About denisejhoward

I'm an artist in Santa Clara, California. I work primarily with colored pencil and graphite. I'm a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America and the United Kingdom Colored Pencil Society, and have Master Pencil Artist Status with the Pencil Art Society.

My teacher has died

In the afternoon on Sept. 25, I was shocked to learn that my high school art teacher, Donna (Lewis) Billington, died that morning. She apparently had a massive heart attack two days earlier, from which she never revived. I started crying.

Many people probably barely remember their high school teachers and would think “What’s the big deal? That was a long time ago. Teachers get older and they die.” So let me tell you about why her passing matters so much to me.

When I started high school, I’d had no art training, but I loved to draw. This was long before the internet, and private instruction was not available in my rural area. I persuaded the guidance counselor to let me take Fundamentals of Art even though freshmen weren’t supposed to be able to take “electives”. So I was the only freshman in the class, and Donna–Miss Lewis as we all knew her–became my very first art teacher. For the first time, I had to apply myself and really learn art-making. When I finished my first project in the class, a black-and-white tempera painting, I hesitantly asked her if it was okay, and I was surprised when she said enthusiastically “It’s beautiful!”

Donna insisted that everyone turn in five sketches per week. It didn’t matter what they were of, or whether they were from life or a photo, only that you tried. This had an immediate impact on my skills,  because now I had a reason to draw (it’s homework!) and a reason to get better at it (I need to get a good grade!).

Over the next four years, I learned from her graphite drawing, pen and ink drawing, acrylic painting, oil painting, art history, color theory, composition, crafts, how to make a hinged mat, and how to enter a competitive exhibit. Within two years, people around town started asking me to draw portrait commissions; she accepted them as some of my weekly five sketches. She told me about a week-long summer art camp at the university taught by one of her teachers, and helped convince my parents to let me attend it. She learned of an evening watercolor workshop at the university and persuaded my parents to let me attend it with her.  By then I was sure I wanted to study art in college, so during my senior year she contacted a professor friend at the university and arranged for me to meet him so he could photograph my best pieces for a portfolio. She wrote a recommendation for me, which helped me win acceptance into the prestigious Washington University School of Art. (I was unable to attend due to finances, but that’s another story.)

Along the way there were other events. There was the time when I was carving wood in  class, and I forgot for just one moment to keep my bracing hand behind the carving tool. The tool slipped and cut the side of my thumb wide open, and as I bled over the sink, she ran in heels to the school office to get the first-aid kit, then did her best to stop the bleeding. I still have that scar. There was the time when some kids were especially mean with words, so she kept me after class to ask if I was okay, and told me that if they were ever too much, to let her know and she’d put a stop to it. There were the Art Club field trips she arranged, to Kansas City for a tour of the Hallmark Cards factory and the Kansas City Art Institute, and to St. Louis for a tour of the Old Cathedral and the Washington University School of Art. When boys acted up in class, she never lost her temper–a piercing glare and a few words in a low voice was all it took to bring them in line.

Donna was knowledgeable, patient, calm, dignified, and encouraging.  She was the kind of teacher and person that you want to continue to make proud the rest of your life. She made all the difference for me and the beginning of my art, and for that I will be forever grateful. I’m so glad we’d been in touch again in recent years, so I got to tell her how much she meant to me. I’ve kept every wonderful, articulate, handwritten card she sent me, so I can re-read them whenever I need a boost of confidence about my art.

And I finally got the opportunity to give a little something back, by drawing a portrait for her.


“Little Donna”, 2011 – Portrait of Donna (Lewis) Billington as a girl, from a photo she provided

I’ll always think of her whenever my work is accepted into a prestigious exhibit or wins an award, and wish I could share the news with her. I’d want her to know that I’m still trying to get better.

Thank you, Donna. RIP.

Book progress III

It’s been awhile since I posted an update on my book progress. I wrapped up the big introductory chapter on materials and techniques on August 14. Two weeks later, my editor sent me a “proof” of the entire book, all 128 pages of 101 Textures in Colored Pencil laid out and edited, for my final review. I responded with my suggestions and corrections. The latest news from last week is that it’s now being printed! I hope to have an advance copy in my hands by mid October. I’m trying to imagine what that will be like, seeing all my work and all my writing as a complete book in my hands with my name on the cover. Surreal, I think. I’ve noticed that it has started showing up on booksellers’ websites besides Amazon, such as Barnes & Noble.

