Denise Howard grew up on a farm in rural Missouri surrounded by animals and nature. As soon as she could hold a pencil she started drawing everything, and her world revolved around her art until she finished college. After a career in computer sciences and earning credits on Antz and Shrek as part of PDI/Dreamworks, she began creating art again for the first time in 25 years. Today Denise is a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) and the UK Colored Pencil Society (UKCPS) just to name a few.
What first drew you to colored pencils? What about the medium do you love most?
I was first introduced to artist-grade colored pencils in an illustration class in college. They were just another tool along with ink, watercolor, gouache and acrylics. I immediately liked colored pencils because they provide all the control of pencil with all the color of paint. There’s no mess, no cleanup, no toxic chemicals, no waiting for paint to dry or rushing to finish before paint is dry, and if the phone rings, you just put the pencil down and walk away!
What are the steps you work through before you begin a piece? Thumbnails? Value studies? Color layering? What problems do you want to have solved before you begin? How do these steps help you do that?
From my own reference photos, I choose the one or two that best represent what I have in mind. I use image-editing software to experiment with compositions and crops, and sometimes tweak the colors. Composition is the most important problem to solve because it can make the difference between boring and extraordinary. I print the result on matte presentation paper for my drawing reference.
Once my very basic outline is on the drawing paper, the first thing I do is identify the locations of the absolute darkest darks and the absolute lightest lights. All other values will fall between those, and being mindful of this at all times will produce a full range of values.
Next I identify the locations of warmer colors and cooler colors, to avoid the mistake of using, say, poppy red where I should instead use crimson red. Finally, I pick up pencils and draw.
It seems like you could spend a lifetime on one drawing. How do you decide how realistic to go? Has that changed as you’ve developed as an artist?
One of the great attributes of colored pencil is that you get to choose how far you want to take the level of realism and detail. The medium is most often associated with tight realism, but it’s so versatile. It’s just as capable of abstraction or impressionism. Pablo Picasso and Robert Motherwell knew this.
I’m a contemporary realist; I portray my vision of scenes as realistically as I can in order to draw the viewer in for closer contemplation of the subject or its meaning. Some people confuse “realism” with “photorealism”, but that is a different genre which prescribes a strict copy of a photograph, which my work never is. I sometimes enjoy the challenge of realism for its own sake, and sometimes I use it as a tool for my art that has metaphorical meaning. This has been true for me my entire adult life.
Learning to see is, I imagine, incredibly important in colored pencil. How did you train yourself to see the level of detail you wanted to? What advice would you give to those starting out who are overwhelmed by all that detail?
Drawing is all about seeing, independent of the medium. Seeing details is easy; avoiding getting sucked in and drowning in them is harder. Instead of working on a small area to completion before moving on to another small area, I develop the entire drawing together, moving around it with progressively more layers of color and eventually details. This approach prevents me from focusing too narrowly too soon.
My advice to others on how to learn to do the same is to initially squint your eyes at your reference to filter out all the details so you can capture the basic shapes and foundation colors, then gradually un-squint to develop smaller and more specific shapes and areas of color.
How important are reference photos to you as a colored pencil artist? What does a good reference photo need to have? How do you go about getting those? (Photography is its own art form all together.)
Since colored pencil is a slow medium, reference photos are essential for capturing the light and life of a moment. I only work from my own photos (except when doing commissions). My digital photo library currently contains almost 20,000 photos. I have a good Canon camera, but I use my iPhone’s camera most because it’s so handy. I’m no photographer, and that’s okay because I don’t replicate my photos—I use my “artistic license” to add, omit, or alter. As long as a photo has good light, contrast, and focus, and was taken at a reasonable distance from the subject so there’s no distortion, I can work from it.
One trend I’ve seen that makes me cringe is the use of “selfies” as reference photos. People don’t seem to notice how distorted these are, with big noses and mouths and little heads. Nor do people realize that although our brains forgive photos for these faults, our brains don’t forgive drawings with these proportion errors.
How have you worked to gain and keep your drawing skills? Do you have any daily or weekly exercises you do to maintain your skill? Or is drawing something that once you have you don’t have to worry about losing?
My high school art teacher had a rule: every student must turn in five sketches per week. This accelerated my skills more than anything else, because I had to find time to draw every day. Even 40 years later, I find that if I make daily time for drawing, even just an hour, my skills stay sharper. The subject doesn’t matter, only the drawing process.
I was away from my art for 24 years while I was absorbed in the high-tech world and worried that when I picked up a pencil again I’d have to start over, but I found it to be like riding a bicycle—I was a little rusty, but it all came back within a couple of drawings. As another wise teacher said, “As long as you’re not drawing, you’re not getting worse, but you’re not getting better, either.”
The world has unlimited textures. In colored pencil, how would you recommend a student go about learning to incorporate textures into their work? Is there a way to think through what they are seeing (like brick or fire for example) in a way that will help them translate it into colored pencil?
You’re absolutely right, there are unlimited textures, and they’re so important that our language contains hundreds of adjectives to try to describe them. Students should buy my book, 101 Textures in Colored Pencil! I also offer a two-day workshop based on what I learned while writing the book, about how to deconstruct and conquer any texture. Basically it involves five steps:
1. Observe and analyze details. (Is it rough? Are there shadows? Are there shapes?)
2. Determine the colors that are in it. (Is there a base color? What colors when layered will produce what you see?)
3. Determine the right technique(s) to use. (Which strokes or tools can contribute to the look?)
4. Determine the sequence of steps to develop the texture. (E.g., two thin layers of lighter colors, then a wash of solvent, then a layer of a medium color applied with flat strokes, then thin lines added with the darkest color.)
5. Go to it!
What is the most common problem you see your colored pencil students facing? What advice do you give them?
A common problem is rushing into color without first learning the basics of drawing: line, shape, proportion, value, and composition. The result is the student feels overwhelmed and frustrated and their drawing looks flat. The problem is exacerbated by the huge number of accelerated time-lapse videos on YouTube which show beautiful drawings being created in 2-5 minutes with no discussion of these basics. I recommend that they work their way through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.
How important for an artist is it to understand her tools? So many of us have been gifted a box of colored pencil at some point. How do the quality of tools affect not just the quality of the finished piece but the experience of learning to use colored pencils? (How can bad tools work against us as we learn colored pencil?)
I don’t know if kids still color maps in 5th grade, but anyone of my era remembers the awful, hard, nearly colorless colored pencils we were provided for those assignments, and I think this is a reason why so many people today are astonished at what colored pencils are really capable of. And it points out the importance of quality materials. Better pencils have more pigment and less binder; higher saturation, smoother application, better blendability, better lightfastness. You can tell the difference immediately, and you’ll never go back.
So many people want to create fast artwork. And yet colored pencil isn’t known for it’s speed. What are the benefits of slowing down and working on a piece of art? What do we lose by always trying to go fast?
Colored pencil is indeed a relatively slow medium, but I know some wonderful artists in oils who may require just as much time to produce a detailed painting of about the same size as I do! They must wait for layers to dry, and once finished must wait again before varnishing. It’s just that while they’re doing all that waiting, I’m still drawing.
For me, there’s enjoyment in the tactile nature of pencils and paper, seeing new colors emerge from the application of layers, and spending the time to become intimately familiar with a tree, a face, or a butterfly wing. When we dash through the painting process, we trade that intimacy for the equivalent of a glance.
Learn more about Denise J Howard by visiting her website.
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