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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meet our Interview #13-- Steve Penberthy!

I was fortunate enough to meet Steve in person; he's from one side of Missouri and I'm from the other, but he made it over to a sketchcrawl a couple of years ago, and we're looking forward to seeing him again! 

I loved the sketch he did at the Historic Elms Hotel...I'd sketched this same set of stairs in the past, in monochrome, but this SINGS.
I first "met" Steve on Flickr and fell in love with his bold colors and use of his sketchbook...I know you will, too!

This and the Elms, above, show how Steve typically uses his sketchbook...planning for future works, often, but delightful as they are!
So let's jump right in...

Q:  How long have you been painting?

A:  Other than the typical art-class stuff I did in high school, I really didn’t get too interested in painting until I took a watercolor class from a local community college in the early 1990’s; however, my interest in it quickly waned after several failures with the medium.  However, like so many of the artists I meet lately, I was inspired to get back into the game by Danny Gregory’s “Everyday Matters” book; I received the book as a birthday gift in 2004 and, as a result, went out and bought a small watercolor field box, a sketchbook, and some Pigma Micron pens.  I’ve been sketching and painting ever since, learning largely through books, self-study, and workshops.

Q:  Why watercolor?  What do you do for a living, and is it enriched by your art?

A:  I’ll answer the second question first.  I'm currently a software development manager; I have a degree in electrical engineering, and have worked in software engineering for the majority of my professional career.  However, I’ve had an artistic bent all my life.  I’ve jokingly stated, “I was voted Most Artistic of my senior class; therefore, I did the next most logical thing—I went to college and got an engineering degree…” which sort of sums up the dichotomous brain I get to live with.  I’ve always been a person with insatiable curiosity and I’m very driven to master things that capture my interest, such as, electronic circuits, photography, and of course watercolor painting.  Which brings back me to the first question:  Why watercolor?  I think my obsession with watercolor comes from that same curiosity and drive to master this medium that is said to be so challenging.  In addition, while I’m nowhere near in mastering it, it’s those glimmers of a technique done right, a pleasing result, and an encouraging comment from an online friend that keeps me going in this enjoyable, lifelong pursuit.  And watercolor is such a great medium because of its low barrier to entry—that is, the equipment investment is low:  a brush, some paint, a piece of paper, and some water.

Q:  What is your favorite subject?

A:  It seems like I’ve attempted a little of everything here and there, but landscapes, figures, and light emerge as my favorite subjects.  I’ve always been drawn to landscapes, not only in my painting but also in my photography.  I enjoy the challenge of composing a landscape, since there are so many elements to consider.  I’m also drawn to urban cityscapes and enjoy on-location sketching in these environments.  Recently (and somewhat unexpectedly), drawing and painting people/figures has become another favorite subject.  A few years ago, I began focusing on getting better at depicting light and shadow, and most of the examples I found at the time seemed to deal with how light hits the figure and the face.  So, I started there, attempting more portraits and figure painting.  I found a lot of challenge and enjoyment there, had some successes, and learned some great lessons along the way.  As a constant reminder about getting light into my paintings, I have a piece of paper taped to the wall in my studio with, “Where’s The Light?” written on it.  With regard to figure drawing/painting, I participate in a local life-drawing group, not only to keep my observational-drawing skills sharp, but also to engage regularly in depicting figures; in these sessions, I work in charcoal or graphite, but I want to start working more in watercolor than dry media.  I’ve tried this with watercolor a few times, and it’s very extremely challenging!  I encourage everyone to get involved in a local life-drawing group or classes; drawing the human figure is an extreme challenge and is a great way to train the eye and hand.  Also, it’s great opportunity to meet other artists, see their work, and discuss techniques.

Q:  Do you travel a lot?  If it’s in relation to your work, do you make time to sketch and paint in off hours, or do you take special trips just TO paint?

A:  I do like to travel; thankfully, I don’t have to travel in relation to my day job, so my travels are typically for vacations.  When travelling, I typically take my portable travel kit so I’m prepared if I find some time to draw, sketch, and/or paint once I’m there.  Many times, I only have enough time to take photo references and then create paintings from them once I’m home.  The only time I’ve travelled expressly to paint is when I’ve taken workshops, but I would like to do more of this kind of travel in the future.  However, on several occasions, I’ve traveled with my wife to her various conventions and, while she is attending her sessions, I hit the city with my camera, sketchbook, and paints in tow.  I do some plein-aire sketching and painting and gather many photo references.  I visit some interesting coffee shops and restaurants along the way and then head back to the hotel room in the late afternoon to do more painting.  I find that I get a lot of work done this way and generate many ideas for new paintings.  Since my art career isn’t my day job, I have to, as you say, make time to sketch and paint in off hours.  This is the classic challenge to all of us who don’t create art as our main means of employment:  finding time in off hours to make art and balance all the other things that need to get done.  I keep a small sketchbook and supplies with me at all times, however, so I’m ready during the workweek to get in a little sketching during lunch if the opportunity presents itself.  I normally create my on-location sketches and studio paintings during the evenings or on weekends.