So, what have I been doing since I finished? I took about a week “off”, worked regular hours, slept decent hours, and binge-watched episodes of “The Big Bang Theory”. Then I got back on the stick. I was invited by Ann Kullberg to write a tutorial chapter for her next book (which I’m not allowed to describe here yet), so I’m currently on step 10 of 14 of that project. I’ve entered a three or four shows and won awards in two of them so far (the others haven’t announced their acceptances yet). My submission for Strokes of Genius 10 from North Light Books was not selected, but I can’t complain too much about that since I not only had pieces chosen for Strokes of Genius 7 and 8, they were used in print ads for the series and the entire back cover, respectively.

As soon as I finish the chapter for Ann Kullberg’s book, I have three commissions lined up! That should just about finish out the year.

Book progress II

I finished drawing number 101! That completes the whole list of textures. I really did it!

There have been quite a few late nights until 2:30, 3:00 and even 4:00 AM, when I knew I had X number of drawings to do in Y days for a deadline and I could finish at most three drawings per day. On weekdays I could only finish one. Over the long 4th of July weekend, I spent the entire four days at my drawing table, and cranked out ten drawings. No picnics, no road trips, no beaches. I did take time out to watch the local fireworks, and then was back at it until 3 AM. A few drawings have taken as little as two hours to finish, while a couple required six. It’s not just drawing, it’s scanning each of four steps, cleaning up the scans in Photoshop, and describing each step. It’s also preparing the drawing paper, finding the right reference photos, cropping them to the right proportions, and printing them.

The minute I finished, I donned my hiking shoes and went for a wonderful two-hour hike, during which I saw mother deer with fawns (including twins), a hen turkey with eight poults, mallard ducks with ducklings, a pair of white-tailed kites, ground squirrels, lizards, dragonflies, hawks, and an ant freeway. This is what I’ve been missing all year. Every day, instead of going for some “nature therapy”, I’ve had to just go home to my drawing board in order to meet my deadlines. This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed working on the drawings! But boy have I missed my favorite trail.


I’m not finished with the book altogether; for my next deadline I still have to write a big introductory chapter, with sections on materials and techniques and illustrations to go with those.

My book, 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, is now scheduled for release December 5, and can be pre-ordered now! The price is going up as the publication date gets closer.


Homage or ripoff?

A story in the Toronto Star Touch has generated a lot of discussion among some artists and art lovers on Facebook this week. It seems that an artist named Amanda PL had an entire solo exhibition canceled at a gallery because indigenous people complained before it even opened that her work was too much a copy of, and therefore disrespectful of, their own art.

The article’s author does an excellent job of neutrally exploring both sides of the issue as well as that of the gallery in the middle.  Usually the “right thing to do” is clear.  But this is a tough one. I mean, who hasn’t been inspired to draw or paint something in the style of an established culture? Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by ancient Egyptian wall paintings, Haida shawl designs, Maya sculptures, Sioux beadwork, Moorish mosaics, and more. I didn’t build an art body of work around any of them, but I get why someone would. Just because you weren’t born into that culture doesn’t mean you can’t love and understand their art.

In the music world, it’s considered wonderful and creative to incorporate the rhythms and harmonies of other cultures into one’s own compositions; Paul Simon has been acclaimed for his African-inspired songs. I guess the hard part is “where do you draw the line between inspired and copied?” Where do you draw the line between tribute and disrespect?

Imbibed erasers

On a colored pencil group that I belong to on Facebook, someone said she had just read about “imbibed erasers” in an older colored pencil book by Gary Greene, and wanted to know why nobody had mentioned these marvelous inventions to her before. I actually had not heard of them before, so I looked it up. An imbibed eraser is impregnated with erasing fluid that is made for erasing ink, particularly the kind from technical pens like Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph, from drafting film and some papers. Then I looked up Greene’s text (the internet knows all!). Greene had said that an imbibed eraser does a great job on colored pencil, and doesn’t damage the paper like most other types of erasers that work by scrubbing.

Intrigued, I decided I should try one of these imbibed erasers. It turns out they aren’t made anymore–they’ve gone the way of the manual typewriter and adding machine rolls. So like anything which has been discontinued, they’re worth more now–when you can find one–than they were originally. But thanks to eBay I found a business in Kansas City that deals in old office machines and accessories for them, and they had Koh-I-Noor imbibed erasers. So I bought one for a whopping $9 plus shipping, and a box of the version made in strips for use in electric erasers for $22 plus shipping, which apparently was a bargain because some were selling for upwards of $70. When they arrived, they were still sealed in their original wrappers in pristine condition.

I scribbled a  fairly heavy patch of Permanent Red on a scrap of Stonehenge paper, and tried erasing it with the imbibed eraser. I was very disappointed. Even with a fair amount of scrubbing, it worked no better than poster putty. It sure made eraser crumbs, though. I also tried with one of the strips.


Just to prove it to myself, after I took this photo, I erased the other half of the patch by dabbing with poster putty. Sure enough, when I stopped, the left side looked the same as the right side. But with far less scrubbing!

