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.

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?

M.C. Escher and Art of the Carolinas

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I’ve been a fan of M.C. Escher‘s work since I first discovered it in my early teens. Some magazine or other included Another World with an article, and I stared at it in wonderment for hours.  It was a couple more years before I learned the name of the artist, and longer still before I learned that I could buy a whole book of his art.  I ended up with several of these books; I didn’t mind duplicate images as long as there were also unique ones!  His imaginative worlds were amazing.  As a developing artist, I was also impressed with his precise details and perfect shading, and it inspired me to work on improving my own technique.  When I read that his visit to a place called the Alhambra in Granada, Spain inspired his exploration of patterns and tesselations, I resolved that if I ever made it to Spain, I would visit it, too.  And I did, but that’s another story….

Several months ago, I learned that a huge exhibit of Escher’s work was coming to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and nowhere else after.  It didn’t matter that it was 3,000 miles away–I was going!  I also found out about Art of the Carolinas, a big annual art materials trade show that includes over 100 workshops, hosted by Jerry’s Artarama.  What an opportunity–I could time my visit to attend both!  It got even better when I learned that Prismacolor is one of the annual vendors at AOC, and they were happy to schedule me to demo at their booth even for just one day.

So last weekend, I went!  My sister, who lives in St. Louis, flew out to meet up since she is also an Escher fan.  We spent almost 4.5 hours in the Escher exhibit and we were not disappointed!  It was huge, and included the original wood, metal and stone blocks from which he made some of his prints, old photos of him at work and at home, and even the original  man-bird statue featured in Another World and other works.  To think, I was looking directly at the very sculpture he often looked at! It was so exciting to be able to examine, as closely as I cared, the details and drawing techniques which aren’t visible in books: erased corrections, perspective guides, and faint graph paper lines were all there.  And I learned something new about his technique:  for some of his lithographs such as Castrovalva, instead of drawing the image on the stone, he first covered the stone completely with the black grease pencil and then scratched through it to produce the image, just as modern scratchboard artists do!

The same special-exhibit admission price included an exhibit of many original pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester–his handwritten study of hydraulic systems and waterways, part of an effort to reduce flooding for his sponsor city.  I thought this was an odd pairing, until I learned that Escher was inspired by da Vinci and had even read and quoted some of his writings.  These pages have passed through many hands over 500 years, and they are now on loan from Bill Gates.

Sorry I can’t show you any photos from inside either exhibit–no photography was allowed!

The next day when I arrived to demo at Art of the Carolinas, I was pleased that my Prismacolor “boss” had arranged for Jerry’s Artarama to set up a nice drawing table and stool at the booth, and Strathmore provided a tablet of their new Colored Pencil paper.  So I got right to work drawing a larger-than-life cherry.

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At first glance, it’s a very simple subject, but there’s actually a fair amount of complexity in it: colors, highlights, shadows, reflections.  I spent most of the day layering four colors, then used odorless mineral spirits to blend one side of the cherry and the Prismacolor colorless blender pencil to blend the other side, leaving an unblended strip down the middle so that folks could compare the results.

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I use this same image for my half-day workshops, so I knew I’d be able to work on it and carry on conversations at the same time. It turned out to be the right choice, because visitors interested in colored pencil in general and Prismacolors in particular were nearly non-stop from 9 AM to 5:30 PM.  The time flew by!  Getting to sit and draw all day while talking to folks about my favorite medium, demonstrating and offering tips for them to try, and getting paid for it to boot–what could be better?

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My sister had never seen me in “art mode” before so she stayed quite awhile to listen in and observe the goings-on and take these photos.

Other highlights of the weekend were a late-night Krispy Kreme run in a stretch limo (courtesy of Jerry’s Artarama), free wine, hors doeuvres and chatter at the Art Bar, being blown away by the large inventory of the Jerry’s Artarama store, dinner with my local friend and fellow CPSA member Linda Koffenberger, and feeding the ducks and beholding the dawn redwood at Duke Gardens in Durham.  Oh, and I also met the owner of Jerry’s Artarama and asked him to consider opening a store in San Jose!  He said that 50% of their online sales comes from the west coast, so here’s hoping….

 

 

Working from Photo References: Artwork vs. Art

Given the amount of detail in my colored pencil pieces and the amount of time it takes to produce them, it’s surprising how often I’m asked “Do you work from photos or from life?”  I smile and say “If I worked from life, that flower/butterfly/leaf would’ve been dead for weeks by the time I finished” or “If I worked from life, I’d have to pitch a tent and camp for weeks at that scene to finish it.”

