The Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) is a nonprofit enthusiastic enough about art created with colored pencils that it’s working to get you to take it seriously, too. While the name evokes images of children biting their lip while coloring worksheets, the exhibition at Brea Gallery is far too impressive for thoughtless wisecracks. Juried by Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum Collection at UC Irvine, the 118 framed drawings are all high-quality, subject to fairly rigorous standards of lightfastness (how long color lasts after being exposed to UV), as well as fairly strict regulations about what can be used as source material.
CPSA’s rules demand that the image must be the artist’s own pictures, but I’m not sure how closely those dictates are complied with or how the work is vetted; a quick Google search revealed at least one award-winning picture was based on a photo that was not taken by the artist. But the larger issue for me is that the more a work on display resembles a photograph—and there is a lot of it here—the more likely it’s by someone using something akin to a camera obscura, a device that allows artists to trace a projected image.
Using a drawing tool that allows tracing makes the resultant art second-tier, despite its use by greats such as da Vinci, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Warhol (who sometimes used a slide projector). If you’re copying an image instead of using your imagination and skill, then how is it really your art? Yes, you may need to understand tone and value, may have colored the final image, which required some talent to do so even somewhat realistically. That last item, unfortunately, raises the question: Why not just take a photograph and stick it in the frame? It’s a better representation of captured life than your drawing will ever manage.
While it may not take the 10,000 hours bandied about by journalist Malcolm Gladwell to master something, drawing and painting takes time. It’s hard work. I can appreciate someone tracing at the beginning, getting the feel of the pencil in hand, as well as for the real-world experience of seeing just how much time it takes, but artists who don’t want to make the sacrifice or do the work required to be good aren’t really worth our attention.
I have avoided any specific mention of what I suspect may be traced—and there appears to be a lot of it—no matter the other skills that have been used to bring the picture to life. That eliminates much of what’s on display, to be frank, though I don’t intend to point a finger at anyone in particular. In part, that’s because there aren’t any curation notes, but also because I’m not particularly interested in shaming anyone.
The ironic Prosperity by Richard Huck is a drawing of a cardboard building, water tower and flattened mountain landscape, an obtrusive oil pipeline snaking through the middle of it. All different shades of brown and gray, it reads more like a graveyard. Devoid of people, the artificial Magritte clouds amid blue sky and the smattering of green grass at the bottom of the frame are the only things still living. Jennifer Leon’s Tea Time transports the viewer back to childhood, with its plush frog and bunny sitting around a tea pot while a small white mouse nibbles at a checkerboard petit four. Her expert ability to create texture in the background breaks up that corner via cross-hatch shading, while its darkness makes the colors of a nearby throw pillow pop. The clever Deconstructing Oz by Jeffrey Baisden demands enough familiarity with the story that you can see all of the different characters suggested by the still-life: an oil can, a tin bucket, a small red heart, straw, two books and a pair of work shoes. Jody Beighley’s Main Street, Saturday Morning has the quaintness and green foliage of an unhurried thoroughfare, its slightly blurred focus the Vaseline lens of nostalgia. I was fully immersed in Linda Lucas Hardy’s The Substance of Things Hoped For, its purple-blue grapes on leafy vines rich in saturated Maxfield Parrish color. Deborah Maklowski’s After the Storm is a wooden dock leading to green water, the shore opposite; the sun rising in the sky over still, peaceful water creates a picture-perfect example of a landscape that captures more than just a pretty picture.
For the future, the process of work such as this needs to be demystified. Art historians and critics, including myself, usually do little to shed light on how work is created, focusing mostly on the materials used or the feelings we have when looking at it. Focusing solely on the ideas is a primarily selfish, insular thing satisfying only the person writing about it, when opening up the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears behind the art should be our goal.
“Colored Pencil Society of America 27th Annual International Exhibition” at Brea Gallery, 1 Civic Center Circle, Ste. 1, Brea, (714) 990-7730; www.breagallery.com. Instagram: @breagallery. Open Wed.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through Sept. 13. $3.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.