Maybe they work better when they’re fresh from the factory (which isn’t happening anymore). Maybe Greene was using pencils other than Prismacolors. I don’t know.

So now I have an imbibed eraser and no use for it. Worse, when I went to toss it in the drawer where I keep my Rapidograph pen set, I discovered that I already had one!

Book progress

I thought the subject and title of my book was supposed to be a big secret until publication, but I learned from one of my recent workshop attendees that it’s already listed on Amazon!  That seems to make it official, this is really going to happen on October 1st. So you might be wondering “how’s it going?”

So far, I’m ahead of my deadlines. I’ve completed 24 out of 101 as I write this. That’s a good place to be, but I have previous commitments coming up which could put me behind; all the more reason to try to stay ahead as long as I can.

Someone asked me “Is it fun?” Yes, it is! Every day that I draw, I’m drawing something different. Some of them I know how to draw, and some of them I have to figure out. Since drawing is all about seeing, nothing is impossible, it’s just a matter of time. Each one takes me 3-4 hours, including scanning, adjusting and writing.

I had a small panic tonight when my computer inexplicably stopped communicating with my scanner and the usual fixes of re-launching the application and restarting the scanner didn’t work. After 90 minutes of looking up tech support answers, reinstalling drivers, etc., what finally worked was to reboot my computer.  Whew!

Sorry, I can’t show you any samples….

My two-day workshop in St. Augustine, FL

Over a year ago, Hanneke Jevons and Bill Shoemaker, president and vice-president of CPSA DC117 St. Augustine, FL invited me to teach a two-day workshop for their chapter in 2017. I was very flattered! This was going to be my first time teaching a workshop “on the road”, outside the San Francisco bay area. We decided on the theme of “Landscape Textures and Techniques in Colored Pencil”, based on the “winning power” of my trees–three have been in CPSA International Exhibitions, two of those have won significant awards in it, all three have sold (one for $3600), and they seem to be admired far and wide. Probably because my admiration of remarkable trees comes through in my drawings of them….

I was grateful to have plenty of time to work out the details and even “test drive” the workshop in one-day form locally. Grasses, moss, bark, leaves, and rocks each pose challenges for which I’ve figured out solutions.

We agreed to limit registration to 24 students, and wow! It sold out so quickly, they didn’t even get to advertise it.

As the time drew near, I gathered the materials for each student: a class outline, drawing papers, an extra piece of plain paper for a hand shield, reference photos, four luscious Caran d’Ache pencils (two Pablo, two Luminance) and information about them courtesy of Creative Art Materials, colorless blender, value finders, stylus, and poster putty. I wished for a way to take along some interesting bark and moss from my collection, but they are too delicate to survive transport (they don’t even like being moved to dust under them on the shelf).

Hanneke generously offered to host me at her home.  She picked me up from the Daytona airport at midnight on March 2. The next day, we had a yummy breakfast at the Funky Pelican in Flagler Beach, she gave me a tour of the area, I got to see the chapter’s show on display at the Flagler County Art League‘s gallery in Palm Coast, we assembled the student packets, we set up the workshop room at the Palm Coast Community Center, and we had a great dinner with Bill and a couple of other folks. The weather was perfect, in the 60s with no excessive humidity, and I was delighted to have the opportunity watch an active osprey pair with their nest just a couple of blocks from Hanneke’s house.

Saturday we focused on grasses and bark. Sunday we focused on moss and rock, and then launched into a bigger project of the base of a tree, with the encouragement that by then they knew the tools and techniques they needed to tackle it. I won’t bore you with the details…. I’ll let their photos tell you! I was very pleased with everyone’s progress–they really “got it”, even those who went through a period of frustration first.



I gave everyone an overnight homework assignment between Saturday and Sunday, to find and bring in some natural item with texture. I made a bet with Hanneke that fewer than half would remember to do it, and she wisely took the bet, because I was wrong! We had quite an assortment on display for Sunday, from a dried palm seed stalk, to rocks and even a bird nest. I wish I’d thought to take photos of them…..

Sunday evening, Bill and I had a tasty dinner at Bob Evans, a restaurant we don’t have in California that I miss from my years in the midwest. Unfortunately, our pleasant evening was marred by witnessing a fatal bicycle/SUV collision, which shook us both up.

On Monday morning, Hanneke took me to see the trees at Princess Place Preserve and her little farm and cows, before taking me to the airport for my return trip.



I can’t thank Hanneke and Bill enough for making this workshop trip possible!

I’ll be teaching the one-day version of this workshop again next Saturday (March 25) for CPSA DC 214 Los Angeles. I can’t wait!