Q:  You do those wonderful small sketches right on the page…what are you aiming for with them?  Exploring format, composition, drama, all of the above?  How do you choose the one you want to use?

This is one of my favorites...it is SO atmospheric...
A:  Those little thumbnail sketches get so much buzz on my blog and Flickr comments!  Like many, I’m always tempted to just jump in and start splashing paint around, but stopping to take just a few minutes to draw these little thumbnails pays off greatly down the road, both in the sketch and any formal painting resulting from it.  Drawing a single thumbnail only takes five minutes or less.  The key is to draw them with a pencil, pen, or marker that gives me a full range of values.  I find I get the darkest darks using ink pens or markers.  6B (or softer) pencils work fine too.  The thumbnail sketch accomplishes several objectives for me at once: (1) it’s a place to work out different compositional possibilities.  I draw rectangles that are approximately 1” x 1.5” (2.5 x 3.8 cm) in size, typically on the same page on which I plan to sketch, and divide them into thirds for a rule-of-thirds grid (I make my own homemade viewfinders with a 1.5:1 aspect ratio that are also gridded off in thirds; the grids on the viewfinder correspond to the grids in my thumbnails).  In this way, I can experiment with different compositional possibilities that I may not have considered originally when approaching the subject, for example, moving the point of interest around and seeing how I like it.  (2) It’s a place to play with different value possibilities.  As much as possible, I like to design using value, putting a full range of lights and darks in my sketches and paintings.  I make one thumbnail sketch, and then look to see if I like the resulting pattern of lights and darks.  If not, I’ll draw another thumbnail and try something different.  For example, what if the sky was the darkest dark?  What if those distant trees were of a light value instead of a dark?  Paths of light and dark lead the eye through the painting, so to improve things, I’ll often create lights and darks for design’s sake even if they don’t exist in the actual scene.  (3) Finally, thumbnails give me a little place to practice drawing the scene.  This practice is especially comforting when sketching plein-air; it makes that blank sheet of paper less intimidating, serves as a dry run before attempting the actual sketch, and gives me a better overall feel for the scene.  Often, I use the thumbnail as the reference for my eventual sketch even more than the scene itself.  In fact, there have been times when I’ve created a thumbnail without time to create the sketch on the spot, so I take a photo reference and, between the two, I can recreate the final watercolor sketch or painting accurately.

Q:  Do you often work back in the studio from your sketches?

A:  All of my sketches potentially serve as preliminaries for more-formal works; however, I'm also satisfied to leave a sketch alone as a work of art in-and-of itself.  I do most of my sketches on location, en plein aire, but I have also done some sketching from photo references.  When I do create larger, formal paintings, I use my sketches and photo references together to create a final work in my studio.  Often I’ll augment a field sketch with some formal value sketches in pencil or pen as an additional pre-step before working on a formal painting.

Q:  Do you show in a gallery?

A:  I’m not represented by any galleries currently, but that’s somewhere I’d like to be in the near future.  Currently, several of my paintings are on display (and for sale) at The Designing Block store in St. Louis.  See http://www.thedesigningblock.net for more information.

Q:  How does your blog enrich your experience as an artist?

A:  There’s a time for every artist when he/she wants to get their art in front of people.  My blog serves that purpose.  I went online with my art blog in 2006.  In addition to using my blog for displaying my art, I like to post items that are of interest to other artists, such as new materials I run across, interesting articles, or new techniques.  I am also on Flickr (which is predominantly a photo-sharing website), and I find that there is a very strong representation of artists there.  I really like Flickr for its true social-media functionality, such as Contacts and its robust commenting and “favoriting” capabilities.  I think of Flickr as my gallery of work, and my blog as an ongoing conversation with readers, even though there are elements of each in both places.

Q:  What’s your most memorable experience sketching or painting?

I attended an all-day workshop a few years ago that was strictly dedicated to sketchbook art.  Surprisingly, the class was very small, only three students (including me), so the interaction and attention each of us received from the instructor was outstanding.  The workshop strongly influenced the way I approach sketchbook painting, from subject matter to color mixing.  My capabilities were greatly enhanced in that one day!

Q:  Do you keep a journal per se?  Do you make notes just relating to your image, or add other things?

A:  My sketchbooks aren’t journals in the strict sense, but the collection of work that I create in them certainly creates a record of my various experiences.  I can page through a sketchbook and remember everything about painting it, such as where I was, the sounds I heard, the process of painting it, etc… When I start a new sketchbook, I always paint swatches of my entire palette on the first page to document the pigments I’m using at the time.  Any notes I make in my sketchbooks are typically for my own reference.  For example, I often make little value notes on my thumbnails, using a four-value scale; for example, I’ll write the number 0 (zero), circle it, and then draw a line from the circle to the lightest value in the painting.  I do the same with 1 for light-middle values, 2 for darker-middle values, and 3 for darkest darks.  In doing so, it creates a little map for me as I start to work on my watercolor sketch.  My sketchbooks also contain various color-mixing grids that serve as references.  For example, one page of a sketchbook I’m currently using contains a color-mixing grid of my various yellows mixed with Payne’s Gray, which serves as a go-to reference for creating some gorgeous earthy greens.

