Personalized Still Lifes
by Linda S. Price
September, 2005
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 artist.

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 focus.

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 interesting composition.

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.


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