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….

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….



Saving a Lot of Time with Swatch Charts

When you first start working with colored pencils, deciding which pencil is the right color for the moment is a matter of picking up one that seems like it might be close (based on the color of its core), scribbling a little on a scrap or the border of your drawing, assessing whether that’s indeed the color you hoped, and if it’s not, trying again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

This adds up to a lot of time over the course of a finished drawing, especially since those little scribbles can’t tell you later which pencil they came from.  It’s surprising how different from the pencil core a swatch can look.  You end up trying the same pencils multiple times.  I actually saw a finished drawing at the California State Fair in which the artist left their test-swatch border clearly visible and remarked on it in the artwork description.


Before I made a swatch chart for this set of pencils!

This time loss is compounded if you have a large set of colored pencils such as the full set of 150 Prismacolors, and even more if you have multiple large sets of colored pencils.  So many greens!  So many blues!  Where to even start? It can seem overwhelming.  You might be tempted to print a color sheet from the manufacturer, but don’t: your printer’s inks will not match the pencils’ cores, and the printed colors will vary from printer to printer.

Here’s my time-saving system.  In a previous blog post I described how I organize my sets of pencils, and that is half the solution.  The other half is making your own swatch charts and keeping them on your drawing table while you work.  I’ve already done the hard part for you!  You can download swatch charts for the full sets of most major brands of colored pencils from my website.  They’re free–my gift to you as a fellow colored pencil artist.  Print one out and color the “points” with your own pencils, matching the color name on your pencil to the color name on the chart.  I recommend only coloring the “points”, not the whole “pencils”, so you can easily read the numbers and names.  Tape your finished chart to the top of your drawing board.  It’s important that your reference, your drawing, and the chart all be illuminated by the same light, otherwise your eyes may be fooled into mismatches. Now, notice that the swatches are numbered from 1 to whatever the set size is.  Those numbers correspond to the number tags you put on your pencils (you did read my other blog post, right?).  I recommend the numeric tags, because the color names on pencils are stamped with metallic paint and are therefore hard to read and take even more of your precious time.


A portion of a swatch chart after I colored the “points” with my own pencils.

Now when you’re working on a landscape and your reference has a deep blue color, look for a match on your swatch chart.  If its number is 44, pull the pencil tagged 44 from your set. Voilá!  Look how much time you just saved!


I looked for a violet color on the chart. I found it at #44, so I pulled out my #44 pencil.

You’re welcome!  🙂

August workshop!

For the first time, I will be giving a half-day workshop this summer!  Here are the details:

Winner of Utrecht Art Supplies Award and Award of Merit, California Fine Arts juried exhibition

Don’t Take the Bridge – Utrecht Art Supplies Award and Award of Merit, California Fine Arts juried exhibition, 2013

Vibrant Realism with Colored Pencil
presented by Denise J Howard
Pacific Art League
668 Ramona St.
Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 24, 2014
1:00 – 5:00 PM
$64 PAL members / $75 non-members
Materials fee due to instructor: $10

Learn how to use a variety of techniques, surfaces and tools with colored pencils to create glowing color and details that blur the distinction between drawing and painting. Colored pencils offer the control and portability of pencil and the color of paint.

See the listing on PAL’s summer 2014 workshops page, and register here.

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.


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


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?”


Getting mic’ed.


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!

A productive year underway

It’s mid-March as I write this and already it’s turning into a busy spring….

Last month, I gave a presentation/demo about using colored pencil on Dura-Lar drafting film to my CPSA chapter.  It was fun to introduce folks to a drawing surface that is so different from paper yet so great for colored pencil.  It was good practice for me, too, since someday I hope to teach colored pencil classes and workshops.  On a related note, the editor of the UKCPS’s quarterly news magazine “To The Point” invited me to write a how-to article on the same topic, which I did and it will appear in the summer issue.

