Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Beauty is in the Details

The Art of Denise Howard

Artist Denise Howard taught me about a whole new art form—colored pencils. I thought of colored pencils, like regular pencils, as a medium you might use for a sketch, a chart, or perhaps an architectural rendering, and I thought of them as making rather pale, ineffectual lines. I didn't realize that colored pencils are being used to make fine art, nor that they can produce deep rich color and tantalizing textures.

The Intimate Stargazer Lily
Grab from Denise's website
For Denise, colored pencils—and graphite pencils—are the perfect medium for expressing her art philosophy, which is surprisingly clear and consistent. Denise thinks beauty—whether in nature, people, or objects—resides in the details. People miss out on the beauty of the world because they don't look carefully enough to perceive the details. "What I like about colored pencil is that it lets me bring those details into artwork, and if it's in artwork, people notice it," she explained. People might take reality or a photo for granted, but the fact that some aspect of reality can be conveyed so convincingly—so movingly—in colored (or graphite) pencil brings in the wow factor. She said, "They zoom in close on the drawing" to marvel on both the technique and the subject. This was definitely true for me—I found myself putting my nose right up to the pictures and poring over them as though they held the secret to a hidden treasure. Denise said, "I'm hoping that by noticing the details in my artwork, people will start to pay more attention to the world around them and look for details there, too. So the next time they see a butterfly, a leaf, or a frog, they'll look at it more closely, because the beauty out there is in the details, to me."

Gulf Fritallary
iPad snapshot
Detail of Tree of Character
Moss, lichen and hollow give this old tree a lot of character
iPad snapshot

Detail of And the World Faded Away
An accordion player in Siena Italy who played complex classical music.
iPad snapshot
You could say a passion for detail integrates the two sides of Denise's personality, for she is the classic Silicon Valley example of a software person with an artist hidden inside. Although she made a lot of art in high school—even earning spending cash by drawing commissioned portraits of her friends—she also had an aptitude for math, so in college she pursued a joint major, ending up with bachelor's degrees in both Art and Math/Computer Science from a university in her home state of Missouri. After she started her career as a software engineer, she became too busy to make art, but she was always conscious that something was missing in her life; the need to create something beautiful kept nagging at her. "Finally the urge to return to my art became too strong to ignore," she says in her website, so she made a commitment to pursue art and to treat art as a business. For awhile, she had a work situation where she could devote one day a week to art. For awhile she had no job, and thought it might be time to become a full-time artist, but when Intuit, a software company in Mountain View known for its happy employees, offered her a position developing a new application for the Mac, the opportunity was too good to turn down, so now she is back to working full-time. She maintains her art career by working on it nights and week-ends.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that being organized and systematic is what integrates the programmer with the professional artist. For instance, instead of searching through her huge collection of colored pencils for the exact shade she wants, she saves time by referring to a chart of her own design that shows each shade by the number on the pencil.

Not only did Denise develop her drawing skill to a professional level with remarkable speed, but right away she joined the Colored Pencil societies in both the U.S. and Great Britain, and at present serves as President (and webmaster, temporarily) of the San Francisco chapter of the Colored Pencil Society of America. She has already won several awards and had three of her drawings published in periodicals featuring art made by colored and graphite pencils.

Denise's website is up-to-date because it is integrated into her art practice."Part of the fun for me when I finish a drawing is to put a photo of it up on my website," she said. To her, the point of making art is to create something that resonates with people. Each work on her website is accompanied by a brief comment and information about the materials she used. She also offers some of her drawings as prints on note cards, which would make a really classy gift. Most of her work is available in prints of different sizes. This is a link to her website:
Denise Howard

I grabbed some photos from Denise's website to show the range of subjects she has tackled.

Parsons at the Beach
A commissioned double portrait using a scene from a movie

Eugene's Time to Rest
Denise's father, aged 82, at the end of a day's work on the farm

Standing Out in the Snow
Denise's father's tractor is always at the ready.
Like any artist, Denise is a little obsessive about technique. She made a point to show me the pencils she is using on the graphite work currently in progress, and to call out the size of each. She wanted to be sure I understood that there are two types of colored pencils, wax-based and oil-based. Furthermore, wax-based pencils can be used with wax-based pastels, which are artist's crayons. The way she gets such rich colors is to build them up in layers; colors literally blend on the paper. She was particularly excited about her new heated drawing board because when marks made with wax-based colored pencils or pastels get warm, they melt, making it possible to manipulate them like paint.

Denise Howard in her studio
iPad snapshot
A portion of Denise's supply of colored-pencils
iPad snapshot
Denise's colored pencil chart with succulents
iPad snapshot
It was hard to tear myself away from Denise's studio. The afternoon was warm, and both the French doors and the picture window were open, admitting a mild breeze and the twittering of finches around the feeders hanging from the giant jacaranda in her back yard. The back yard has a vegetable patch and innumerable pots of succulents. The front yard is a low-water garden of native plants, presently featuring crowds of California poppies in translucent orange. The garden is remarkably successful, and I asked if she had hired a landscape designer. No, she designed it herself, after lots and lots of research into the best plants for the purpose.

Low-water, California-native garden
iPad snapshot
Some folks say, "God is in the details." Others say, "The Devil is in the details." I can't get into talk about mythical beings. I'm with Denise on this one: "Beauty is in the details."

No comments: