Two big awards to start 2018!

It’s only February 1 and already my work has won two significant awards for 2018!

My Faith’s End was awarded First Place in the 2017 UART Paper Online Colored Pencil Competition. (Yes, 2017–the announcement was delayed until after the first of the year 2018.) Entries for this show needed to be created on UART paper, which is a sanded paper favored by pastel artists that is also becoming popular with colored pencil artists. It comes in several “grits”, from 240 (which is very rough), to 800 (which is almost satiny). I was already a fan of this paper and have done several pieces on it, so it was a no-brainer for me to enter something in the biennial competition. I just didn’t expect to win the top award! Faith’s End holds a double meaning with a powerful message, which I think the juror, CPSA founder Vera Curnow, totally got.

Faith's End

Faith’s End, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil on UART 600 paper

The First Place award package (and what a package it was, on my doorstep!) included $700, a full set of 150 Prismacolors, a $75 gift card for Blick Art Materials, four packages of UART paper, a six month subscription to Colored Pencil Magazine, a T-shirt, and a bibbed apron.

My Ready for Winter was awarded the Chartpak Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Colored Pencil Society of America’s Explore This! 14. Entries for this show needed to be primarily colored pencil, but include other media, or be done on a non-traditional surface, or otherwise have some aspect that makes it ineligible for the CPSA International Exhibition. The show is online from February 1, 2017 to January 31, 2018. See all the outstanding award winners here. The accepted pieces and award winners were selected by juror Mar Hollingsworth, Visual Arts Curator of the California African American Museum, from over 260 entries. See the whole show here. It seems to me to be a very strong show, so I’m humbled to have been selected.


Ready for Winter, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil, ink, and gouache on Stonehenge paper.

Last year, I didn’t even get into this show! There’s a different juror every year, so it goes to show that you shouldn’t let rejection deter you from entering a show again.

The award is for $600 of Chartpak products. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble using it up, since Chartpak is the company that owns the brands Koh-I-Noor, Schmincke, Higgins, and Grumbacher.

It’s an exciting start to the year!



“101 Textures in Colored Pencil” is out!


My book, 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, from Walter Foster Publishing, started shipping a little over a week ago! Those who had pre-ordered it on Amazon got theirs and started talking about it on the colored pencil groups on Facebook, and that sparked a wave of new orders on both Amazon and my website. The publisher told me that overall demand has already exceeded the first printing, so they’ve scheduled a second printing in January. Target, Michael’s, and Barnes & Noble are perhaps the largest chains that will stock it.

Each of Amazon’s book listing pages has a sales rank section, which has been entertaining to track. So far, my book has topped out at #18 in Books->Arts & Photography -> Drawing -> Colored Pencil, #42 in Books -> Arts & Photography -> Drawing -> Pencil, and #18,398 in Books. Considering that Amazon sells hundreds of thousands of books and mine is not a crime novel or bodice-ripper, I’m happy with that.

And its very first review on Amazon was five stars! “Excellent book!
The writing is concise, very informative, and easy to understand. The color coded sections make it so easy to find the desired texture, and each of the 101 illustrated step-by-steps are easy to understand and follow. I already know this is quickly going to become one off my favorite color pencil resources. I’ve already tried several of the tutorials and excited to do more.

It’s available to purchase from my website, too: at no additional cost, I sign these copies!

You know how there are those little moments in life that you will never forget? Like the first time you successfully parallel-parked a car, or the first time you heard your name called over a loudspeaker, or your first kiss, or when you cashed your first paycheck? For me, I now add to those the first time someone asked me to sign their copy of my book. I heard the “plunk” sound next to me, turned my head, and there on the desk was my book with one of my co-workers standing over it, smiling with a pen.

It is already leading to some new opportunities, too. I will be teaching a two-day workshop “Textures Galore in Colored Pencil” April 14-15 in Milpitas, CA, sponsored by the Colored Pencil Society of America District Chapter 210 San Jose. In it, we’ll be doing several of the textures from the book.

This whole experience has been surreal. If someone had told me 7.5 years ago when I picked my pencils up again in earnest that a big publisher would approach me and I would write a whole book about colored pencil techniques and people would buy it and like it, I’d have said they were crazy.

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.

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


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.


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.


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?


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,, that makes it easy to figure out your work’s status.