Personalized Still Lifes
by Linda S. Price
American Artist Magazine
There's Something Going on Here, 1998, colored pencil,
17 1/4 x 12 1/4. All artwork this article collection the
Sharon Frank Mazgaj carefully arranged her still life with an
old-fashioned rocking chair and bright pot of geraniums, but
when she looked at the photo she realized that something was
missing: It needed a face. A picture of her cat Monet fit the
bill, and she painted him lounging in the rocker. But the faces
in Mazgaj's still lifes are not always animate. They are just as
apt to be vintage dolls, old figurines, or creamers shaped like
pigs. To the artist, these faces add a touch of humor or whimsy.
"I'm always looking for the funny angle," she says. "I guess I'm
putting my own theory of life into my paintings." Even though
she loves flowers, she feels adding a plant to a setup isn't the
same. "It doesn't talk to me. I like the way the dolls can look
at one another, react. It's almost like they're little people in
a pretend world."
Mazgaj's colored pencil drawings are immediately recognizable
across a room, not only for her use of faces and vintage objects
but also for her dramatic lighting. "I like to work with natural
sunlight," she says. "I take my objects outside on bright sunny
days—sunlight seems to bring out the richness of color—and
photograph them. Sometimes I'll photograph them inside but next
to a sunny window. I work out the composition with my digital
camera and seldom have to crop."
Her work is also known for being
somewhat Photo Realistic, but she quickly explains, "My goal
isn't to copy a photograph. I'd just frame my photo if that's
what I wanted. I improve, enhance, and manipulate to make a
stronger image." For instance, she exaggerates color, enhancing
shadows with lavenders, pinks, or yellows that certainly don't
appear in the photos. She'll also use solvents or looser strokes
to "fuzz out" objects that appear outside the main area of
Also characteristic is her combination of textures. She almost
always includes a piece of fabric with a visible or fuzzy weave.
To this she adds transparent, reflective, and shiny objects. In
particular, she enjoys the shadows and reflections on pieces of
vintage glazed pottery from her extensive collection.
The artist discovered colored pencils 11 years ago, when she was
"blown away" by the work of an artist-neighbor and signed up for
a class with Amy Lindenberger at her Linden Tree Art Gallery.
"This was the biggest springboard for me," she says. Like most
artists she knows, she works with Prismacolor pencils,
occasionally supplemented by the Derwent brand. "You can get
every single color, every blend, every shade you want with
colored pencils," she notes, adding that you can even use black
and white, which other art classes had taught her to avoid. "For
instance, with black you'd put another super-dark color such as
black cherry over it to create a richer black. That's one reason
colored pencil drawings end up so saturated with rich colors."
Unlike with other media, colored pencil artists tend not to
blend primary colors to create secondaries or add complements to
gray down or darken a color. "They've already mixed the colors
for you," Mazgaj says, explaining why she uses local colors.
Mazgaj's drawings can have a total of 20 or 30 different layers
of color. Her preferred surface is a warm cream-colored
illustration or museum board, which is durable and has a small
amount of tooth but not enough to get in the way of blending.
She begins with the next-to-lightest color. She admits that the
first step, covering the paper, is the most boring part but also
the most critical. "The coat must be even," she says. "If you go
too fast and just cover the bumps, the second layer will go into
the crevices and look streaky." With every layer she works with
progressively darker colors. "Pencils are soft and blend
themselves," she explains. "Students tend to press too hard. To
create shadows you add darker colors; you don't press harder.
The secret to saturated colors is frequently sharpening your
pencil so it gets down into the bite and keeps the layers even.
Another secret is to turn the drawing constantly so your hand is
always in the best position to be comfortable and totally in
control." By keeping the paper turning, she also assures that in
the end all those tiny 1/8" lines she draws will eventually
appear to blend.
Her last step is often burnishing, going over the surface
lightly with a sharp pencil and then repeating it in a different
direction. "If I want a warm glow or reflection," she explains,
"I'll pick up a cream pencil and go over all the areas except
the darkest. Or I'll burnish green foliage with French gray,
which has a touch of brown in it. To create highlights, I
burnish with a white pencil." Because she works in what she
describes as a "cookie-cutter" method—that is, painting one
object at a time—she never uses a colorless blender pencil,
which is resistant to the additional layers she may want as she
tweaks the whole work into final form.
Although Mazgaj chooses her colors carefully, making sure
they'll work together, her main concern is composition. She
prefers a basic triangular arrangement with a large object, a
medium-sized one, and a small one that often works to lead the
eye into the picture. (Long, narrow shapes such as knives and
flower stems are particularly effective for the latter.) She
subscribes to the one-third/two-third composition formula for
establishing the center of interest. In addition, she keeps in
mind the words of one workshop teacher who said that if every
corner of the artwork looks different, you'll have an
Mazgaj also works in watercolor, and compared to that medium,
she finds colored pencils forgiving. Even though colored pencils
are very time-consuming, Mazgaj insists, "I'm not patient. I'm
impatient. I get right in there and throw colors in. If they
don't work, I lift them out with a kneaded eraser." By gently
blotting, she can remove color layer by layer. For lifting out
small areas, as well as for cleaning up edges and creating hard
lines, she uses a battery-operated eraser. (She recommends the
Helix brand, which is reasonably priced and available in
office-supply stores.) White plastic erasers also effectively
remove color, but she warns that the Pink Pearl variety can
damage the surface of the board.
Besides a variety of erasers, Mazgaj advises getting an electric
pencil sharpener. (Panasonic works best, she claims.) Keeping
her pencils sharp is essential to her successful technique.
She's also constantly brushing away the "crumbs" of color with a
drafting brush so her pencil won't pick up and spread them.
Pencil extenders are essential; even though she tends to choke
up on her pencil, holding it very near the tip, she likes to use
a long pencil.
Once she has completed the basic drawing, she uses a 4"-x-6" or
5"-x-7" print for reference with a magnifying loupe to enlarge
the details. She also scans the photo into the computer to make
a black-and-white copy that will allow her to see values more
clearly and decide whether she wants to make any changes.
Because faces are so important to Mazgaj, it's not surprising
that she is also an accomplished portraitist, using her colored
pencils to bring real faces to life.
Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor who lives on
Long Island, New York.