc., etc., I decided that what I will do for a while is to emulate aspects of works that I particularly like.  And I will try not to get discouraged at not being where I want to be right away.

So a week ago, at the third Sundial Still Life Sunday, I decided to emulate Jim Dine’s drawings of hardware, which I love.  Emulating Degas in a couple of hours was just more than I could contemplate.  An example of a Jim Dine:


Clearly this is not a ten-minute drawing, but it has that feeling of freedom and spontaneity in spite of the gorgeous modeling and patina of the head of the clippers.

What insanity came over me to decide to draw some of the gears for our braiding machines I cannot say.  Talk about not-whip-it-off material!  Cogs!  Clearly my gears were not turning when I made this decision.

I struggled with the cogs and then struggled with whether I should keep obsessively trying to get them right.  In the long run, I didn’t really value the drawing enough to put the time and effort into it.  All those teeth!!!

But it wasn’t a useless experiment.  One of the things I love about Dine’s work is the mixture of charcoal and color in some of it, and I was really enjoying doing that mixing myself.  It demystified the process to actually just do it.  I don’t think I’d have thought to do it if I hadn’t embarked on emulation, so while the drawing is not a masterpiece, and I certainly didn’t whip it out, I was a really great experience, due to the friendship and company on the Sunday and what I learned in producing it.

A month later, at the next Sundial Still Life Sunday, there was, again, a lovely group.  Talk of how we fit drawing into our lives was really inspiring.  I actually got up the next day very early and got a bit of yoga and forty-five minutes of drawing in before work.  I want to stretch that forty-five minutes to two hours if I can, but just having done some drawing before work showed me I can do it.  Thank you to the participants last Sunday for the inspiration!

I am planning a series of pastels incorporating toy guns and some other objects, so last Sunday I decided to draw one of my toy guns just to get familiar with it.  And I am keeping in mind emulating Degas and Dine.  I got this far in the two hours or so at Sundial.  I was OK with this as a start.


I have worked on it for an hour or two a couple of times and have gotten this far, still with a lot of work to go.


I love being able to not worry about smearing, a la Dine.  And I am trying to introduce a bit of color into the charcoal to give it at least a hint of Degas’ vibrancy.  Here’s hoping I can keep bringing it along to get that result.

Life Gets In the Way, or, Fiddling While Rome Burns

Today I am trying to figure out how to draw in spite of my crazy anxiety about how much I have to do in my life and for the business (  And after I typed that sentence I thought, “To hell with that!” and went into the sunroom (studio, such as it is) and finished the picture I’d started at the last Sundial Still Life Sunday.   Here’s what I got done during that Sunday session:


(Yeah, not much for a few hours, but I’m still quite anxious about making things OK since I’m hosting.)  I was convinced that because I’d gotten so little done, that it wasn’t worth trying to finish it.  Also, I was still feeling fairly lackluster that Sunday, after the month-long plague I had just started getting over, so I again did a very small picture, about 6″ x 4″.  Not my forte doing small things.

But what has kept me out of the sunroom/studio for nearly all of the three weeks was the enormous weight of what I currently have to do.  I am so overwhelmed right now that I find myself completely frozen, doing nothing, making my anxiety even deeper.  But today I decided to fiddle while Rome burns.  For an hour or two I didn’t feel the heat or smell the smoke.



The result is not a masterpiece; that there’s no tooth to the paper doesn’t help!  I can see a few places I should tweak if I brush off the pastel that’s there a bit and see if more will stick.  But I did it.  Thank you, Nero and Jeannette, for the inspiration of just motoring through and not over-thinking.

Dr. Sketchy’s

One reads a lot about how going out of your comfort zone boosts your creativity.  I don’t know if that’s the case with the activity described here.

A few years ago a friend told me about Dr. Sketchy’s.  It is themed drawing sessions in a bar with the models whittling down their costumes to nearly nothing as the evening winds down.  Burlesque, purposely strange and amusing.  You can see how it all started (in NYC), and why, at the Dr. Sketchy’s FAQ.  Note that the Northampton branch is not nearly as snazzy as the pictures on the official Sketchy’s page would indicate that at least some of the other branches are.  Dr. Sketchy’s Northampton is decidedly funky, but that’s a compliment.