Q:  And, of course, anything you can think of that relates or is important to you!

A:  My wife is always so supportive of everything I do; I truly couldn’t do any of this without her.  In fact, she jokingly says that I’m the artist and she’s “Art Support.”  In addition to drawing, sketching, and painting, I love playing guitar.  I prefer to compose and play my own songs and I truly see the guitar as an additional canvas on which to create!  Finally, thank you Kate, for this interview and for the wonderful opportunity to be part of this impressive project; I know your book will be a huge success!


And thanks to YOU, and the other wonderful contributors, I think that will be the case, Steve, it's already surprised me!  This was a terrific interview--and hope to see you again soon!

Again, don't miss Steve's Liquid Chroma Flicker: http://www.flickr.com/photos/liquidchroma-/with/2578737757/
and his wonderful blog: http://www.stevepenberthy.com/


  1. So nice to meet you Steve after reading about you in the book. You have such beautiful paintings.

  2. Great interview! I have to say I think Steve nailed it with the comment, "Like many, I’m always tempted to just jump in and start splashing paint around, but stopping to take just a few minutes to draw these little thumbnails pays off greatly down the road, both in the sketch and any formal painting resulting from it."

    Love the work and getting a peak at the process!

  3. I LOVE Steve's thumbnails and the exuberant work that results...

  4. Beautiful post!

    Maybe Steve (or anyone!) could elaborate on how to make and use a viewfinder?

  5. A very interesting interview and fantastic sketches!

  6. Great interview, I've admired Steve's paintings and journal sketches for a long time now. Nice learn more about him and his method, his work ethic inspires me.

  7. Thank you Steve and Kate! Great snapshot at process and person. I look forward to following more of your work, Steve!

  8. Teri: Thank you very much; I appreciate your kind words. I hope you are enjoying this blog and Kate's book!

    Laure: Thank you for the nice comment! Yes, it is a common temptation--we all want to get in there and "play" without doing our homework (the planning) first. Is that our inner child coming out? Don't tell anybody, but sometimes I break my own rules and just start around anyway... :^)

    Kate: A million thank-yous for the wonderful, beautiful, and much-needed book on this subject! As always, you continue to be not only a teacher but a leader in this space. Thank you for organizing this blog, the book, the Facebook page, the followers, the movement--I think we all have a lot to look forward to from each other here. :^)

    Robin: Thanks so much for the comment and the suggestion for more detail on viewfinders. Making a viewfinder would be a great blog post, so I'll work on that in the coming weeks--stay tuned. In short, however, I make them from the cardboard on the back of spent legal pads. I cut an opening that's 3" x 4.5", and leave about a 1" border around it. I tape clear acetate to the cardboard, and draw gridlines (thirds) with a black permanent marker. I'll post a link to some images of my viewfinders on Flickr in a separate comment below.

    Cathy: Thanks you very much; glad you are enjoying the blog!

    Elaine: Yes, we've been Flickr friends for a long while now. My work ethic--thanks for the vote of confidence--but I get stuck just like everyone else sometimes. But it's a marathon, not a sprint, right? :)

    Pam: Thanks so much for the nice comment; likewise, I look forward to following more of your work as well!

  9. Robin: Here's a link to my "Viewfinders" set on Flickr; take a look at the photos, where I have some more explanation on dimensions and how I use them. Again, thank you for the idea of doing a blog post on how to make a viewfinder!


  10. Wow, Steve! Thank you!

    For a drawing class I'm taking, we constructed a viewfinder out of two index cards cut into L's that we overlap to form the interior opening. Technically, this works. Actually, I now have one very strong arm from trying to keep the wobbly thing from flying away. In fact, the image I most remember each time I use it is me trying to corral the darn viewfinder! LOL.

    I'm really looking forward to your post!

  11. Steve and all, you're welcome! I'm delighted with the whole situation...it's more work, in a way, doing a book with a lot of contributors, but SO satisfying! WORTH IT, by a mile.

    And Robin, Albany Wiseman shows the kind of 2-L viewfinder you mention...he holds the corners where he wants them, in whatever configuration, with big old paper clips, have you tried that?

  12. Everything a person could ask for in one person! Great interview Cathy and Steve!!! A pure joy!

  13. Very interesting and great interview. I started art journaling early this year and find it really rewarding. Thanks for giving a lot of great information.

  14. I like the first paints 'cause looks are so retro like I don't know the kind of art. So cool!


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