Some art fans look down on the idea of working from photos, they consider working from sketches and life more “pure”.  If I sense this might be the case, I volunteer that I only work from my own photo references and my finished work is never an exact copy, there are always elements I add, omit or change to emphasize what I want the viewer to focus on.  It’s important to realize that a photo is only a tool that captures a moment in time.  By using my own photos, my pieces are 100% my concept of the subject, composition, lighting, etc. as well as 100% my execution–completely original.  This explanation generally eliminates any question about the validity of my work.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people see nothing wrong with using photos taken by others–either with permission, or from a “free” website, or from magazines or other copyrighted sources.  Some people assert that the mere act of drawing/painting from someone else’s photo–regardless of copyright or permission–“makes it your own”.  A few people even assert for dramatic effect that the only way an artwork could be 100% original is if the artist also built the buildings and planted the trees that appear in it, so why bother trying to define or make “original”.

I have a hunch that the sheer number of people who work from others’ photos is what makes the art fans suspicious enough to ask about it.

The international art organizations I belong to (the Colored Pencil Society of America, the Pencil Art Society, and the United Kingdom Colored Pencil Society) all have similar philosophies on this topic, which I believe in so I will try to summarize here.

Working from someone else’s photo is fine under any of four circumstances, with conditions:

1.  For learning purposes

Classical art instruction programs often have students copy from the masters to study their techniques, and famous artists like Brueghel sometimes copied from earlier artists like Bosch when working out their own ideas.  They are, however, always identified as copies or studies.

2. For your own personal enjoyment

See my “Starsky & Hutch and Art” post.  If you love Beyoncé and simply must paint from a fabulous photo you found of her in a magazine, go for it!  Frame it, hang it on your wall at home, show your family and friends!  Just don’t try to pass it off publicly as original artwork, because it’s not.  Your painting, yes; your image, no.

3. For a commission (photo provided by the client)

If someone wants you to, say, draw a picture of their child from a photo they took on vacation, or his grandparents in an old family photo, it’s the client’s photo to do with as he pleases, and he’s explicitly giving you permission to use it to make an artwork for them.  If, however, the client wants you to draw a picture of Beyoncé he found in a magazine, that would be a copyright violation; you’re stealing the original photographer’s right to earn money from his own photograph.  When I was very young I did this because I didn’t know any better; I wouldn’t do it now,

4. When combining with other references into a composite

Suppose you want to portray a zebra but don’t live near any.  You found some photos of zebras online.  You combine the head from one with the body from another and the lighting from another.  The resulting composite shouldn’t be identifiable as any one of those references.

And that’s it.  These rules may seem restrictive, but if you’re only making artwork for yourself, as many people are, the first two circumstances may cover everything you’ll ever do, without your even needing to think about it.  Have fun!

If you start to make artwork available for purchase or to enter competitive shows, you should use your own references or #4 above.  Nowadays most such shows specify in their rules something like “artwork must be 100% concept and execution by the artist”.  They are not looking for artwork–something you painted.  They are looking for art–your vision that makes a connection with the viewer and evokes a response..  They want to see your choice of subject matter, composition, lighting, style, etc.  It’s like the difference between a cook and a chef: a cook can make great food from others’ recipes, while a chef can invent totally new recipes.

So how does one come up with these original references?  You probably have a smart phone with you all the time.  Look around you wherever you go and use your smartphone camera to capture your own moments for reference.  Or take along an art journal and sketch notes wherever you go.

To paraphrase Bernard Poulin from his speech at the 2015 CPSA awards banquet, there is plenty of artwork being made, but what we really need is art!

Update 9/7/2015: Here is an excellent flowchart by Ginger Davis Allman, www.TheBlueBottleTree.com, that makes it easy to figure out your work’s status.
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“Starsky & Hutch” and art

It takes many long hours to finish one of my drawings. I’ve learned to pace myself and take five-minute breaks every hour or so, and one-hour breaks every four hours or so. Recently during one of the long breaks I discovered that reruns of Starsky & Hutch are now on cable TV.  Not to date myself or anything, but high school Denise was a big fan of Starsky & Hutch.  It didn’t win any Emmy awards and the writing wasn’t great, but it’s fun to remember why I had such a crush on David Soul, and my best friend was similarly smitten with Paul Michael Glaser.  So I set the TiVo to record them to watch during my breaks.

After a couple of episodes I remembered that some of the very first graphite portraits I ever drew were of Starsky & Hutch.  As a poor kid I couldn’t afford posters, but I was getting pretty good at drawing, so I bought a couple of magazines with especially good photos of them and drew them bigger to hang in my room.  Copyright wasn’t an issue because they weren’t for sale and there was no internet.  In working from these magazine photos, I had a great excuse to stare at every little detail of their faces, and was very motivated to improve my drawing skills so I could reproduce them. Schoolmates mocked me for having a magazine picture of them in my locker, so I never showed these portraits at school, to avoid even more ridicule.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper. 8″x10″