When I first went, several years ago, it was held at The Elevens bar in Northampton, now defunct.  The Elevens was kind of seedy and the drinks fairly weak, but there was a stage and a backstage for the models and high tables and stools behind lower ones for two-tiered seating that allowed a pretty good view of the stage each time.  They also had great playlists accompanying the poses.  When The Elevens was shut down, Dr. Sketchy’s Northampton had several venues, none of them offering anywhere near the same visibility of the stage, if there even was a stage.  My friend and I found ourselves wondering at our missing The Elevens.

Sometimes something you miss comes back to you.  The Elevens venue has recently been taken over by the One Bar, and it is just like it used to be, seedy, good views of the models, great playlists.  Dr. Sketchy’s back on the First Friday of every month.

Now this is not a venue where people above 40 generally frequent.  Consequently, my friend and I don’t go unless the other is willing to go, so as not to be odd (i.e.,old)-woman-out alone.  Still, it is always a bit uncomfortable not being a 20-something dressed far more out-there than we are.  Plus, there are, potentially, people watching you draw.  And drawing people is hard, particularly if there is more than one model.  And there are people who can make really, really good, gallery-ready stuff — even with the 3-minute poses — sitting all around you, possibly seeing how lame your scribbles are in comparison to what they wonderously produce.   And it’s pretty dark, so you can only kind-of, sort-of see what you’re drawing.  Yes, it fills me with anxiety.

So why do I go?  I go to have fun.  I’m not saying it’s easy to brush away the other stuff.  I never do entirely.  And since I haven’t been to figure drawing at all in the last few years, my people-drawing skills are not great, adding to the anxiety.  I have the constant loop in my head telling me what I am drawing is really bad and that I should have stayed home.  But still I manage to have it be fun.

Much of the credit for the fun is due to the people who do the work to make it happen.  The MC is Clyde Dale (who, I found out last night, works at State Street in his other life).  The props are funky, no matter what the theme.  Last night was particularly funny because it was advertised (on Facebook) as a David Bowie tribute.  But when we arrived, the stage was littered with plastic Easter egg halves, had a dead-looking stuffed bunny, and the odd Easter basket here and there.  The model started out wearing robes and a silver sparkly sort-of halo, posing like Jesus.  Later, she labored under a very large cardboard cross.  And then as the night went on, the model became more Playboy bunny than Easter bunny.  There was some David Bowie music….

I think I go, despite the angst, because I want to be able to be comfortable there.  My age should not limit what I do, as long as my motivation is just to enjoy what I’m doing, not to make it so that I seem young and cool.  (As my Dr. Sketchy’s friend often says, “That ship has sailed.”).  And my motivation has never been that.  So the big question now is whether I will ever be comfortable in my own skin at Dr. Sketchy’s.  Will I ever stop feeling like the old interloper who can’t draw?  I don’t know.  I’m pretty sure I’ll keep working on it and hope I’m able to enjoy the ride.

Elusive Creativity, Valentine’s Day

I think about creativity, or more often, the lack thereof, all the time.  Especially because it is a thing that I desperately want in spades and that I’m desperately afraid I don’t have in any really good way.  I mostly think I have some creativity, but it’s the mediocre kind at best.  But I have also not given up on the idea that I’ve got it, buried somewhere.  I just have to keep trying to find it.

One of the things I keep remembering is painting in kindergarten.  I was bored in kindergarten, nothing but the resident parakeet holding any interest for me.  I remember a play ironing board — that was supposed to be fun, really??  And big wooden blocks and the cardboard kind that are painted to look like brightly-colored bricks.  All I remember is being bored and watching the other children and wondering at their seeming total engagement.  What I thought, every day, was that I was different, and in the wrong way.  And then there was painting.  Big sheets of white paper on an easel, bright colors, big brush, a smock over one of the smocked dresses I was sent to school in by my English mother every day, just in case I didn’t feel different enough from the other kids.  What to paint?   I had no idea, none.  I was frozen.   I think a lot of the freeze came from my awareness of others seeing what I was doing, of exposure.   I’m pretty sure it was the teacher who, seeing me frozen in front of the easel, suggested I paint my house.  I remember painting the house, the sun, some flowers, over and over and over.  Formulaic, each item in the picture the stick-figure equivalent of the thing, the house, the sun, the flowers, the clouds.  And being bored with that.  Wasn’t there something else to paint?  What?  I never thought of anything at all, not that I remember.  In the face of that being my level of creativity at the age of five, I am still striving to find it.  Hope springs eternal?  Nuts?