Also last month, my portrait of my dad, Eugene’s Time to Rest, was juried into this year’s UKCPS International Exhibition, which will be in Birmingham, England April 28 – May 10.  I’ll be shipping it off shortly.  Dad got a good chuckle out of the idea that a picture of him will be hanging in a gallery in England!


Eugene’s Time to Rest, 8″x10″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Last week, I was interviewed for a whole episode of “Talk Art”, a 30-minute program sponsored by Silicon Valley Open Studios which appears on four local cable channels and focuses on bay area artists.  My next blog post will include the llnk to it on YouTube, so stay tuned!


Talking to Talk Art host Sally Rayn while the stage crew prepares the set.

Currently, the Coastal Arts League‘s Annual Members Show is underway in Half Moon Bay, so I attended the opening reception tonight. My Malay Lacewing was my entry this year.  While it’s not a juried show, there are some pretty talented folks in that oceanside group!


Me with Malay Lacewing in the Coastal Arts League Annual Members Show

Right now, I’m working on my third drawing of the year, which will be my entry for this year’s CPSA International Exhibition.  The deadline for entry is March 31 and I have a long way to go, but I’m trying not to rush through it because shortcuts are pretty obvious in colored pencil work.  It’s 15″ x 20″, about as large as I can stand to work in colored pencil and expect to produce many finished pieces in a reasonable time.  I’ve already been working on it for a month!  The subject is a special tree.  Sounds pretty mundane, I know, but since my last tree earned multiple awards, including quite a large one in the 2013 CPSA International Exhibition, I figured I must be onto something. You’ll see!

Once the tree is finished, I have a portrait commission lined up.  There goes the month of April!  In queue after that, in May, I have a very exciting project!  But I can’t say any more about that one yet–sorry!

Next week, I’m giving my “Colored Pencil as a Fine Art Medium” presentation to the Sunnyvale Art Club.  I really enjoy giving this talk and exposing fellow artists to a medium they didn’t know was so versatile.

My previous blog post about editing little specks of dirt out of scanned images has been picked up for publication in the April issue of CP Magazine!  It’s nice to know someone is reading these random postings.

My art life isn’t purely colored pencil-related this year, though, believe it or not.  One of my art goals for 2014 is to get better with pastels.  Yes, pastels–those messy chalk sticks!  I’ve had some success with them in the past, but I think with some instruction and practice I can get much better.  The attraction is that pastels go much faster than colored pencil, and can produce amazing realism. I’ve finally found an artist who works in the manner I’d like to, and who gives workshops, and is local: Cuong Nguyen.  Cuong is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and lives in San Jose.  So I’m signed up for his 3-day pastel portrait workshop at the end of this month.  I can’t wait!  Don’t worry, I’ll never leave colored pencils behind.  It’s just good to have multiple media in one’s repertoire.  It’s kind of like being multi-lingual; if you’re fluent in multiple languages, you have more choices for how to communicate.

I’m tired just from recounting everything that’s going on!  But it’s a good kind of tired.

A blog post about a blog post

Jan Looper is a professional art blogger who publishes The Art Scene in Silicon Valley.  She has been profiling a handful of the artists who are participating in this year’s Silicon Valley Open Studios.  There are a bazillion oil painters and watercolorists, but as far as I know nobody else whose medium is colored pencil, so I suspect that’s how she ended up in my studio last week.  We spent a very pleasant couple of hours talking about my journey and my philosophy about my art.  I enjoy opening people’s eyes to colored pencil as a fine art medium, so it was a great opportunity!

One always worries a bit after an interview of any kind, about being misquoted or taken out of context, or having important points omitted.  But this was not the case when she published her profile of me–I couldn’t be happier about it!  She “got” me.   I invite you to read it here: The Beauty is in the Details

Followup 5/7/13: SVOS picked up the blog posting and included it on the SVOS website.

Followup 5/14/13: Jan returned during my open studio weekend and purchased a print of Tree of Character. I didn’t realize what a special event that was, until she blogged about that, too!  See I Did It! I Bought Two Artworks During Open Studios!