But the last one I did was different.  It was 16″x20″, Starsky in a white suit (remember this was the 70s), sitting on a park bench.  It turned out so well my art teacher asked to show it in the school display case for a couple of weeks, and commissions for portraits of local folks started happening!  I even included it in my portfolio for admission to art school.  A couple of years later in college, someone asked about buying it to give to his sister for her birthday.  I was surprised that anyone remembered it, and I didn’t really want to sell it, so I suggested the ridiculous price of $50.  But that wasn’t high enough, because he bought it, and I never saw it again.  I bought two dresses with that $50 (again, remember this was the 70s!), and I still remember the dresses, but I’d rather still have that drawing in my archives.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I did at age 16.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I drew at age 16. 16″x20″

So what does this have to do with artwork?  Inspiration, motivation, and skill improvement.  It worked for me.  If you like something enough to want to spend hours with it, and you wish you could draw or paint well enough to do it justice, you have all the inspiration and motivation you need for improvement.  Nobody else ever has to see your work, or know that you did it as a fangirl/boy, or think you’re silly, or fret about copyright.  It’s all for you.  If it makes your art skills better, it’s all good!

A Humbling Experience

I had a very humbling experience last night. The setting was an event with many former co-workers, many whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years except on Facebook.

Three different people came up to me and the first thing they said was “I am so inspired by you!” It was all about my having returned to my art and making it a priority and producing quality work, while still working as a software engineer. One of them said he has resolved to start painting again because of me. Another of them has an ivy league PhD and a technical Academy Award, but said he was inspired when I took part of a year off from regular work to focus on my art. I have so much respect and admiration for the drive and accomplishments of these people, and yet here they were telling me, completely unsolicited, that they admired me.

I had no idea that my journey meant anything to anyone else other than me. I guess the lesson is to live life as well as you can not only for yourself but because you never know who is taking note for their own lives. Another lesson for me was that the act of making art affects others in ways we might not have imagined!

A TV show worth watching

Earlier this month I had the surreal experience of being a guest on a TV show, for an entire 30-minute episode, to talk about my art!  The show is “Talk Art”, a local cable program that focuses on San Francisco bay area artists.  It’s sponsored by Silicon Valley Open Studios, in which I participate.  My episode focuses on colored pencil–a short survey of materials, tools and techniques, along with samples of my work where I used them.  I’ve never really been on TV before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  If you’ve ever wondered how TV happens, read on….

Weeks before the taping, I met with the producer, Nance Wheeler, to learn how the shows are constructed, how the taping would proceed, and how I should prepare appearance-wise.  She in turn took notes about what props I might need (easel? table?) and proposed a basic outline for the interview.  I sent her JPEGs of the images that would be shown as overlays, and she sent me a questionnaire to help the host, Sally Rayn, know what kinds of questions to ask me on air.  Later, I spoke with Sally on the phone so she could learn more about my art and what I might want to demonstrate.

The evening of the taping, I arrived at the studio and as soon as I saw the set and the control room and all the people who would be involved, I started getting nervous!  What if I went blank on an important fact?  What if I got a tickle in my throat and started coughing?  What if I stammered or said something stupid?  There weren’t going to be any “takes”–it was going to be filmed straight through in one shot.  But Sally put me at ease; we sat in our places on the set and while the sound and lighting crews prepared and the three cameras were positioned, we did a little rehearsing.  It was just what I needed to forget about the setting and just have a conversation.

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Getting used to conversing on a studio set under bright lights.

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My artwork as set dressing.

Suddenly it was “Quiet on the set!” and it was time.  The next 30 minutes flew by.  I didn’t really have any awareness of being “in the spotlight”, I was just explaining materials and techniques to a friend.  After it was all done, everyone said “Great show!” and a couple of the crew came up to take a closer look at some of my artwork, which decorated the backdrop, and asked “This is really all colored pencil?”

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Getting mic’ed.

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The control room during the taping (see sound stage through the window)

A few days later I received a DVD of the program, and it was also posted to “Talk Art”s channel on YouTube.  I held my breath as I watched it the first time; I’ve never been very photogenic and I have no idea how I look or sound to others.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t appear nervous at all, and didn’t stammer or rush.  I actually did okay!  I made working with colored pencil sound interesting, fun and worthwhile, which was just what I’d hoped.

Since then, I’ve shared the link on Facebook, and as I write this only five days later, my episode is already one of the most-viewed of all the “Talk Art” episodes.  The UK Colored Pencil Society (of which I’m a signature member) picked up on it and my mention of them and advertised it on their Facebook page, which has opened it up to overseas viewing.  And Ester Roi, whose Icarus heated drawing board invention I demonstrated in the show, picked up on it and linked to it on her blog and Facebook page, which has expanded its reach, too.  I’ve received wonderful comments from folks thanking me for the great overview of our favorite medium.  A couple even suggested that I’d be a natural as a teacher!

I’m really glad I had this opportunity, and the nerve to take it.  Anything that exposes more people to my favorite medium and inspires them to try it, is a good thing.

Here it is so you can watch it yourself!