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.

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“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.

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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.

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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….

I signed a book contract!

In early December, out of the blue, I received an email from someone at a well-known publishing company, asking if I would be interested in writing an art book. My thoughts quickly shifted through:

  • surprise – that a publisher came to ME
  • skepticism – whether the inquiry was legit
  • astonishment – that it was real
  • excitement – that it is a huge opportunity
  • regret – because I didn’t think I could take it with my existing commitments
  • speculation – on what I could omit from my year’s schedule in order to do it
  • worry – that if I signed the contract, something bad might happen
  • worry – that if I turned it down, I’d never get an opportunity like this again
  • confidence – that I can do this

After some back-and-forth, some consultation with other authors, and some negotiation, I signed the contract mid-January!

I’m not allowed to reveal anything about the book itself beyond what I’ve already said.  But it will be a VERY busy year through the end of August, drawing, scanning and writing to meet my monthly deadlines.  I won’t be able to share any of my images or text as I progress (sorry!).  Until the book is finished, I won’t be doing any new artwork of my own, and I’ll only be able to enter a few shows (with work I’ve already completed).  I start just as soon as I finish the portrait I have on my drawing board right now.  This doesn’t mean I won’t be writing blog postings, only that they won’t be about the book.

I have to pinch myself to remember this is really happening; I never imagined that someday I’d have a book contract as part of my art career!  This will be part of my art legacy someday, so I plan to focus and give it my best.  Wish me luck!

Paper furniture

My whole life, I wished for a flat-file cabinet (also known as a map cabinet) in order to store my larger sheets of drawing paper nice and flat, keep them clean and out of danger of getting wrinkled, creased, smudged or punctured.  About five years ago, I finally had a nice oak one made by an older gentleman in the Sierra foothills.  I had it made to fit 22″ x 30″ paper.  It turned out great.  The only problem is, it turns out that 22″ x 30″ paper with a deckled edge (such as Stonehenge paper) is actually 22.5″ x 30″.  DOH!  So one edge sticks out of the drawer, continually taunting me like a child with its tongue out: “You goofed and you can’t fix this!”

Since then, I’ve come to own even larger sheets of paper, 30″ x 40″.  They got stashed in a stack under the guest room bed, or behind a dresser, or rolled up inside a cabinet.  It’s the best I could do, but far from ideal–they could still end up dusty, scuffed or creased, in any combination.  All overnight guests were warned: Do NOT shove anything under the bed!

Thanks to my continuing to work full-time as a software engineer, which subsidizes my serious art habit, I decided this year that I could afford to finally buy an even larger flat-file cabinet.  I could no longer find the gentleman who made my first one; he was 80 when he made it, so he may have died?  I spent a couple of weeks poring over Google search results and eBay listings, trying to find a good used one.  Unfortunately they were all the wrong size, beat up, without drawer slides, or 2000+ miles away with no way to examine before purchase or do a return and refund.

So I allowed myself to consider buying new.  They’re so expensive!  And even then, most companies that sell them only provide a few options.  But I finally found an online retailer, Madison Art Shop, that offers quite a few configuration, size and material options.  After several days of pondering and asking questions, I placed my order.  Without telling you what I paid, the shipping charge alone was over $300!

Last week, it arrived from the manufacturer in Beaverton, Oregon–all 408 lbs, on its own pallet.  It’s here!  It’s here!

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Hm, this thing IS big!  I already knew it was going to be too big to fit in my little studio, even if I moved the smaller flat-file cabinet out.  So my husband agreed I could set it up in the living room.  The real effort began.  Underneath the plastic wrap and nylon straps, we found four crates, two of which each weighed almost 200 lbs.  We figured out how to get them up the two steps and through the front door without hurting ourselves by using a couple of dollies.  We were impressed with the packing; every piece and surface was in perfect condition.  The final assembly instructions called for little more than a Phillips-head screwdriver.  Over the next few days, it came together.  The base to the bottom cabinet, the cap to the top cabinet, the two halves together, the handles on the drawers, and finally, the drawers into the cabinet.  I wiped down all surfaces to remove wood dust residue.

Here it is!  My beautiful new 30″ x 42″ 10-drawer birch flat-file cabinet, with metal slides.  This puppy isn’t going to budge in an earthquake.  The drawers require a satisfying little nudge to finish closing, which provides the tension to hold them closed so they won’t slide open on their own.

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It just needed two final touches: I got barrier paper from Accent Arts to line the drawers (this protects the valuable drawing paper from the acid that wood leaches over time, which yellows anything with which it is in constant contact), and I had a thin sheet of clear acrylic cut by TAP Plastics to protect that gorgeous birch wood top.

I was very happy today to extricate the large sheets of paper from all those hiding places  and lay them in their new home.  And happy to stop those 22.5″ x 30″ sheets from sticking their collective tongue out at me from the smaller cabinet.

Now the new cabinet only sticks something out to offer me lovely, pristine drawing paper!

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Yes, it was expensive.  But this very well-made piece of furniture will last the rest of my life, and will probably go on to serve another artist, and someone else after that, for 100 or even 200 years.  No buyer’s remorse for me!

Wrapping Up 2016

Here it is, the last day of 2016!  What an art year it was for me:

  • Exhibited work in 15 juried shows, including internationally in London and Ottawa
  • Won 7 awards
  • Sold 6 originals
  • Finished 11 new drawings
  • Taught 2 workshops
  • Gave 3 presentations
  • Exhibited 2 weekends in Silicon Valley Open Studios
  • Led a 2-day forum at the Colored Pencil Society of America convention in Tacoma
  • The featured and cover artist in the May issue of COLOR magazine
  • One of my drawings was used for advertising in The Artist’s Magazine, Pastel Journal, and Drawing Magazine
  • Published in 3 new books: CP Treasures, Vol. IV from Ann Kullberg, and Strokes of Genius 8: Expressive Texture and Art Journey Animals from North Light Books
  • Published a JumpStart step-by-step booklet through Ann Kullberg
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 strokesofgeniusad  art-journey-animals-cover

Along with all that, late in the year I stepped down after five years as president of my CPSA chapter (DC 210 San Jose), in order to take on a new role as the organization’s national Marketing Director.

And I broke my collarbone, which brought everything art-related to a halt for more than six weeks while I healed from surgery to fix it (steel plate forevermore!) I’m still going to physical therapy to regain strength and mobility.

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All that while still working at a full-time job.  Whew!

With each year, I’m still learning how to pace myself.  Spring and early summer seem to be very hectic, while autumn and early winter are more relaxed, so I’m trying to figure out how to spread the work out.  I’m not sure it’s possible, since the reason for the hectic part of the year is deadlines over which I have no control.  One possibility is to simply not enter as many juried shows, but what’s the fun in that?

2017 is already stacking up!  I have commitments for three presentations and four workshops (three of which involve travel) in the first five months.  Check the Calendar page of my website to keep abreast of all that.

And the contract is not yet signed, but it looks like I will be writing a book, which will preclude me from making any new art until at least the end of August, and I’ll have to skip several exhibit opportunities.  I’m feeling ambivalent about the honor of writing a book that will be published but not being able to draw what I want for most of the year.  I guess it’s a good problem to have!

May your 2017 be productive and filled with art!