A book about being creative I recently was reading, like so many other writings and talks about creativity, tells the reader to remember the creativity of young children, how they just draw things without thinking about it, with freedom, with abandon.  Where was my freedom and abandon? I can come to no conclusion other than that I was stunted creatively at the tender age of five.  Which, of course, adds to my fear that I never will have that freedom and abandon. Then I read this article: How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.  I wasn’t pushed to the brink like some kids are, but what was applauded in my family was the kind of achievement my parents could understand and revel in telling their friends and family about.  This did not encompass art or performance of any kind unless it was worthy of a NY Times review.  But my brother managed to get past that and then some: Paul Zaloom.  (And he was on the cover of the Arts & Leisure section at least twice, with his own, non-Beakman’s World, shows being reviewed six times by the Times.  Hell, he even brought his own brand to Beakman!)  Nor did another brother, Chris, let his upbringing squelch his creativity.  (No website — Google him.)

I, of course, had my childhood moment of rejection, like most, all?, of us do.  I had done a painting of a room with black walls in art class, somewhere between fourth and seventh grade, probably.  But I had made squiggly holes in the picture of the room and the paper layer I put underneath, to show through these holes, had marbled bright colors, oranges, I remember, and others.  I loved it.  I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.  Spooky, deep, darkly, crudely beautiful and totally surreal to my young self.  The image came to me, I think, in a dream I’d had.  I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the teacher told me with whatever she said that it was worthy only of instant dismissal — complete rejection when I had actually expected
“Wow!”.  I don’t remember doing another thing with that sense of wonder and thrill, of making something unique.  We all have those experiences, but it shut me down.  One foray into the creative, then finished.

How does this relate to Valentine’s Day?  We have a tradition, Jim, Isabel, and I, of making each other Valentines.  Sometimes I plan way ahead and knit something, like the heart in the jar and the gargoyle below.

But those knitted things are all made from other people’s patterns, like playing a Mozart tune rather than writing one’s own. The ones I came up with on my own, the Baby-Bel Cheese wax monkey and the watercolor heart, were done in a huge hurry.  Creativity for deadline-driven things like Valentines won’t kick in until there’s tremendous pressure, like having 2-4 hours before it has to be done. And as happy as I am that I don’t just go buy someone else’s card (and that Jim and Isabel don’t either), I do end up with the feeling that all I can do is mediocre, sort-of, so-so kinds of things or else play someone else’s tune.

But the Valentines also tell me, in spite of my feeling that they’re less than glorious, that I am still striving to not give up on creativity.  And they’re Valentines, not what I truly care about being creative with. I am still striving to get to the creative, the truly me creative, with my pictures.  I know I have to not let the meh Valentines and other such things undermine that.

There are two times since the black-room-picture incident that I have had ideas for pictures that just came out of nowhere. One was a pastel I did for Jim’s 40th.  For those of you unfamiliar with the picture this is based on, it is Jim as Rene Magritte’s Le Fils d’Homme (Son of Man) but throwing the apple up in the air in a happy-go-lucky way rather than having his face obscured by it.  Except it really doesn’t look like Jim.  Who knows why I thought I could pull this off back in 2011!


I didn’t question my idea, just went with it in spite of my lack of experience drawing (I’d only been drawing as an adult for two years) making the outcome less than what I had wanted it to be.  But I still love the idea.  And lately I’ve had an idea for a series, which I have started.  I keep questioning whether the idea is good, but I am forcing myself to keep going with it, to stop questioning, just do it.  My first stab at it has not turned out with the effect I wanted, so I am going to do it differently, not throw the idea out, not yet, anyway.  My perseverance is still there, but so very fragile!

I guess the thing that I’m happy about is that I am still thinking that there is an almost-untapped well of creativity buried deep, that if I keep grasping at the glimmers of it that crop up, that it will become more and more accessible to me.  I will keep beating down the voice that tells me I’m kidding myself, that I will never take the lid off that well, if there even is a well.  I will keep beating down that voice…I hope.